Credit: National Museum Film/Courtesy of Helen & Hard
These architects believe communal living is the way of the future
Picture a sunlit modern interior built from light wood, where private apartments open up into airy communal spaces. Residents organize their social activities and hobbies in groups, connecting over shared interests. They meet regularly to vote on community rules. If you are elderly or a new parent -- or simply lonely -- there is always someone around for support.
This way of living may sound like an impossible utopia, but some are already experiencing its potential. "What We Share. A model for cohousing" is a concept for a housing project designed by founding architects Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf of Norweigian firm Helen & Hard. Currently on display as a walkable installation curated by the National Museum of Norway at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, the prototype invites visitors to consider giving up traditional residences to reduce their carbon emissions and improve social well-being.
The model is not just a lofty idea that the architects are asking people to try, untested. It is based on the 40-unit cohousing project Vindmøllebakken, located in Stavanger, Norway, which they completed in 2019 and now call their home. They also have five similar buildings in the works.
"What We Share" presents an updated take on communal living that differs from both the hippie communes of the 1960s and '70s -- where members managed a plot of land and pooled their income -- and the more recent slew of so-called "adult dorms" cropping up in major cities like San Francisco, New York and London -- where residents rent sleek, furnished rooms and share common areas and amenities. Instead, Stangeland and Kropf's model is based on the Danish cohousing tradition, in which residents own their private homes but share communal areas that suit their needs. In "What We Share," however, they take ownership a step further, with each member having a stake in the common spaces, too.
"Most cohousing projects we know of in Scandinavia, they maybe have a common space, but this is not owned," said Kropf in a joint video call with Stangeland. "You get those architectural benefits by having this beautiful, generous common space, which (many) can't afford."
Located in the Nordic pavilion at the Biennale, the installation features a cross-section of what the actual layout would look like, down to the furniture and homewares. "(It) feels like stepping into something which is a home, but a new kind of home," Stangeland said. "We wanted the installation to trigger curiosity so that people think about...how architecture can help us live in another way together, and how it can facilitate a more communal life."
"What We Share" takes an even more radical approach to co-living than Vindmøllebakken, where there are shared spaces like kitchens, guestrooms and a library, as well as more flexible areas for work or leisure, but the delineation between private and public life is more pronounced. For the new concept, they posed a question to their current neighbors: Which functions or social situations could they move out of their apartments and share with other residents?
The answer to that led to the design of a "sharing layer" between the compact private rooms and the open central space -- flexible areas that are separated from the central common one, which can be used for small social or solo activities. Kropf calls them "a buffer zone mediating between the very private space and the common space."
The layout itself is also modifiable. The interior is built from spruce wood planks and beech dowels, which means that residents can reassemble walls, dividers, counters, storage and furniture as needed to transform the space.
An alternative solution
Co-living may provide an answer to the pressing climate and population concerns that we face across the globe. Stangeland and Kropf say that residents of Vindmøllebakken significantly reduce their carbon footprint by requiring less space and sharing appliances like washing machines. The use of locally sourced timber for the existing project, as well as the proposed one, is around 70% more sustainable than steel and concrete, according to the architect's estimates.
Cohousing also provides an alternative to nursing homes at a time when aging populations are set to overtake younger ones. Last July, a study published in The Lancet estimated that the world's population was likely to enter a sustained decline in the second half of this century. It's already happening in countries like Japan, where the birth rate has been steadily decreasing.
The architects also want to explore how well-designed spaces can be a balm for loneliness -- a widespread problem in the US, where more than a third of adults age 45 and older say they feel lonely, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Loneliness is even becoming endemic in one of the "happiest" countries, Sweden, where most households are people who live alone. Loneliness can have stark health impacts that substantially increase a person's risk of early death, and after a year of extreme social isolation due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the need to connect with others is becoming an increasingly urgent health matter.
"I think people are becoming much more aware of how important light is, and balconies, but also the neighborhood and the surroundings that you have access to, to gardens or spaces outside your dwelling," Stangeland said. She added that at Vindmøllebakken during the pandemic, they have "been able to keep on with social meetings and activities, although we have new restrictions, because they are organized and coordinated." That has meant breaking off into small groups or using their 5,300-square-foot common space for distanced events, like outdoor concerts that can be enjoyed from residents' balconies.
While the concept of co-living is as old as early hunter-gatherer societies, modern co-living has taken on a few distinct forms, including Berlin's "baugruppen," or "building group," movement -- which brings people together to cofinance building blocks with government support -- and Silicon Valley's "hacker homes," where engineers live and work together. Some mid-century European co-living projects were designed to make it easier for women to enter the workforce. And hippies across the Western world used communal living models as a way to eschew the nuclear family structure.
Co-living has also become an alternative in cities with steeper rental prices where young people are flocking for work, and US companies like Starcity and Common, China's You+, and the UK's The Collective have seized upon the trend. They each offer fully furnished private quarters with pristine-looking common areas, along with a slew of amenities, functioning almost like long-term hostels.
For their own designs, Stangeland and Kropf looked to several cohousing projects for inspiration, including Sargfabrik in Austria, Lange Eng in Denmark, and Kraftwerk 2 in Switzerland, which cater to residents of all ages.
What all co-living initiatives seem to share is the desire to create community, whether based on ideological beliefs or simply to make friends or network. But for Stangeland and Kropf, that means building eco-conscious spaces for multigenerational inhabitants who act as a small village, volunteering their time to ensure their shared home thrives. They believe co-owning the property, instead of renting, helps to strengthen those bonds. At Vindmøllebakken, they say prices are about on par with the average home in the area, and they believe such a community can attract first-time buyers to the housing market.
"If you have a rental apartment it is more difficult to build...a long-lasting community," Kropf said. "We think that by empowering the inhabitants (as) shareholders and participants, you have more open processes and it's more democratic and transparent."
'This is a rich life'
At Vindmøllebakken, residents have organized 26 different groups, according to Kropf, including ones for dog owners, cooks and party planners. Several families have moved in, giving children opportunities for live-in playmates.
"This is a rich life," Stangeland said. She's built much of her routine around shared experiences, starting with group breakfast and meditation each morning. And though social activities are always available, it's not a setting in which extensive participation is enforced.
"People think you have to be very social (in co-living)," she said. "That's not the case. I think more of us are introverts than extroverts."
The only event with required attendance is a monthly meeting where residents vote on any new issues that arise, and while total agreement is an impossible feat, Stangeland says that learning to accept disagreements is part of the process.
"You have to learn to not agree, and that's OK," she said. "You have to be willing to...find solutions that everyone can live with, (even if) it's not your first choice."
When the residents met to vote on designated areas for smoking, for instance, they ultimately ended up agreeing that smokers should just be mindful of where they light up and who they are around, instead of banishing them to a specific area.
Ultimately, Stangeland and Kropf hope that their design and lifestyle can lead by example as people search for alternative, mindful ways to live in the future.
"You share certain values that you think are important (in cohousing communities)," Stangeland said. "It's important to know your shared vision or intention, and Vindmøllebakken is very much linked to living a sustainable life."