Uncorking an appetite for cohousing, Clare O’Connell

Play the game, find out what people are thinking. You might be surprised by the results, writes Clare O’Connell

I KNOW that investigating the actual appetite for living in a cohousing community requires more than just anecdotal evidence and an instinctive belief that everyone would obviously want to be part of a neighbourhood where everyone looked out for each other.

Testing the level of demand was the part of a project I and some friends were part of two years ago, as part of the Scottish festival of architecture, ArchiFringe 2019.

These were friends I had studied with and we devised a game that can be taken into a village hall.

The game was a response to the housing that we are all too familiar with: housing delivered by the volume house-builders and social housing that is also potentially quite large-scale.

Many architects involved in these types of housing don’t always get the chance to speak to the end client; it was a frustration that some of us, to a greater or lesser extent, also felt.

So we designed the game to spark conversations, to find out what people actually want from their housing; we felt it was all too easy to assume what people want, and that these assumptions needed proper exploring.

We called ourselves ‘Imagine If…’.

The game is about compromising; for instance, asking people to what extent they would comprise on the size of their kitchen if they received, in return, access to common facilities, such as a shared workshop.

We ran the game a few times during ArchiFringe 2019 – in Edinburgh – and found that, while people arrived initially very sceptical, it usually didn’t take long for them to open up. As they played the game, they began to be won over. It was a really interesting thing to observe.

People’s enthusiasm extended to places that one might nowadays describe as the ’20-minute neighbourhood’, where life’s essentials are within a 20-minute walk or cycle ride. When asked, no-one wanted to have to jump in their car to get a pint of milk.

The hope was to be in a position to take the game on a country-wide tour, but then COVID-19 struck, stopping everything in its tracks.

But I think COVID has also reminded many of us about the importance of community.

For people who don’t know the concept, cohousing is not about living in a commune. So the game is awareness-raising: I’m convinced that if people began to know more about cohousing, the more they would want it, or at least aspects of it. 

In the game, everyone is equal; the person with the loudest voice isn’t going to get their way any more than anyone else – which is a risk with many other types of consultation. So, with the architecture practice I am involved with, we are exploring using the game to that effect. It’s proving to be a very helpful tool.

We are doing some work to potentially digitise the game, but we are reluctant to go too far down that road, because we recognise that a facilitator-led playing of the game is going to be the most effective way of teasing out people’s views.

It is very early days as to what we do with the game, but ‘Imagine If’ has already begun thinking of how house design might encourage more social interaction. 

For a competition being run by the Royal Institute of British Architects – RIBA – to design the home of 2030, we submitted an idea that was both about ‘macro sharing’ and ‘micro sharing’ – making cities more walkable (bringing convenience back) and having individual homes having shared space, say for a laundry, tool library and some growing space.

Housing alone doesn’t automatically create communities; people create communities. But housing can be designed to increase the chances of people speaking to each other. Not forced social interaction, but increasing the chances of it happening informally.

And it doesn’t have to be a housing development that is brand new. It can be already existing streets, where all it might require is someone to say, ‘This has surely got to be better’. 

Clare O’Connell is an architect with Edinburgh-based architecture practice, Studio LBA. She is a cofounder of ‘Imagine If…’.

Photo courtesy of Imagine If…

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