Illustration by Max Guther

At home, together: Building shared-living communities

Ahead of the third in our series of lectures exploring ‘Designing for Shared Living’, architect and writer Hannah Wood explores the hurdles often faced by co-living groups as they seek to build lifelong communities, and how they’re being overcome.

“I first became excited by shared living when speaking about it with my friends,” says strategist Lars Lundbye as he chops asparagus for a communal dinner. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all live together? Initially, the plan was to buy a summer house. Then time went by and we began thinking, maybe we could retire together when we get old. But each time we tried to realise those dreams, we were challenged by the practicalities. Not only would we all have to agree it was the right thing to do at the same time, but the organisational and financial implications of moving forward just felt insurmountable.”

This experience, combined with Lundbye’s professional involvement in building communities online, inspired him and his interdisciplinary team — it includes architects and designers, a financial strategist, and an organisational psychologist — to found the co-living facilitation company Almenr. According to its research, self-initiated communities take, on average, more than seven years to realise their dream of living together, and in the meantime, perhaps understandably, most separate. Almenr’s aim is to make the process more straightforward through co-living matchmaking, advice and planning. In its opinion, it shouldn’t take more than two years before a community has an opportunity to move in together.

Almenr’s model was inspired by the Baugruppe movement in Berlin, which self-funded and constructed a co-share on Ritterstrausse 50 (R50) in 2013. The project was a reaction to housing speculation in the city which has fuelled both price inflation and a debate over mietpreisbremse, or rent caps. While the architect-led Baugruppe movement aimed to ask what happens when a community starts building, it was enabled by a breakthrough in the financing of co-living — a specialised shared mortage package offered by Nürnberg’s UmweltBank, which was structured through the pooling of individual home loans.

Using Almenr’s online platform, prospective residents build a profile by answering questions about themselves and how they wish to live. They are then matched with each other in groups called “architypes”. Once architypes have been established, they’re given the opportunity to scout for properties and enter the co-design phase, guided by Almenr’s in-house co-living architects and designers. The final phase of the process is the formalisation of the project, which includes obtaining planning, financing and construction.

Almenr aims to combine the approaches of new co-living operators and ground-up community activism, rather than reinforcing the divide between them.

“We have to face that we are part of the same movement,” Lundbye explains. “I guess the difference is that we are working towards creating socially sustainable communities.” Almenr currently has one secured co-living site (Allerslev Old School, a 35-minute train ride from central Copenhagen, which will be transformed into 28 homes with two hectares of common space), and six architype lists for future co-livers to sign up to and participate in workshops and events to build their own communities.

Illustration by Max Guther

Kathrine Hegner Stærmose, architect of AART’s co-living project Generationernes Hus, highlights the importance of designing diverse and interesting spaces to enable groups to stay in co-shares, no matter what stage of life they’re in.

“It is extremely important to make housing that improves our possibilities of making valuable relations,” says Stærmose, who will also be speaking at the Designing for Shared Living event in Copenhagen on 4 May.

“In the project, we wanted residents to be able to participate in the community on their own terms.” The scheme, which remains unbuilt, planned to combine accommodation tailored for different ages and needs — including youths, families and disabled people — with shared facilities such as a kindergarten, kitchens and common areas, within its 27,000 square metre footprint.

One group which pursued its own path and learned many things along the way is the Older Women’s Cohousing community. The OWCH community, comprising women over 50, designed and built their own community in North London. “We hope [future coshare communities] have an easier journey than ours, now we have shown the way,” they conclude. “Senior cohousing communities could enrich the last years of many, and reduce pressures on health and care services, if local authorities, planners, policymakers and housing developers helped to remove the many obstacles society puts in its way.”

Hilary Vernon-Smith, who is resident at the OWCH community and will also appear at the event on 4 May, says financial hurdles stood in their way initially. “The main problem was that none of us had a lot of money,” she explains. “And we wished to stay in London and also offer rental apartments, as well as some for the women to buy. The local council [municipality] just didn’t understand the importance of us being together as a community.” Though the senior support charity Hanover Housing stepped in to help the women buy a plot of land in North London, it still wasn’t plain sailing. “As we had to sell our properties first,” Vernon-Smith explains, “it became a real problem when the move-in date was pushed back. We had an 80-year-old woman having to sleep on a friend’s sofa.” Despite the challenges, the women now have a friendly and supportive community around them every day.

“The biggest benefit of co-living is always having people around to do things with,” Vernon-Smith adds, “and simply to be greeted when you get home.”

While financial barriers may still be the most significant hurdle preventing existing communities making shared living a reality, innovative banking practices and facilitation groups are gradually working to ensure these communities are supported, so that their energy and momentum is not lost in the process of creating a home. As exemplified by Almenr, online co-living platforms established to work towards this goal have begun to generate their own co-living interest communities. It is on these platforms that the agendas of self-initiated and developer-led communities begin to overlap and may become useful tools to offer future co-livers greater agency over the communities and spaces they wish to create.


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