by: Levent Kerimol
When people are allowed to make decisions about how they want to live, they often confound conventional assumptions about how they ought to live. The cluster flats found in several European community-led housing schemes are one such example, that we can learn from in London.
With young people single for longer, families taking different shapes with increasing rates of divorce, and loneliness in older age, we know many households are far from the classic nuclear family with 2.4 kids. Yet conventional housing development continues to provide 2 or 3 bedroom units. Meanwhile institutional student accommodation or commercial “co-living” hangs hotel rooms from long corridors leading to shared kitchens as small as individual rooms, or other themed rooms accessed with a key card.
Community-led cluster flats blur the boundary between these two forms to create more sociable homes for a number of independent households, who may otherwise be confined to anonymous individualised living situations.
Mehr Als Wohnen (‘More than Living’) in Zurich has a block with generous atrium stairwells, communal laundry rooms shared by two cluster flats per floor. The cluster flats themselves include single rooms and suites informally placed across the plan, creating open-plan shared living, dining and kitchen spaces, as well as quieter corners. Each is it’s own community within the wider neighbourhood.
Kalkbreite, another ambitious co-operative development in Zurich, distributes cluster flats across floors, amongst more conventional flats. The communal corridor subtly changes into the shared hallway of a cluster flat, and cluster rooms have window into the hallway.
The Spreefeld Co-operative in Berlin integrates a cluster flat (orange) around more conventional flats (brown) within each of the three blocks that make up the scheme. The cluster flats are across several floors, and have their own internal staircases like a duplex apartments.
The individual clusters of rooms often have their own kitchenette and shower room, and may have a sitting room or two bedrooms, allowing parents and children their own space. These suites have normal internal doors rather than numbered flat entrance doors which are often left open as they lead into more private spaces only gradually.
In one cluster older people live with young couples, single parents and their children, as they find the social energy uplifting. Another cluster is formed of a group of older people who prefer a quieter home than living with noisy toddlers. These are communities with a sense of belonging and identity around their homes.
These schemes stand in contrast to branded commercial “co-living” developments. Residents are involved in the design process, set out their requirements and adapt their budget to the construction cost. This leads to subtle but important differences in physical arrangements. They can be considered small cohousing communities within community owned non-profit developments, rather than individual tenants providing the investor returns required by “co-living” operators, who make a virtue of fabricating a sense of community in order to charge inflated rents.
Of course, many of London’s private renters live in house shares, or “Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs)”. Shared kitchens, bathrooms, and living rooms, will not be something to aspire to. But their poor reputation is mostly due to lack of security and poor management by private landlords who seek to maximise their profits.
Shared living in co-operative housing is fundamentally different to co-living or privately rented house shares. You are your own landlord, together with all your neighbours or housemates. This means; control of when and how repairs get done, and taking responsibility for these costs, in a non-profit context.
Shared houses are frequently encountered in London’s co-operatives. Sanford Housing Co-op is largely made up of purpose-built houses for 8 single people with shared kitchen and living. Zahra Housing Co-operative wants to create multi-generational housing, where related households live under one roof.
The Drive Housing Co-op are a small intentional community who live together in a large Victorian house in Walthamstow and plan to build a new shared house in the garden.
HMO landlords and co-living often squeeze space standards and decent maintenance in favour of profit maximisation. A co-operative is in control of the choices and decisions they make, and can choose to make trade-offs between individual space and facilities for greater affordability and higher environmental performance.