Soil as a resource “Ban Construction!”

Airport Berlin-Brandenburg
Airport Berlin-Brandenburg | Photo: Daniel Fuhrhop

Day after day, about 74 hectares of open space disappear in Germany beneath concrete and asphalt – ecologically valuable soil is being turned into land for construction and roads. With his initiative “Verbietet das Bauen!” (i.e. ban construction!), Daniel Fuhrhop is proposing a solution. Since 2013 he has been documenting the consequences of unbridled new construction in a blog and showing how things can be done differently.

Previously, the building-ban blogger was a publisher of books on architecture – and as such promoted new construction for 15 years. “I love architecture and enjoy beautiful buildings,” Daniel Fuhrhop explains. “But because I have been dealing intensively with building and architecture for years, I am now convinced: new construction is no longer up-to-date, as new buildings are expensive, they damage the environment and are poison for mixed, living neighbourhoods. If we consistently eliminate vacant space and make more efficient use of surfaces we won’t need new construction.” He goes on to state that overdeveloped landscapes, expanding traffic flows and dilapidated city centres are the result of endless new shopping centres and residential developments on green-field sites. Expensive new buildings in the city drive up rents, while at the same time funds for renovating existing buildings are lacking.

Berlin Tempelhof Berlin Tempelhof | Photo: Daniel Fuhrhop Daniel Fuhrhop is not alone in his view that open spaces are also a requirement for good community relationships in living cities. Citizens’ initiatives in Bremen are seeking to prevent 99 surfaces in their city from being covered over with concrete. And in a referendum in May 2014, Berliners resoundingly rejected a plan to build on the Tempelhofer Feld – one of the city’s most popular open spaces.

An office tower becomes a residential building

It is doubtful, though, that the demand for housing can in fact be met without new construction. But one thing is for sure: the potential contained in re-use of existing buildings is far from exhausted. Frankfurt am Main is an example: housing is scarce, while at the same time hundreds of thousands of square metres of office and commercial space are lying vacant. An office tower in the Lyoner Straße in the district of Niederrad has now been remodelled into a residential building with almost 100 flats – the prelude to transforming a partially deserted office district into a living neighbourhood. And following its renovation, a long-vacant garage monstrosity in Münster is now home to shops and offices as well as flats.

Vacancy in Bochum Vacancy in Bochum | Photo: Daniel Fuhrhop Fewer individual surfaces and therefore more space for the community. Following this principle, a variety of housing cooperatives, among them the WOGENO München eG, rent out comparatively small flats, but which are supplemented with generous community areas for cooking or celebrating and guest flats for visitors. Another example of efficient surface usage is exchange programmes with a moving bonus, which some housing enterprises offer their tenants. A senior living alone can thereby leave her flat, which has become too large for her, to a family with children and move into a suitably smaller flat without her incurring financial detriment.

Living space moratorium

To Michael Kopatz of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, sustainable construction means above all: building less. Although innovative materials and technologies result in energy conservation in the areas of construction and living, but this savings effect is largely offset by unbridled new construction and increasing living surface per resident. “In many regions in Germany the population is decreasing. But in spite of this new residential and commercial spaces are continually being designated,” says Michael Kopatz. He therefore proposes a living space moratorium, which is to function in this way: Municipalities with stagnant or sinking numbers of inhabitants stop approving new housing projects. This increases the incentive to make better economic use of the existing building stock. After all, in Germany out of 40 million housing units about 3.5 million are vacant. His proposal would be easy to administer. “But what’s lacking is the political will to do so.”

A management game: surface trade

Soils provide food, animal feed and renewable resources; they filter toxins, bind nutrients and as water reservoir secure the supply of drinking water. In order to better protect soil as a resource, the German Federal Government intends to shrink the sealing of surfaces for housing and traffic to 30 hectares per day by 2020. The Federal Environmental Agency is supporting this goal with its “Planspiel Flächenhandel” (i.e. management game surface trade), a pilot experiment that is entering its decisive phase in 2015. About 80 municipalities are participating. The game rules: a surface savings goal is securitised and distributed among the participating municipalities. Those who wish to turn previously undeveloped green-field areas into construction sites must first raise the corresponding number of certificates. No certificates are needed for building within the bounds of the municipality on already-developed surfaces. The certificates are freely negotiable between the municipalities; income from the sale of certificates can be used, for instance, for inner urban development.

Fake front in Bremen Fake front in Bremen | Photo: Daniel Fuhrhop Whether efficient surface use, moving bonus or certificate trading: if one starts looking for alternatives to new construction one will find surprisingly many. Thus the demand to stop construction may be a provocation. But one in Albert Einstein’s sense, who said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”