Experimentdays 17: CoHousing Inclusive

A slightly belated post about the recent Experimentdays event here in Berlin, an international conference on self-organised, community-led housing, drawn together under the (now) broad banner of CoHousing*, and which included the launch of id22’s book on the conference’s theme of inclusivity:


Inclusiveness is a wide and contested term (as they say in academia) – meaning many things to many people. The overall theme, for me, was about moving the concept of collaborative housing projects away from what is so often a model that is organised by and benefits an almost exclusively white, middle class and wealthy group of people. If this is a challenge in Berlin (it definitely is) then how much more so in the UK, where the challenges involved in acquiring and keeping land in use for purposes other than pure speculation seem ever greater.

The book is rather good, by the way, and includes a series of case studies of projects around the world which have indeed managed to combine genuinely innovative community-based housing projects, with a view to wider social cohesion.

And what, in this context, are the implications for my own subject, of older people and CoHousing? In the UK and elsewhere, society’s perception of older people is at best ambivalent. Are they a group who suffer prejudice, stereotyping and exclusion? Or are they the Baby Boomers – the generation who have taken – and kept – the nation’s housing wealth? (Clue: both. Neither. It’s complicated).

I was co-organiser of one of the sessions during the event, titled: Is Cohousing for Life?, a workshop in which academics, practitioners and others with an interest. We looked at various scenarios around groups of older people who might have come together to intentionally create a cohousing community that is for (and by) older people, as against other models and forms where intergenerational support might be the primary idea, or (my own provocation) a group comprising a whole range of ages and generations, but whose older members feel in some ways that the support they give is not fully reciprocated.

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But maybe this is getting into too much detail for what’s meant to be an architecture blog. I want to write more, but maybe appropriate to take it elsewhere. If I do, I’ll let you know, but this is meant to be an architecture blog, I guess. So here’s some images of the much-discussed-and-now-architecturally-disappointing Möckernkiez.



*CoHousing? Cohousing? Co-housing? Everyone seems to use slight variations… I think I might go with CoHousing, as it looks the friendliest of these. I’ve previously discussed what I think is the definition, as something that includes a quite defined physical/architectural relationship of individual homes clustered around common facilities. Michael LaFonde, of id22, presents a broader (more inclusive, ha) definition in the CoHousing Inclusive book:

“The term CoHousing, closely related to community-led and collaborative housing, was coined in the 1980s by the American architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who were influenced by a Danish model of community-led housing Bofaellesskab. CoHousing is now used as an umbrella term for a range of housing forms emphasizing self-organisation and a community orientation.”



Wohnregal: not shelved.

Talking of ‘new-style co-operatives’, cohousing, and of course my (now decade old) pet subject of the IBA, I went to meet a guy recently who was one of the founding members of a self-build project on Admiralstrasse in Kreuzberg, completed in 1986, and who is still living there. The project is “Wohnregal” (“residential shelf”) – it comprises a simple frame structure with concrete floors, onto which the residents then “placed” different configurations of apartments, each to their own specification.


Image by Gunnar Klack, linked from the extremely useful F-IBA site, and which credits the design to Kjell Nylund / Cristof Puttfarken / Peter Stuerzenbecher

Most of the twelve apartments were built as cohousing units, although in this case they are closer to shared flats than the cohousing movement’s definition, with up to five bedrooms which share bathroom, kitchen and a central living space. They still function this way today, and include a handful of the original residents. I have described this as a form of cohousing on the basis that they’re included on the Cohousing Berlin website, but also because in spirit the whole block does seem to function very much as an intentional community. On the day I was there, many of the residents were involved in a work-day digging out and rebuilding the rotted planter boxes on the roof, which involved a lot of earth being moved six storeys down to the garden, but with kind of a party atmosphere brewing (maybe that was just me).

The construction of the block was also the first building that formed the Selbstbaugenossenschaft Berlin eG (self-build co-operative Berlin) that’s also still going strong, and is the co-op that’s building IBeB, the new mixed development on the former Blumenmarkt site opposite the Jewish Museum. Thus it also represents an early example of the re-emergence of smaller-style co-operatives – in fact, I just learned from the Internationale BauAustellung site (which I’ve only just come across, looks excellent), it was “the first housing construction cooperative for a joint new building project since 1945”. Blimey. In the whole of Germany? Doesn’t say, will check…

And as noted, above, it was also a small but important part of West Berlin’s building exhibition of the 1980s, the IBA (International BauAustellung), and forms part of a much larger housing block that was reconstructed in the same period by various architects exploring a range of different ideas about how neglected parts of the urban fabric might be rescued and reintegrated. Parts of it covered here and here, and includes the much more recent addition of the Beginnenhof – a Baugruppe apartment block for women only (and which is frequently referred to as a kind of touchstone reference by many of the older people forming part of my PhD study).

Anyhoo, back at the Wohnregal… I had half an idea (more of a researcher fantasy really) that given the age of the block, it might be occupied by many of its original residents, who I reasoned might well have aged together and now comprise a kind of unintended cohousing group of older people, maybe in their 60s. There are indeed a handful of founder members still living there, although mainly younger than that, and the block seems to have maintained a good spread of ages and different kinds of people (including some refugees in the cohousing apartment that I visited) so unfortunately (for me) it didn’t quite fit the bill.

One interesting thing that came out of the chat I had with one of the founder residents was that over the years, the cost of servicing the loans that the co-operative required to build had been quite substantial, meaning that rents had been above market rents for many years, a situation that has only changed relatively recently with the massive increases in market rents fuelled by property speculation in Berlin (and especially this part of the city).

Having said that, they are fantastic, airy, flexible apartments, which hopefully will long remain in use for the mixed, sharing crowd that currently lives there. Out of courtesy, I didn’t take any interior photos, but I did take some snaps from the roof, which is quite a view.