Das Packhaus – a start-up community in a temporary-use project

Das Packhaus is a project of Paradocks an international think- and do-tank for reuse of vacant buildings inVienna. Since 2014 Das Packhaus has been showing the potential for temporary use in the city of Vienna thanks to a community of 85 companies coming from different fields. A place where companies can support each other and where the city can benefit from an original semi-public space.

“Packhaus wasn’t meant to be a homogeneus building, because in that case people wouldn’t learn from each other”

How did you start working in temporary-use projects?

I come from the Netherlands, from Amsterdam, and during my studies I have already had some experience of temporary use even though at the time it was not called nor framed as “temporary use”. Having carried out many different internships for various companies using empty buildings for projects it was considered a normal process. After my studies and moving to Vienna, I estabilished an association called Onorthodox carrying out projects and exhibitions around Europe and our exhibitions always took place in empty buildings. We were already doing temporary-use projects but only for very short term.

Once we were called for the Soho in Ottakring Festival, a festival of temporary-use project in the 16th district. Back then we were offered an empty space, but we decided to find another one by ourselves: this is how we found an empty snack bar with a lot of ground floor space. This space convinced us to stay on after the festival using it together with Soho and Feschmarkt.
TRUST 111 was also another important project for us: 700 sqm of a nice empty building.where we were working mostly with artists and architects. When TRUST 111 ended I was looking for a larger space but didn’t want an industrial building, because I wanted to deal with working spaces such as offices. Looking for a larger office building I ended up finding this one that now is Das Packhaus , and this is when Paradocks started.

How was the negotiating process for this building?

It took us 6 months of negotiation with the first owner of this building to start this project, sometimes it seemed that we could have the space immediately and sometimes it felt like we would never get it at all. Since the beginning, the potential of this building was totally clear to us, it fits perfectly into small offices.
We also thought that if offices upstairs were needed, then it was necessary to have an open ground floor that could work as a semi-public space for the city. Having this kind of programme in mind was very important for us right from the beginning.

We knew that co-working was a big thing in many cities (at that time, 4yrs ago it was booming) but the concept of having a space, where people can just sit together was not appealing to us. That was something we didn’t want to focus on, because we saw that there were plenty places already working in that way.

There is a time when companies grow to gain their identity and their working tools that they then need to store, but still be able to provide affordable and flexible spaces where sharing, networking and meeting other people is available. We wanted to offer a space that could address these kinds of needs, because it was something still rare.
We presented our project to Alexander Van der Bellen, who is now president of Austria, but at that time was the Education & Reseach councillor of Vienna as we wanted to involve Universities in our project.

Finally we were called by CONWERT, the first owner of the building, who told us that we could actually have the building for basic surface cost.

Common Space © Tiia Suorsa
How did you build up the Packhas community?

When we finally received the building we knew what we wanted to do with it: it was not meant to be only for architects or artists, but we wanted to promote diversity, we wanted it to be really open, for associations, young entrepreneurs and different kinds of projects. We had a romantic idea of complexity: a city within a building, with different uses on different levels.

It was important for us to have companies encompassing different “ages”: having some well-established companies working next to some new ones so they could assist one another, because we wanted to support fresh entrepreneurs. Pakhaus wasn’t meant to be a homogeneous building because in that case people wouldn’t learn from each other.
We made an open call for users that was luckily taken up by a lot of media. We opened our doors to everyone for two days so people could come and see the building, have a better idea of how to apply to our call in addition to giving us some feedback.
A system of ambassadors – people from different fields – helped us to decide who could come to the building. This happened in March 2014.

One month later, lots of people started requesting some space. I have to say that it went way beyond our expectations: we were evaluating applications together with our ambassadors and it was very hard to choose who could come to Das Packhaus, of course we had to say NO to a lot of people. It was a nice moment for our project. The ground floor was adapted with some second-hand furniture in order not to invest too much in the space and be ready to move if needed.
When we entered the space it was in fine condition, everything was functioning. We only work with buildings that are functioning: no works needed for electricity, heating, nor water should be needed. Once settled, we had only to install internet and make some adjustments of course,but our work was very little.
We rented upstairs spaces with no furniture. We took care of the ground floor, but every user worked on its own space – this is why the cost was so low. It is very funny how nowadays (four years later) every office looks so different, I found it amazing.

We started the building with 2500sqm, our previous projects were in smaller buildings, so it was a huge space for us as we were a small team of 4 people and we only had a contract for a year at the beginning.
Very soon, once we had started, we learnt from the owner that we could stay longer plus acquire more square meters. It started with a precarium contract: a kind of contract where you pay very little, but where you can also be kicked out at any month. It was not too risky as such large buildings aren’t rented out easily nowadays..

Soon we had a longer contract and more space. Since 2016 we have a rental contract, not a precarious one anymore, but we do also pay more.
Since 2017 we have new owners – the building was sold onto new owners with us in it – and we have a year’s contract now up until June 2019. Although we had to raise the office-rental price again, our spaces are still cheaper than others in Vienna. Everytime this occurs we undergo a lot of negotiations and therefore, whenever our rent is raised we have to consequently raise the rental on our offices. However, for us a border was crossed, because some people were happy to stay even though they had to pay more, but some others had to move out. It is still cheap! But, obviously not as it was in the beginning.

What is your finance model ?

Every user pays for its office, but of course this is not enough for the whole building because we have to pay all the rest: hallways, kitchen and groundfloor. All the extras are paid by renting out the groundfloor.
For us it was very important to have this kind of open groundfloor: 650 sqm with spaces for movement (pilates,yoga,meditation), a photo lab, meeting spaces, bike lab, the canteen and even a garden. We have a special area for events so we can host also markets and exhibitions, where every year a lot of these things take place.
Many institutions in Vienna are continually looking for informal space so when it comes to organizing special events, Packhaus is a great location for them and we have hosted the Wirtschaftsagentur (Business Agency) and the Bundesimmobiliengesellschaft (Real Estate Agency) more than once.

Our work is to research those spaces which are empty and to create concepts for the same. In our history we have received only two small subsidies for a research phase, but apart from these small subsidies, we were not funded by anybody. We started some applications and that cost us a lot of time but in the end we weren’t able to get any: sometimes we were either too cultural or too artistic to be chosen.
Now I think it is a good thing that we are not dependent on subsidies because this way we are completely safe and independent.

DAS PACKHAUS © Veronika Kovacsova
What did you learn from this project and what are its results?

For us at Pardocks we learnt a lot about how to set up a good contract and we had to do most of it by ourselves. We didn’t need any subsidies but we would have liked to have received more legal support, because we were in a way naive and not being native german speakers made it even harder.
Whilst discussing everyone was scared about a precarium contract as it was considered to be taking a big risk. Now we have much greater knowledge about this kind of contract and we feel more confident, but it was totally different at the beginning. We had to learn everything because legal advice was far too expensive for us.
Legal support would have been appreciated also because the city does benefit from our project: we are lauded as a good Viennese example but the risks taken all fell on us. However, now thanks to Kreativeräume (Office for vacancy activation) we have some technical and friendly help.

We should write a book with some guidelines especially for the legal aspects. It is important to know that we are not profit-orientated, however of course we don’t work for free, we do pay our team, but it is also important to keep prices low – This depends on the contracts we negotiate with the owners. In these 4 years we have supported 150 companies and this is what makes temporary use a great thing where people devlope their abilities. The groundfloor started with 60sqm space and now we can boast150sqm of open space. There has been a real growth and it has always been very flexible and affordable to everyone
At Das Packhaus we have 87 entrepreneurs, businesses that make us one of the largest, if not the largest, co-working space in Vienna – a set of informal projects that is functioning well and shows us how many creative people thrive in this city. We also have a waiting list, and the total number of people actually working here are 250.

Have you seen some policy changes?

The city in general is more aware about temporary-use. Now we have Kreativeräume but it is still not easy for them – they are accepted but they can’t do so much, they are not allowed to do many things. People from the administration, from other Austrian cities, from other countries come and are just amazed about this space. Things are moving of course but very slowly. Developers are interested also in what we do but I haven’t seen any big changes yet.

Since we are large and well known now we do have more opportunities of finding spaces, but it would be nicer if there would be a change in policy that would push real estate owners to give more space to certain kinds of projects such as those with a strong social and/or economical impact.. Obviously, they could in return benefit from tax relief.

What about the future of Paradocks beyond Packhaus?

We have seen already some other spaces –there are many empty buildings but the culture has changed a lot. Owners are more aware of what they can obtain in the longterm. At the beginning it was easier to come by a space, now the owners want to get more profit from their unused buildings.

With Packhaus owners we negotiate every year so, subsequently, we have been looking for other buildings for years. Paradocks is able to exist when there’s a large-sized building and when, therefore, you can have space that is open to the local community. Take for instance, if we had a building of 400sqm without a ground floor it wouldn’t be half so interesting. Our aim is to work in many buildings simultaneously, so that if we lose one of them we are still present and established. We are looking for a building larger than 1.000sqm and if it doesn’t happen we will just offer consultancy to people looking for spaces.

Interview with Margot Deerenberg, Jorge Mosquera – Vienna 22 June 2018.