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The Cohousing Myth

Part 2 Dissertation 2010
Will Sherlaw
University of Sheffield | UK
This dissertation was conceived following the completion of the UK’s first cohousing community in Stroud, Gloucestershire in 2003. The group were inspired by the Danish movement which began in the 1970s when residents dissatisfied with the available housing options wanted to participate in the design of their homes and share common facilities to evoke feelings of community lacking from modern society. Around 140 such communities exist in Denmark however it is only recently that cohousing has begun to permeate globally following an increasingly refined model.

Literature on cohousing is often very affirmative describing cohousing as an exceptional environment for raising children and creating relationships for mutual support. I was interested in discovering why these idyllic communities had taken so long to emerge in the UK. Why had they grown so energetically in number in Denmark and what alternatives could they offer to a society, frustrated by a government which continually makes decisions about housing requirements without consulting the future residents. By visiting five cohousing communities across Denmark, two other prominent intentional Danish communities and Springhill in Stroud, I was able to gain a glimpse into the various daily habits and practices which allow a cohousing community to function.

Currently cohousing remains a marginal housing option, but as the movement has developed a series of design and social characteristics have become apparent. These include: a design process dictated by the residents challenging the architect’s traditional role, design of the site and dwellings to encourage social interaction, complete residential management including an egalitarian decision making process and increasingly the incorporation of sustainable technologies. All these issues have an increasing relevance to contemporary architectural practice and this dissertation discusses the potential application of cohousing principles on a wider scale within the UK. This is balanced alongside the insight gained from interviews and observations into the highly regulated lifestyle to which the residents must conform. It questions if the dedication required to enjoy the benefits offered by cohousing is worthwhile when compared to the perceived isolation experienced in modern society.

Will Sherlaw

William Sherlaw’s dissertation, entitled ‘The Cohousing Myth’, traces the historic roots of the cohousing movement in Denmark which emerged in the late 1960s out of the dissatisfaction with available housing options and puts this into context with the recent developments of Springhill cohousing in Stroud in the UK.

Cohousing has been subject to much research which points to a number of potential benefits – social, economic, health, ecological and environmental – of more communal forms of housing, and it was this material that provided the starting point for William’s research. Trying to understand the particularities of the Danish case, the social and political background of this small and comparatively homogeneous northern European country, he embarked on a personal journey. He went out and visited a series of early cohousing developments not only to provide an account of their everyday existence 40 years after they had been founded, but also to find out whether, and if so in what way, these developments had any broader relevance to housing provision elsewhere.

His account of these participatory visits – he became an active member of each community for the time he spent in each place – is divided into themes that touch on intentions, opportunities but also limitations of the cohousing idea and include discussions around the role of the architect, whether a community can be designed, the problems of management and other decision making processes but also conflicts emerging out of diverging ideological approaches. These broader issues are discussed in relation to time and changes over time as well as to the spatial arrangement of each development.

‘The Cohousing Myth’ provides a rather gloomy outlook on cohousing’s potential to provide a housing solution to a wider section of society but in that it is a rich and intelligent account of the diverse approaches to cohousing in Denmark and elsewhere. His dissertation is a reminder about how much more varied the setups and experiences within these developments are than the glossified and sanitized reports that we are typically fed through the media and pressure groups.

Dr Tatjana Schneider
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