“Simon was really into House of Cards”, is how Andreas Rauch begins the story of the catchiest-named architecture start-up to come out of Berlin in recent years. Cabin Spacey is a prototype for a lightweight house that embraces the realities of urban living. Andreas talks us through the process of building your own city cabin for a future in which we own ever-less and share ever-more.

Cabin Spacey: Not a Tiny House

“We didn’t want to call what we do a ‘tiny house’, so we called it a Cabin Space. One day, Simon wrote the name on the whiteboard, stared at it for a long time, and then put a ‘y’ at the end.” So begins the story of the catchiest name for an architecture start-up in recent years. Andreas Rauch and Simon Becker propose to build minimal lightweight houses on top of existing infrastructure, sometimes literally on the roofs of multi-storey apartment buildings. Andreas talked us through the emerging economy defined by sharing between neighbours, and a light-touch proprietary relationship to the city.

Andreas Rauch (left) and Simon Becker (right), the co-founders of Cabin Spacey, in their Berlin office.

Jana Perković: You say that another way of urban living has developed recently. How, in your view, do the new city users use the city?

Andreas Rauch: It’s obvious that mobility and flexibility are a very current topic: just look at how we travel these days, compared with only 10-15 years ago. I have probably travelled 30 times more than my father, and to perhaps 50 times more cities than he has visited in his entire life. People are living very flexible lives today: they finish their studies, and they are looking for opportunities, not getting stuck in one particular job. What doesn’t fit into that idea of flexibility is ownership. Younger people aren’t so attached to ownership: they are attached to speaking 3-4 languages, travelling, and that doesn’t square well with owning much. It squares well with using services: Airbnb is one such service, but there is also car sharing, car-to-go, food delivery, dry cleaning, house cleaning.

I think that we are moving ever more towards the sharing economy in which, for example, you won’t own your car anymore, but share it with friends – or strangers. In Berlin, this has really taken off. There are neighbourhood shops where you can borrow tools instead of buying them. A friend of ours started the website platform nebenan.de, where you can exchange services, goods, technical equipment, et cetera, with your neighbours. I recently used it to borrow a ladder from my neighbour, instead of buying it for 70 euros, to change the lightbulb. My girlfriend and I have even done dog-sharing!

What becomes most important in a share economy is being in a like-minded community: when we were looking to ‘share’ Roberto [the dog], we met up with his owner to see if we got along. That brings trust and sometimes even new friends. Now I go on walks with Roberto as well.

If you wanted, you could live in a city without owning anything. We think living could also be a service.

JP: Do you think this trend is specific to Europe?

AR: I don’t think so. There’s different types of living. Japan was testing minimal apartments in the 1970s: the Capsule Tower, which you could rent for an hour, just to sleep.

JP: How does the share economy translate to housing? How can living, real, non-travelling living, be a service?

AR: Europe – not just Paris or London, but even Berlin – is getting denser. You can feel it, even in the metro. In our research, we have found that housing in Europe has not changed in the last hundred years – it is still your two-room apartment with bathroom and kitchen – though everything else has changed beyond recognition. There is a demand for a new housing typology, one that privileges access over ownership.

Cabin Spacey ‘on the grid’. Image via Cabin Spacey.

Cabin Spacey ‘off-grid’. Image via Cabin Spacey.

Our Cabin Spacey is a single house, 25 m2, designed for two people, with a guest bed for another two. It has two main elements: the outer shell with big windows, made fully out of timber; and inside we have ‘the hub’, a multifunctional furniture unit which contains all the important features for living: bathroom, kitchen, bed. By flipping, pushing, pulling and separating the elements of the hub, you open cupboards, activate lights, speakers, the washing machine, and so on. It comes with water and electricity, the internet, as well as preloaded media services such as Netflix and Spotify. The last thing we want to integrate is car-sharing. We are developing two kinds of Cabin Spaceys, the urban (on the grid) and the rural (off-grid); the latter would automatically come with a rental car to get you there. The keyword, therefore, is living as a ‘service’: everything you need for a living, you can rent.

JP: And how much does it cost?

AR: For the prototype, we are looking at 65,000 euros. However, we are planning to reduce that number a lot when we enter serial production.

JP: It’s not meant to be permanent accommodation?

AR: Mindsets change with circumstances. For me, it would be a solution for a few years, until I want to have a family. But the flexibility of life has increased so fast over the last ten years: just look at how rapidly co-working has developed over this period.

The proposed interior of the rooftop cabin, realised in timber and glass, with the services and the living module occupying the centre of the building.

The small building is made up of two parts: the external timber shell and the internal living ‘hub’.

To give another personal example: one of our employees lives in Lisbon, next week I will be working from Austria, because I’ll be visiting one of our manufacturers, and Simon will be in Berlin. We are already living a very flexible existence.

JP: How do you propose to build a Cabin Spacey?

AR: We don’t build it ourselves. We have it prefabricated by professionals. Meanwhile, we prepare the rooftop, by putting down a grid that distributes the weight of the cabin on the load-bearing walls of the existing structure. This layer also contains the pipes, connecting the new structure to the old. Once the cabin is built, we will deliver it in one piece, lift it with a crane, and connect it with bolts. We can connect to water and electricity, though not to gas yet.

In principle, a Cabin Spacey can go up on any building, but we have learnt that there are some rules. Newer buildings are easier from the structural point of view; buildings above 25 metres in height are a problem from the fire safety perspective (the fire ladder doesn’t reach anymore – look at what happened in Grenfell recently); and there are buildings where you cannot connect to the water because the pipes are too thin. We concentrate on the 1960s and 1970s buildings with flat rooftops. The household appliances of that time used a lot of energy, compared to the more energy-efficient contemporary appliances. So, the buildings from that era are not operating at peak workload anymore, which makes it easier to use existing pipes.

JP: What regulatory restrictions do you face?

AR: We have not had many problems in Berlin; the local council has in general approved what we do. The main restriction is fire access to the roof, heritage protection for certain buildings, then height and overshadowing.

The typical Berlin residential block is comprised of seven-storey buildings, a typology that has evolved little since the 19th century.

The laws are there for a good reason, and our job as architects is to deal with laws. It’s a cheesy thing to say, but it’s our job to make good decisions. We shape the city and we shape it, probably, forever.

JP: What has been your experience in Berlin so far?

AR: Sometimes hard, sometimes fun! You need the council permit, and you need the permission of the building owner. The worst are buildings where each apartment is owner-occupied, because then you need permission from every single one of them. Recently, we had a client who wanted us to build on top a building that required a council permit. The council gave us permission, but insisted that for each dwelling we needed a bicycle parking spot in the backyard! Then there are some roofs where you don’t get the full building permit, but only for the so-called fliegende Bauten, temporary buildings that must not stay longer than five years.

We are still looking for a client to commission a prototype. Recently, in Munich, we found the perfect spot, the perfect building, but the client didn’t have much money. Then in Berlin, we had a client who had the money, but the law didn’t permit it: adding a cabin on the roof would have pushed the building above height limit, and we would have needed to build a second staircase in case of fire.

JP: What are the key differences between your cabins, and a Tiny House?

AR: The Tiny House movement comes from the US, where the desire for house ownership is strong, stronger than in Germany [where most urban residents are long-term renters, ed.]. Faced with housing unaffordability post-GFC, this mentality defined the solution as: ‘I will own my house, but it doesn’t have to be big. And why shouldn’t I build it myself, too?’ Moreover, it is driven by the notion of self-sufficiency: it was founded by the DIY community, the houses are often on wheels…

Well… I like the idea. But what we personally think is that small houses scattered in the hills are a form of urban sprawl, and we don’t want to contribute to that. As we see it, a city is a community. It has pipes, infrastructure, public transport, waste management – why shouldn’t you connect to all that? We don’t see it as reasonable or reliable to live off the grid. This is the most crucial difference. Our idea for Cabin Spacey is to plug into existing infrastructure, even if building in a village: build on top of an existing building, use and connect to the existing structure. Our cabins will have have solar panels and ‘give’ energy back into the existing building, and we will maintain a rooftop garden for the residents. We want to generate synergy, not land on a building like a UFO.

Rooftops are the most underestimated places in cities. The best view you can have on a city is from above: it brings a feeling of freedom. It also reflects our credo: access versus ownership.

Image courtesy: Cabin Spacey.

JP: How long does a Cabin Spacey last?

AR: Our construction company gives the warranty of twenty years from the construction date, fifteen for windows, and furniture obviously less. But the oldest houses in Germany are made out of timber, so…

Thank you, Andi, for chatting with us: we wish you all the best with your project! If you want to commission an urban cabin, or have a rooftop to spare, head over to the Cabin Spacey website and become part of the modern sharing community. All images courtesy of Cabin Spacey.

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