How to Create Unique Urban Projects as an Architect Developer
What made you decide to found Deadline? Was there a particular moment that sealed the decision for you?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I started my first business when I was 14, repairing bicycles in my parents’ basement. It just seemed easier to start a business than to find a job.
And when I was in Berlin for the second time, it was 1993 and I was looking for a job, and there were lots of offices that would have hired me but they just didn’t have any office space. So then I thought, “Okay, well, why don’t we just do it from home and work for different offices, helping them on last minute projects.”
That’s where the name came from, Deadline – professionelle Hilfe in letzter Minute [last minute professional help]. The idea was that we would have a crew of people that would go around and help people out with tight deadlines. It never really worked that way, but it was a start.
Did you and Britta start working together as Deadline?
Britta had a job in an office at the time. We were working together, but she still had a full-time job. That was why it was possible for us to get going, because we had some income.
Then it just sort of morphed, and the work we got was doing measure drawings of buildings that were going to be renovated. This was in the middle of a big building boom with tax credits for renovating old buildings. Many archives had been destroyed in the war, so there were lots of buildings that needed plans drawn up. We would measure buildings, and whole housing settlements with 50,000 square meters and 30 people working for us over 2 shifts, it was really kind of crazy for a while.
You moved to Berlin in 1992. So you must have experienced a lot of development in the city. What major problems and opportunities do architects and developers in Berlin face today?
I think there’s been a complete shift in the problems and opportunities in the last decade. If you go back 10 years, it was reasonably easy to find interesting sites but it was really hard to find clients. And so, we had a situation where a lot of our friends and colleagues were starting to build cooperatives and find sites, buying them and becoming their own developers, because no one else was going to hire them.
Maybe you have to go back more than 10 years, maybe 15, but there was a time when a generation of architects didn’t have a chance. There was no building going on, and so the only way to start a practice would be to set up your own by developing a project. So the opportunity at that time was okay; there were all these great sites, but you had to be a good salesman and convince people that they should get on board.
Now there are people knocking on our door all the time, wanting to be a part of our projects, but it’s impossible to find a good site to develop. So, there’s been this shift. Right now we’re working on our FRIZZ23 project, so we’ve got enough work to keep us going for a while, but if we look into the future it’s hard to know where the new opportunities are going to be coming from. I expect that there’s going to be a shift in concentration; that we are going to be moving with our projects a little further off the Berlin center, and stuff like that.
For your project Minilofts, you bought a property, developed and expanded it, and now you manage it as a family-run apartment hotel. Could you elaborate on your motivation to shift from architect to developer and manager? What are the challenges; what are the opportunities?
We believe that to have the chance to do groundbreaking architectural work, you have to have control of many of the aspects that traditionally lie with developers. As money becomes more and more powerful, architects have less and less space to experiment, in particular because there’s very little public building going on now compared to 30 or 40 years ago. That might be part of the change, but the willingness of governments and administrations to experiment in architecture has decreased dramatically in my lifetime.
The interesting parts were when I was too young to be an architect. To practice now, if you want to experiment it really helps if you’ve got everything in your hand. That’s why we thought, “Okay, no one is ever going to trust us as young architects with almost no experience in building,” and we wanted to do something different, so that’s what led to us becoming our own clients.
Do you still build for clients or do you only develop your own projects like the Minilofts?
We don’t build a lot. For the project we are building right now, we have about 30 different clients. It’s a community-organized project, and we are also partially clients. The Minilofts make up 15% of FRIZZ23.
For fresh architecture graduates who know very little about real estate development, how would you break down the process of getting the first project off the ground?
The thing that you have to be aware of is that the parameters are always changing. So the models that we used to build this space in which we’re sitting right now worked very well 15 years ago but wouldn’t work now. Even the model that we are currently working with for FRIZZ23 would not work if we started now. We’ve been working on it for almost five years. If you wanted to start the same project now, you would have to use another model.
As a small innovative team you have to always try and find a new model that works with the parameters suitable for the time, especially when you’re just starting out because it’s really hard to get enough capital to do things.
A decade or two ago there was nobody interested in investing in Berlin, it was pretty easy to find property at a reasonable price to get going. Now it’s the opposite; the whole investment world is looking at the city and everybody is pouring in money. It’s kind of ridiculous but that’s just the way things are right now. Maybe this will turn into a bubble that bursts in the next few years; then there will be all sorts of new opportunities. So it’s just about trying to find the opportunities that are available.
We started the Miniloft business in 2002. At the time, nobody was renting out apartments as an alternative to hotels. Now there’s new legislation preventing people from doing that. If we had tried to start Miniloft 10 years later, it wouldn’t have worked because the competition would have been too strong. We came in at a time when Internet advertising was very young. Google had just copied their Adwords system from a different company called Overture, and we began marketing our building with their services at a time when it was really cheap – two to five cents per click.
Then, five years later, when the financial crisis began, it was like two Euros a click, and we had to find other ways of marketing. Right from the start we were able to market a very small, specialized thing to a global audience at very low cost, and we used these technological changes that were happening at the time to found a business that now flourishes. Now the technological underpinnings are different, but we have established ourselves enough that we can expand.
I think that’s the way a business is; when you start out, you have to find something innovative. The economic forces are so strong that you cannot compete in an established market without a new idea to get started. That’s one of the prime problems of starting an architecture office. From a business point of view, an architecture office is a catastrophe. It’s very difficult to maintain an architecture office that produces good work and still works, financially.