Circular Building and Reusing Materials

VOLLGUT: Circular Building Pioneers are in Berlin

Simon Uhcholl Lee and Asli Varol of VOLLGUT are redefining Berlin’s real estate landscape by using circular building and creating affordable, creative spaces for marginalized groups. In their interview with GICA, they delve into their inspiration, emphasizing the importance of social consciousness in construction and real estate.

GICA: Simon and Asli, please explain who you are and what you do.

Asli Varol: We are co-directors of the VOLLGUT cooperative, and we’re developing a largely vacant building right in the heart of Neukölln using circular construction principals. There is a great need for affordable space here. No one can find suitable long-term culture or commercial space; lots of groups are forced to leave the city center. But here stands a huge empty building, and we are taking care of the project development.

In project development, three aspects are considered: construction, social dimension, and finances. Currently, many buildings are being constructed in Berlin without a prior assessment of demand. The buildings are financed and then built, and people are subsequently sought to occupy them. It used to be different.

Vollgut’s Simon Lee

GICA: Do you have an example?

Instead, we work with people already very active in local urban development and social life, such as clubs, artists, and artisans with small local businesses.

Asli Varol: There is a story of an architect from Holland who did a lot of housing construction in the 1970s. He drew a comic about how the relationship between people and buildings has changed over time. It used to be like this: You want a house – you build it yourself. Then: You want a house – you tell a craftsman how to build it, and he builds it.

Later, it became: You want a house – you tell an architect what you want, he plans it and passes it on to the craftsman who builds it. Now, it is such that there are people who need a house, but first comes the investor, who tells the architect what he should build for these people and lets the craftsmen build it.

People are alienated from their homes. We do it the other way around because we are circularly developing a building that was originally built as a brewery. We don’t ask, “What does Berlin need?” Instead, we work with people already very active in local urban development and social life, such as clubs, artists, and artisans with small local businesses.

Vollgut’s Circular Building Plan

GICA: What brought you to this project?

We’re currently sitting on the result – a socially oriented property, 5,000 square meters, all built circularly.

Simon Lee: Originally, we were just a group of people—entrepreneurs, artists, activists—who needed space and wanted to appropriate it ourselves. Following the motto “learning by doing,” we got involved in real estate development. We tried to find someone to build something with and for us the way we wanted, but we didn’t find anyone.

At that time, all the major consulting firms in the world had a lot of theoretical knowledge about building differently.

The real estate sector produces 50 to 60 percent of all waste. That means if you can change something there, you really change the world.

We all found that exciting, but there was no actual practice. So we went on a learning journey and visited projects in Europe that had done something in this area. But it turned out that it was mostly marketing talk and all just a lie; it was very sobering. Then we said, “Okay, if we’re so arrogant as to say we know better, then we have to do it ourselves!”

We’re currently sitting on the result – a socially oriented and conscious property, 5,000 square meters, all built circularly.

GICA: How many square meters have you converted, developed, turned around here?

In the past, we circularly built 10,000 square meters and saved tons of CO2.

Simon Lee: In the past, we circularly built 10,000 square meters and saved tons of CO2. Now, we want to develop another 40,000 square meters.

GICA: How many people’s lives has the project influenced?

Simon Lee: Alone, the Impact Hub has over 600 members who now have a home here. More than 100 people live here permanently or temporarily. In everyday project life, there are hundreds more. It also has an impact – there is a health work collective, two doctors and several social work organizations, doing important work from here. They influence the lives of other people every day.

One of the beautiful buildings being circularly built by Vollgut

GICA: Is this your first work?

If we don’t do it, others will, but they’ll do it conventionally, not socially consciously.

Simon Lee: No, in the last ten years, we have already done a project for social accommodation, a completely new construction, and a conversion and extension of a former barrel storage hall.

That prepared us for the next project: 40,000 square meters, a massive block with huge potential. If we don’t do it, others will, but they’ll do it conventionally, not socially consciously. What we do will radiate out. Everywhere.

Asli Varol: I joined about three years ago because I have experience in participatory project development and planning.

GICA: How do you approach real estate development?

Simon Lee: The classic way would be to look at an Excel spreadsheet. You have to calculate and realize that everything is expensive. Construction is expensive; energy is expensive.

That’s why we have these office towers in Berlin. There are already millions of square meters of vacant space, and yet more office space is being built because it’s the only thing that’ll pay back – at least from the perspective of an Excel spreadsheet.

We first look at the local demand and the building that exists. The Excel spreadsheet comes at the very end. It also has to work, but it’s not a priority.

GICA: So you’re turning the entire process of building upside down.

It’s not just about economic profit but also the social composition and how we occupy these circular buildings.

Simon Lee: Exactly. This is a more meaningful way of real estate development. The trick is to use the commercial settlement to make a neighborhood more livable, not to come in as a foreign body and fuel the gentrification process. We want all neighbors to be happy that we are here. It’s not just about economic profit but also the social composition and how we occupy these circular buildings.

Asli Varol: By offering a suitable matching usage mixture in the buildings.

Circular Building and Urban Art

GICA: Now, to be a little provocative: Well, what you’re selling here as innovation is just a reuse of existing real estate. That is probably very expensive; you have to adapt to the building structure, which costs a lot of effort and money. Why should an investor like that?

Simon Lee: Our goal is to achieve these social and ecological effects while being relatively inexpensive compared to conventional development. We do a lot in-house and try only to generate external returns in some places because we are intrinsically motivated. All these measures result in net cold rents significantly lower than all comparable developers throw on the market.

What is our priority?

Asli Varol: We also decide to do only the necessary construction. A typical conversion of an existing property has very high standards that are not necessarily needed — interior wall cladding, marble-paneled elevators, and fancy toilets. The better I equip the office tower, the more rent I can generate. We consider the following: How many elevators do we really need? What is our priority?

Vollgut’s Asli Karol

Simon Lee: When we arrived at the VOLLGUT project, we already had ideas and plans. We then made a rigorous 50% cost reduction and asked ourselves: What needs to be done, and what is just “nice to have”?

Also, we take unconventional paths. We saved a few staircases. We have many specialist planners who push the limits of what is allowed – sometimes beyond. I believe that if you have the motivation that the outcome of the Excel spreadsheet matters, you can achieve it. Since we act on behalf of future users, we cannot be indifferent. This is a model that triggers an entirely different motivation.

GICA: So, the basic idea is to return to: I need a house.

This social consciousness and responsibility are essential to us for this project.

Asli Varol: Exactly. The people we work for have a real relationship and responsibility for the house. The selection is interesting. We want people and organizations that need help with getting a space. Marginalized groups. This social consciousness and responsibility are essential to us for this project. Who are we creating these affordable rents for? What positive effects do these people have on the neighborhood and Berlin?

GICA: You’re something like a bespoke building. What can be learned from that? Is it applicable to other buildings or entire cities?

Asli Varol: We are developing specific tools. To implement such an unconventional development, you need methods for people to talk to each other and trust each other. This has future potential.

GICA: What are you: Communists, Socialists, Capitalists, or something else?

Simon Lee: We operate in a capitalist environment; we can’t escape it. I’d call us capitalists with a backbone and values.

Vollgut Group Collaboration

GICA: Do you believe this social approach is scalable and compatible with real estate capitalism? Can this idea be extended to the world’s metropolises?

Asli Varol: In every major city, there are processes of displacement. Tourism also thrives on subculture: places where you see this urban mix. But these places are becoming unaffordable. On the one hand, cities pride themselves on those places, but eventually, they won’t exist anymore.

GICA: What three things can an architect from New York or London learn from you?

We show that it can be done differently through circular building.

Asli Varol: We think economically, structurally, and socially simultaneously. These aspects cannot be separated. Research projects focusing only on sustainability are challenging for regular people to realize in a normal market. Only when you combine the social, economic, and structural dimensions can you produce something reusable. There are great sustainable projects with good architecture, but they wouldn’t work without government funding.

Simon Lee: The way buildings are built today is unsustainable. It’s common sense by now, but only in theory and not in practice. Everyone knows it’s not working, but they still do it because it’s convenient. Practical knowledge needs to be improved on how to do it differently. We show that it can be done differently through circular building. It’s not rocket science, either.

It’s a bit more difficult at the beginning to build differently because it’s unknown territory, but we’ve managed it, too. Then others can do it too.

We really go by need.

Another aspect is that many architectural firms want to build themselves a monument. That comes last for us, if at all. We really go by need: user-centered project development and participatory project development. We start from the building and look at who fits in, not vice versa.

Asli Varol: It is essential to pay attention to people and buildings when circularly building. I studied architecture and was told: “Your clients don’t know what they want. You have to show them.” I liked that. But why should someone who has studied architecture for five years know better what someone needs than people with their own lifelong experience? It would be good to combine the creativity of architecture with solution orientation. Participatory architecture is uncommon; typically, architects are not involved with future occupants.

Vollgut’s circular building community

GICA: You mentioned that the next 40,000 square meters are already on the horizon. What do you still need now? Make a wish.

Simon Lee: The capital question is, of course, looming. Project development or financing is much more difficult in 2024 than in 2020. That’s why offices are being built everywhere. There is an economic background to that. So, we are looking for support. And in general, such a building has many complexities and interfaces, be it in administration, politics, or approval issues.

We need green lights. Or yellow ones, yellow ones are also okay.

We need people who see the sense in it. We need green lights or yellow ones; yellow ones are also okay.

GICA: How much money do you need?

Simon Lee: The total project will undoubtedly cost upwards of 50 million. That’s a lot of money but very little for 40,000 square meters of renovation and acquisition.

The question is, how much of the money will the banks make, and how much will we have to raise ourselves? Users also contribute a part, but we are still looking for equity replacement and investors who don’t just want a market return but are part of something bigger.

Simon Lee on LinkedIn? Here!

Asli Varol on LinkedIn? Here!

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