Seminar Three: Reflections

“Breaking out of the box:  interrogating the socio-spatial form of cohousing” Friday 26th June 2015 at Lancaster Cohousing, Halton Mill, Halton, Lancashire.

On a bright and sunny Summer morning we gathered in the airy spaces of Halton Mill to discuss the social and spatial forms of cohousing and other forms of collaborative living. After some initial refreshments the day’s activities started with a tour of Lancaster Cohousing including a look at one of the group’s design drawings where the work on agreeing the layout and use of the space was discussed and agreed.

The keynote presentation by Grace Kim (Schemata Workshop, Seattle) focussed on the design and use of the focal centre of most cohousing communities – the common house. Grace covered a variety of points graphically illustrated with examples from a series of different cohousing sites across Denmark and the US. A key message was the importance of the intention of the common house as an integral part of facilitating convivial and cosy relations that was more important than particular architectural points. Her work had focussed on distilling the ‘design patterns’ that had emerged in cohousing, which could act as general guidelines in designing common houses, but which were not intended as a checklist. Amongst a series of interesting points about floor and roof materials, the use of natural light and planning for the management of sound and the purpose and functionality of fittings, some of the key issues that Grace noted were the key issues of making the common house an activity node; planning the positioning of the common house in relation to the rest of the site in order to maximise its usage; the importance of ‘local centres’ other than the common house; and the role, design and benefits of having a community street.

After a hearty and healthy lunch Sue Heath (Manchester University) spoke on the experiences and perceptions of space and its uses in a variety of different forms of both unintentional and intentional  shared housing. Sue noted four facets of shared experience – economic, spatial (including the orientations built into spatial forms for communality or privacy), temporal (including shared histories and narratives over the lifecourse), and ideological. Sue’s fascinating overview of peoples’ experiences noted the atmospheric impressions noted by their research participants – including ambient temperature, lighting, cooking smells, dirt and grime and the emotional layering and undercurrents associated with these experiences – sometimes laden with tension, others with conviviality. Sue noted how all these different types of sharing and spaces had their own hierarchies, some of which developed over time.

Helen Jarvis (Newcastle University) then spoke about mapping out ideas on understanding sharing and cohousing, in particular drawing attention to the social ‘architecture’ that was involved in sharing – the interpersonal competences, performances and trust involved. Helen’s motivating question was how best to identify and theorise ‘sharing’ as a socio-spatial and socio-technical construction, thinking not just about economies of scale but of propinquity – community-based assistance, identity and endeavour. Making a link to a theme from the initial seminar about the potential for cohousing to ‘scale up’ Helen also reflected upon the linkages between socio-technical systems at different scales – niches, regimes and landscapes. While niches allowed space for experimentation and innovation, they were also in a state of haphazard ‘incubation’ and were vulnerable.


After a break Pam Hearne, Jan Maskell and Diana Martin, all early members of Lancaster Cohousing reflected on the topics of the day from their own experiences. The issues of trust and commitment as ongoing were discussed, and the role of participative decision-making in governance as well as the design stage was highlighted. The issue of expectations which had earlier been raised was related to some members with clear ideas on what community meant to them being dissatisfied, whereas others with fuzzier notions seemed happier to work on it. They also noted some changes in membership team processes with the intention to help new members integrate and make sure the group was right for them.

Lucy Sargisson then briefly reflected on the issue of the tensions between expectations, intentions and experiences and how that went on through time. She noted, like all the speakers, that one of the defining features of cohousing was the intention to live particular values (which varied from community to community). She noted the role of utopian thinking in helping to formulate ideas around living and sharing design – where utopian thinking is used as a way of imagining a good place, but which is not a space, rather than a fixed idea. Lucy pulled out some of the features of utopian thinking – its critical attitude towards the present, its desiring for something better, and the role of imagination and creativity. She noted that both features of thinking critically and desiring something better serve important social and political functions.

Lucy’s insightful points set the scene for the workshop development of suggestions and questions for the design and use of cohousing; visions of the good life and institutional and political features that enable or inhibit sharing practices. While this session was slow to start, soon participants started posting their comments and thoughts resulting in a variety of ideas for practitioners, researchers and policy makers from different disciplines and areas.

As well as being a theme arising during the day, conviviality was also in abundant evidence, as some participants reconvened at a local pub in the afternoon sunshine before travelling back to their base locations.