OpEd: Emerging Collective Urban Housing

Article on the emerging New Zealand collective housing culture by Senior Lecturer, Mark Southcombe.

Conceptual view for an emerging Wellington CoHousing project by Spacecraft Architects
Conceptual view for an emerging Wellington CoHousing project by Spacecraft Architects
Significant grassroots interest in Cohousing is spreading like wildfire in New Zealand. The increased ability for people with similar interests to connect through social media is facilitating the formation of groups focused on collective provision of housing. Many groups exist and are currently emerging throughout the country. I know of five collective housing groups in various stages of establishment in Wellington and there will be more I don’t have contact with. Most brand themselves Co-housing, although the groups are very different.

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 how children might be better raised with contact with lots of friends, and all people having access to the support of a community. 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. More recent communities have often had an environmental focus. Cohousing in New Zealand today is more diverse and mainstream than most people understand or acknowledge.

The key to understanding the extraordinary potentials of cohousing, is recognising its diversity. Cohousing in New Zealand is discussed as if it was a defined thing, but here and elsewhere it is as different as each group is can been seen in Michael Lafond’s exemplary book Cohousing Cultures. The real diversity of Cohousing types and groups is evident in their different ambitions, organisation, and scales. Groups cater for different people and needs, for example those in the ‘second half of life’, single gender, environmentally focused groups, culturally based groups, socially motivated or multigenerational or mixed social background groups, groups of 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 a key exemplar for cohousing here. It’s helpful to recognise that in the German language there are two words describing two subtly different types of collective self-building groups. Baugruppen focus is on collective building procurement and may vary greatly in the way this is managed. Most often they are initiated and led by a small team or project champion such as an architect or developer, and with defined points of client group participation as conventionally occurs for most building projects of any scale. Baugruppen extent of shared space and community focus vary from very little if any to a significant extent. The Nightingale franchise model cohousing in Melbourne is a form of Baugruppen. 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 typically 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 are more participatory and bottom up. Baugruppen are as often motivated by collective real estate development as by a desire to create community. A critique of Baugruppen has been their tendency towards middle-class social exclusivity, and their tendency to gentrification of socially diverse urban neighbourhoods.

The following cohousing ‘big questions’ can help flesh out and define where different or emerging collective housebuilding group’s sit in terms of their focus, operation, community, and design. Potential cohousing group members assessing their fit with a particular group, and external bodies assessing the potential of collective urban housing groups as possible partners should ask some key questions. This will help them understand the nature of the group they are negotiating with, and the project likely characteristics and long term social sustainability. The questions are also elaborated in a talk I gave to the NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities in April.

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 for the settlement notes that managing the balance between individual and community life is key. How are individual privacy and self-determination maintained, and yet community interests still facilitated?

How is communication managed and decisions made? Through a small centralised leadership team? Through participatory processes, consensus or structured collective decision making? Through Loomio or similar software? Who decides on 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 other less tangible costs, for example communities often save operational costs via shared management, cleaning and many day to day matters, along with special purposes workshops. What responsibilities come with membership of the community?

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 interests and disputes resolved?

Design and Codesign, as processes, and a design proposal result. How will the design occur? To what extent do participatory processes operate? Who are the professionals involved on what basis and terms of reference. For example there are now emerging social entrepreneurs and facilitators that may manage community formation and design processes. What inputs and expertise will members get to contribute? The design is the exciting part, but may be less open and malleable than many imagine. It can emerge quickly related to site and community defining 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.

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 paradigm shift occurring where the collective direct procurement power of well organised boutique housing communities is demonstrating that they are able to operate independently from our developer dominated housing delivery sector. What is even more remarkable is that this is happening from the bottom up despite a lack of infrastructure to support New Zealand Collective Urban housing. At Victoria University, with the support of a large range of stakeholders and social entrepreneurs, we are hosting a Co-Housing Symposium in mid February 2019 to facilitate understanding and the provision of open source, informed research and resources to support new cohousing groups and partnerships. There is no doubt that a collective direct housing procurement sector is becoming established in New Zealand. It’s clear also that in the near future 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 land owners seeking out partnerships with cohousing groups, joining one, or establishing their own group.

Originally published in Build 168, Oct/Nov 2018.