Working collaborative documents on interrogating the socio-spatial form of cohousing

Introduction and overview

At the ESRC Collaborative Housing and Community Resilience seminar on ‘Breaking out of the box:  interrogating the socio-spatial form of cohousing’ at Halton Mill on 26 June 2015, delegates were invited to note down questions/ suggestions for practice, research and policy in relation to five topics raised during the day:

  • Common House and Common Practice: Design and Use;
  • Visions of a Good Life: how do we want to live?
  • Similarities and differences in different forms of collaborative housing;
  • The relationship between intended values and socio-spatial forms and processes; and,
  • Institutional/political features that enable or inhibit sharing practices

The aim was to collect participants’ thoughts and suggestions related to each of the topics and to afterwards formulate them into working discussion papers which we hope will be a vehicle for continued discussion.

As such, the notes from the day and, in some instances further thoughts from the seminar co-applicants, on each topic are listed above. Different disciplines (architecture; social policy; urban planning; politics, to name but a few) and different practices (cohousing; communal living; activism, for example) are evident in the notes and reflections and we invite people to engage with these different ideas and perspectives, and to add to them by posting comments.


Common House and Common Practice: Design and Use

Questions/suggestions for practice:

  • How can the common house serve the wider community while retaining an intimate, safe feeling for the community? (tensions between exclusion and integration)
  • How do we find experts who can facilitate the design/visioning process?
  • How to get integration of ‘community centre’ use with ‘internal’ use
  • Explore everyone’s understanding of the social significance of THE MEAL- rather than to assume it is shared
  • Grace referred to ‘cacophony’ in relation to chair types. How can we create potential for beautiful polyphony?
  • How can groups be equipped with design skills to help themselves? (x2)
  • (?) from figure….to furniture….to built element….to the room….rooms….house….houses….site…..location….and back again

Questions/suggestions for research:

  • Learning from urbanists/city design. E.g. Plaza = common house, streets etc.
  • Common life and architectural typologies. Tradition vs future needs.
  • Could common houses enhance the community centre role by de-centralising the place to learn/ recreate?
  • Vegetarians in cohousing: what is the link and why so many common houses serve vegetarian meals?
  • Learning from architectural history and contemporary design……look at Japan….and beauty…….and built design.
  • Do we have some clues from practice about appropriate kinds of collective design practice? (+ process?)
  • Are Common Houses related with cultural ways of living- the culture of sharing?


Questions/suggestions for policy:

  • Should every new housing estate have a common/communal space/building?


Visions of a Good Life: how do we want to live?

Suggestions and questions for practice:

Some people asked about utopian methods:

  • How can utopia inform our project? And, What are the dangers and pitfalls of backcasting?

Backcasting needs to be undertaken carefully, thoughtfully and thoroughly because if it’s done in a casual or careless way it could lead to a target-based approach that’s unreflective about the changing context in which we live. You can find some really useful resources about backcasting here:

‘Collaborative Strategy Development for Information Architects’ a slideshow from Matthew Milan CEO of  ‘’

An informative and inspiring talk from Hildy Gottlieb about ‘Reverse Engineering the Future’

link to the website of ‘The Natural Step, pioneers in backcasting for sustainability

And for people who want to do more research into backcasting, here is a useful review of the literature.

Some people imagined a world they’d like to see:

  • Everybody gets a Living Wage and ‘other income’ disparity is capped

And some imagined ways of bringing better ways of living into ‘mainstream’ housing:

  • I’m interested in cutting and pasting rooms into the suburban inter-war house type

And several people wanted a more inclusive way of living collaboratively:

  • Possibility of asylum seekers being part of a community
  • How can cohousing be more inclusive, diverse, affordable and multi-cultural…?
  • Is cohousing culturally specific?
  • Is cohousing only an ideal vision for people of a particular background?’ or ‘for people who desires downsizing, postmaterialism?
  • We need suburban, urban and rural connections to existing places – not to be too cut off


Suggestions and questions for research:

Some of these threads and themes about inclusion, transferability and scale of cohousing came up in this section too. People wanted to see more research on the following areas:

  • Cohousing flourishes in Denmark which is a homogenous, egalitarian society. Is that why?
  • Would everyone fit into cohousing? Is it a universal utopia?

People also reflected on the relationship between visions and values, expectations and realities:

  • What are the different visions that motivate cohousing projects? How much are they mutually contradictory? How much are they satisfied or frustrated in practices? And how?
  • What do people value in life that makes them think that they have a “good life”?

And some people proposed research ideas that would investigate the benefits of collaborative housing:

  • Could cohousing reduce costs for social services required by seniors/special needs?
  • Does cohousing contribute to more cohesive and inclusive citizenship in local communities?

Suggestions and questions for policy:

  • Should social housing be planned/retrofitted as cohousing?
  • We need radical reform of the voting system
  • Is the hope that central/local government will implement a policy of full support for shared housing as a significant contributor to social well being of older utopians just a utopian hope?

This last comment points to both the dangers and the necessity of associating yourself with utopian thinking. Being ‘utopian’ can get dismissed as ‘just utopian’, ‘far-fetched’, ‘fanciful’, ‘excessively optimistic’. But the comment also points to something really important about utopian thinking. Surely, to hope for these things is really sensible and pragmatic? Surely, shared or collaborative housing (such as cohousing) is a sensible and resource efficient way of living, particularly for older people? So what is it about our society that makes us think that this is ‘just’ utopian? How did our sense of what’s normal become so skewed? How did we come to create a society in which sensible ideas have come to seem far-fetched? I’d say that in such a society, we absolutely need utopian thinking that steps outside the box of what’s normal, usual and ‘what we already do’. We need to challenge the way that things are done and demand something better, even if this appears to be impossible.

Lucy Sargisson July 2015


Similarities and differences in different forms of collaborative housing

Key: [?] indicates that the transcriber is not sure about the word

Suggestions and questions for practice:

  • How about the demography of cohousing (are they exclusionary of particular people)?
  • How can we challenge practitioners as ‘experts’ (vertical hierarchy[?]) without logics[?]/ sharing expertise?
  • Young people’s house share is a ‘passing phase’ in people’s life cycle – can communities build on these experiences? How?
  • Do different forms of collaborative housing require different communal design processes?


Suggestions and questions for research:

  • How can we account for ‘intentional’, ‘desired’ and ‘necessary’ sharing, and how they may all be co-present?
  • I’m worried about people in the suburbs, being trapped in the private house.
  • Can we clarify some typologies of different forms of collaborative housing?
  • How to accelerate and enable social learning in group processes – to ‘speed up’ new group formation and project development – without undermining/ assuming[?] into[?] personal growth and development (e.g. personal responsibility in life)
  • How to share common lessons across all forms of collaborative housing? Best dissemination?
  • Can an extended family live in a sharing/collaborative housing?
  • Are some forms of collaborative housing more widely replicable? Which ones? Why?


Suggestions and questions for policy:

  • What is the role of public-citizen and public-non-profit partnerships in setting up collab housing schemes?
  • How can CLH models be integrated in mainstream social housing and its funding structures more effectively?


The relationship between intended values and socio-spatial forms and processes

Key: (?) indicates that the transcriber is not sure about the word

Suggestions and questions for practice:

  • What is the role of cohousing in bridging the gap between different social classes in neighbourhoods and countering socio-spatial segregation?
  • Are there any services which to be provided professionally (cleaning, cooking, child – elderly care, maintenance)?
  • If one of the values is ‘diversity’ how does that affect common house design?
  • How ‘open’ or ‘closed’ should a ‘vision statement’ be?
  • Is there a way to set up a platform for architects/ consultants specialising in cohousing?
  • How can architects best influence a group to improve design but not risk disrupting the group’s collaborative process?


Suggestions and questions for research:

  • How do residents expect spaces and movement routes to affect their interactions? How does it work in practice? Does this change over time?
  • How (in what ways) do socio-technical affordances affect espoused and enacted values?
  • The importance of gardens, growing and green space?
  • How the community (participatory process) shapes the physical environment?
  • Mapping exercise: values and processes


Suggestions and questions for policy:

  • Is it possible to infiltrate, influence and affect change in the sleepy suburbs?
  • How can cohousing be developed as an alternative under a neoliberal regime (e.g. self-build schemes, emphasis on private ownership …)
  • Is there the possibility of local government facilitation of intentional communities?



Institutional/political features that enable or inhibit sharing practices

Questions/suggestions for Practice

  • Exploit government initiatives such as localism
  • Do public officials have the skills to support co-housing initiatives?
  • Child protection rules?
  • Culture of individualism, competition and possessiveness; early indoctrination
  • Honest sharing—need to be able to say no sometimes. Good sharing implies responsibility and respect.
  • Meals + shared or collective ownership
  • Entry and exit? Giving in all your stuff – a one-way process?
  • Ownership—what happens when the shared car/tool/appliance breaks?
  • Rules on noise; rules on pets and types of pets
  • Car insurance regulations
  • How can we get central/local government to see co-housing as a positive contributor to social wellbeing in an ageing population?
  • Dominant culture of individualism + housing as an investment commodity
  • How do we contribute to subverting monetization/commoditization/privatization of housing (and space in general)?
  • How long do people tend to prefer to live in co-housing? Are they ‘experimental spaces’ or do people prefer them as permanent homes?


Questions/suggestions for research

  • To what extent to incentives for sharing affect its nature?
  • Being a mixed group—I’m fearful that co-housing groups are perhaps a bit ‘(illegible)’, and only made of one type of person…
  • What skills and resources do public agencies need to support/upscale co-housing?
  • What’s happened outside the ‘community’? Is anybody sharing?
  • Respect the cultural differences of sharing


Questions/suggestions for policy

  • Break into the suburban, quite, private semi-detached world of ‘silence’ political, social and economic torpor
  • How can this sector influence land prices/scarcity/planning restrictions?
  • When do sharing economy companies exploit public resources more than benefit the public? NYC vs AirBnB
  • Do we have sufficient legal mechanisms to enable/safeguard shared ownership of goods?
  • Should government be encouraged to engage more with co-housing initiatives/movement?
  • How can more land be made available for community-led housing, especially in urban areas?
  • ‘Right to Buy’ threatens HCA funding?

Written up by Kath Scanlon, 8 July 2015

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