Emerging collective urban housing

This Issue This is a part of the Changes ahead feature

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As the global cohousing movement takes root in New Zealand, collective housing groups are forming. There is great diversity, so interested parties should ask some key questions to find the right connections.

GRASSROOTS INTEREST in cohousing is spreading in New Zealand, and the ability for people with similar interests to connect through social media is facilitating the formation of groups focused on collective provision of housing.

There are at least five collective housing groups in Wellington and there will be more I don’t have contact with. Most brand themselves cohousing, although they are very different.

Cohousing’s origins

The first generation of cohousing in Denmark in the 1970s began as a lifestyle movement reacting to increasing individualism and materialism. Initial communities created an alternative way to live and structure their social lives, particularly as a better way to raise children and for access to community support.

There was a direct connection between these early Danish communities and the Whanganui Quaker settlement, an important early New Zealand cohousing community established in 1975 with architect Michael Payne. Historically, intentional communities were most often religious or lifestyle-based. Recent communities often have an environmental focus.

Great diversity in types and groups

The key to understanding the extraordinary potential of cohousing is recognising its diversity. Cohousing in New Zealand is discussed as if it is a defined thing, but here and elsewhere it is as different as each group is.

The real diversity of cohousing types and groups is evident in their different ambitions, organisation and scales. Groups cater for different needs – for example, those in the second half of life, single gender, environmentally focused, culturally based, socially motivated, multi-generational, mixed social background, self-builders and self-developers, first-home owners and partnerships with social housing agencies.

The key differences between groups can be seen in the extent and types of community connectedness and facilities. German Baugruppen (building group) are regularly quoted as an exemplar for cohousing here.

In the German language, there are two words describing two subtly different types of collective self-building groups. Baugruppen focus on collective building procurement and may vary greatly in their management. Most are initiated and led by a small team or project champion such as an architect or developer and with defined client group participation as occurs for most building projects.

The extent of Baugruppen shared space and community varies from very little, if any, to significant. The Nightingale franchise model cohousing in Melbourne is a form of Baugruppen. Baugruppen are as often motivated as much by collective real estate development as by a desire to create community.

The other term, Baugermeinshaft (building community), gives weight to the social component of building a community and of living together in a building as a community after construction. Baugermeinshaft groups recognise the value of taking the time needed to build the social connectedness that is the foundation of community, often have specialist group facilitation and utilise more participatory and bottom-up processes.

Ask questions to understand the group

The following cohousing key questions can help flesh out and define where different or emerging collective housebuilding groups sit in terms of their focus, operation, community and design.

Potential cohousing group members need to assess their fit with a particular group, and external bodies need to assess the potential of collective urban housing groups as possible partners. These questions will help them understand the nature of the group they are negotiating with and the likely characteristics and long-term social sustainability of the project.

  • Common vision – what do group members have in common? What values do they share? Who is the project for and not for? Group members may simply wish to work as a building group to economically collectively procure housing and want little diversity, common facilities or community life. At the other end of the scale, they may desire an integrated lifestyle, focused on community with minimum amounts of individual space, all meals together and a substantial extent of community facilities both for themselves and the wider community context.
  • Individualism and the collective – Michael Payne, architect of the Whanganui settlement, believes that managing the balance between individual and community life is key. How are individual privacy and self-determination maintained and community interests still facilitated?
  • How communication is managed and decisions made – are these through a small centralised leadership team, participatory processes, consensus or structured collective decision making? Is Loomio or similar open-source software used? Who decides who has access to what information and when?
  • Community obligations – what are the time and financial costs of community formation, belonging and operation? What are the less tangible costs – for example, communities often save operational costs via shared management. What responsibilities come with membership?
  • Legal structure – what is the form of the legal community constitution and its operational rules? What are the provisions for ownership, joining and leaving? How is finance raised, secured and managed? How are conflicts of interest and disputes resolved?
  • Design and codesign – how will the design occur, and how do participatory processes operate? Who are the professionals involved and on what basis and terms of reference? For example, social entrepreneurs and facilitators are now emerging who may manage community formation and design processes. What inputs and expertise will members get to contribute? The design is the exciting part, but it may be less open and malleable than imagined. It can emerge quickly related to site and community characteristics. Key design issues are site choice, community size, the extent of common and individual facilities, conceptual drivers for the design and the extent of individual choice and customisation.

Cohousing symposium in 2019

Collective forms of design and building are an important emerging way to deliver better quality, diversely designed, socially sustainable urban housing at closer to net building costs.

We are seeing a shift occurring where the collective direct procurement power of organised boutique housing communities is demonstrating they can operate independently from our developer-dominated housing delivery sector. What is more remarkable is this is happening from the bottom up despite a lack of infrastructure to support it.

Victoria University of Wellington is hosting a national cohousing symposium in February 2019 to facilitate understanding and the provision of open source, research and resources to support cohousing groups and partnerships.

Set to become important part of sector

There is no doubt that a collective direct housing procurement sector is being established in New Zealand. It’s clear also that this means of housing design and delivery will grow to become an important part of our building industry.

We are already seeing housing agencies and developers taking an interest and architects and landowners seeking out partnerships with cohousing groups, joining one or establishing their own group.

For more

These questions are elaborated on in Mark Southcombe’s talk to the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities in April 2018. See Video: Cohousing or Creating Collective Urban Housing at sustainablecities.org.nz/2018.

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