Architecture is one of the most prominent and tangible reflections of regional culture. One could argue that this is particularly true of Germany. Whether you hang your coat up in a Bavarian country home, a Berlin apartment, a timber-framed house in Nuremberg, a Westphalian townhouse or a red brick Gothic home on the Baltic Sea, German architecture is a distinctive cultural phenomenon that provides important insights into social, historical and aesthetic aspects of German culture. So here is a quick guide to housing in Germany, the major German house types you will find there and some of the key vocabulary you will need on a German house hunt.
- Housing in Germany
- Die Wohnung (Apartment)
- Das Einfamilienhaus (Single family or detached home)
- Backsteingotik (Red brick Gothic)
- Fachwerkhaus (timber-framed house)
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Housing in Germany
As in most developed countries, there is a shortage of housing in Germany, especially in the cities, and prices for renting or buying are high. As in other countries, most people would like to own their own home, but this is very expensive and not affordable for most Germans. It is cheaper to rent and there are strict laws in Germany regarding renting apartments so that tenant protection rights are quite strong.
According to the Federal Statistics Office, there are 43 million apartments and homes in Germany and in which the average living space is 92 m². Homeownership stands at 47%, but this figure is much lower in the larger cities and higher in the countryside. Homeownership is lower in Germany than in most other European countries, which can be largely attributed to the greater security of tenure for tenants.
Die Wohnung (Apartment)
Tenants (der/die Mieter/in) usually rent an apartment unfurnished and they can hold it long-term, sometimes passing it from one generation to the next. Acquiring an unfurnished apartment means that the landlord or landlady (der/die Vermieter/in) does not have to deal with replacing damaged furniture and having to repair washing machines etc. and the tenant can choose their own style of interior design and feel some level of long term ownership over the apartment. Surprisingly, when you rent an apartment in Germany, it does not even include a furnished kitchen. Therefore, built-in kitchens are not so common in rented properties. There is often just a freestanding cooker and fridge.
If the tenant makes improvements such as installing an en-suite or sanding and varnishing the floors, they must first consult the landlord. The landlord may agree to pay a contribution to the cost or take it off the rent as it would add to the value of his or her property. This is known as Abstandsgeld. When renting in Germany, you have to pay Kaution (a deposit), which can be up to three months of rent in advance. When you search for an apartment, you will often see “2ZKB” in the advertisement. This means Zwei Zimmer, Küche und Bad (two rooms, kitchen and bathroom). If there are two Bs, that is “2ZKBB” the apartment will also have a balcony.
Der Plattenbau (“Soviet-style” precast concrete apartment blocks)
These buildings are often associated with East Germany, and the areas have been designated as Neubaugebiet (New development area). However, they were also built in West Germany, the Netherlands and many other countries. It was a quick, inexpensive way to replenish the country’s severe housing shortage which had been caused by bombing raids in WWII and a large inflow of German refugees and deportees from further east. At the same time, many buildings from earlier eras had substantial drawbacks, such as coal heat, no hot running water, or bathrooms shared by multiple units. As these buildings fell into disrepair, many inhabitants moved into the newer Plattenbau housing. Today, ‘Plattenbau’ are often no longer desirable, due in part to their rapid deterioration as a result of the cheap and quick construction methods, while older German housing stock has undergone extensive renovation or been replaced with more modern style units.
Altbau (old building) apartments
Many people prefer old buildings because they have more character. An Altbau typically refers to a building from the Wilhelminian and Art Nouveau era, prior to the Second World War, when concrete was not a primary staple of building material. The interiors often have beautiful woodwork framing doors and windows, high ceilings and a courtyard with huge doors, a balcony over the street and access to a cellar to store bikes and other items.
Das Einfamilienhaus (Single family or detached home)
People in the suburbs of cities and large towns and in villages often live in an Einfamilienhaus which they often own. Single-unit housing in the countryside is not as common as in many other countries, with even farmers living in villages. This probably stems from the history of war and conflict over the past centuries in mainland Europe, as villages and towns are easier to defend than single properties, but there are also strict planning laws in Germany so that there is a clear division between town and countryside and very little strip development.
It definitely looks more attractive and orderly, but also in a time of global warming and scarcity of energy sources, this is the optimal way to live. Most German towns have signed up for alternative sources of energy such as wind, solar or biomass, and some towns even have communal hot water and heating. Furthermore, it is less isolating for people to live in these kinds of rural communities.
Das ebenerdige Haus, der Bungalow (Bungalow, single-story house)
This type of house was often constructed in the 1960’s, but is less common now because of the cost of construction sites. Sometimes small two-story houses are also called bungalows, but ebenerdig means one story only.
Das Reihenhaus (terraced house)
This is a single-family house that forms a closed row with other similarly designed houses. Workers housing near factories, for instance in the Ruhr district, often took the form of Reihenhäuser.
Backsteingotik (Red brick Gothic)
Many red brick houses were built around the Baltic Sea area where stone was not readily available. The use of baked red brick arrived in Northwestern and Central Europe began in the 12th century, and became the key facet of Brick Gothic and later the 16th-century style of Brick Renaissance architecture. The beautiful old medieval Hanseatic town of Lübeck, for instance, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not least because of its typical red brick architecture. In Bavaria and other parts of Germany, there are also a significant number of Gothic brick buildings, for instance in Munich and Donauwörth.
Fachwerkhaus (timber-framed house)
Fairy tale towns like Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Nuremberg, Quedlinburg, Dinkelsbühl, Celle and many more are famous for their beautiful timber framed houses. To English speakers, they look like ‘Tudor Style’ houses. There are strict regulations about how these houses can be renovated and which materials are permitted. Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of enthusiasts who are happy to maintain these absolutely beautiful quaint medieval houses. Many are located in towns that are surrounded by medieval walls, like Dinkelsbühl and Nördlingen on the Romantische Straße in Bavaria. These beautiful towns are definitely worth a visit.
Making the Haus a home
Although you should now have a good impression of the many beautiful and unique styles of housing that can be found in Germany, the many styles of German housing architecture are ever-evolving. To best experience this material culture, you are best to visit different regions of Germany and dive into their history. If you have an eye for design, this is a great way to appreciate the important contributions of German architecture around the world.
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Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.