The trend seems irreversible. Humans inhabit more and more area in Germany. It’s a result of growing prosperity. But on closer inspection, not everyone is benefiting. And in view of finite resources, further expansion of living space consumption is also not advisable in terms of sustainability.
The following questions are addressed in this article:
Photo: Christoph HardtGeisler-Fotopress/pa
Housing development: steady growth, steady inequality
The consumption of living space has increased rapidly in recent decades. In 1950, each German citizen had an average of 15 square meters of living space at his or her disposal; by 2020, the figure had tripled to 47.4 square meters – more than a threefold increase in 70 years. Nothing points to a trend reversal. In the last ten years, the consumption of living space has increased by 2.4 square meters per person.
Wedding family in 1952: War destruction and arriving refugees made for living in cramped quarters
There are two reasons for this trend: Apartments got bigger and households got smaller. As recently as 1910, 40 percent of households in Germany had five or more people, while less than ten percent of households consisted of one person. Meanwhile, the weighting has reversed. On average, only 1.94 people live in an apartment today. The average apartment size in 1968 was about 71 square meters; today, the average apartment has 92 square meters.
But the average figures conceal a split development. According to figures from the Federal Statistical Office for 2020, 8.5 million people live in overcrowded apartments. That is 10.3 percent of the population. In large cities, the overcrowding rate is as high as 15 percent. Single-parent households are particularly affected: 29.9 percent of them live in too small a space. Almost one in six minors lives in an overcrowded apartment. This problem hardly occurs with pensioners: Only three percent of them live in cramped conditions because of too many flatmates. Older people often continue to live in their family home after their children have moved out, even though it is actually too large for them.
Photo: Sabine Mittermeier
An apartment is considered overcrowded if, for example, children 12 years and older do not have their own room. In contrast, more than 600.000 people alone in seven or more rooms.
In Berlin, living space per person has been declining slightly for years, contrary to the nationwide trend: 40.9 square meters in 2011, only 39.3 square meters in 2019. Due to the housing shortage, people have moved together.
There are major differences between the districts: In Lichtenberg and Neukolln, each person has an average of less than 36 square meters available, while in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and Steglitz-Zehlendorf, the average is over 46 square meters.
Owners have a significantly larger living space at their disposal than tenants
Photo: HGT Immobilien Treuhand AG
Rented apartments are generally smaller than those occupied by the owners themselves. A rented apartment has an average of 75 square meters, in ownership it is 125 square meters. Even when the number of occupants is taken into account, it is clear that individuals live more generously in owner-occupied apartments.
The figures show an improvement in housing supply over the decades. However, this is paid for by the fact that 60 hectares of land are built on and sealed every day in Germany.
Space limitations in the Weimar period
The reduction of housing sizes was already a goal in the housing shortage after World War I, in order to be able to build more housing with less money. In the Weimar Republic, the size of new apartments, which were subsidized with money from the house interest tax, was tightly limited at the time. "The living space should be 32 to 45 square meters and, in the case of apartments intended for families with children, should not exceed 60 square meters," the 1931 directive states.
In the single-kitchen house, food for everyone came by dumbwaiter from the kitchen in the basement: Berlin 1907
In order to reduce construction costs, living space was also reduced by relocating certain activities to the outside. For example, in most new housing developments of the 1920s, there were washhouses where housewives could do the laundry with the help of machines. Because it was no longer necessary to wash dishes in the kitchen, it was possible to build smaller kitchens. This idea also led to the development of the "Frankfurt Kitchen" of 1926: a fully equipped, working-only kitchen whose sophisticated functionality required less than seven square meters of space.
In the so-called single-kitchen houses, kitchens were not even provided in the apartments. Meals were prepared in a central kitchen in the basement and delivered to the apartments by dumbwaiter. The three single-kitchen houses built in Berlin between 1907 and 1912 only functioned as intended for a few years and were not imitated by others.
Traditional ideas of living, on the other hand, persisted: a large eat-in kitchen, which formed the center of family life, was firmly anchored in the population: "Your own stove is worth its weight in gold." Even a huge waste of space like the "cold splendor" – the good room, which was heated and used only on Sundays and holidays – remained untouchable, even in families that lived very cramped. The progressive architects of the time railed against "plush sofas and all that mothballed stuff," according to Bruno Taut – with little success.
Influence of state, culture and nature: what determines the size of living space
How much space do people need to live in? Historically and locationally, the respective living conditions lead to great differences. Occasionally, legal regulations also provide information about what people should consider sufficient living space.
Those who take advantage of this form of state housing can hope for 9 square meters: One-man cell in the Magdeburg correctional facility in 1999
Photo: Peter Forster/pa
In some cases, sizes for living space are clearly defined. In social housing, 45 to 50 square meters are considered adequate for one person – for two residents, it’s 60 square meters or two rooms. The individual federal states can set minimum sizes for renting apartments. For example, the Berlin Housing Supervision Act stipulates that apartments may only be allocated from nine square meters per adult occupant and six square meters per child.
In the penal system, nine square meters of space is also the minimum size of a single cell; in shared housing, it is seven square meters per capita. For old people’s and nursing homes, the Home Minimum Building Ordinance has regulated since 1978 that they must have at least one bed-sitting room with an area of 12 square meters per resident – 18 for two.
Berlin-Mitte has set standards for homeless housing in 2021 – according to which a single room should be at least nine square meters, a double room 15 square meters. Even courts have already stated their view on living space. In 2020, for example, the Munster Higher Administrative Court ruled that a two-room dormitory of 30 square meters could be considered too small for a homeless family of five.
Pandemics and home offices have forced a new approach to available living space
Photo: Sabine Mittermeier
The Corona crisis has made it painfully clear to many that it is not just the number of square meters that is important, but also the number of rooms. The information service of the Institute of German Science (iwd) writes: "Apartment size is of particular importance in times of pandemic – not only because people stay in their own four walls particularly often and for long periods of time due to curfew restrictions and permanent home offices." Suddenly, additional space is needed for activities that were previously performed at the workplace or in the classroom.
Having to spend a lot of time in far too cramped a space also led to an increase in cases of domestic violence during the Corona pandemic.
Those who can, stay where they live
In addition to a return to specifically used smaller spaces and a move away from open floor plans, the pandemic has also triggered a demand boom for the "cottage in the countryside". This has come at a high price on the traditionally few building sites within Berlin’s city limits. The cost of rental housing has also skyrocketed in recent years. Those who can, stay where they are. For example, after the children move out, married couples live in apartments that are far too large, while growing families settle for far too little space out of concern about higher rents.
In addition to material circumstances and the degree of urbanization, the type of society also has a strong impact on the amount of living space required. The Federal Agency for Civic Education writes: "Where large families still play an important role, close living together and a high occupancy density of rooms are more readily accepted than in countries with an individualistic lifestyle, small families and many single households."This is how the world’s largest households of more than eight people live in the poor countries of Senegal, Gambia Afghanistan.
In traditional large families, the individual has comparatively little space: Family in Tanzania/Africa
Photo: Reinhard Marscha/pa
Climate plays another important role in the demand for living space. In world regions with consistently warm temperatures, more living takes place outdoors – in courtyards, gardens or squares. So less interior space is also needed. One exception proves the rule: Australians have the largest houses and apartments in a global comparison, with an average of around 200 square meters, and at the same time enjoy warm temperatures. Hong Kong has the smallest apartments with about 45 square meters, just 13.3 square meters per capita. The housing crisis in the former British colony is producing blossoms such as the so-called coffin homes – tiny accommodations of just a few square meters, whose residents share a bathroom and kitchen, and yet are still expensive. 200.000 people live in the inhumane cells, according to media reports.
Restrictions on living space: government steering options are limited
In principle, you are free to live in as many square meters as you like – at least if you have enough money. Those who depend on social benefits, however, have to limit themselves. Before the job center assumes the costs of housing, the adequacy of the apartment size is reviewed. A certain number of square meters is also stipulated in a housing permit to obtain subsidized housing, depending on the size of the household.
Taxes have a small effect on housing consumption. Although property tax is calculated and apportioned for tenants and apartment owners according to living space. Within the rapidly rising housing costs, however, this is not a factor that encourages people to move into a smaller apartment. Berlin has tripled its second-home tax in 2019 – though not to curb wasted living space, but mainly to encourage second-home users to register their primary residence in Berlin. Second home tax revenues increased from four million euros in 2018 to 15.5 million in 2020.
Hamburg had introduced a Bundesrat initiative against the money-grubbing with furnished short-term rentals, as it is rampant especially in very small apartments: In furnished apartments, the Mietpreisbremse is to be made applicable, in that always the furnishing surcharge must be quantified and tenancies that run longer than six months are no longer considered short-term rentals.
The public sector can dictate to its own housing associations what sizes of apartments should be built in new developments. In the case of private developers, this is only possible if they build publicly subsidized social housing or if they agree to this with the administration in an urban development contract. In such contracts, however, the focus is on the affordability of the apartments, concrete apartment sizes are rarely specified.
Tiny Houses and Micro-Living: A matter of worldview
Limiting one’s living requirements to just a few square meters is a conscious decision. The living forms "Tiny House" and "Micro-Living" have this limitation in common. But while the Tiny House model offers an alternative to the unecological, resource-guzzling and unsustainable economy, micro-apartment providers are concerned with the high profits of a new profitable business model.
The Tiny House is the fulfillment of the dream of home ownership in an ecologically and socially correct way
Photo: Sabine Mittermeier
When architect Van Bo Le-Mentzel put his idea of a Tiny House into practice in 2016, it was the great need of refugees who crowded in front of the Lageso for months that had tipped the scales. At the time, he asked himself what was needed to live in a dignified manner, says the architect. The 6.4-square-meter wooden house he built offered everything that counts as the basic equipment of an apartment: Kitchen, bathroom, toilet, sleeping and working area, even a small storage room found space. But Le-Mentzel was not the only inventor of Tiny Houses. Tiny houses, averaging 10 to 15 square meters, had already become popular in the U.S. around 2007, when many people were forced to cut back to the bare necessities in the wake of the financial and housing crisis. What was then an often bitter alternative to the unaffordable large homes has become over the years the object of a new zeitgeist.
Photo by Nils Richter
Downsizing or minimalization means letting go, leaving things behind, getting rid of superfluous items and setting priorities. "Less is more" – a decision to live a simpler life and a critique of society. "The actors in the Tiny House movement see the consumer culture of market-oriented economic systems as a cause of current global conflicts, since excessive consumption depletes ecological resources and increases environmental pollution and social inequalities," writes cultural anthropologist Julia Susann Helbig, who has conducted research on the Tiny House movement at the University of Hamburg.
The change of location is built in
According to the scientist, there are also very practical reasons for limiting living space: the high population density and increasingly expensive housing in cities, the decreasing number of multi-person households, the low purchase price of a Tiny House, which can be built by oneself due to its simplicity. In addition, a Tiny House – placed on wheels – allows a comparatively simple change of location.
This overnight accommodation for homeless people has been made famous by the designer Florian Geiselhart as the "Ulm Nest
Photo: Stefan Puchner/pa
A community and an infrastructure have long since developed around the Tiny House. There are manufacturers who offer exclusive models. For the less well-off, building plans are available on the Internet, sometimes even free of charge. Interested parties and mini-house residents exchange ideas in local groups, because despite different styles and financial possibilities, they all face the question: How do I use the space given to me most effectively??
For residents of micro-apartments, on the other hand, this question has usually already been decided: They rent fully or partially furnished apartments that offer all the comforts of home in 15 to 30 square meters, including fast WLAN and often even smart home technology. In exchange, they pay an all-inclusive rent that includes the cost of heating, electricity, internet and often the use of shared spaces, such as laundry rooms, coworking spaces, gyms or even a small movie theater.
Micro-Living is designed for temporary living. It offers students, IT nomads who work in other cities or globetrotters private spaces, places to work, social contacts and often also leisure activities. Investors and landlords are assured of rising returns from this thriving business. In sought-after metropolises around the world, new offerings are constantly emerging, ranging from simple apartments to co-living communities with communal kitchens and even urban gardening spaces on the rooftop. Geared toward the greatest possible flexibility for their users, they are part of the so-called sharing economy, which has expanded the originally good idea of money- and resource-saving sharing into a profitable business.
Tiny Houses: Is it only for singles??
Are apartments with small spaces and Tiny Houses only suitable for singles?? Numerous examples show that this is not the case. Even families with several children can find happiness in just a few square meters. Multifunctional floor plans and clever room concepts with sufficient storage space and retreat options are particularly important. In the evening, for example, the play corner is transformed into a TV lounge, and the home office becomes a reading den. Residents must be willing to embrace the principle of "minimalism" and have a certain amount of discipline – the subject of cleaning up. However, little space does not have to be restrictive. On the contrary, many people report that they find the reduction to the essentials liberating. What’s more: living in a Tiny House is extremely flexible. Many residents choose a location in beautiful surroundings and accordingly spend a lot of time outdoors. Several Tiny Houses can also be combined.
Tiny House: location, promotion, energy efficiency
There are now five Tiny House developments in Germany. The oldest is located in the Bavarian Fichtelgebirge, in the district of Mehlmeisel. In 2017, it was founded here on a former campsite. 17.000 square meters of green space offer room for a total of 35 Tiny Houses, 23 are already standing.
Anyone who wants to park their Tiny House here – whether a circus wagon, a yurt or a self-built mobile home – must also want to be involved in the community.
Even if the financing of a Tiny House is much cheaper than that of a conventional home for easily comprehensible reasons, it is worthwhile to obtain information about subsidy options. Who wants to get promotion credits and/or subsidies, must fulfill however conditions. They are defined within the framework of the "Federal Support for Efficient Buildings (BEG)" and require a combination of energy savings and the use of renewable energies.
By the way, there is no K subsidy for a Tiny House that is built on a classic trailer and can therefore change location at any time.
The Tiny House Association shows possible locations on its website, provides information about manufacturers and construction plans, brings interested parties together and clarifies legal problems.
The cost of the micro-apartment: Imaginatively bypassing rental law
The micro-living concept of apartment buildings, which has been springing up for some years now, offers temporary living space with hotel-like services. What the users of this high-priced all-inclusive living in a small area don’t know is that such offers undermine any rent regulation and drive up the price of building land.
"All inclusive" – often also the violation of price regulations
Photo: Christian Muhrbeck
It’s not uncommon for mini-apartments with 25 square meters to be rented out for 750 euros – 30 euros per square meter net cold. Even offers of more than 40 euros per square meter can be found. Even if an Internet flat rate and electricity consumption are included: Such rents are scandalously overpriced.
Any rental at such prices would be a blatant violation of the legal provisions of the Mietpreisbremse – but this has many exceptions and loopholes. In principle, rents for re-letting may not be more than ten percent above the local comparative rent. According to the current Berlin rent index for 2021, this is 15.28 euros per square meter net cold in the absolute maximum case – taking into account all possible features that increase the value of the home. So with the ten percent surcharge of the Mietpreisbremse, there should actually be no new contract rents above 16.81 euros.
However, the Mietpreisbremse does not apply if the previous tenant has already paid a higher rent. Leases that are concluded "for temporary use" are also not covered by the rent brake.
Microapartments offer housing, technology and services at a fixed price – and it’s a hefty one at that
Photo: Britta Pedersen/pa
Furnishing and setting flat rents further exacerbates the problem, as the local comparative rent is shown net cold. In order to take advantage of the rent brake, residents would have to factor out all ancillary costs and a furnishing surcharge. But since they do not know these amounts, it is virtually impossible for them to apply the rent brake. And even if it succeeds, landlords only face a reduction in rent, but no penalties or fines at all. Since most tenants stay in the mini-apartments for a comparatively short time, landlords can raise rents in quick succession each time they re-let them, without having to justify a request for an increase, as they would have to do with long-term tenants.
Rapid increase in revenue
Micro-apartments are being built primarily because they can generate very high rental income from just a few square meters – not because there is a need for furnished all-inclusive micro-apartments for a limited period of time, but because there is virtually no supply left on the regular housing market with its normal apartment sizes.
The providers of micro-apartments are aware of the loopholes and exceptions that the Mietpreisbremse has
This rental model also has serious implications for the land market. The prospect of generating enormous rental income from newly built apartment buildings is driving up land prices. Housing developers who want to build regular rental apartments cannot pay such high prices, especially not if they want to offer housing at affordable rents.
Models to combat landscape erosion: More space does not bring more happiness
The goal formulated in the Climate Protection Plan 2050 of halving land consumption in Germany to 30 hectares per day cannot be achieved with the current construction methods, certainly not in view of the new construction figures announced. How can we build in a more sustainable and land-saving way?? Where is the city heading and what would be desirable??
An area the size of 60 soccer pitches is built on every day in Germany
Photo: Christian Muhrbeck
Despite all declarations of intent to the contrary, the land grab in Germany continues unabated. Currently, 60 hectares are consumed per day: for residential construction, but also for commercial, traffic and recreational areas. The planned new construction of 20.000 apartments in Berlin should not be at the expense of the valuable urban green, demands the Bund fur Umwelt und Naturschutz Berlin (BUND) in a recently launched petition for a referendum. The proposal: In return for the construction of new houses, areas elsewhere would have to be unsealed and renaturalized. One must finally break away from the previous fixation on ever new areas for housing construction, says Tilmann Heuser of BUND. The overbuilding of space-guzzling discounters, the expansion of attics, the deconstruction of parking lots and other inefficiently used areas would offer the opportunity to further develop existing neighborhoods socially and ecologically and to create apartments oriented to the needs of the residents, for example for seniors and families.
Diversity in new construction means less conversion later
Similarly argues the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union Germany e.V. (NABU). A "zero hectare target" has been proclaimed there. From a conservation perspective, no more land should be sealed at all. How this should work? By building on already sealed areas in the city center instead of on the particularly valuable soils on the outskirts of the city. "Our concept of double inner development aims to create living space through densification, but at the same time to preserve and qualitatively develop green spaces in the city," explains Stefan Petzold, settlement development officer at NABU. Fallow unsealed building sites should therefore be examined closely: How suitable is the site as a building area?? And how valuable it is as open and green space?
In order to conserve the limited resource of land, there is also a need for housing forms and apartment sizes that can be adapted to the changing phases of life. Everyone knows couples or seniors who live in apartments that are far too large after the children move out or the partner dies. "We need more diversity in new housing construction, then we don’t have to worry about conversion later," says Ricarda Patzold of the German Institute of Urban Affairs (Difu). However, flexible floor plans, movable walls or rooms that can be switched on and off have so far been found mainly in the owner-occupied sector. On the other hand, interesting models have emerged among building groups and communal housing projects, and increasingly also among young cooperatives. For example, the "Ausbauhaus" by architects Prager and Richter, which has already been realized several times in Berlin as a building group project. The concept includes not only shared spaces but also the elimination of load-bearing walls. Thus, a variety of floor plan variants and also a later conversion are possible. Cluster living is very popular in communal living projects.
How much individual and how much shared space is decided by the residents: cluster housing in Lynarstrasse
Photo: Nils Richter
In Lynarstrasse in Wedding, there is a residential building owned by the housing cooperative "Am Ostseeplatz", where each floor is divided into residential units with floor plans that can be determined by the residents. So they can decide for themselves how much individual space and how much communal space, such as a shared kitchen or hallway, they want to have.
In Switzerland, people have been thinking about the issue of space consumption and flexibility in relation to life phases for quite some time now. This is also where the so-called Joker Room was invented, an additional room that can be rented for a certain period of time in addition to the apartment, for example when the pubescent offspring is stressing or the mother in need of care needs to be accommodated. Swiss cooperatives also often equip new apartments with two entrances, so that the apartment can be easily divided at a later date. "We also have such intelligent space solutions, but not for the masses," says Ricarda Patzold regretfully. In this country, she says, there is still the idea that the apartment has to be as large as possible. "More space does not mean more happiness," says the urban researcher.
As needs change, so does the floor plan: Howoge new building on Paul-Zobel-Strasse
In the meantime, even the state-owned housing associations are beginning to address the issue. Howoge has completed a new building on Paul-Zobel-Strasse in Lichtenberg in 2019, for example, in which floor plans can be changed with comparatively little effort by placing or removing interior walls. The living spaces are arranged around an interior core of bathroom and kitchen. This provides flexibility to respond to changing needs. By eliminating hallways or enclosed kitchens, apartments under 100 square meters are also well suited for families with children. In addition, the total rent burden is lower.
Living space: Make efficient use of scarce resources
In the housing stock, there is considerable space potential that could be leveraged with a little creativity and the appropriate political will. Example: the apartment exchange. In Berlin, the right to exchange an apartment for a smaller or larger one is only available from municipal housing associations. There, the demand is manageable, but Reiner Wild, managing director of the Berlin Tenants’ Association, is convinced that this is no reason for resignation: "You have to find suitable instruments to increase motivation and facilitate the swap."The same applies to attempts to convince older people with very large apartments to sublet, for example to students. Often this fails due to the lack of a second bathroom. Appropriate home modifications need to be supported, says Wild: "We expect these issues to be discussed in the Senate’s New Construction Working Group." Better use of existing residential space includes consistently addressing vacancy and putting a stop to vacation apartments. Other building blocks: remove legal hurdles so that more commercial buildings can be converted to housing. The effort is sometimes considerable, but examples such as the former Kreuzberg Postscheckamt or the conversion of an administrative complex in Weibenseer Streustrabe by Gesobau show that this does not have to result in sinfully expensive lofts.
Living together has many faces: When community replaces space
Rooms with shared kitchens: What today appears stylish as micro-living was created elsewhere and at other times out of sheer necessity: People had to limit their private property to a few square meters and share everything else. In a changing, more mobile society, doing without large-scale living spaces is increasingly becoming an alternative way of life and a critique of conservative ideas about living.
In the shared apartments of the 1970s, the community was in the foreground
Photo: Sabine Munch
Between the simple room in a "Kommunalka" and the exclusive microflat in a co-living house are worlds apart. The Russian communal apartments, which were already being built in the 19th century. Century, were due to extreme housing shortage and also great poverty. Families and individuals lived in their own lockable rooms, often far too small, along long hallways and had to share sanitary facilities and kitchens.
From Kommunalka to Co-Living
Co-living houses, which have been literally springing up in major cities since the 2000s, appeal primarily to a mobile community with their small furnished apartments: students from all over the world, business people, people who are new to a city for professional reasons and first want to get their bearings. People who move into a micro-living apartment want to live in a central location, not have to go to great lengths to furnish the apartment, and be able to move on quickly if necessary. Whereas communal housing was a social and economic necessity, as were sailors’ homes, workers’ dormitories and nurses’ homes, modern micro-living is now a model aimed primarily at the well-off who are willing to dig deep into their pockets for convenience and flexibility.
But even if micro-living can’t be compared to the meager community infrastructure of a Kommunalka – what unites them is the separation of the scarcely measured private sphere from a larger area that is used and financed by everyone – an idea that also lies in the model of the shared apartment: several people can together afford the rent for a large apartment in which everyone ultimately has more space and greater comfort than in a self-contained one-room apartment. While WGs were still emergency communities in the post-war years, the need to live in a community with like-minded people played an increasingly important role from the 1970s onwards.
Also the permanent place is a housing form on small surface in the circle Gleichgesinnter
Photo: Hauke-Christian Dittrich/pa
The fact that demographic change and changing family structures are also increasing the demand for communal forms of living is shown by the great interest in so-called cluster living, for example, which offers both opportunities for retreat into private rooms and space for community. There is also an increase in self-organized senior citizens’ shared flats, where old people no longer have to be alone, and multi-generation houses.
Certainly – behind a restriction of private living space consumption often also financial need stands, from which many large Trailerparks in the USA and so some permanent campers in Germany testify. But for some years now, the realization has been gaining ground that forms of housing change with the stages of life, and that we thus live through something like a "housing career. This insight challenges traditional notions of housing and criticizes conservative housing policies that still almost exclusively have the traditional family as their guiding principle.