SUSI – the self-organised, independent housing initiative

In the South of Freiburg, Germany, at the foot of the Schönberg (Beautiful Mountain), lie the premises of the former Allied French military barracks, the Vaubankaserne. When the military personnel were relocated in 1992, they left behind an area of 38 hectares (93 acres) partly built up with garages, multipurpose buildings and barracks. In a time of pressing housing shortage, this was a welcome opportunity.

The municipality had already planned to destroy the buildings to create space for new constructions. A handful of students, single parents and unemployed people had different ideas, however, and started to push for the preservation of the building fabric in order to create suitable and affordable living space for lower-income groups. Thus, as an answer to financial speculation and misdirected housing policies, the non-profit project SUSI was born.

After long negotiations with the federal government, SUSI purchased four barracks. Over the course of the following four years, the residents rebuilt the old barracks with the help of friends and experienced craftspeople. Today, approximately 260 residents live here. Between the buildings, there’s no scarcity of cosy little spots and enough space to chat. With a self-built children’s playground, small workshops, trailers and circus wagons, unusual staircases and balconies, this is obviously not an off-the-shelf kind of building project but one in which committed people have become active.

Of course, this approach has been an experiment with alternative forms of living and working, conscious of nature and questions of energy. We wanted to build inexpensively and in an eco-friendly way. We wanted a decentralised block heat and power plant. We wanted to integrate former drug addicts as well as homeless persons. We wanted a better world based on principles of cooperative organisation and a future without exploitation of humans and without the destruction of our natural environment.

The Origins

In the beginning, there was housing distress…

In the early 1990s, housing distress – both in quantitative as well as qualitative terms – was one of the main problems in Freiburg. Prices seemed to rise on a weekly basis and affordable flats had to be looked for ever deeper in the Black Forest. Flats for singles, however, were booming.

Land conversion

At the same time, another phenomenon could be observed:

Due to the withdrawal of foreign troops from Germany, many municipalities unexpectedly received the land that the former had been using (so-called conversion areas). These areas were sure to whet the appetite of potential investors. Pulling everything down and selling the land at a high price was thus a very realistic scenario.

But then, a group of students came up with a different idea: the structures should be maintained and 24 former barracks converted into affordable living space.

A first inventory gave rise to hope: the structure of the buildings was intact and presented no health problem from a building-biological perspective. Work on a conversion concept was started while the initiators went public with their ideas. The group became bigger and more diverse with many non-student members. This resulted in the foundation of the S.U.S.I. association in 1990. S.U.S.I. as an acronym stands for Selbstorganisierte Unabhängige Siedlungs-Initiative (self-organised independent housing initiative).