Co Housing – Bringing community back home

Co-housing is an intentionally designed domestic lifestyle; a community in which many responsibilities – normally the concern of an individual or couple – are shared amongst members. Co-housing can take many forms but generally involves living within and around a central communal area.

This form of habitation is a return to both a more socially supportive way of living and a healthier and more sustainable one too. Recent changes in society (including the dominant ideology of ownership and the paradoxical social distancing effect that urban living has) has meant that many – especially wealthier – cultures have moved away from neighbourly integration and support.

However, with housing fiascos occurring internationally, as well as the need to become locally supportive and sustainable, co-housing offers a model for future community living that has many practical, social, and mental benefits.

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Much of the population is finding itself estranged from communal life, and for these cohousing offers a promising answer. However, there are many more people who are simply discovering that it is impossible to get into the property market. These people are unable to secure a traditional mortgage, or are not expecting large incomes or an inheritance in the future. For these, co-housing on a more wide-spread scale could offer more affordable living solutions, where they can own a smaller unit within a community, or part-own the community itself. Instead of living in the rental limbo or depending on their parents, siblings, or other, these people can actually be part of a healthy neighbourhood.

At its smallest scale, co-housing may simply be a number of families living together in a large house and sharing a number of the facilities (although this could be called ‘co-living’). Expanding on this provides opportunities to grow both the privacy and shared aspects until you have apartment blocks, streets, or even small villages. Co-housing can also be tailored towards specific demographics; the National Union of Group-living Elderly in the Netherlands for example is actively establishing co-housing projects for over 50’s, providing a communal response and a social security to those living in isolation in advancing years.

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The common denominator of co-housing is shared responsibilities, but also shared assets. Having a common space means that large household appliances – such as washing machines and freezers – can be mutually accessible; a handful would be sufficient for the neighbourhood, and members could simply timetable when they plan to use the facilities. This is already a standard feature of many apartment blocks across continental Europe.

This sharing of assets could extend also to cars – instead of one vehicle per person or family, there would be a much smaller number with car sharing and named drivers being more predominant. Car use would be booked in, and getting lifts would be the order of the day, cutting down on expenses such as insurance and maintenance, and contributing less to climate emissions. There could be a provision too that there is a spare car available for emergencies.

Co-housing would often involve a common building, and this could host a number of communal facilities. A large kitchen and dining room may be present so that large meals could be shared (not generally a nightly occurrence, but once a week might be the norm); a large freezer and/or pantry would be adjacent to this. A function room may also be part of the building, and could be used for communal events, movie screenings, kids’ parties, or anything else imaginable. Additionally, there might be a suite of guest bedrooms that can be reserved in advance for visitors, or even put on Airbnb for some additional income into the communal account.

Private spaces would often be smaller, due to some of the aforementioned resources being shared, but would still contain bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms, and maybe even an enclosed private garden area. These might be clustered in different directions around the central area or a courtyard, or resemble a more modern street format. Community gardens may also exist as a shared space, with each member having their own allotments to grow what they like or use in whatever way they see fit.

Shared heating systems and energy is another big factor that makes sense from a co-housing point of view. In general, the supplier needs to establish connections in every household, so establishing a micro-grid in a neighbourhood is challenging. However, when this neighbourhood is co-owned (making it like one house with a dozen units, for example), then there is one energy connection which is shared.

Establishing a group is the first step towards developing a co-housing arrangement. This could start as a study group exploring the possibilities, with people also getting to know each other or going to events that promote these kind of initiatives; this is the phase of setting your attention. A study group can lead directly on to forming a collective or cooperative, or at least one in which these principles are agreed.

When considering a shared collective, there is a natural tendency to think in terms of people of your own age group, but stronger co-housing can come from mixed ages and lifestyles; some younger, some older, some with children or pets; a real neighbourhood rather than a collective of like-minded  colleagues. Different age groups and lifestyles will bring different skills, experience, and energy to situations.

The location is the main factor as investigation continues; having land and negotiating planning permissions, loans, and building activities is ideal but a long-term process. One other model could be where a group find an existing building in need of renovation – one which has plenty of space for, say, a half dozen families – and puts in the labour and cash to rehabilitate it into a working co-housing establishment. Other urban co-housing may find unused floors above rental properties – as has happened in Berlin – and turn these areas into small communities (with some people even finding work directly below them!).

Elderly homeowners and empty-nesters, potentially with a large property that is too quiet or too big, may want to contribute to co-housing by offering up buildings or adjacent land. Others may have capital that they can bring to the initiative; ethical investors may be more willing to entertain these models; if people can handle paying a rent, they shouldn’t be – in an ideal world – in a situation where they can’t pay towards their own place.

In initiating building from scratch – units or otherwise – it is necessary to talk to builders or planning experts to explore the options. Kit houses, container homes, or alternative modular systems can provide the necessary private living space in a community, but all will have significant hoops to jump through in terms of zoning permissions and builds.

Getting banking support for cohousing is in its infancy in many countries; banks are generally suspicious of anything deviating from the norm, and a cooperative of people tends to fit this bill. But there are models that already exist that can legally and economically be retooled to fit the idea of cohousing – think of student housing or shelters for the homeless community.

But capital is still required, and by and large communities will need loans in order to proceed. Investors want to see something that they can sell on, or that will be worth it if something goes wrong. Wil they get their money back? Can you guarantee that a cohousing initiative is safe for investment?

Another one of the greatest initial problems for cohousing is the planning, and there has to be constant and consistent discussions with planners and builders to ensure that the project will work. Beyond all the practical issues, however, is an additional cultural one. The idea of private property has worked itself into the DNA of modern society, and loosening our grasp on that suggests relinquishing our stake in modern markets, our freedom in ownership, and our ability to control our lives. We may also think back to earlier co-living experiences in our life – such as student living or when we just joined the workforce – and say ‘never again!’, owing to trouble with shared responsibilities, or a lack of healthy living, or difficult relationships that might have existed.

This is an ideal time to explore other models of housing and to become more socially supportive. There is a crisis of housing and of isolation, and co-housing can be a path out of the current lack of imagination and adherence to traditional property practices. There is little current enthusiasm or incentive to look at alternative models – for which there is less economic security or legal precedents taken – when the only options available are those reinforced into our thinking through mainstream practice or because of older generations.

The communal aspect can be a big step for those not experienced in it, and it requires upending mental and traditional values as much as it needs policy and economic support. Currently it is a difficult road – the path less taken – and the journey to cohousing tends to be one of building and losing momentum until the goal is achieved. But it may be worth it, to have a neighbourhood that you can call home.

Steve Wright

With a masters in Science Communication and a background in media, Steve Wright is an authority on all things scientific, as well as sustainability and consciousness. A Junior Designer and Contributor to My Good Planet, Steve specialises in making complicated material seem accessible and simple for all.