4 / 2014 - homes, cohousing

Community-oriented housing brings something new to the otherwise one-sided housing production in Finland. Architect and researcher Anna Helamaa writes about the principles of cohousing, including examples from Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. “Communal dining, car-sharing and neighbourly help alleviate everyday stress and make living socially richer,” states Helamaa. At its best, architecture encourages encounters and supports the objectives of cooperation. There are currently several projects in Finland that have evolved from the premises of cohousing and the issue presents two recently completed examples, which differ completely, however, in terms of their architecture. The first example is the Malta cohousing in Helsinki, a conventional concrete-construction apartment block. The second example is a renovated wooden housing block, Annikki, in Tampere. Neither of the projects was steered by building companies, but instead were realised as joint building ventures.

The user has become a power player in housing business. The residents are seen as consumers who make choices in accordance with their individual lifestyle, and with the dwelling commodity needing to respond increasingly more precisely to their demands. Dr. Antti Pirinen, who has studied the role of the user, hopes that the residents’ own objectives would be linked to the design and production of their dwelling more diversely and closely than is presently the case.

In addition to community-oriented housing, this issue also presents a rental apartment block that bends like a snake, a group of dice-like apartment blocks, a row of semi-detached houses and a sculptural single-family house. The different house types portray the current state of architectural design in housing in Finland.


Community-oriented housing brings fresh alternatives to the one-sided Finnish housing production and diversifies the types of living. So far, comparatively few cohousing projects have been realised in Finland, but there are several currently in progress. The author explains the principles of community-oriented living and cohousing and presents projects from Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, where cohousing has a strong tradition.

The topicality of community-oriented housing is connected to the diversification of family types and lifestyles as well as the reduction of the ecological footprint of housing. The aging of the population and the reduction in the size of household units force a reassessment of the role of the individual household as a basic dwelling unit. A residential group more extensive than a family opens up new opportunities for instance in the sharing of spaces and in acquiring services. The topicality is also linked with the increased attraction of the city and the development of apartment blocks. Shared spaces increase functional diversity and spatial flexibility. Workshops and garden plots bring features of low-rise housing into apartment blocks and enable self-reliant and more flexible living also in the urban environment.

From utopias to actual renewal

During the previous wave of development in the 1980s–90s, housing communities in Finland were located in suburbs and attracted in particular families with children. Now also the older population has discovered the advantages of community-oriented housing. Senior communities are a growing community type both in Finland and internationally. At the same time, the location of community-oriented housing has become more urban and the size has increased. One example of this is the Loppukiri apartment block in Arabianranta, Helsinki, with around 60 senior apartments.

During its long history, community-oriented housing has been shaped by both external political motives and the needs of everyday life. Early utopian or social experiments, which strived to create a miniature world with their own laws separate from the rest of society, have left a slight ideological stigma on this form of dwelling. During recent decades, however, community-oriented housing has evolved most of all from the bottom upwards, from everyday needs and the residents’ own initiative. Often community projects are initiated by residents groups themselves, and future residents can from the outset define their dwelling and influence the spatial design solutions. Also important is the opportunity to participate in such a dwelling culture and the creation of its policies.

Community-oriented housing renews the spatial solutions in dwelling. The flexibility and accessibility of shared spaces, as well as the borders between the private and communal, require particular attention from the architect. The spaces should encourage encounters, yet at the same time preserve the residents’ option to withdraw into their own privacy as well as regulate their degree of privacy. Community-oriented housing does not require a particular type of building, environment or type of ownership, but it can be implemented in many different ways. Community-oriented housing has a point of contact with the topical issue of joint building ventures. However, the two concepts should be kept separate: joint building ventures do not necessarily lead to communality nor is community-oriented housing always realised through joint building ventures.

Towards an easier everyday life

Collaboration between residents and the spaces that enable it form the backbone of community-oriented housing. It is a matter first and foremost of direct interaction and collaboration. The substance of the activities and spaces is shaped by the objectives of the residents’ group itself. Each community creates its own operational culture that lives with the changes of residents, operational environment and society. Generally the households of the community are separate and the apartments regarded as private, but occasionally also shared dwellings or dwellings that otherwise differ from the usual level of privacy or level of amenities form part of the communal whole.

The concepts “community-oriented housing” and “cohousing” mean slightly different things. The divide between them is nevertheless vague and their meanings are not firmly established. One can talk about actual cohousing when the communality is both aspirational and organised and there has been an attempt to incorporate it within the spaces and policies. The residents are aware of the obligations and responsibilities that this type of living brings with it, such as work rotas and sharing the costs of communal spaces, and are committed to them. Community-oriented housing, on the other hand, can be seen as a vaguer concept. There, too, dwelling is usually linked with collaboration or shared spaces, but it is not aspirational in the same way or with the obligations that come with cohousing.

The central motive in cohousing is simple: to create an easier and socially richer everyday life. Communal dining, car-sharing and neighbourly help alleviate everyday stress and make living socially richer. Collaboration and the spaces associated with it are typically linked with the chores of everyday life. Kitchens, dining rooms, laundries and workshops are typical communal spaces. The everyday necessities of food preparation and dining have become one of the most important forms of shared activity for many communities. In Sweden, communal dining is almost an integral part of cohousing, and it has a central role also in the most recently established communities in Finland.

In addition to everyday chores, shared activities include hobby groups, sauna evenings and spontaneous encounters. The significance of common festivities is huge. They establish for the community their own traditions, bring variation to everyday life and enhance the feeling of unity. Striving for a socially and ecologically sustainable way of living motivates people to work together. Examples of sustainable living include the sharing of space and items, and a partial self-reliance in energy and food production. Car-sharing, exchange trading systems and food circles are common. Communal guest rooms and saunas decrease the need for space in each apartment and increase the degree of use of the spaces.

Focus on the residents

Cohousing offers residents the role of an active agent. Taking responsibility, doing things oneself, participation and self-reliance are important issues for many people. In such a community, typically at least part of the maintenance, administration and other necessary tasks are carried out by the residents themselves. Procedures and rules are agreed upon together and the dwelling culture is formed by people living together and discussing issues. The motive of self-reliance is emphasised in particular when the sense of communality is very intense or when the apartments are very modest in terms of their level of amenities or otherwise differ from local ways of living. The desired form of dwelling is created by the residents themselves if no ready solutions are available.

Within the communal organisation the decision-making process is open to all residents. Irrespective of the form of ownership, residents typically have organised themselves by means of a residents association, of which everyone is a member, and which decides about issues regarding common policies such as the distribution of tasks and the use of shared spaces. In many communities they strive for consensus, and issues are negotiated for as long as it takes to find a solution which everyone can commit to. An open decision-making culture is valued, even though sometimes it is perceived as slow and cumbersome.

In cohousing projects the significance of architecture and the spatial solutions is great. At its best, architecture encourages encounters and supports the objectives of cooperation, but at its worst it can be a hindrance. The most central role in creating a community spirit, however, is held by the residents themselves. So far, however, residents have unnecessarily been left alone in pushing forward the projects, the duration of which has been excessively stretched. Coupled with economic risks, this has made cohousing rather difficult to achieve. Hopefully also in Finland new operational models will become established that lie between housing production driven by property developers and fully self-reliant building development, and also non-profit agents will undertake communal residential projects, as has happened in Sweden and Germany. The potential of cohousing as a socially and ecologically sustainable type of dwelling should encourage different parties to look for new solutions.

Cohousing projects:

Lange Eng
Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter
Copenhagen 2009

Jystrup Savværk
Tegnestuen Vandkunsten
Jystrup, Denmark 1984

Alessandro Ripellino / Rosenbergs Arkitekter
Stockholm 2008

De Jonge, Dorst, Lubeek, De Bruijn, De Groot & Partners
Hilversum, The Netherlands 1977

Anna Helamaa is a teacher, researcher and post-graduate student at Tampere University of Technology Department of Architecture.


Annikki housing block
Hanna Lyytinen, Kaisu Fränti
address Annikinkuja 2, Tampere
gross area 2680 m2
completion 2012
original building J. Pirjola, N. Nummi, 1909

A resident Markus Laine, the architect Hanna Lyytinen and a critic Iida Kalakoski write about a cohousing project in an old wooden block in Tampere.

Malta housing block
Pentti Kareoja, Heljä Herranen
address Välimerenkatu 13, Helsinki
gross area 7900 m2
completion 2014

The new cohousing apartment block in Jätkäsaari, Helsinki is discussed by the architects Pentti Kareoja and Heljä Herranen, a critic Roy Mänttäri and a resident Salla Korpela, who was also one of the initiators of the project.

In Finland, urbanisation started late, only after World War II. For several decades, residential construction was concentrated in suburbs built in forest- and field-dominated areas outside city centres.

In pursuit of the prevailing ideal of living, my family also moved to a new suburb from the centre of Helsinki in mid-1960. There was a lot of construction going on in the area, and the landscape was in constant transition. The layers of modern architecture, processed and unrefined nature, and earlier habitation formed the soul landscape of many suburban generations, including mine. Even today, the sound of a brook gurgling in the spring or the smell of midsummer roses, freshly mown lawn, or asphalt make me long for my suburban childhood environment.

In the 1950s, suburbs symbolised a new way of life, and they were featured in the media with an enthusiastic spirit. For many families, a home equipped with modern conveniences in a child-friendly environment meant a big leap forward in the standard of living. However, after the initial buzz, the glorification of suburbs subsided. Critical opinions were expressed on the seemingly random placement of buildings in the free forest landscape. Suburbs were depicted as hubs of social problems and storages of migrants. Groups of idle youngsters, bored housewives ("green widows"), and men estranged from society were pointed out as manifestations of these problems. Public discussion was labelled by fear of the unknown. Even today, the public approach to suburbs is problem-centric.

However, resident memories that have been collected since the mid-1990s paint a brighter picture. These people see suburbs as their homes, living environments just as good as any other urban areas; places packed with layered meanings, contradiction, and fringe. Many respondents mentioned the proximity of nature as one of the best sides of the living environment. Wasteland and forest at the edges of the residential area represent a wild element in the carefully planned environment. Apart from the diversity of nature, they also add aesthetic and experiential variation and layers to the space by breaching the unity of the designed entity and creating parallel spaces within it. For the residents, these areas did not signify a waste of land; they were mysterious, adjustable spaces available for everyone.

The suburb can be seen as the most typical urban space of the late 20th century. One-fourth of Finns live in suburbs. Despite this, the juxtaposition of city vs. nature still seems to be weighing on the shoulders of urban vision builders. Once again, the critical finger is pointing at suburbs, and the suburban forests are prime targets in city densification plans.

The importance of nature in urban residential areas has been increasingly emphasised in the past few years; city farming is gaining popularity, and allotment gardens and open outdoor spaces close to the home are more popular today than they have been for a long time. Now would be a good time for a shift towards a more diverse conception of a city. You cannot densify cities and reform suburbs and preserve the proximity of nature all at the same time. A city can accommodate a wide variety of people, ways of living, and means of using space.

Kirsi Saarikangas is a Professor of Art History at the University of Helsinki.


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