More than four walls

It’s time to rethink Housing

Simona Cocca
Simona Cocco

Architect at H2R Architekten BDA

The city is a large human settlement where different and disjointed realities live extremely close to one other. The demand for greater social equity is pressing and almost always unheeded. However, in this challenge lies the potential for a possible change of perspective, demonstrating that it is in urban space that social equity can be experienced in a tangible way.

In this article, I will explore the following key questions:

  • What kind of life can be attractive for future generations not to push them out of cities?
  • How to respond to the demand for greater social equity?
  • How do we avoid social polarisation? How do we ensure good living standards?
  • How can we solve the struggle for land?
  • How should we tackle the shortage of affordable accommodation?

This article is split in three core sections, I will begin my examining the socio-economic challenges that many cities and urban developments face at the moment, in the next section I look at how the city of Munich has been tackling these challenges and finish with a detailed case study of a particular Munich development, wagnisART.

First of all, it is useful to have an overview of the phenomena concerning the European population, with specfic regard to both the demographic change distribution of households and the ageing society.

The Challenge

We explore the socio-economic challenges exacerbating the need for more socially-inclusive housing.

Start here

Munich's response

We explore the many innovative ways the City of Munich is tackling these social housing challenges.

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Finally, we look at WagnisART in Munich. An exemplar case study when it comes to socially inclusive housing development.

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The Challenge

Socio-economic factors affecting cooperative housing


one child families childless families widower two children families big families


> flatmates widows childless families one-child families two-child families big families


> 1 1 1 single person (elder) childless couple single with a child two children families single nomad flatmates couples single + 2 children 3rd gen fam 4th gen fam 3-child fam big families (5-)

Demographic change in households

First, we will explore how the makeup of households has changing significantly in the past 120 years. The graphics you can see are a personal elaboration of a graphic present in Altengerechtes Wohnen: Handbuch und Planungshilfe von DOM publishers.

The diameter of each circle is proportional to number of households in each category, for that given year.

The colour of circles represents how many people lived in that household, according to the following key:

Size of household:

  • ONE person
  • TWO person
  • THREE person
  • FOUR person
  • FIVE+ person

Size of household:

  • ONE person
  • TWO person
  • THREE person
  • FOUR person
  • FIVE+ person
Until the years 1960’ households were predominantly large families (4-5 persons) .

However, it's easy to see how demand for this size of housing has drastically reduced.

These demographics have evolved over the decades, resulting in a growing demand for "single person" housing.

This is a central challenge for urban development, today.

This dynamic has led to the following development challenges:

  • Demand for small (not easy to find) accommodation within cities where demand exceeds available supply
  • Widening of the gap between potential and effective demand for housing (reference is made to a dwelling that is not economically accessible)
  • Access to high standard technical/architectural houses not possible for all
  • Problems of social isolation, lack of an inner sense of community
  • The "gaps" between buildings, which should be areas of sharing and aggregation, but which today often seem to raise further barriers and promote further isolation

Aging Population

Another aspect to consider is aging society; it is no longer the future but the reality. By analyzing the trend we can no longer consider the situation as marginal (see chart below). There is a need for strategic and targeted planning that focuses on the design for an aging society.

The goal of designing for an aging society is to help the elderly stay independent and self-determined by meeting both their physical and psychological needs. The aim should be limiting forced "migration" to health care facilities and long-term homes when not strictly necessary.

The elderly are more dependent on the neighbourhood, due to their gradual decrease in health and mobility.

Furthermore the social participation of older people is a very important aspect of healthy ageing, as it is positively associated with quality of life in terms of well-being, happiness and social satisfaction.

Compared to previous generations, older adults are generally more active, healthier, wealthier, higher educated and engaged in voluntary work.

If you are curious about the last sentence, you can have a look at the Active Ageing Index AAI Data available here.

Therefore, as well as being a fragile and caring category, they represent a potential added value and a great resource for the community.

Furthermore to demographic change and ageing society we also have to consider the growing economic disparity between the richest and poorest members of a community.

These elements have always been relevant part of our cities shaping neighbourhoods for each "different category" with different needs, different qualities, different comforts and so on. Do we need all these differences? Healthy housing and living conditions should be a commonly shared condition ensuring equality. How can it be justified such a difference from neighborhood to neighborhood?

A social polarisation by “age group” / ”economic standard”/”health status” and the consequent raising of barriers that sectorialise the urban environment is already set up in our cities .

I have roughly sketched what comes out.


Are we sure this is the best we can do? To avoid turning this into a philosophical discussion, I would like just to share with you a quote from one of the urban planners who has always fought for social mix and life in public spaces; Jane Jacobs.

“The City order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinct parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. “

Jane Jacobs


In my opinion, empowered citizens are a K point for new housing solutions ensuring equality.

In opposition to an urban district situation that aims at individuality, the need is to focus on inclusive architecture, which starts from individuals, creates a social mix where everyone actively participates, supports/is supported by the community. A sort of “ intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinct parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”

I take Munich, the city that first brought me closer to these issues, as an example in order to explore how to find the human district scale in dense and socially polarized cities. Moreover, to look for solutions that ensure healthy living and strengthen participatory governance of citizens first in the planning process and then in the management of new housing solutions.

Munich's Response

Quality of life starts with Housing

Munich first teaches us that nothing can be hastily improvised. A great plan requires perseverance, careful planning and long-term strategy.

Below are some of the planning guidelines developed over the years by the City of Munich Department of Urban Planning that I find most interesting and useful in the field of long-term planning.

Preservation statutes

Preservation statutes are used as an important tool to retain reasonably priced housing, whilst expanding the portfolio of municipally-owned housing in Munich. For example, from March 2014, the process of converting a property into a condominium is also subject to additional approval, as they know this can lead to the displacement of tenants (which is unsustainable). Read more here.

Community building

Housing associations and future tenants create joint building ventures, prior to construction, to plan the project together. 'Cooperative'-style housing is common and the buildings designed and constructed are typically affordable and customised to the tenant's needs.

In the past ten years, more than 1,500 homes have been built by housing cooperatives and around 700 by community building ventures on municipal land, or are currently in the planning stages. The City of Munich supports their commitment through a range of measures, and makes 20 to 40% of the land in large residential development areas available for community-oriented housing projects. Read more here.

Socially-appropriate land use

The Sozialgerechte Bodennutzung (SoBoN)was introduced in Munich over 20 years ago (for socially-equitable land use). This states that developers must pay for (or even build) the ancillary services that are required for new developments (access roads, amenities). SoBoN also stipulates that at least 30% of new development must be allocated towards socially-appropriate housing to ensure a diverse mix of tenants. From 1994 to 2016, 150 legally binding development plans were produced according to the SoBoN principles. For examples of projects built under SoBoN, see more here.

Conceptual rental housing construction

Since 2013, the City of Munich have been awarding housing contracts based on the most convincing (and socially sustainable) tender concept. The build cost is completed removed from the equation; land is sold at a fixed price per square meter, regardless of location. Furthermore, the tenant's price of rent is also capped ot avoid landlords overcharging. See more projects using this measure here.

Municipal housing associations

The Department of Urban Planning and Building Regulations oversees the municipal housing associations GWG and Gewofag. They promote innovative housing and guarantee secure, safe and socially-responsible housing in Munich, especially for the lower middle-income brackets as well as for groups of the population who would otherwise have limited access to the private property market. By guaranteeing appropriate secure, reasonably-priced housing in Munich, these municipal housing associations act as regulators in the constantly overburdened Munich housing market. Read more here.

Sustainable urban planning and climate-conscious urban development

As a member of the Climate Alliance, the City of Munich has set itself the target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by around 50% by the year 2030. To achieve this target, 55 measures have been drawn up. For urban planners, sustainability in the sense of a joint consideration of ecological, economic, social and built environment issues means taking all of these aspects into account to achieve balanced, sustainable urban planning. .” - extract from this City of Munich document.

These are just some of the planning initiatives undertaken in Munich. How do all these plans and programmes materialise within the projects? We will go into detail about one in particular, which was a pilot project:


A Munich cooperative housing case study

I still remember the day I visited it for the first time and suddenly I felt like I was in one of those 3D Renders where everything seems to be in perfect harmony, and you think "whatever, in reality it will never be like that" and instead it is, and this reality has existed for four years already!

  • LOCATION: Germany, Munich, “Domagkpark”

  • DEVELOPER: Cooperative Housing Wagnis eG

  • ARCHITECT/PLANNER: Bogevischs buero architekten und stadtplaner gmbh, Munich; Shag Architekten, Munich

  • PLANNING PARTNERS: Ingenierburo EST Gmbh, Miesback; Henke Rappol der Fruhe Ingenieurgesellschaft mbH; Arge Aubock

  • COST: 25.000.000 euro

  • ADMINISTRATOR: Cooperative Housing Wagnis eG


  • CERTIFICATIONS: Certified Passive housing

  • PRIZES: National german sustainability award 2018, german award for urban design2016, german landscape architecture prize for participation and planning 2017, german architecture award 2017 honorable mention, Dam award 2018

"We live in an age in which we cannot appreciate the value of community enough," explains DGNB President Prof. Alexander Rudolphi. "The wagnisART project shows in an exemplary way how sustainable architecture can promote community and create a livable living environment. The jury's reasoning for nominating the project reads similarly, in which wagnisART is described as "exemplary in many respects and unique in Germany".

In the project designed by ARGE bogevischs buero in collaboration with SHAG Schindler Hable Architekten, the intensive involvement of future residents in the planning process through workshops, goal definition and decision-supporting measures resulted in a remarkable architecture that promotes community. It is also evident in the unusual arrangement, connection and design of the five individual buildings. The themes of the three-pillar model of sustainable construction are very well integrated in many areas of the 138-unit site.

As a certified passive house with a low heat requirement and favourable A/V value, photovoltaic systems on the roofs, reinforced concrete/wood hybrid construction and mobility concept, it meets the requirements of a contemporary construction method.

Translation from here.

The administrator is Wagnis eG, a cooperative housing that has currently implemented 4 projects in Munich and two more are now under construction.

“We breathe new life into the traditional cooperative themes of self-help, self-administration and self-responsibility. Cooperative living at wagnis means that the residents have influence on what happens in their project from the very beginning. The housing projects are self-organised and self-administered house communities. The entire project is communal property of the members, in which the residents are "tenants in their own house". They have a lifelong right of residence and pay affordable rents in the long run. And all this in ecologically sustainable houses that are a real home.”

This is a translation from German of their presentation, available here. Shared in interests of knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

Five irregularly shaped, polygonal buildings with three to five storeys grouped around a community courtyard were created. WagnisART provides 138 apartments, consisting of both subsidized and freely financed facilities.

The amount consists of a one-time deposit: 310 to 950 euros per square metre occupied (depending on income and support) plus monthly rental costs of 5.60 to 13.10 euros cold per square meter.

“The most important places are reserved for the community, after all, the question is whether I should own everything privately, or whether it is sufficient to use things as necessary, borrowing from the community”.

Is how Rut-Maria Gollan, who as a resident and board member of wagnisART, describes one of the basic principles of the cooperative in an article for (translated from German).

Building community at the ground floor

"We always try to realize a concept that offers more than just apartments," is how Elisabeth Hollerbach, the initiator from the very beginning, describes the basic idea. "Therefore, there are not only common rooms for us, but also facilities that include the neighbourhood. At wagnisART, this is a large event hall, the cooperatively run café, guest apartments, workshops, practices, studios, music practice rooms and other infrastructure facilities such as car sharing, so that urban life happens there from the very beginning".

Translated from German, here.

The vision works out, the public space and the connected uses in the ground floor zone can be experienced by everyone in the complex.

The active involvement of residents in the design phase of public spaces let them creating an identity even before they were physically part of it.

In addition to the calendars for the management of public spaces on the ground floor, the success of the community has been further demonstrated in everyday life where young people help the elderly with shopping and older people take care of the children.

N.B. Workshops were organised in collaboration with TUM University to make residents aware of environmental sustainability issues (roof gardens – photovoltaic panels – car sharing – ebikes) and to make them understand what it means to live in a "Passivhaus".

Empowering the inhabitants and making them aware of the potential of their actions on the environment is the first step towards a sustainable city.

Building community on the upper floors

In the participatory design phase it was agreed to give each building the name of a continent. The inhabitants strongly wanted the 5 buildings to be connected by bridges at different heights.

These bridges are semipublic while only accessible by the inhabitants. Today they are used a lot by everyone, both children and adults. Parties and barbecues are also often organized.

In addition to the green roof terraces, there are also areas for joint activities, planting beds and creative freedom.

N.B. Bridges between buildings are increasingly common in projects as they encourage connections and communities especially where it might be difficult to get space to the ground floor (e.g. in high density areas).

Building community in new housing typologies

With eight housing clusters grouping a total of 53 individual housing units around large multi-purpose common areas, "wagnisArt" aims to counteract the increasing social isolation of the individual. This experimental approach to housing has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially in Germany and Austria.

Clusters are an ideal solution for all age groups, from young professionals, to families, to the elderly, who can feel part of an intimate community without having to sacrifice their privacy. In fact, unlike co-living, in the housing cluster each inhabitant has a complete and independent accommodation at their disposal, with a small bathroom and a personal kitchenette. In addition to that, on each floor four to nine parties share common rooms (kitchen, living room, terrace) to encourage multigenerational meeting, cooperation and support between conquerors.

N.B. As espected, when interviewing the inhabitants of Wagnis Art, it emerged that the inhabitants rarely cook alone in their apartments. Moreover, they wanted to emphasize that they create such an intimate and friendly relationship that they named “a real family”, especially for the elderly.

Can you see the “ harmonic ballet” Jane Jacobs was talking about?

There would be so much more to add regarding this project. WagnisART is the fourth project of the cooperative, and two others are already under construction. If you are curious about this new way of living you can discover other projects ( WagnisRio and WagnisWest currently under construction) here

I wanted to analyze the Munich urban planning and WagnisArt project because it fully answers the questions I asked at the beginning of this article.

In a saturated society and building sector, with inhabitants increasingly isolated and more and more in difficulty looking for a healthy apartment, the time has come to stop this trend and consider the impossibility of proceeding along this path.

Housing can be more than four walls! The WagnisART model is an example of how housing can restore the human scale lost in cities.

If I think about Italy, my home country, it cames to my mind the project " Cenni di cambiamento" in Milan (link to the project here) promoted by the Cooperative dar (link to the website here).

This project is an example of efficiency and great social sensitivity. But this is an isolated case.

Unfortunately, I do not see any strong incentive to make it a model for the development of our italian cities. To make such a marked change requires clear and decisive planning with a strong objective, which to date I do not see.

The planning process and regulations are certainly among the blocking elements.

Most of all, however, I think we should start thinking about housing as a social good rather than just a financial instrument.


Rethink housing typologies!

Rethink the space “inbetween”!

Rethink smart!

Thanks for reading!

This article was written by Simona Cocco, Architect of H2R Architekten BDA. The article layout and interactivity was implemented by Will of Future Distributed.