Grace Kim, an architect from Seattle, who is a member of a developing cohousing group and also an active member of the US Cohousing Network, gave a group of cohousers in London the benefit of her research on European Common Houses on 20 June. Grace is in the UK to contribute to a research seminar at Lancaster organised by the UK Cohousing Network. She agreed to a London version geared particularly to the space limitations of urban living.
As might be expected, Grace’s input was heavily visual and we viewed many significant features from the 22 Danish cohousing communities she has visited, while she drew our attention to the ‘Pattern language’ they expressed. Her starting point was that the Common House is the nexus of cohousing – so important that it should stand out like a town hall and be visible from every home and should be on a ground floor, a funnel for everyday interaction and communications.
Given the centrality of the common meal to cohousing (most groups eat together from 2 or 3 times a week to every day), Grace stressed the importance of ‘the eating atmosphere’. The Common House ‘should be designed primarily for eating, and other uses are secondary’. The Common House kitchen needs to be planned in work-zones and equipped for heavy usage, with neat bins on wheels for heavy things like plates. Seating capacity should be planned for 60% of the group at the same time; furnishing should avoid ‘member donations’ and a mishmash of different styles; ugly stacked seating should be stored away and tables should be sized around what is a conversational group of no more than 6-8 people. We had some discussion about the importance assigned to spending money on quality of design in Denmark in contrast to the USA. She placed much emphasis on natural light and lighting hung low over tables to create the intimacy of ‘a room within a room’ and also reduce noise. With long flexes, it can be hooked up for other activities.
Cosy nooks and alcoves are a feature of much Danish cohousing and we saw examples of ingenious use of space, creating little meeting, reading, jigsaw-playing places. Acoustics are very important but often overlooked – and retrofit acoustic provision is often unsatisfactory. Grace would recommend getting the services of an acoustic engineer ideally. Sloping ceilings and different ceiling heights offer hierarchies of space and better acoustic possibilities; cladding or baffling with Tectum material or E-Coustic felted squares can often be applied quite artistically. ‘Don’t paint over the acoustic material or it will be rendered ineffective’.
‘Design decisions’, said Grace, ‘are not possible via consensus’. Reconciling subjective views in endless meetings can be avoided by ‘empowering small teams to make the decisions’. Those unhappy with the decisions can meet the team and suggest alternatives, but the ‘greater good’ should prevail.
The session ended with an account of Grace’s own group of around 9 families in downtown Seattle – a scheme where they are trying to limit cost-inflation and profit so as to achieve diversity of income. They are also planning a ‘roof top farm’ to teach their children where food comes from, to demonstrate that urban roof tops can contribute to urban agriculture, to add to the pollen-pathways for bees and to be a catalyst for a neighbourhood local food network.