Cohousing: real estate development without the property developer?

Shared communities, participatory housing, or even bofaellesskaber. Call it what you like, but these different incarnations of cohousing (a housing concept sitting somewhere between collective ownership and a small village) are turning the way accommodation is being designed and built upside down. It seems housing is the new social network.

The United States has recently witnessed a “boom” in cohousing – a way of living where different households plan their accommodation and form a community of private homes clustered around shared space. According to the Cohousing Research Network, in 2017, the retail price was clearly on the rise. It’s a sign of strength: the American version of cohousing is no longer just attracting investors, but also even more and more residents too. Made up of urban or suburban houses or apartments that are above all destined for those on a median income, there are around 300 communities and counting.

From a shared community to participatory living

However, this mode of housing only came to life about 50 years ago in Denmark. At the time, the architect Jan Gudmand-Hoyer described the bofaellesskaber (“community”) as the missing link between utopia and the one-family house. First and foremost a community living experience and not small villages or simple co-ownership, at the end of the 80s, cohousing projects spread throughout Northern Europe, and eventually in the United States, thanks to two architects who studied in Denmark. Those same two architects, who today offer participatory housing reserved for a wealthy clientele, describe cohousing as simply a communal living project in an environment that is more practical and social than what one is used to. The democratic principals are the common characteristic of such cohousing projects, and decisions made between residents are more often taken by consensus.

Cohousing’s success (even in France, where a network of professionals formed at the beginning of the 2010s) is not, first and foremost, due to its community dimension, but in fact thanks to its “pragmatic answers to societal need such as everyday service, energy or cost-savings and accessibility.” Such is the conclusion from the extensive recension written by the Dutch urbanist Lidewij Tummers, from the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft, which covers 30 cohousing initiatives on a European scale. In The Netherlands, Tummers is well placed for observing the vast variety of participatory housing projects, which is home to: eco-villages; Collective Private Commissionings; adaptations of the neo-hippy Berlin Baugruppen (or, “building group” in English) that puts architecture at the heart of the project; or even more widespread, Centraal Wonen, built from a partnership between five to eight co-owners, including a shared kitchen and/or garden.

Real estate without property developers or engineers? 

Whatever the moniker, Tummers’ work concludes that because cohousing is turning the structural rules of the game upside down, it could have a determining impact on urban housing development in Europe and throughout the world. In fact, with cohousing, “resident groups confront spatial planners and engineers with an innovative strategy for demand-driven and diversifying urban design.”. Consequently, real estate institutions and heavyweights have no choice but to adapt. In the battle to build “infrastructure for everyday life”, participatory housing and even cooperative planning offer an alternative to the status quo. British urbanist Dan Hill continues along the same path. According to him, access to co-owned land, with local, shared ownership and civic values focused around ambitious environmental objectives stands as an iconic “new way of developing property…largely without property developers”. And no need for engineers either? Traditional actors are in any case also welcomed to adapt, especially when faced with a production that’s taking an open-source, online and citizen-driven shape. And such projects are multiplying, from OpenStructures to WikiHouse, and even on a city-scale (FabCity). Although less radical than when they first appeared back in the day, cohousing is certainly feeling fun at fifty.

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