Continental Refurbishment Projects


  • ‘Self refurb’ projects are popular, and are a good way of ‘recycling’ buildings that are no longer fit for purpose. In many instances a simple conversion can also deliver very low cost homes – either for sale or for rent
  • It can take a long time to get projects like this underway. Process advisors (expert consultants that know how to assist and co-ordinate groups) play a pivotal role, and can significantly speed up the whole process. They are also especially helpful when it comes to securing finance for groups
  • There are a number of organisations in Continental Europe that support groups that want to create affordable homes by tackling conversion projects. Housing associations, housing cooperatives, charitable foundations and similar organisations could help to facilitate similar projects here in the UK


This project involves converting a redundant 100 year old school building into low cost ‘self refurb’ apartments. A total of 11 homes have been provided, ranging in size from 76 sq m to 174 sq m (the prices for the lease for the bare shells range from £48,000 to £109,000). 

The city council prepared the ground by installing independent utility connections to each of the original large classroom areas, and the new owners have fitted out their homes. Some are using contractors to do the work; others are doing much of the work themselves, often with help from their families.

A ‘coach’ is provided to help them with any technical issues and to ensure the work is done to the right standards. Once complete the homebuilders cannot let or sell the homes; they have to occupy them for at least three years.

This is a good example of how an existing building in a city location can be recycled for affordable housing.


The original building is at 301 Kepplestraat, which is in the up and coming Valkenboskwartier district about 2km west of the city centre.  


There were originally 12 homes planned – three smaller units aimed at singles or couples (76 to 77 sq m), a couple of mid-sized units (84 to 91 sq m) and seven larger homes (from 100 to 174 sq m). One purchaser bought two adjoining spaces to create a larger live-work unit.

The ‘shells’ are arranged over four levels, with some of the larger apartments on the third floor extending up into the former roof space. The original high ceilings in the classrooms are capable of incorporating an additional mezzanine level, and several of the private homebuilders have inserted these to provide additional floorspace. Seven of the homes have dedicated garden areas and parking for cars and bikes is provided in the former playground.

Plans showing how the existing building has been divided up into ‘shells’ for self-builders
Plans showing how the existing building has been divided up into ‘shells’ for self-builders
The municipality provides a sewage connection, ventilation duct and flue, and main connections for gas, water and electricity to each unit. The buyers have to get all the necessary permits in place for the conversion work they plan to do.

Typical utilities connection in each ‘shell’ (left) and subdivision of high-ceilinged rooms to form mezzanines (right)
Typical utilities connection in each ‘shell’ (left) and subdivision of high-ceilinged rooms to form mezzanines (right)


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There was strong demand and the homes could have been sold many times over. The marketing team at The Hague agreed a date when the plots would be released and announced this well in advance. The homes were allocated on a first come; first buy basis.


These are set out in the schedule below. There was no negotiation over the prices. As part of this cost the purchasers could also get up to ten hours of advice from one of the technical building coaches that work with the council.

There is also a small service charge to cover the upkeep of the common staircases.

Marketing and sales

A simple A4 brochure was produced that explained the basic concept, and this was backed up by two-page Plot Passports for each of the units. Some site signage was also installed.

Pages from the project’s marketing material including a general introduction (left) and plot passport (centre and right)
Pages from the project’s marketing material including a general introduction (left) and plot passport (centre and right)
The Plot Shop in The Hague co-ordinated the marketing of the project. It secured extensive media coverage for the scheme and there were lots of enquiries. The approximate marketing budget for the whole development was €10,000.

Site boards helped to advertise the opportunity
Site boards helped to advertise the opportunity

Why convert it to residential use?

When the city council realised the school was going to become vacant it undertook an analysis to work out the best option for the site. The building was in sound condition, and its classical style was very popular locally.  If the council had demolished the school the land would have been sold at the local going rate (about €600 per sq m). However, if the building was retained it was worth about three times this figure, as it has three to four levels. Even taking into account the cost of providing the servicing to each of the shell apartments (which cost about €600 per sq m), it was more financially advantageous to convert the school to residential rather than to demolish and redevelop. The city also has a strong green commitment, and felt there was a good environmental argument for recycling, rather than demolishing.


No special financial packages were provided, though the team at the Plot Shop signposted potential buyers to four mortgage providers – ABN Amro, SNS Bank, Triodos and Rabobank.  Most mortgages in the Netherlands are taken out over a 30-year period. Some of the purchasers had savings and only needed a modest mortgage; others only had small deposits. The city provides grants to help make homes more sustainable – for example, to encourage extra insulation in the walls and roof and boost the thermal performance of the windows, but none of the purchasers applied for this assistance.


Permission to rezone the school for residential use was granted in December 2012. The original building as not listed or protected in any way. As the exterior of the building was only marginally affected by the change of use there were no real planning issues. The main change to the look of the original structure was the provision of some small balconies at the rear. Each of the Plot Passports explained what could and couldn’t be done with the shells.

Ownership and legal issues

The municipality remains the legal owner of the ground, and issues a perpetual lease to the buyer of each apartment. This means purchasers effectively ‘own’ the right to use the apartment forever. When plots of land are sold in The Hague private homebuilders can choose to either buy the lease outright, or pay for the plot with an annual charge (currently 1.8 per cent of the value). With this building the city decided that purchasers could only buy the lease outright. The contract sets out the buyer’s legal obligations/standards for the fitting out work. Each purchaser had to initially take out at option for their apartment (this cost €300), and then they had to pay ten per cent of the total cost while they secured the necessary planning and other regulatory approvals. Once these are approved they have to pay the remainder. The purchasers were given a year to complete their conversion work/fitting out. The contract specifies a €25,000 penalty for anyone that is late, but the council did not need to invoke this. 


Most of the buyers are young couples or families on moderate incomes. Typically many of them are self employed. At least one of them works in the construction industry.

Several of the buyers have secured help from their families with the conversion work. Roughly half have opted to organise or do the construction work themselves; the rest have hired in contractors.

One of the apartments nearing completion
One of the apartments nearing completion
Several of the conversions have made good use of the original roof space
Several of the conversions have made good use of the original roof space


In Germany and the Netherlands a number of redundant buildings have been converted to housing – with new residents able to buy reasonably priced space or ‘shells’ and then ‘self refurb’ it themselves. 

For example in The Hague a large office building is currently being transformed into 67 new homes – varying in size from 65 sq m to 206 sq m (and costing from £36,000 to £170,000). Elsewhere in the Netherlands condemned apartment buildings and redundant police stations have been converted to homes via self refurb. In Berlin an empty town hall has been converted, and a major hospital complex has been transformed into 145 homes.

This case study looks at three self refurb projects that involve former school buildings.

Initiator:Public Sector, Private Sector and Community

Scale: Medium

Site: Urban

Affordability: Low Cost

Opportunity: Individual and Collective

Built Form: Apartments (refurb)

Country: NL and DE


For the purposes of this Toolkit we have made the following definitions:

  • ‘self and custom built homes’ as properties commissioned by people from a builder, contractor or package company (this is known as ‘custom build’ housing). When people physically build themselves, sometimes with help from sub-contractors, this is known as ‘self build’ housing. We call all these people ‘private homebuilders’.
  • ‘serviced building plots’ are shovel-ready parcels of land with planning permission, laid out and ready for construction with access and utilities/services provided to the plot boundary. Some private homebuilders just purchase a plot; others opt for a ‘shell’ home (that they then finish off), or they select from an extensive menu of options offered by developers/builders.
  • ‘group projects’ mean homes built by private homebuilders who work as a collective.


Building coaches can ensure the work is completed to the required standard

‘Building coaches’ are often provide on conversion projects to assist the private homebuilders with technical and regulatory issues and to ensure the work is completed to the appropriate quality standards


Located in Hamburg’s Altona district, this project involved the conversion and extension of a listed former school building to create 34 apartments for 87 people (49 adults and 38 children). It was completed in late 2011.

The project cost around €7m, including purchasing the existing building and all pre-development and construction work. It was completed within budget despite incurring some extra costs when asbestos was found, and when the foundations needed to be reinforced. The gross development cost was around €2,580 per sq m of living space.

The project is designed to allow residents to share some facilities – from the large communal garden, to storage space and a games room in the basement, and a roof-top common room. There are also five cars shared through an informal ‘car club.’

The development provides a mix of rented and owned units, and all residents are members of the housing co-op that was formed to facilitate the project. Five new homes were created on the roof, and some of these were sold to partly fund the project. 

Residents of the 29 rented homes pay between €5.70 and €6.80 per sq m per month, which is about the going rate for Hamburg. These rents will, in time, pay off the loan the group took out to realise the development.

This community-led refurbishment was supported by a non-profit Foundation called Lawaetz-Stiftung, which helps collectives come together, and guides them through the planning and construction process.

Location and scale

The project is located on the corner of Chemnitzstraße and Virchowstraße in the Altona district of Hamburg in Germany.

There are 34 homes – five for sale, 29 for rent. The homes range from 35 to 125 sq m.

Inception, organisation and development

The founding members of the cooperative came together informally – they already knew each other by virtue of their children attending the same nursery. The group contacted Lawaetz Stiftung to express an interest in forming a community housing cooperative to build homes that they could afford to rent.

In 2006, Lawaetz-Stiftung became aware of the impending vacancy of an old school building in the neighbourhood and contacted a number of the smaller groups they were in touch with to ask if they would be interested in joining a larger project – as this might make it more likely that they would be able to achieve something.

The founding members of the Sattschule group took up this offer, and Lawaetz-Stiftung supported them informally for a few years before the project took off, at no charge. This was essential in helping the group to become organised to the point where they could sign a contract with Lawaetz-Stiftung for further services.

When the project had developed a real prospect of happening, Lawaetz-Stiftung provided a range of services to the Stattschule group to get them going, including: –

  • Developing a concept for the use of the building
  • Negotiating the purchase of the building from the municipal department that owned it on the group’s behalf, including conveyancing
  • Choosing an architect and other consultants, and negotiating their contracts
  • Working out an affordable tenure on which group members could occupy the new homes, and developing an appropriate legal structure
  • Liaising with banks about borrowing development finance, raising other funds and securing available subsidies, such as those for high energy performance targets
  • Negotiating with neighbouring construction projects, companies and residents

During the building phase, Lawaetz-Stiftung provided further services, including: –

  • Project managing the project and representing the group in its outward-facing interactions, including making sure it stuck to programme, managed its finances and made the necessary permit applications
  • Handing over the responsibility for financial matters at the end of the construction phase to a small financial and property manager (Manuel Ossorio at P99 – see and setting the group up to manage its own affairs in the long-term

About Lawaetz-Stiftung

The non-profit Johann Daniel Lawaetz Foundation (‘Lawaetz-Stiftung’) was founded in 1986 by the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. It was set up to mediate in challenging social situations, especially when communities and local politicians can’t agree on things – and its principal objective is to support the development of sustainable housing projects and communities that are working to find solutions to poverty, unemployment and serious housing shortage.

Along with another agency, Stattbau, its activity in Hamburg was partially supported by public subsidy until 2002, after which a change in city administration forced it to become a fully self-financing Foundation. 

For housing cooperatives, Lawaetz-Stiftung fulfils the function of ‘development manager’ (‘Baubetreuer’) and offers support to groups at different phases of development.

At the beginning of the planning process, it helps groups to organise themselves and set objectives, including becoming legally constituted and developing a decision-making processes. It also recommends other consultants and co-ordinates feasibility and early-stage design proposals, and helps the group to develop its business case.

Later, Lawaetz-Stiftung helps the group develop the concept for how they wish to live. aIt also helps groups find land, structure legal agreements and secure development finance. The foundation also represents the group in negotiations with the local authority, consultants and statutory bodies, including applying for permits and drawing up leases or sales contracts.

During construction, Lawaetz typically takes on a project management role, including managing payment schedules and the letting of contracts, as well as any notifications required by the appropriate authorities and duties typically associated with a Clerk of Works. 

The foundation has particular experience in the renovation of existing buildings, such as Stattschule, and has supported more than 60 community-led housing projects since its establishment.

For more information, refer to (in German)


  • Lawaetz Stiftung approach the small founding group to see if they would be interested in the old school building when it became vacant

  • The school was decommissioned as part of regeneration plans for the area, but was designated as a National Monument

  • The ‘Baugemeinschaft StattSchule’ cooperative was officially formed

  • Construction begins

  • Residents moved in

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Demand, selection process and marketing

When the project became a real prospect, the small founding group began recruiting other members through personal networks and word of mouth – acquaintances or friends of friends.

The group was also able to identify people it knew who had special housing requirements, or were struggling to find suitable accommodation.

The group held an information event to get everyone together and found that it had accumulated around 150 additional households who were interested in joining. At this event, the group discussed its initial plans and the likely costs. The group found that a ‘natural selection’ occurred at this point, as some households dropped out for a variety of reasons, including: –

  • Younger people and people who had recently moved to the city found they could not afford the down-payment required for shares in the cooperative
  • Older people found the flats that were allocated for single people were too small for them
  • Others who found the planning process took too long

Those who were still interested in joining were then asked to fill in a questionnaire about their needs as well as their reasons for wanting to live in a communal development. A small working group was then formed to draw up a shortlist of applicants. Households were selected on social rather than financial grounds – and the group gave preference to those who might find it hardest to access property in the open market. The group also wanted to create a heterogeneous mix of residents. The following criteria were used: –

  • A preference for those who would be happy with the size of the remaining apartments, after the group had allocated homes to themselves
  • An aspiration to create a mix of ages
  • No more couples with children, as these were already in the majority among the group
  • A preference for single parents, gay couples, older singles (also due to the size of the remaining apartments)
  • A preference for those on lower incomes
  • A preference for those who showed an interest in shared living

People who were shortlisted were then invited to community meetings to introduce themselves. All those who had already joined the project then voted to decide whether or not to extend an invitation to the new applicants to become members. The group acknowledged that this process was be a bit harrowing.

The group also found that some of theearly members had become more affluent during the period it had taken to develop their project. As the original intention had been to build homes for rent – and the projects finances were forecast on this basis – these people were given the opportunity to buy their flats in recognition of the work they had put in to get the project to happen. These are the only people who were permitted to buy their homes in the Sattschule project, as the group wanted to counter any future speculation as much as possible.

Only one couple pulled out after the building process had started – and this was because it was taking too long for their needs.

The group has been very stable, happy and communicative ever since completion, with a very low turnover of residents – a quality it attributes to the selection and ‘road testing’ process it went through to get the homes and establish the community, as well as to their architect’s work in tailoring the apartments to each individuals needs.

Costs and finance 

The total development cost was €7m, including buying and refurbishing the existing building and building new apartments on top.

The project is financed through a combination of cooperative shares, grants and a loan from the city’s Wohnbaukreditanstalt – the precursor to Hamburg’s current investment and development bank, IFB Hamburg.

Each member had to buy shares in the cooperative to secure their home, relative to the anticipated size of their dwelling – equivalent to €270 per sq m. This gave the group a fund that it could use to pay for pre-development work, including the support of the Lawaetz Stiftung – which cost €105,000 (about £81,000) over the course of the project.

The group was also able to obtain grants from foundations interested in promoting energy-efficiency measures and in re-using old buildings. 

The five home-owners who bought their homes used standard mortgage finance at a rate of €2,500 (about £1,900) per sq m.

The sales receipts totaled about €940,000 (around £724,000), and this helped to reduce the group’s long-term loan. The rest of the loan will be paid back through rental income from the other 29 apartments.

A portion of the rental income will also contribute to a sinking fund for ongoing management and maintenance. The cooperative maintains a stake in all of the homes, including sharing the ownership of the owner-occupied apartments, which are all located on the roof. 

Rents are set in line with Hamburg’s subsidised housing programme, and relate to a household’s income. Most households in Stattschule are paying between €6.30 and €6.90 per sq m per month. 

This means that the most affordable apartment in the project – a 35 sq m, one bedroom apartment – costs around €220 (about £170) per month to rent on top of a €9,500 (about £7,300) one-off equity stake in the cooperative, while the most expensive – a 125 sq m, four bedroom apartment – costs around €860 (about £660) per month in rent, plus a €33,750 (around £26,000) equity stake.

The owner-occupied homes vary in size and were priced the same as the rented homes. They include two family homes at 105 sq m each, costing €262,500 (or £202,000), two smaller apartments of 60 sqm and 65 sq m, costing €150,000 (£115,500) and €162,500 (£125,000) respectively, and a ‘micro flat’ of 40 sq m costing €100,000 (about £77,000). They are scattered throughout the building and include two of the new rooftop homes.

The interior of one of the apartments in the converted building
The interior of one of the apartments in the converted building

Development process

During construction, representatives from the cooperative met once a week with the architects. Other members were active in sub-groups that dealt with the power supply, the common garden, recruitment of residents, the acquisition and conveyancing of the building or the compilation of information about its history.

Each apartment was individually designed to meet the wishes of its future residents.

The rooftop apartments are set back from the parapet to provide access (left); and the project viewed from its courtyard garden (right)
The rooftop apartments are set back from the parapet to provide access (left); and the project viewed from its courtyard garden (right)
The conversion was technically difficult – the group found asbestos contamination in the ground and had to reinforce the foundations to take the load of additional roof-top units.

The project has wood pellet heating, a solar thermal system on the roof for hot water and photovoltaic cells for electricity. The building has four metre high ceilings, and galleries and platforms were permitted in these spaces.

Building preservation was a priority – timber windows have been preserved and upgraded with double-glazing, historic timber beams remain throughout the building and the original staircases have been restored. Insulation is applied internally as the main facades were protected by heritage regulations.


Supporting groups requires a particular business model

Organsiations like Lawaetz Stuftung can be instrumental in helping groups to get projects off the ground. Often not in a position to engage in business activity straight away, and so ‘process advisers’ often need to factor in an initial period of pro-bono work in order to make projects happen at all


This project, on the outskirts of Berlin, has transformed a redundant school building into 21 apartments for around 60 residents. The homes are all for rent and at least a third of them are reserved for seniors and disabled people. The building also includes an innovative Children’s House facility for ten youngsters who are in care.

It was set up as a cooperative with the rents now being used to pay off the original €3.3m loan. Rents are between €4.65 and € 7.50 per sq m per month, and all members of the coop have to pay a deposit of €500.

The project was initiated in 2006, and the residents moved in two years later.


The project is located on Gundelfinger Strasse 10/11, 10318 Berlin.


The 21 apartments vary from two to five rooms, and have areas from 55 sq m to 143 sq m. Six of the apartments are handicapped accessible. The Children’s House extends to 245 sq m. There is also a commercially operated creche, a shared workshop and large communal garden. In the grounds there is a meeting room and shared guest bedroom. A redundant gymnasium in the garden area has recently be transformed into six additional apartments.

The members and residents of Baugemeinschaft Stattschule
The members and residents of Baugemeinschaft Stattschule


The original school building was constructed in 1899, and became surplus to requirements in 1994. Although it was listed as Grade II, over the next ten years it was left empty and it fell into disrepair.

The SelbstBau Rental Cooperative was founded in 1990, with the aim of creating more affordable homes for local people. Over the last 20 years it has acquired and renovated about 20 old buildings usually as cohousing projects – so they are built in partnership with the future residents.

In 2004 a member of the cooperative ‘discovered’ the empty school and, working with an architect, devoloped a proposal for converting it to resdiential use. At about the same time the not-for-profit Trias Foundation was set up with the goal of helping to raise finance to support initiatives like this.

In 2006 SelbsBau took control of the building – the land was purchased by the Trias Foundation using an endowment, and it issued a 99 year lease to the cooperative.  The building is now owned by the tenant cooperative that occupies the school – this is called DIY eg. The individual flats were custom designed to match each of the future residents’ requirements.

The renovation work on the main building began later in 2006 and the residents moved in late in 2007. The second phase, involving the conversion of the old gymnasium into six further homes, was completed in 2014.

  • School initially constructed

  • SelbstBau Rental Cooperative’ is founded to support groups looking to build and manage their own rental accommodation

  • School becomes surplus to requirements

  • SelbstBau coop draws up plans for the school

  • SelbstBau takes control of the building

  • Renovation work begins

  • Residents move in

  • Second phase of six additional homes completed

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Residents pay a ‘cold rent’ of €4.65 per sq m per month and around €2.20 per sq m for operating costs.  


Funding for the €3.3m project came from a number of sources – an interest-free loan to the cooperative, various private loans and a loan organised by the Trias Foundation (from another supportive foundation) . The Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin (the portfolio managers of state-owned land in the city) also provided a sizeable grant (about €1m) to contribute to site remediation works and to cover some of the additional heritage restoration costs.

Marketing and demand 

The original group of residents found each other through local informal advertising, or heard of it ‘on the grapevine’.

Design, construction and planning

In essence the design makes good use of the original classroom spaces, with many of the homes arranged within these.

The building is situated within grounds between two main streets
The building is situated within grounds between two main streets
A typical floor plan of the converted building
A typical floor plan of the converted building
The taller school building is on the left, with the gymnasium on the right
The taller school building is on the left, with the gymnasium on the right
The whole building (and the garden) is barrier-free and wheelchair accessible.  At ground level there is an unusually large apartment set aside for ten youngsters in care; they are looked after by a couple of live-in guardians.

Some of the Alte Schule residents
Some of the Alte Schule residents
The historic character of the school has been retained; the original 3.85m high ceilings have not been changed, the staircases have also been kept, and all the large windows have been retained.  All apartments on the courtyard side have new balconies, and the fabric of the building has been improved to make it more energy efficient.


The residents were heavily involved in the overall design when the building was converted, and they now run and manage it themselves. So, for example, they come together to maintain the common spaces and the garden, and contribute a range of other skills depending on their abilities. The garden’s community building is a good example of how they have added to the facilities – it also doubles as a guest apartment, and it was supported by a grant from the IKEA Foundation and others. The group also managed the conversion of the former school gymnasium into the six new apartments that were completed in 2014.

The communal building situated in the shared courtyard
The communal building situated in the shared courtyard
Residents making use of the community building
Residents making use of the community building
The former gymnasium, now converted to six new homes
The former gymnasium, now converted to six new homes
The old gymnasium has been subdivided to create two floors of living space (left) and the courtyard garden is designed to be barrier-free (right)
The old gymnasium has been subdivided to create two floors of living space (left) and the courtyard garden is designed to be barrier-free (right)
The residents have a say about who gets to move into their building, when an apartment becomes vacant. Their aim has been to encourage inter-generational living, and anyone visiting the scheme will be impressed with how effectively they have achieved this.


The residents range from nought to 80, and include single people, traditional families, retirees and a Children’s House (for ten youngsters between two and 16). The apartments are only available to people on lower incomes.



Recognise that people can be trusted to manage projects

With most group projects the residents will want to get really involved in the design, construction and ongoing management of their facilities. Tap into this enthusiasm, and encourage them to take responsibility for the on-going management of their homes and the wider community facilities


This case study was compiled with reference to the following sources:

John Hartman – De Kavelwinkel, Den Haag

Sven Liebrecht – Baugemeinschaft StattSchule

Alte Schule Karlshorst
SelbstBau eG
Wolfgang Schmidt – Thommes Weissheimer Architekten

Further Reading

You may find the following case studies of further interest:

Spreefeld Genossenschaft, Berlin

Bristol CLT

De Flat, Amsterdam


The NaCSBA Research & Development Programme is funded by the Nationwide Foundation and aims to promote the self-build and custom build sector as an affordable route into housing for a greater number of people in the UK.

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