Five iconic Berlin building projects that are redefining how wood is used

In and around the German capital, timber-based projects are supplanting traditional concrete and stone construction as architects and their clients strive for cheaper, more sustainable buildings

Berlin does not have a reputation for innovation in either architecture or building codes. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the German capital has been hopelessly entangled in a state-powered architecture of stone and nostalgia that looked back at the 19th century rather than forward into the 21st.

This is changing. In recent years, Berlin has made promising steps in terms of building codes and public funding which might help to change the construction industry.

Aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, politicians in Berlin have finally focused on the building sector, which is responsible for about 40 to 50 percent of all man-made carbon emissions globally. Accordingly, new building laws in Berlin and its umland, the German federal state of Brandenburg, are focused on making use of natural, renewable building materials, energy efficiency, and avoiding waste. These regulations, along with huge technological advancements like digital CNC mills and hybrid construction methods, have boosted interest in wooden buildings.

Although wood is still far from fully replacing concrete in the construction industry at large the percentage of wooden buildings in and around Berlin is on the rise. Currently, the city is planning the world’s largest housing development with timber as its main material on the site of the former airport in Tegel, while a private investor seeks to realize Europe’s highest wooden skyscraper in Kreuzberg. If five recently completed projects are any indication, it seems that only the sky is the limit for wooden dreams in Berlin.

House Köris in Klein Köris by Zeller & Moye

We start with the smallest of the projects, a single-family home in Kleinköris, a small village in Brandenburg about 30 miles south of Berlin’s city center. Like many villages in Brandenburg, Kleinköris is blessed with a small lake and deep woods of pine and spruce. Built for a couple without kids, the architects placed a house of 1,400 square feet in-between the existing pine trees without cutting down a single one. Instead, the house is divided into five pavilion-like boxes with differing heights— 8, 9, and 10 feet—which creates intense and versatile connections between inside and outside spaces. To further avoid any harm to the tree’s roots, the house is raised slightly above the ground, and rests on small, deep foundations of concrete. It features solid wood floors and ceilings made of spruce, a plank facade, walls of modular timber blocks, and wood fibre–based insulation. “Fir for the facade or oak for the floors were options, too,” says architect Christoph Zeller, “but we were bound to a low budget.” The entire project was completed for the very moderate price of 230,000 Euro.

Solid Timber Residences in Neuruppin by Praeger Richter Architekten

Wooden housing is nothing new, but today architects are experimenting with wooden buildings at larger scales. In Neuruppin, a small town 50 miles northwest of Berlin, the name of the project is its program. The two “Solid Timber Houses” are, well, of solid wood. The front building along the street was financed by an investor, it contains 14 apartments for rent. The other structure was realized as a joint building venture by nine individual parties, a so-called Baugruppe. But both buildings share the same features in their construction and form a unified visual whole: All load-bearing walls and ceilings are of solid CLT. All rooms feature a height of three meters, and the whitewashed (wooden) walls help to create a vivid indoor atmosphere. “For both buildings,” says Jana Richter of Berlin-based Richter Praeger Architects, “the separation of construction and building products was essential.” The firm employed only materials that can be recycled, composted, or disassembled and reused in future buildings. All of the facades show a monochrome cladding of beaver-tail roof tiles in their natural red. These are a common feature on houses in Neuruppin, but Praeger Richter have used them to affect a striking modern facade. The architects point out, that the outer walls of timber and tiles are only four inches wide, which not only uses less material for thermal efficiency comparable to an insulated masonry wall but gains each house about 160 square feet of additional living area.

Remise Immanuelkirchstraße in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg by Jan Wiese Architekten and Ralf Wilkening

In central Berlin, a unique urban fabric has developed over the centuries: A dense mixture of six-story houses along the streets, followed by one, two or more courtyards with small factories, artisans’ or commercial spaces—and sometimes, all the way in the back of the parcels, one last, small outbuilding: the so-called Remise. For a private company that sells co-working spaces, Berlin-based architects Jan Wiese and Ralf Wilkening created a new type of Remise for the artisans of the 21st century: freelance graphic designers, programmers, cultural managers, planners, and the like. In their building, four office spaces occupy four floors. The building’s facade is closed on three sides and opens only towards the cozy courtyard to the southwest. It’s a hybrid construction of wood and reinforced concrete. All walls are made of exposed concrete, but inside them, recesses allow for mounting prefabricated wooden ceiling beams that carry the wooden ceiling, which is then coated in a thin layer of cement. This way, the timber stays visible on the ceilings and the facade, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere uncommon in new office buildings.

Berlin Metropolitan School in Berlin-Mitte by Sauerbruch Hutton Architects

Not much more than a stone’s throw from the Remise lies the Berlin Metropolitan School in Mitte.

Since it was founded in 2004, the private English-language school has occupied a group of three prefabricated buildings that were erected along Linienstraße in 1987 forming a small courtyard. Despite their dense urban location, the school needed more space to house a large auditorium, library, new classrooms, and a music room. Sauerbruch Hutton Architects analyzed the existing buildings and found out that the prefab structures had been engineered to carry more weight than they actually did. They proposed a vertical extension of prefabricated timber that offered quick and relatively quiet construction, and thus minimal disturbance to ongoing school activities. Due to the low weight of the timber, no additional foundations or reinforcement of the existing buildings was necessary. While the roof was clad in soft, shiny copper, inside the wood is left visible. It’s a nice surprise to find yourself in the auditorium’s expressive timber structure after climbing up through three stories of GDR Plattenbau.

Administration Building of Tierpark Berlin by ZRS Architekten

From Mitte, we jump to another Plattenbau further East. This is the administration building for Berlin’s “Tierpark”, the zoo in the Eastern half of the city. The building dates to the 1960s and was in poor shape, plagued by oppressive heat in the summer and freezing drafts in the winter. “Employees claimed that they were almost fully exposed to the weather outside, like working in a tent rather than in a solid building,” recollects Eike Roswag of Ziegert Roswag Seiler Architects, specialists in wooden and adobe construction. The Tierpark intended to tear down the old building and replace it with a better one. But a study by ZRS showed that most of the building was actually in a good shape. By replacing the facade, it could be saved—along with all the “gray energy”, the embodied energy which was required to build the old building. ZRS designed a new facade of prefabricated timber panels with cellulose insulation. Using the same panel formats, even the old anchors were re-used for mounting the new facade. Due to the low weight of the wooden panels, no additional reinforcements were necessary. Inside, not only the robust concrete structure was preserved, but also the built-in closets, terrazzo floors and the acoustic ceilings. What is new, though, is the elegant appearance of the new facade, a glass elevator, and a graphic treatment on the interior walls. It is, in short, a mature mix of old and new perfectly merged together—and a building now that is as pleasant for its users, as it is sustainable and economical.

Maybe the abundance of wooden building is a prospect into the future of construction at the dawn of the 21st century. If so, then the question is not so much whether either concrete or wood. But about making use of a smart combination of both (and other) materials, combining them for their respective advantages and to our best knowledge, reducing our habits of wasting energy, buildings, materials, and emitting carbon dioxide like we used to in the 20th century. It is, maybe, the dawning of a new era–and Berlin could find itself, if it manages to turn at least half of its wooden dreams into reality, among the most progressive cities in the world.

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