Cooperative Architecture

International Anti-Copyright © 1996 by mattt chisholm
Midterm research report
The Idea and Practice of Cooperation
Community Studies 42D
University Of California at Santa Cruz
May 14, 1996

Housing cooperatives cannot simply assimilate themselves into our existing architectural structure. The living styles and needs of a housing cooperative differ greatly than that of a conventional house within a conventional community. The design of the building or buildings that people live in influences the way that the social structure of any community will form and how well the community will function. What types of housing cooperative are there? How should a cooperative be planned, and by whom? What does a cooperative need in the architecture of their future community?

Kathryn McCamant's and Charles Durett's book Cohousing details a movement that began in Denmark and is being adapted to other countries. Cohousing is a middle ground type of housing, with some aspects of suburbia and some aspects of collective living. The communities in Cohousing have a three level social and architectural hierarchy that follows from the individual to the nuclear family to the larger community. The family as a unit is a member of the larger community. Architecturally this is reflected in family units with individual rooms and nuclear family hub connected to a larger community hub.

More radical types of collective living situations are less documented. For example, several families could live together as one large family, with the individual being a member of the larger community, without the intermediate level of the nuclear family unit. This type of living tends to be seen more in tribal settlements and small villages, where the members cooperate in all tasks and the child is raised by the village. The cooperative extreme would be a common room for all the people in the co-op, where they would sleep, eat, and do all of their indoor tasks, but as will be seen later, this raises privacy problems. The other housing extreme is suburbia, where each family or individual has a home with private space, and there is no community space or time at all.

The most important aspect of cooperative architecture is that the future residents are in control of the design process. Rather than having their lives shaped by someone else's architectural ideas, they can shape the architecture to match their own lifestyles. Cooperative housing, like all forms of cooperation, require rethinking of the individual's everyday beliefs, and cannot be forced upon an individual who is not going to have an open mind. Cooperative housing must be initiated by the people who will live with it. Otherwise it is architecture that forces a lifestyle and a set of beliefs on the residents.

In a large group, with relatively homogeneous desires, no one needs to know where they will live while they are planning. This will force the members to think of the good of the community and design equal spaces for everyone. If the group is small or is made up of families with very different wants, then design for individuals may be necessary. Designing for individual wants in a large group might lead to unequal spaces and this could have a psychological effect on the equality of the group. Standardization of the individual units cuts costs, especially in bathrooms and kitchens. The more time that the members spend in the common areas, the less important the design of individual units becomes. Designing for children as equals and members of society and people offers a much richer life for the child. Members controlling design leads to greater personal satisfaction and responsibility because members feel better about their environment.

The membership of a co-op is one of the major concerns for all kinds of cooperative organizations that want to be a force for social change. The lack of economically diverse and, in the United States, racially diverse populations is one of the major problems for co-ops. In a housing co-op, if part of the members own and part rent, more economic diversity is possible. Co-ops can keep the cost of purchasing or renting down through collective ownership or group contract. This would keep membership economically available. As seen in Cohousing in the case of Overdrevet, a co-op's idealism and political action can severely damage it's community. (63) A co-op's politics will likely limit the number of people who want to move in. This ends up keeping people who want to leave living there because they cannot leave without selling. If a co-op is idealistic and or politically active it should be collectively owned, so that members can come and go more freely and the co-op's idealism can be maintained.

In western society the need for individual space is so overwhelming that most cooperatives do not attempt to eliminate it. Perhaps over several generations, cohousing populations will try to eliminate that need, but for now no one wants to part from their own space. At The Farm, a farming and housing cooperative in Tennessee, the original dormitory style of housing was quickly abandoned, in favor of several buildings with individual personal space. As Albert Bates puts it in The Architecture of the Farm,

"Many of us moved into the Farm and straight into a large dormitory setting, either in a group tent or bus full of single people, or later into a large apartment house. Single family dwellings were always at a premium, and many of us learned carpentry or masonry specifically so we could build a private residence when the means became available. Perhaps this is a reflection of suburban upbringing, but just possibly it is an expression of human tropism long in evolution -- the small hut in the larger, but still close, village. We just did what came naturally, and frankly, barracks didn't."

If each individual has his or her own personal space, they can relate to each other in the community as equals. When people in community housing situations are denied privacy and forced to be part of the community all the time, they value community less, resent it, and flee it in order to create private time. Cohousing presents two types of personal space, corresponding to two levels of social organization. The first type of personal space is the individual bedroom, or shared bedroom between partners or siblings, and the second type is the nuclear family's personal space. Usually, the bedrooms are arranged around a small kitchen and living area that is private to a nuclear family. The common space is open to all. This design represents a social organization where private individuals are a part of a nuclear, parents-children family that as a unit is part of a greater community.

The architectural structure must match the social structure, otherwise conflict will arise. Architecture dictates how people organize their everyday lives. People must be conscious of the effects of design, otherwise they have no idea what is wrong in their life. When people migrated to the suburbs, they became isolated because the space for a greater community was nonexistent, while the people themselves still believed in the social concept of greater community. Similarly, if there was still a strong concept of the necessity of the nuclear family and the nuclear family space was eliminated, then people would feel that others were encroaching on their private, nuclear family space.

The private space and the common space should be connected by a transitional space. Connected spaces and the location of daily needed resources can greatly foster community. "Soft-edge" is a term used in Cohousing to describe the semi-private, semi-public space between private and public spaces. (178) The transition from public to private is much less jarring and people have an easier time making it if there is a soft-edge intermediary space. The concepts of my space vs. your space are softened by communal living, as people share time and resources they are more comfortable sharing space. In tribal societies, dwellings pass through levels of privacy, with the entrance being the most public, and the individual rooms being the most private and farthest from the entrance. One is much more likely to use the common space if it is closer to the private space and easier to get to. If individuals can see the common space from their personal spaces, they can know if there are people there. If mail and other daily necessities are located in the common house, residents will need to pass through the common space on a regular basis, and they will be drawn to the community as they pass through.

Eating together is the one activity that is most common among cooperative living communities. The kitchen and dining room should be designed to allow the total number of members to eat there and cook easily, as well as talk and socialize. Good acoustics are important; a noisy room makes conversation harder. If the people have their own kitchens, and intend only to spend one collective meal eating in the common house, then it can be designed with only larger groups in mind. If the common kitchen is the only kitchen for the members, then the environment should be friendly even when someone is eating alone. Sitting alone in a large empty room can be very unfriendly, and it would be impossible for all the people to coordinate to eat together. If more people eat at a time than can fit at a small table, then there should be several separate tables, round, from about six to eight person size. Institutional, rectangular tables and ordered, geometric arrangement of tables are detrimental to conversation. If eight people are sitting at a long rectangular table, with four on each side, people on the ends have trouble hearing and seeing each other. A group of eight people sitting at a round table, where everyone can see and hear each other, tend to talk more. A person sitting at a long table in a room of long tables in rows is located in relation to the horizontal and vertical coordinates of the room. In contrast, a person at a smaller, rounder table is arranged with a group of people around a center, within a smaller space.

Common spaces are also useful for socializing and activities that the individual spaces do not accommodate. The more time and resources people spend at the co-op, and the less resources and individual space that they have, the more important the collective space becomes. Some important rooms for the communities studied in Cohousing were: kids room, teen room, music room, library, office/computer room, TV/media room, arts/crafts room, dance studio/martial arts dojo, workshop, pantry, laundry, and storage facilities. The teen room, music room, and library need privacy and isolation for noise and social reasons. For a housing cooperative that is isolated from urban areas, some additional common rooms would be needed, such as an infirmary/nursery, classroom, and more extensive food storage facilities. A computer network with a central, main machine and connected machines in other rooms will become more important in the future, and the coop could run a collective internet access program if the local access was nonexistent or unsatisfactory. Also, by adding a number of auxiliary rooms throughout the co-op, the community could allow for growth, living space for guests, family problems, and overflow. Ideally, auxiliary space could be filled with new members and then the group could split in two, half founding a new coop with the support from the other.

Flexible floor plans allow for comfortable change and growth in the co-op. If adjacent units can switch some rooms between each other, then changes in the nuclear family can be accommodated easily. For example, if a bedroom in nuclear family unit A shared a wall with unit B, and the teenager who lived in the room went to college, then the door could be sealed off and the people in unit B could use it for their newborn child. (McCamant, 190) Two single person units could be opened up to each other to accommodate a couple or close friends, either by adding door between them or by removing parts of the wall.

People are more likely to share seldom used items, such as gardening equipment, tools, art supplies, musical instruments, and camping equipment, in a cooperative environment. These rooms allow collective items to be stored easily and accessible to all. Instead of every family buying and storing their own set of everything, they can share purchasing costs and storage facilities. Mistreatment of common property can be limited by giving people individual responsibility over a specific resource. (McCamant, 85) This creates accountability to an individual rather than to the group. Responsibility should be rotated, allowing everyone to be in charge of the resources and keeping one person from dominating. If the people are in control, they have a greater sense of pride and respect toward their environment. People mistreat common property less when there is a sense of importance and power within the community to which the property belongs.

Especially in more extreme climates, an interior passage to common space from the family or individual units is good. Not only does such a space allow people to move between common and private spheres, but it makes such a transition less formal, and more spontaneous. An unheated greenhouse area connecting the private rooms and the common area, can include a private/public transition and be an indoor/outdoor transition as well. The same soft-edge type of transition that smoothes the boundary between private and public can be done with indoor/outdoor transitions: If the connecting and/or common areas form a semi-outdoor, soft-edge space, people have a much easier time making the transition to the outdoors, and the time spent outside is increased.

Outside space can be used for farming or gardening, and for public and private leisure/play areas. A private outdoor space connected to the private indoor space can be separated from the public outdoors by landscaping and physical barriers. Limiting the structures to one side of the site maintains much of the existing open space. Common facilities can be located to be an entrance, exit and focus for the whole community. Cars are noisy, smelly, ugly, and dangerous to small children and they also require a flat hard surface to drive and park on. The site can be developed with a parking lot/carport at the front, leading to an entrance into the common house, which can then be connected to individual and outdoor spaces. The extra space saved by condensing common space can allow site specific weather patterns, natural features, and solar orientation to be taken into account in the building's design. In contrast, in the suburbs, lots are so small that these things must be ignored.

On the largest scale, the coop should be a functioning part of the greater region and of the planet. The more coops, the more connected they can become, and the more they can cooperate with each other.

The design process, ownership structure, individual space, common space, transitional space, outdoor space, and site plan are all important to cooperative architecture. They must be considered and examined by the members carefully so that the housing cooperative fits the needs of the people. If this is done with care, then the cooperative architecture makes living cooperatively easier.


Bates, Albert. Farm Architecture

McCamant, Kathryn. Cohousing: a Contemporary Approach, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1988.

Norwood, Ken and Kathleen Smith. Rebuilding Community in America, Berkeley: Shared Living Resource Center, 1995.