From the Ahr Valley to the Tiny House: life after the flood

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Written By Maya Cantina

Our author’s mother lost her house during the Ahr Valley flood three years ago and moved to a small house. What does she need to be happy?

A small house.

Kitchen-diner with floor-to-ceiling windows: there is space in the smallest cabin Photo: Lena Frings

My mother lives in a small house. It is 34 square meters in size and is located in a meadow between rose hedges and plum trees, flanked by two large single-family homes. She has lived there for three years now. She did not leave her previous home voluntarily. The flood disaster in the Ahr valley destroyed her rental apartment and my parents’ house a few blocks away in 2021. After the flood, 170 small houses were built in the Ahr valley. My mother was able to get one for a monthly fee of 400 euros. She likes living in this small house.

People want both: prosperity and security. Difficultly enough, it is precisely our wealth and our way of life that do that that make the world less safe. To balance this, we need to find the sweet spot between prosperity and self-imposed restrictions in various areas of life that can be justified in the face of climate change – including housing. It was, among other things, the dense buildings that made the flooding in the Ahr valley so devastating. How much space is needed to live? And how much for a good life?

There are numerous answers to this, which can change depending on the stage of your life. If I had asked my mother thirty years ago, she would probably have said: a house with a large garden! These were the living conditions I was born into: I grew up in an old house with a garden where we ran around as children. 120 square meters for a family. My mother’s next stop after the divorce was an apartment of about 600 square feet. She had just finished moving in when the flood caught her by surprise on the evening of July 14, 2021. She barely escaped the water through the window. Months in rubber boots and guest rooms followed.

And then the little house, 34 square meters. Another new place. “I never thought my life would be like this,” she says. Still, she feels comfortable. No matter how hard the wind shakes the plastic facade, it is back in place here. But she also has to leave the small house soon – she has to move by the end of the year.

One of the reasons for this: the house does not meet the building regulations. Rhineland-Palatinate stipulates, among other things, that the ceiling height in living rooms must be 2.40 meters high. In Hamburg, 2.30 meters is sufficient, in Berlin even 2.50 meters. The house she has lived in for three years now and where she can manage the few square meters well, is too small for her according to building regulations.

Herbert Hofer, board member of the Chamber of Architects of Rhineland-Palatinate, smiles a little when I tell him about my mother’s situation. There are of course good reasons why these rules exist in construction law.

Portrait of a person.

“I will miss the terrace the most,” says Annette Frings Photo: Lena Frings

Homes must meet needs

About 150 years ago, life was still very cramped in some places and the term ‘tenements’ came into being. Owners made money with small plots of land, backyards were built over so that hardly any air or light reached the rooms there. Families with multiple members often lived together in one room. The children slept on the floor and sometimes the rooms were so damp that mold spread and the wallpaper peeled off the walls.

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In response to these inhumane conditions, rules were put in place to protect tenants. Minimum dimensions are initially good, because you can also have too little space to live. However, according to architect Hofer, what this rule actually tries to capture is the need for privacy, light, air and heat. The point is that housing must meet human needs.

Hofer is enthusiastic about the idea of ​​using the living space as effectively as possible. Occasionally he designs tiny houses himself, which then comply with building regulations. He only really gets going when he comes out of there Home told. This almost looks like a small house, but it is next level. The Home was designed by inventor Klemens Jakob with maximum durability in mind. You can build it yourself from natural materials such as wood and clay to live a self-sufficient life. Vegetables grow in the winter garden and the rainwater is purified by a vegetable sewage treatment system. And all this on 18 square meters!

The sudden loss of a home is traumatizing

This is especially different when it comes to sustainability Home of ordinary Tiny Houses – because the latter are not necessarily particularly durable. My mother’s tiny house is not well insulated, the walls are thin and the electricity consumption is therefore relatively high. Hofer is nevertheless convinced that those who live a minimalist lifestyle consume less. After all, there is less living space to heat, and you can’t own much of it because there simply isn’t enough space. “I only have what I really need here,” my mother says. She no longer needs many of the things she had here.

So perhaps the question should be rephrased: apparently living is less about the square footage and more about the question: what does it take to live well?

Hofer says: “When we break down housing needs, first of all it is about the need for protection. The first protective covering is the skin, the second is the clothing, and the third is the living space, so to speak.” He means this very practically, as protection against heat, rain and cold. But from a psychological point of view, your own four walls also offer protection from the outside world. They provide boundaries and enable privacy.

The architect Hofer has personally experienced what happens if this protective cover is missing. He regularly stands at an information point in Schuld, a village on the Ahr. This is a joint offer of the Helpstaff, the Investment and Structure Bank of Rhineland-Palatinate and the Chamber of Architects. Experts here provide advice on reconstruction. Some people who come to him have been struggling with trauma since the flood disaster. As an architect, Hofer also faces difficulties in reconstruction that have psychological causes. It is clear that you can be traumatized from one day to the next by the loss of your home: the supposed protection from the outside is suddenly destroyed.

More and more space for fewer and fewer people

In recent decades, Germans have been looking for more and more living space to protect themselves from the outside world. While someone in Germany lived on average on 34.9 square meters in 1991, in 2021 someone already had 47.7 square meters at their disposal. That is an increase of 37 percent within thirty years. However, this does not necessarily mean that needs are better met: many elderly people have significantly more living space than they need and feel lonely in empty rooms, while young families find themselves in cramped apartments.

Which brings us to the next topic: what is most urgently needed right now is more affordable housing in cities. For many people, rent is the largest expense. In this country, more than half of the people live in rental apartments, the highest number in the EU. However, over the past thirty years – parallel to the increasing number of square meters – the number of social rental properties has decreased and the rent per square meter has risen. Hofer therefore calls for making it easier to create living space. That would also mean: “You should look at what regulations are really necessary.”

Hofer would like more flexibility. To find sensible solutions, you have to take several paths at the same time. In my mind, cities emerge in which small houses sit on vacant lots and develop organically based on people’s needs. That is exactly what happened at the Ahr: necessity has made us flexible. Thanks to the cooperation between the communities, the action network “Germany Helps” and the energy of many helpers, the small houses were built after the flood and my mother also lives in them. This kind of unbureaucratic cooperation was “an absolutely special case in our entire history,” explains Birte Steigert of the action network “Deutschland Hilft”.

Where they are needed

Could this also be a solution for southern Germany after the floods? Steigert says: “Given the flood disasters, this will be an important issue in the future.”

What’s with them? Small houses happened in the Ahr valley? There is no general answer to this. Many have become the property of the municipalities and are taken away and used for other purposes. After all, from the beginning they were only intended as a temporary stopgap solution to the threat of homelessness. And maybe some of them will find their way to where they are more urgently needed.

My mother has now found a new apartment and will move in in the fall. Owning little, she says, has now become a form of freedom for her.

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