This is a guest post by Biddy Livesey who is a housing policy analyst, researcher, and future resident of Cohaus.

Part One: Introduction to collective housing development: Cohousing

Our cities are changing. The cost of land is increasing, the way we move around is evolving, and our lives are different to the lives our parents and grandparents led. Our housing needs to change too. This post outlines the concept of cohousing, and the differences between cohousing and commercial property development, including the effects on affordability, design, and allocation of space for public and private uses.

The concept of cohousing 

When we say ‘cohousing’, we mean a resident-led, not-for-profit model for collectively developing and operating housing. In cohousing, residents live in private apartments, jointly own common spaces, share amenities, and work together to run the housing complex. Different models of collective building can be found across the world. Characteristics of cohousing developments emerging in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand include:

  • Participatory process – Residents participate in the planning and design process.
  • Designs that facilitate community – The physical design encourages a sense of community and provides opportunities for casual interaction
  • Extensive community amenities – The presence of common areas, which are complementary to private living areas and are designed for daily use
  • Purposeful separation from the car – Cars parked away from private residences encourage community interaction, and also maintains the safety of outdoor play spaces.
  • Complete resident management – The community is self-managed.

This model is similar to the ‘building group’ model found in Europe, where people join together to visualise and finance a housing development (see examples in Berlin, Switzerland, and Denmark). Under this model, the development includes jointly owned spaces, but after development each owner holds a unit title for their apartment. Cohousing is a great model for developing new affordable housing, which – as we all know – is in short supply in urban Auckland.

LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) Leeds, UK

Why can cohousing be more affordable?

Commercial property development is led by a professional developer, and driven by ‘return on investment’, or the expected profit from a development. In contrast, a cohousing development is led by the future residents, and no financial profit is expected from a development.

In a hot property market like Auckland, the biggest contribution of the cohousing model to creating affordable housing is building a form of housing which efficiently uses our most valuable resource – land. Through commercial property development, developers aim to create housing which can be sold for the highest price possible, which often means maximising private unit size. In cohousing, future residents can decide to reduce individual costs by reducing the size of individual units. Living comfortably in smaller units is made possible by increasing the size and quality of shared spaces, and by creating a functioning community who can work together to ensure that shared space is well-used. In cohousing, residents contribute the vision, guide the design, and finance land purchase and construction. Future residents invest time, effort and money in a cohousing development, but the return on this investment is a high-quality home designed specifically for the people who live there.

The philosophy of community also makes cohousing more affordable to manage. In a commercially-managed apartment building, residents pay a body corporate fee to a professional property manager to look after maintenance and repairs, property sales, and managing relationships. In a cohousing development, residents can reduce the cost of body corporate fees by taking on many of these roles themselves. Residents can use their own time and skills for management and maintenance. Other savings are also possible through bulk buying of services such as electricity, water and internet.

Why does cohousing create a higher-quality and unique living environment? 

If you purchase an apartment from a commercial property developer, you are generally restricted to choosing an apartment design, and a floor in the building. Apartments are provided to the purchaser fully finished – walls painted white, bathrooms tiled in a colourful mosaic, and kitchen ready-to-use with marble counter tops, swivel taps and cupboards designed for an anonymous cook. Many people who move into an apartment may immediately paint the walls, and make plans to refit the bathroom and kitchen to meet their needs, when they have the money.

In a cohousing development, more decisions can be made by future residents. Collectively, future residents can choose what will suit them best. Enabling residents to make these decisions means that the apartments in a cohousing development can reflect the budget, physical requirements, and preferences of residents.

How does cohousing rebalance private and public space? 

The assumption of a commercial property developer is that residents want to maximize private space, and minimize spaces which are shared. In contrast, cohousing developments are designed to maximise social contact between residents through common spaces and shared amenities. Housing researcher Jade Kake has studied the layout, circulation, and allocation of space for shared or private uses in collective housing developments, including papakāinga developments and cohousing communities. She found a number of patterns, including:

  • Houses are located closer together and more space is given over to communal (rather than private) outdoor space.
  • A range of spaces are provided including a small private yard or courtyard for individual dwellings, shared spaces for the use of defined clusters of houses, and common space for the use of the whole community.
  • Vegetation, rather than fencing, is used to create boundaries between private/shared/communal zones, and to create areas of defensible space.
  • Car parking is located on the periphery of the site, often in communal car parks rather than in private garages attached to dwellings.

Emphasising the importance of social contact between residents influences the design of the collective housing developments, shaping the experiences of people living, visiting, and walking past.

Trudeslund, Birkerod, Denmark

Cohousing in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand 

For many people, the stereotype of two parents and two kids living in a stand-alone house on a section with a fence has never reflected our reality. Many of us grew up in houses with extended family, or flatted with friends, or live in divided villas or bungalows that bring us into close contact with our neighbours. In addition, many children are staying in their parents’ homes for longer. Recent data shows that, on average, children now ‘leave home’ three times. In this sense, living more closely together in a cohousing development is nothing new to New Zealanders. Existing developments founded on cooperative or cohousing principles in Aotearoa New Zealand include Riverside community (Moutere, 1941), Creekside community (Christchurch, 1974), and Earthsong (Auckland, 2008). In Dunedin, the High Street Cohousing Project recently achieved resource consent for 22 units, a common house and shared grounds. Construction of the development will begin in mid to late 2018.

Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood, Ranui, Auckland

In Aotearoa New Zealand, it is important to acknowledge that cohousing echoes the traditions of collective housing development exemplified in indigenous built forms such as papakāinga, pā, and kāinga. Papakāinga are based in kaupapa Māori philosophies, and are built by whānau holding mana whenua within their ancestral territories. The concept of “cohousing” is based in philosophies which draw on experiences in European countries and have been widely publicised by cohousing advocates such as Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant in North America. Both papakāinga and cohousing developments provide alternatives to mainstream apartment developments or stand-alone homes.

Because of the ability of collective housing groups to build more affordable housing, local and central governments are investigating how to support cohousing developments. In Hawkes Bay, Hastings District Council is contributing 59 sections to support a cohousing development in Flaxmere. Across the Tasman, the government of Western Australia’s development company, Landcorp, is working with the University of Western Australia and German architect Kirstein Ring to create a Baugruppen Innovation Project in Perth. Baugruppen (literally ‘building groups’ in German) bring together future owner-occupiers to develop multi-unit housing that is well-designed, sustainable and suitable for their long-term needs.

However, despite the potential contribution to affordable housing, and the interest from local and central government in alternative models of housing, a number of cohousing groups in Auckland have struggled recently to navigate the complexities of finding a suitable site, financing land purchase, and completing the planning process.

In the next post we will look at a proposed cohousing development in Grey Lynn, called Cohaus.

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  1. Thanks for the post, Biddy. I look forward to the next one about Cohaus.

    I know cohousing ‘developments’ here which include a main house and outbuildings such as small converted sheds and caravans. Lovingly tended, and involving great reciprocal childcare arrangements and shared cooking etc, but probably quite illegal. I know others wanting to do the same with tiny houses in their yards but have not been able to get consent. So here’s a barrier to intensification that is pretty annoying, giving the great social outcomes possible.

  2. One of the best things in cohousing for me as a community member is the possibility that the cheaper unit price means younger people can move in. It’s depressing living in an area that is losing its young adults. Very hard to attract young adults to community groups when there are so few around.

  3. Id love to live in an apartment building with a common outdoor area (on the roof perhaps) rather than individual poky little balconies that never see the sun.

        1. I think in English the appropriate phrase is: “If only”.

          Those pictures above look great, but I am not sure I will be able to afford an apartment in that development.

    1. That new Victoria Quarter apartment building getting built right next to the cook street cycleway just announced has an amazing but expensive looking shared dining roof top area. Probably too much motorway vehicle fumes for my liking.

  4. Interesting article. I wouldn’t necessarily call it “disruption” but there has to be some sort of shake-up, including this, to the housing approach in NZ.

    I think I read just a few days ago that the average house price in NZ is $645k? Short of an economic collapse – which is good for no one – house ownership is just looking more and more unrealistic for the next generations.

    Or will we wake up one day and a whole generation won’t be interested in paying all that interest on a mortgage and ownership just won’t be a goal anymore?

  5. I wonder if the support from local and central government that i would want to allow master planned blocks for housing intensification purposes could be widened to allow co-housing also?

    My proposal is written up here

    There seems to some overlap. Both being local community initiatives with devolved planning permission powers.

    Also I wonder if a co-housing model of future residents doing the designing and building could somehow partner with existing residents for a variation on my master planned intensification scheme to access affordable land in useful locations?

    This could combine the energy and skills of the young with the land holdings of the old to make a better community for all. Would that be possible somewhere?

    There are something like 10,000 residential blocks in Auckland….. it would only takes 0.01% interest to get a scheme up and running…

  6. “Apartments are provided to the purchaser fully finished […]. Many people who move into an apartment may immediately paint the walls, and make plans to refit the bathroom and kitchen to meet their needs, when they have the money.”

    I think that is also the case for new houses. Off-the plan, fully finished, built by the dozen, if not hundreds.

    But given that second part, isn’t that strange? There must be a market for homes which are delivered without every last room finished. Or has DIY somehow become a taboo when it comes to bathrooms and kitchens?

    1. They wouldn’t pass their final inspection or have a compliance certificate without paint and/or bathrooms.

    2. I think those who are keen on DIY tend to buy an existing house, I doubt there is much of a market for an unfinished brand new house.

      It is certainly possible to be quite bespoke with a new build but it costs, there is significant economies of scale from using an existing plan and bulk purchased fittings.

      1. OK maybe not DIY in that case, but rather buy your kitchen and have it installed. The costs, well, you’re paying through the nose for a new house anyway.

        If you’re already thinking of remodelling your kitchen immediately after moving into your newly built house, then you’re doing it wrong.

        1. Yes, Europe must have very different regulations letting people take their quality kitchens with them to kitchen shells, for both new and old buildings. It means people buy quality materials instead of the MDF we have that seems to be part of a disposable mindset. All part of why we have the worst waste emissions in the OECD…

        2. Well, there’s this big box chain called IKEA in Europe, so often those kitchens will be MDF just the same. But at least you don’t replace it before it starts falling apart.

      2. Between this comment from Roeland: “There must be a market for homes which are delivered without every last room finished” and this one from Jezza: “I doubt there is much of a market for an unfinished brand new house” there sits a world of opportunity. The route I went down was to buy a “shell” apartment – developers converting an old factory – created simple walls and created empty shells, sold off plans, with absolutely nothing in them – 3 walls of fire rated gib to make the box, 1 wall of glazing out onto a balcony.

        I bought a 90m2 shell for $165,000 and then my simple fitout cost only $55,000 – one bathroom, one kitchen, one bedroom. The rest is just empty space. Best thing I’ve ever done.

        Revalued at double what it cost me, and total control over my own DIY. I think there would be a decent sized market for spaces that were not highly finished, but instead had a decent amount of the one thing you need: space. In time, you can spend more money on whatever it is you want inside – flash SMEG appliances, marble bench tops, gold taps – whatever turns you on. But all you need to start are fee simple walls and windows.

        It also avoids horrible suburban nightmares, being in the heart of the city. Developers don’t offer it often, because they can’t make their usual massive markup. For best results then, be prepared to team up with others and do your own development. That’s true co-housing too.

        1. Good to hear your story. I’d always wondered why there wasn’t much of this going on. Side question: How much more would you have paid if the three walls had offered more acoustic insulation than gib? Has it been an issue?

        2. The base building shell walls were fully compliant with the Building Code – well above actually, with double layers of gib on twin walls, and sound reducing batts – one of the quietest apartments i’d been in. Building a bare shell doesn’t mean that anything was skimped.
          The only issue was sound transmission vertically between floors. The architects had specified that each shell apartment owner had to install carpet on underlay, to stop noise transmission going down. That happened in all apartments but one, where the owner decided to have bare concrete floors for that “industrial New York loft” feel. Complaints from the apartments below them ever since.

        3. Thanks. Yes I’ve visited an apartment where the only noise from within the apartment was from the resident above in her high heeled shoes on the wooden floor. They seem to manage bare floors in Europe, so I’m not quite sure what we’re doing wrong. I’d certainly hate to have to have carpet.

        4. How much extra cost does proper sound insulation add to a build?

          Would it be worth it to pay that extra amount if it means you don’t hear everything your neighbour is doing in the bathroom? (and no, I’m not making that one up)

        5. Roeland – not a lot. Best result is solid concrete walls, they’re pretty massive and impenetrable to noise transmission, but of course just as bad for direct impact acoustic transmission – ie you can’t hear anyone talking behind a concrete wall, but if they tap it with a stilletto, the sound comes straight through.

          An extra layer or two of gib costs, comparatively, very little. Extra sound insulation costs very little. It costs so little to do it better from timber and gib – if we can’t do it properly from concrete.

          We’re currently testing it with CLT – which might be the best compromise.

  7. Nice article. Incidentally my mum and dad and youngest brother and sister in law are part of the Dunedin co-housing development. Build starts soon and will be to passive haus standards. It’s been a long process getting everything sorted but will be a great place to live when complete in ~2 years.

  8. In an ideal world your neighbor will be nice selfless people who take care of the common area.

    In real world you can have neighbors who are psychopath, antisocial, violent, toxic, destructive. The common area will soon become a hell.

    Unlike private backyard where you can ignore them, co housing has no way to escape those people.

    How can you evict those problem people out once they bought the unit?

    1. And this is the fear that limits good social urban planning in the western world. Earthsong was a pioneer on the world stage, I believe, in not having any entry restrictions. The concept there was that if people wanted to live there, that would be enough of a selection process. Cohousing groups overseas apparently thought this went too far, but it hasn’t been an issue, from what I heard.

      There were two families in a street near me who moved out because of the concerted attack on them by one particular nasty neighbour, so a private residence is no protection anyway. Cohousing should help to contribute to healthier relationships so that more issues are worked through.

      Since there is quite a lot of cohousing in other parts of the world – including developer-built, where the residents did not have input to the design but just bought once it was built, I’m hoping there are plenty of models to learn social solutions from.

    2. Lots of developments, cohousing or not, have common and shared areas. Many of them work very well.
      As another future resident of Cohaus, I’m not too worried about violnet, toxic and destructive bahaviour from the others in the group. Dispute and disagreements re likely to arise as in any social situation but we recognise we’ll have to resolve them. It is also a fairly large place so we won’t be living in each others pockets — we’ll always have our own units and other parts of the development to get away from others.

      1. I hear this a lot @Kelvin .

        But cohousing has far more social and political (and often legal) structures that complement the physical stuff, and shape people’s behaviour to bring out “best selves” in ways that standard modern neighbourhoods almost never do.
        So no, with cohousing you simply don’t get to be a total dork and continue to live there.

        One of the defining characteristics of Earthsong was its collective decision-making structures, which were enshrined in the body corporate agreement – check out their website.

        The Earthsong body corp agreement was a pioneer of good facilitative techniques applied in everyday life – the kinds of things we see now in Loomio and other awesoeme decision-making processes.
        Its protocols for decision-making and communication are great resource; I am using them in a few community group contexts.

  9. Having lived as an adult in both traditional flatting situations and in apartments, this sounds like the perfect balance! In a flatting situation the only place you can go to have time to yourself and not have to be ‘on’ all the time is your bedroom, which usually results in a massive underutilised space (the living room), or the communal space being used by the dominant personalities but not others. This is a source of low level ongoing stress.
    In an apartment situation it is a great effort to meet people, because the public spaces are very public and often don’t encourage lingering. It’s like trying to meet people on the footpath. So you can be surrounded by lots of people but never speak a single word to another person beyond pleasantries in the lift.
    What appeals to me about co-housing is the possibility of having my own space (kitchen, bathroom, and living room included) as well as the opportunity to spend time in larger spaces where I might be able to strike up a conversation with someone. And the key thing is it allows me to choose when. I don’t have to if I don’t want to, but it’s there when I feel like it.
    I see this is something that will become increasingly important as we have more people living alone.
    Currently I’m living in an apartment with some shared facilities (movie room, BBQs, party room etc), and these make my tiny studio really liveable.

    Also, aren’t we sort of describing retirement villages, but without the health care? The general concepts is not so unusual.

    1. +1 And the point is often made that resistance to the concept here is strange given that retirement villages are on the rise.

      I believe the communal laundry often becomes the main meeting point, and it makes sense to have shared quality facilities. At Earthsong they have a tennis table and a swapping shelf, couch and library in the laundry.

      The other thing that appeals to me about cohousing is the gardening. Gardening at home is a solitary activity. Gardening at the community garden is social but takes that time for gardening away from the place you call home. Cohousing gardening seems like the perfect mix.

    2. Yes, the link the retirement villages is an interesting one, particualry in Auckland where retirement villages are one of the few places where we have consistenly seen medium denisty housing done wel for quite a long time now.

      1. + heaps, I have often found it strange that people who decree intensification and apartment living often talk about the wonderful retirement homes they have “put” their relatives in.

      2. Except that most retirement villages operate on the “licence to occupy/licence to rip you off if you need to leaves model.

  10. Transport: I’m in a community group that needs cars rarely, being in a well-connected part of town, both by public transport and by cycling. We often talk about how we all need to move to live next door to each other so that we can just have one car between us. Cohousing can also solve this.

    If I was putting together a design for a cohousing development, I would provide spaces for a couple of Cityhop cars, spaces for a couple of privately owned cars – but on the understanding that the owners would lend them to others in the group if asked, and several spaces that could be booked for short-term or overnight. The idea being to support people to not own a car, and also not putting a parking demand on the street. If you don’t own a car in Auckland, you still like to be able to have people visit occasionally, and you like to be able to hire a car once in a while, and bring it home to load up before heading out on a holiday. I would put those needs ahead of any individual spaces allocated to people to own an unshared car, and make it clear from the outset that private car ownership is not part of that particular development’s goals.

  11. Great post. I’d like to see more of this in future. Makes me think of the whole co-working movement and how it may be done in a non-profit way to help grow more small businesses.

  12. I lived in a rental complex in Sydney when I first moved there in about 1970, which was effectively co-housing although we didn’t know it! Each person or couple had their own studio apartment with ensuite and kitchenette. There was a large common kitchen, common laundry, and the whole complex was built around a landscaped courtyard. All vehicles were parked in the basement car park. The point is that co-housing does not have to be limited to the ownership model. There are also rental co-housing developments in Western Australia.

  13. Thank you for sharing Biddy. It seems to be a great place for those folk that live on their own to feel connected.

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