Fast Company

Cement Bloc

Builders recycle the stuff of Communist-era Berlin.

When young architect Herve Biele and his brother Joel look at the dwindling remains of Communist culture in eastern Germany, they don't see history or politics. They see raw materials.

The Bieles are taking pieces of a distinctive (and often unpopular) feature of the East German cityscape--the so-called plattenbau, or large, shoebox-shaped worker's apartment buildings--and recycling them into single-family houses. Their company, Conclus, finished its first house in the Berlin suburb of Mehrow late last year.

The plattenbau--cheap, durable, easily manufactured buildings that filled a housing shortage for workers in the bombed-out remains of postwar Germany--were built with precut concrete plates along the edges of Dresden, Magdeburg, Berlin, and Rostock. But those cities now have housing surpluses, so some of the massive apartment blocks have been marked for destruction. Conclus gets the plates for nothing more than the cost to haul them away. Workers fit and bolt them together, cut out windows, and give the exterior a finish. Joel says the recycled slabs allow construction savings of up to 40%, allowing Conclus to sell a three-bedroom home for about $220,000 plus the cost of land.

The result is a house with a compelling look that reflects German and California style. "It's not like Bauhaus, even though it's prefab in a way. And there are rules dictated by our materials," Joel says. For one: "There's nothing round."

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