Vauban, Germany

Arguably, Europe’s greenest city district and biggest and most innovative self build project…


  • Vauban is a new neighbourhood of around 5,000 inhabitants (2,000 homes) located about four kilometers south of the town centre of Freiburg, Germany.
  • The 35 hectare site was formerly an abandoned French army barrack complex. The old barracks buildings were occupied by squatters who objected to the council’s original proposals for the site.
  • These initial objections resulted in a good dialogue developing between the City Council and the citizen’s association, and led to the creation of “Forum Vauban”. And it was this organisation that drew up the plans for the overall development of, arguably, Europe’s greenest city district. Vauban has also become one of Europe’s biggest and most innovative self build projects.
  • Instead of using volume house builders for the development of the new homes, the incoming residents were encouraged to form building co-operatives or ‘construction communities’ to design and manage the building of their own properties.


  • Planning started in 1993 and, following three development phases, the project was essentially completed in 2006. The main goal was to create a city district in a co-operative and participatory way, meeting the residents’ ecological, social, economic and cultural requirements.
  • The landowner, the City of Freiburg, says the overall planning strategy was characterised by a ‘Learning while Planning’ principle. This means they were very flexible and were prepared to adjust the development proposals, particularly if residents came up with new ideas.
  • One of the key things they did was to divide land into small plots and allocate it in preference to community construction companies and Baugruppen (co-housing groups). Although the development plan included some regulations for the design and layout of the homes, self builders have had the freedom to design and develop the homes they aspire to. The development plan included the prohibition of detached houses, thus leading to a compact urban building structure, and that no buildings are permitted above four stories.
  • The ‘construction communities’ have become a popular concept in Germany now as they bypass commercial developers and reap the cost benefits of building on a larger scale. Some of the communities were led by architects; some were set up by prospective residents. Usually they form themselves into a co-operative that takes responsibility for financing, project management and cost control. And, upon completion the co-operative then becomes the owner’s representative organisation.
  • The joint building projects (around 30 groups of co-builders were set up) and Forum Vauban have aimed to create a balance between the living and working areas and a balance of social groups. Social interaction is a key characteristic of the neighbourhood, and the resident participation during the development process has helped to set up a stable community and neighbourhood structure.
  • The co-building groups were assembled by advertising each of the sites and encouraging people to come forward who wanted to be involved. Normally they have 10-20 families in each group. Each group then typically worked with an architect, and together they agreed the overall design and the allocation of individual apartment spaces they would each have within each block. The group’s project manager would then go out to get prices from suitable builders and hire the one that was selected. The contractor would construct the whole block to a “waterproof” stage, and the individual self builders would then often finish off their individual apartments. Those that wanted the contractor to do the finishing off work for them paid extra for this.
  • One of Vauban’s many features is its traffic strategy, where the principles of ‘car-free’ and ‘parking-free’ living have been applied. This idea is based on a much-reduced number of private cars, and anyone who still does have a car has to park it at the periphery of the site. Nearly half of Vauban’s households are completely ‘car free’. Residents are encouraged by good public transport provision, and a convenient car sharing system. Residents who join the car sharing organisation also receive a one year free pass for all public transport within Freiburg. In practice, some residents have reported problems on the ground with the enforcement of car free living and with visitor parking.
  • Vauban set out from the start to be a child and family friendly district – more than 20% of the inhabitants are children under 10 years old, and almost half of all residents are under 18. This has led to some problems with the demographic structure. The primary school has had to be expanded, and Vauban will soon need its third kindergarten.
  • A district centre has been created at Vauban with shops, a primary school, kindergartens and public green spaces. Vauban has been designed to create a ‘district of short distances’ where the schools, farmer’s market, businesses, shopping centre, food co-op, recreation areas and approximately 600 jobs are all within walking and cycling distance of residents.
  • There is a huge solar installation, and many of the homes are highly insulated, so typical fuel bills are well below those normally experienced in the UK.
  • By getting people together in groups the typical cost of a home works out much cheaper. The use of an architect and a contractor (and a council funded project manager) meant that there was good certainty over the eventual cost of each apartment in the blocks that were built. Many of the owners chose to ‘self finish’ their homes to further keep the costs down. This is simple to do if you have a contractor building a watertight envelope for you.


  • The overall costs for buildings are much lower than with a private developer – typically about 25% cheaper. This has enabled people on lower incomes to become home owners.
  • The financial risks involved are shared by all the members of each construction community; they also share any financial benefits. About 10% of the 25% cost saving is the profit that a developer would normally make on a project like this.
  • Land was sold by the council to the ‘construction communities’ and to small local builder/developers. Each plot was fairly small (usually 10-20 homes in an apartment block or terrace) and sometimes there were stipulations on the sort of homes that should be built – for example, homes for families with children, or apartments for older people.
  • In the end about two thirds of the homes were built by construction communities/cooperatives and about a third by private builders/residential developers.