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Housing shortage: When the church becomes a student residence

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Housing shortage: When the church becomes a student residence

Architects attach great importance to the atmosphere of a place. The genius loci is important to them, the spirit of this place that has to be captured in architecture. This is a central goal, especially in conversion projects.

How nice it is when this spirit also carries a special atmosphere, a little transcendence, something downright supernatural. At least that’s what many of the objects that the conversion movement is currently looking at do – they are churches that are being converted into residential buildings.

The church becomes an apartment building – that fits in with the times. Living space is scarce, especially that which is considered “affordable”. At the same time, many church buildings are no longer being used adequately because the churches are losing their members.

In the past year alone, more than half a million people left the Catholic Church in Germany. The decision to rebuild seems painful, but logical. Of course, also for reasons of sustainability – the revitalization of old buildings saves tons of concrete and thus CO2.

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There are first examples. In Trier-Ehrang, for example, the Freiburg architectural office Rothweiler Färber converted the former Church of the Ascension into a residential building with family-friendly rental apartments for the project developer Imm Prinzip.

17 rent-controlled apartments have been created. “We were very interested in dealing with this existing building right from the start,” reports Jan Eitel, Managing Director of Immprinzip. In close dialogue with the community, “we quickly realized that affordable housing is what people here need most.”

However, the project only became possible with the support of the state development bank, the investment and structure bank of Rhineland-Palatinate (ISB). “The funding of this property is unique so far,” said ISB board spokesman Ulrich Dexheimer at the opening in summer 2021.

The ISB has never promoted the conversion of a former church into living space. The price per square meter is 3880 euros, the rents are at social housing level.

The way to the new use of the church was difficult

The Church of the Ascension had already been profaned, i.e. desecrated by the church, in 2016. The roof was broken and the community could no longer repair it.

The way to the new use was difficult. Some builders declined. Imprinciple, on the other hand, has struck. Probably also because the special expertise that they build up as developers in the conversion of churches has enormous potential. After all, the housing problem is not going away.

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At the same time, masses of churches in Germany are waiting for a meaningful conversion. The Evangelical Church alone has over 20,000 churches, of which, as Eitel estimates, around a third are due for renovation in the future. The Catholic dioceses currently manage another 24,000 churches.

So far, however, the rededication of churches has by no means been a mass phenomenon. The Catholic Church, for example, has only pulled the sacred plug in a good 600 churches since the beginning of the 20th century. Since the year 2000, around 540 churches have been profaned throughout Germany and around 160 of them have been demolished. But the pace should increase.

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So far, the sense of urgency may have been lacking, perhaps also the conviction of the church that giving up church spaces is not another step towards social irrelevance.

Above all, however, there was a lack of encouraging examples. With every successful conversion, the desire for residential churches should increase. Another example: the transformation of the Gerhard Uhlhorn Church in Hanover. The architectural office Pfitzner Moorkens quickly planted student apartments in the fantastic post-war building designed by architect Reinhard Riemerschmid.

Individual living areas of 13.5 to 46.5 square meters are supplemented by 500 square meters of communal space. The residential units “are built into the listed sacred building as white cubes based on the house-in-house principle and appear almost reversible,” explains Tatjana Sabljo, chairwoman of the Hanover section of the Association of German Architects (BDA). The spaces in between “leave room for common areas and give the opportunity to experience the former church space”.

Architectural irrationalities can be integrated

The Hanover example shows that the architectural quality of modernist church buildings in particular can have an enriching effect on the design of new living spaces. Sabljo: “Maria Pfitzner’s and Serge Moorkens’ conversion is an excellent example of how an existing typology is covered with a new one and how both typologies can still be clearly read.”

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These architectural irrationalities are already present in church buildings. And they can certainly be integrated conceptually. In Trier, for example, the former apse with a large Jesus mosaic has been preserved, and three large church windows also create identity.

And in Hanover, the mighty bell tower now looks like a surreal work of art on the site. It’s hard to imagine what debates such an ornamental use of space would have produced in a new building project. The architects opened up the repetitive glass block façade with slits. The former organ gallery became a communal kitchen.

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Such strategies are indispensable, especially when working with bulky, unconventional church spaces. This is also shown by the currently ongoing conversion of another post-war church by Rothweiler and Färber, also in Trier: Maria König.

If you look at pictures of the defiant original building, it becomes clear how great the design challenge is. An inaccessible brick, albeit with character. Martin Koch from Imm Prinzip says: “Purely in terms of efficiency, projects like this are suboptimal for developers.”

The existing windows never have standard formats – if there are any at all. Architecturally, churches consciously work with a lot of shadows, but in residential buildings every room has to be lit. The sanitary facilities also need to be duplicated. “And I have to build storeys and access corridors into the church.” That means: Enjoying tricky planning tasks is part of it, for both developers and architects.

The house-in-house principle is a viable option

Especially since the topic of insulation can of course also be a challenge. Subsequent insulation of the outer facade is often not possible for reasons of monument protection.

At the church of the Ascension of Christ, internal insulation made of calcium silicate panels was applied, which means that the energy standard is slightly higher than the standard house defined in the Building Energy Act.

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An alternative: the house-in-house principle, used in the Hanover example, for example, where the individual residential units are equipped with an insulating drywall shell.

Ultimately, it is important to react anew to the challenges of the respective portfolio with each project. This is also shown by a third project by the team of Imm Prinzip and Rothweiler Färber, also in Trier – the redesign of the modernist church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the Quint district.

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You can feel the fascination for the existing building, with which the client and architects have rethought the building while retaining many of the defining elements of the building. This leads to an interesting mix of residents. Koch: “An architect lives here with his children, but also a local entrepreneur who loves the atmosphere.”

The question remains: is it basically possible to turn any abandoned church building into a residential building? Jan Eitel: “Absolutely not. The older a building, the more difficult it is to convert.

The old roof constructions in particular are often simply no longer comprehensible for today’s structural engineers.” Immprinzip therefore only rely on post-war buildings. But who knows – maybe they’ll shimmy back in time.

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In order to display embedded content, your revocable consent to the transmission and processing of personal data is required, since the providers of the embedded content as third-party providers require this consent [In diesem Zusammenhang können auch Nutzungsprofile (u.a. auf Basis von Cookie-IDs) gebildet und angereichert werden, auch außerhalb des EWR]. By setting the switch to “on”, you agree to this (which can be revoked at any time). This also includes your consent to the transfer of certain personal data to third countries, including the USA, in accordance with Art. 49 (1) (a) GDPR. You can find more information about this. You can withdraw your consent at any time via the switch and via privacy at the bottom of the page.

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