Not A Group House, Not A Commune: Europe Experiments With Co-Housing

Feb 16, 2015
Originally published on February 17, 2015 5:03 pm

This is the latest story from the NPR Cities Project.

In an abandoned building near Spain's Mediterranean coast, someone softly strums a guitar. Chord progressions echo through empty halls.

It's an impromptu music lesson, offered among unemployed neighbors in Alfafar, a suburb south of Valencia. The town was built in the 1960s for timber factory workers. It's high-density housing: tidy, identical two- and three-bedroom apartments, in huge blocks — some 7,000 housing units in total.

But the local timber industry has since collapsed. More than 40 percent of local residents are now unemployed. A quarter of homes are vacant. Apartments that sold for $150,000 decades ago are going for 20,000 now.

That guitar lesson is just one way residents are using their free time and empty space creatively. It's here that two young Spanish architects saw potential.

While still in architecture school, María García Mendez and Gonzalo Navarrete drafted a plan to re-design a high-density area of Alfafar, called Barrio Orba, using the principle of co-housing — in which residents trade and share space and resources, depending on their needs.

"It's like up-cycling the neighborhood — connecting existing resources to make them work," García explains. "For example, all this workforce that's unemployed, all these empty spaces that are without use, all these elderly people that need help, all these natural resources that are not being taken care of — making a project for all these things."

Through their architecture startup Improvistos, García and Navarrete submitted their Orba design to U.N. Habitat, a United Nations agency holding a competition for urban mass housing. They won.

Redefining Public And Private Space

The architects, both in their 20s, were relatively unknown, working in a Spanish region — Valencia — that's famous for soaring space-age designs of museums and other public infrastructure — which have bankrupted the local government.

Valencia's native son is Santiago Calatrava, the famous Spanish architect who's now working on the new ground zero transit station in New York.

In contrast to Calatrava's work, the Improvistos architects sketched out a humble plan to revamp some 7,000 nearly identical apartments, with minimal structural changes, to adapt the current structures to residents' changing spatial needs. Neighbors can trade rooms and share kitchens, roof gardens and office space.

"We're trying to redefine the limit between public and private," Navarrete says. "So the way you walk on your street and where your house and your private space finishes or starts."

"A thing as simple as creating a new door — having a room with two doors — can give enormous flexibility," García chimes in. "So that this same room can be used by one or another, depending on the need."

Their plan also has a time bank element, trading space for services.

"For example, you have an 80-year-old person who needs some help once or twice a week, [living alongside] a family with three children that doesn't get enough income," García explains. "So maybe [someone from] the low-income family can help the elderly person once a week, and get, in exchange, one room. It's like an exchange system — so every house can gain or give out some space. And that can change with time."

The Improvisto architects in Alfafar plan to sit down with residents and sketch out how their buildings can adapt to different families' needs. They can add doors, retractable walls and shared space.

García and Navarrete came up with the idea on a study trip to rural India — watching how a poor family would enlarge their thatched hut for new children and share cooking areas with neighbors. The architects think that system can work in the West as well.

Collective Living In Rural England

One place it's already working is on England's southwest coast, amid picturesque rolling fields. A decade ago, Jane Stott helped create the Threshold Centre at Cole Street Farm, a community that consists of a central 300-year-old farmhouse surrounded by small, low buildings that house about 15 residents.

The goal here is quite different from in Spain: This isn't about revitalizing an existing neighborhood; it's about creating something new. People have come to the Threshold Centre for a variety of reasons, ranging from a desire to live in an environmentally sustainable way to the meditative aspects of living with others.

There are some echoes of life on a commune at the Threshold Centre, where there's an optional group meditation each morning and the residents raise chickens.

But everyone also has a day job: Among the residents are a nurse, a gardener and a social worker, for instance.

More broadly speaking, each co-housing community is different: Some are very religious; some are very environmentally friendly; some have lots of children; some have lots of seniors.

The movement is growing. Stott says that when she founded the Threshold Centre 10 years ago, she could count on one hand the number of British co-housing arrangements. Now there are more than 35.

Real Solutions For Real People

But the idea is a newer one in Spain, and residents in Alfafar have many questions. Over a traditional Valencia paella, residents of the Orba neighborhood discuss the plan. Some ask how the value of a home would change with the addition or subtraction of a room.

But in general they say they're intrigued by the plan — and flattered that the two architects chose their neighborhood for it. Most of Orba's residents have been living side by side for decades. They're not strangers.

Take Nacho Campillo and Patricia "Patri" Sanchez, a couple in their early 30s. They've lived in Orba for eight years and took over Sanchez's grandmother's apartment there when she died. The flat hasn't been renovated since the 1960s.

But the young couple wants to stay in the neighborhood. Sanchez spent her childhood there and loves it — but they need more space. They have a small two-bedroom on the fourth floor with no elevator — and Sanchez is three months pregnant.

"Going up and down four flights of stairs is tiring now, and I'm not sure I'll be physically able to do it when I'm nine months pregnant!" Sanchez exclaims. "And what about the baby's stroller?" she says, exchanging a look with her partner and laughing.

But co-housing may help. The couple may "borrow" a ground-floor bedroom from a neighbor for the last few months of Sanchez's pregnancy — or for stroller storage afterward. The couple currently uses their second bedroom as a home office. But the addition of a shared co-working hub in the apartment complex would free up space for the baby's nursery.

Fusion Of Architecture And Social Policy

People in working-class Alfafar aren't used to getting attention from award-winning architects. Mayor Juan Ramon Adsuara says he's surprised and bewildered by all the interest — but proud his town has been chosen by the architects and awarded the U.N. prize.

"It's not just an architecture project. It's a fusion of architecture and rehabilitation. It's social policy," Adsuara says. "Architecture is not just for big star projects like museums. It's for the slums around them, too."

The big question, though, is how to pay for all this. The U.N. award comes with fame, but no funding. The mayor says the town hall struggles to pay for basic services — let alone a progressive architecture revamp.

"I need to make payroll for municipal employees — the cleaning staff, the garbage collectors," Adsuara says. "But our economy is improving. We need to think about what model we want for our town's future, and that's where this project comes in."

The Improvistos architects have no price tag for their design. It's adaptable — based on what residents want. They hope to begin workshops this spring to sketch that out. The mayor is applying for funding from the European Union to help launch this project — and also add bike lanes throughout the city. García and Navarrete are also thinking about launching a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign. Residents have volunteered to even do some of the renovation work themselves.

Among all of them, they're determined to change this neighborhood for the better.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Renee, do you have a pen I could borrow?


Yeah, sure.

GREENE: Oh, awesome - I'll just reach over. Thank you. See, I've got a great neighbor in here. You've probably shared things with neighbors - a stick of butter, eggs, maybe a lawnmower. Well, we're about to meet neighbors who are sharing something else - space. It's part of the NPR Cities Project.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And this is our community.

MARIA GARCIA MENDEZ: Every house can gain or give out some space.

JANE STOTT: Incredibly lucky to be living somewhere like this.

GREENE: We are learning about something called co-housing. Here's our colleague Steve Inskeep.


Now, this takes a little explanation. In many cities, young people might share what's called a group home. Co-housing is a little different. Some homeowners rent out a basement apartment, but co-housing is a little different than that. To explore just what it is we're going to cross the Atlantic to the place that is the source of this music.


INSKEEP: That's Spanish guitar, recorded in Spain by reporter Lauren Frayer, who's in the neighborhood where the guitar was played, and, Lauren, where are you?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I'm in Alfafar, Spain, in a barrio that was built in the 1960s for Spanish factory workers. Housing here is very high-density. I'm standing next to huge apartment blocks that haven't been renovated. The jobless rate here tops 40 percent, a quarter of housing units are vacant, but I have to tell you it's not a depressing place. People sit in lawn chairs in the streets. There's a bustling outdoor market. I wandered into one abandoned building and I found that impromptu guitar lesson. It's really an example of how local people are using their extra space and time creatively. And it's what architects saw in this community that made them believe that this was a prime place for co-housing - sharing space among neighbors.

INSKEEP: OK, you mentioned architects. Who are they and what is it that they want to transform?

FRAYER: So a U.N. organization called U.N. Habitat held a competition for architects to transform urban housing. And two relatively unknown Spanish architects in their 20s won. And what they want to do is redefine public and private space - sort of blur the line between those two. So let's say you have a family of two people and I have a family of four people and we're in identical apartments, side-by-side. It could be as simple as adding a door on the other side of your spare room or perhaps a retractable wall to allow me to make use of your unused space. And here's one of the award-winning architects, Maria Garcia Mendez, with another example.

MENDEZ: An 80-year-old person who needs some help and a family with three children that doesn't get enough income, so maybe one of the low income family can help the elderly person once a week and get, in exchange, one room. So it's like an exchange system, so every house can gain or give out some space and that can change with time.

FRAYER: Now, Maria and her architecture partner, Gonzalo Navarrete, they say they got this idea of adaptable living space while on a study trip to rural India. And they offer the example of a poor family's thatch hut that's expanded, constructed upon as the family has more children, and that hut would also serve as community space. Neighbors would share washing space or cooking areas. And so the architects want to apply those ideas here, and the designs for the Alfafar neighborhood include communal kitchens, roof gardens, also shared office space.

INSKEEP: Wow, so that's an example of planned co-housing in Spain. Let's get another example in a another country. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in England, and, Ari, where exactly are you and what are you looking at?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. I'm in Dorset in Southwestern England in beautiful rural countryside with rolling fields and I'm sitting in a lawn. One corner of the lawn has a 300-year-old farmhouse, which is the central part of the co-housing that I'm in the middle of here. And this is a community called Threshold Center that was founded about 10 years ago by a group of friends, including a woman named Jane Stott. She and some of the other residents here hosted me for lunch today. They made soup with squash they had grown, and Jane Stott told me this story.

STOTT: Two years ago I had a stroke out of the blue and wasn't able to walk. People here were marvelously supportive, chauffeured me around, and I had a month of feeling incredibly lucky to be living somewhere like this.

SHAPIRO: At that point she had already been living here eight years and obviously wasn't her intention in founding this community, but it shows some of the benefits of living in a situation like this.

INSKEEP: Well, help me understand what the situation is. People are sharing the kitchen space and what else, and what's the goal?

SHAPIRO: People have their independent living spaces, but they do share a central room with a television set. They share a central kitchen where a couple times a week they eat together. Over lunch I spoke with the newest member of the group, Ella LeGris, who moved here just three months ago from urban Bristol out here to the countryside. And she told us it was kind of a shock to the system to come here.

ELLA LEGRIS: I didn't want to be kind of alone unto myself and personally responsible for everything about myself. It sort of felt wrong. You know, it feels natural for people to cooperate with each other to some extent.

INSKEEP: So that's the idea of co-housing in England. Now, Lauren Frayer is still on the line from Spain, and we should mention, Lauren, the idea where you are is not enacted yet. It's still a proposal. What do people think of it?

FRAYER: They're excited. Some of the neighbors invited me to eat paella with them to discuss it, and that's where I met a couple in their 30s, Nacho Campillo and Patricia Sanchez . They're about to have their first child, and co-housing offers them some benefits. So what they're looking at is borrowing a ground-floor bedroom from a neighbor for the last few months of Patricia's pregnancy. They're looking at co-working space so that Nacho can work in a shared office space and free up their second bedroom that he currently uses. Co-housing for them is offering their family some flexibility.

INSKEEP: You know, listening to the two of you, I'm sensing some common themes. One is that you both seem to be getting fed an awful lot of food in these communities where you're at.


INSKEEP: Setting that aside for a moment, there's also the idea that in a given neighborhood the housing is usually very similar - maybe almost cookie-cutter. And you're describing to me people who have very different lives and needs, and there's an effort to make the architecture reflect that.

SHAPIRO: Well, in the U.K. it's hard to generalize. There are so many different communities. Some were started for spiritual reasons; some were started for environmental reasons; some were started to help raise kids together, but this is picking up steam. The woman who started this community told me decade ago she could count on one hand the number of co-housing arrangements in the U.K. Now there are more than 35 of them.

FRAYER: And in Spain, this is a sort of humble, low-cost project to transform existing structures built in the 1960s so that neighbors can share space and sort of modernize space.

INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR's Ari Shapiro in England and reporter Lauren Frayer in Spain. Thanks to you both.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Steve.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.