Guarded Buildings in Leipzig “Bringing the Right People Together”

Before and after renovation: “Wächterhaus” in Leipzig.
Before and after renovation: “Wächterhaus” in Leipzig. | © HausHalten e.V.

Implementing models of temporary use, a Leipzig association has successfully saved vacant “Gründerzeit” buildings from demolition. More and more long-term projects have been developed from this model, says Hannes Lindemann, executive board member of HausHalten e.V. (i.e. HouseHolding).

Mr Lindemann, your association HausHalten e.V. manages so-called “guarded buildings” in Leipzig. What are “guarded buildings”?

Guarded buildings are a model for the temporary use of vacant buildings. We broker between the owner and potential users and work out a plan for temporary use that runs for at least five years. This chiefly concerns preserving the substance of Gründerzeit buildings in Leipzig and protecting them from decay or even demolition. We believe the most effective method of preserving a building is to assist users and owners in becoming themselves active.

How many of these endangered buildings are there in Leipzig?

In 2000 there were 60,000 vacant housing units; the media dubbed Leipzig the “capital of vacancy”. The city had also been long struggling with a declining population: a lethal combination. Today, despite the significant influx of people to Leipzig and the reduction of vacancy, we estimate there are still about 100 acutely endangered buildings.

The federal government tried to counter this with what was known as “Urban Reconstruction East”, a funding programme especially for cities and towns in East Germany.

Hannes Lindemann, executive board member of HausHalten e.V. Hannes Lindemann, executive board member of HausHalten e.V. | Photo (detail): HausHalten e.V. Yes, the idea was to preserve cities in their compactness and to shrink them, as it were, from outside to the inside. But this worked only in part. It brought about a veritable perforation of cities. If it was hard to exploit the value of a building – because, for example, it stood directly on a main road – it was pulled down; something that is particularly dramatic if it happened to be a corner building. It was at this point that we decided to go into action.

Detective approach

Your first guarded house in 2005 was exactly such a corner building from the Gründerzeit.

That’s right, our first project was in the Lützner Straße, a busy thoroughfare that leads from the outskirts to the city centre. Back then we worked more or less like detectives, combed whole quarters, talked with residents, always looking for opportunities to find owners of vacant building and get in touch with them. This worked for the first time with the Lützner Straße.

What then became of the building?

After a five-year transitional period, the interim users decided to buy the building from the owner. Although many users come from the creative milieu and have difficulties as a rule in getting a loan, it was evidently possible in this case to get together a considerable sum of money. You shouldn’t forget that creative people are generally very well networked.

Does this happen often? What’s happened with other buildings?

It’s been very different with the thirteen guarded buildings we’ve discharged. Some users have bought the buildings; others have concluded individual leasing or user’s contracts with the owners. Still other buildings were rented in the normal way after interim use. As a rule, interim users are given favourable terms. There are of course also cases in which the buildings were renovated in the usual manner after the period of temporary use.

No one is forced out

Is that still in keeping with the purpose of your association?

The primary goal of our association is the preservation of listed buildings. And all our projects have achieved this goal. At the same time, the HausHalten e.V. models have developed an alternative to vacancy and normal renovation.

Does this mean that gentrification through modernization is a necessary evil, with which we have to live?

No. Even in the case of high-quality renovated buildings, the buildings were a platform that enabled people to try out and play through various business models for at least five years. I think it’s important to take the temporality of interim use seriously. Once a interim user group has developed ideas that go beyond temporary use, it should briskly move on to constructive solutions that go further than this temporality and lead to the group’s buying the building or leasing it on a long-term basis. We can then help them in negotiating with the owners.

But aren’t there alternative user concepts designed to go beyond this temporality so as to avoid eventual gentrification?

Wächterhaus in Leipzig Wächterhaus in Leipzig | © HausHalten e.V. We always deal with vacant buildings. No one is being forced out here; on the contrary, the buildings are finally being used again. And the numerous bonds between the former “guards” and their buildings, through purchase, leasing or renting, show that the adventure of interim use can lead to permanent uses beyond the normal housing market. We’re continually amazed at how initially often clueless users make, after only a few years, self-confident and courageous decisions for themselves and “their” house.

Investment with returns

Apart from this, do you also now offer concepts that go beyond normal temporary use?

This is exactly the idea of what we call the “bare-bones houses”. Here we broker tenants who are prepared to make long-term investments in a building – not financial, but rather in terms of renovation work. In return, the owner offers them a significantly reduced rent.

Are owners willing to enter into such a deal? Because many landlords are afraid that interim use could lower the value of their property.

The bare-bones houses model includes a normal unlimited rental contract. But even in all fixed-term agreements these concerns are unfounded in most cases. On the contrary, it’s always fascinating to see how conscientiously people treat buildings as soon as they have responsibility for them. Of course, it’s decisive here to bring together the right people – but that’s exactly our job.