COVID19 & Collaborative Housing #4

Corona in Centraalwonen Delft

By Flip Krabbendam* and Annalena Hoyer**

In this article, we will tell you about how we, the residents of Centraal Wonen Delft, have experienced the Corona pandemic and lockdown since March 2020. But first, let us briefly tell you about who we are and how we live.

‘Centraal Wonen Delft’ is a cohousing project founded in 1981. The building is owned and managed by social housing association DUWO. We are ca 100 residents between the ages of 1 and 74, including students, singles and couples, and some families with children… We are an association, with biennial meetings and we live in 13 different groups. Here we cook, eat, play games. etc. These groups are gathered in what we call ‘clusters’, parts of the building where we share washing machines, a bicycle storage and last but not least a garden. There is also a lawn in the middle, and next to it the central facilities, like a bar and meeting room for all residents.   

The project is located in the South of Delft, as part of a large urban expansion of the city in the 1980s. In the illustration below, you can recognize the four clusters that each contain 2, 3 or 4 groups, and the dark shaded bar next to the central lawn. The clusters are each named after a different colour.   

Fig 1 – Dark shaded: the central facilities; light shaded: the cluster facilities; rectangles: the group kitchens. 

 Fig 2 – The bar

Corona and the ‘green’ cluster

The ‘green’ cluster, where I live, (Flip Krabbendam) consists of two groups. When the Corona virus hit the North of Italy, our Italian resident just came back home, to our cluster, from the region where Corona had hit hardest. We thought, he might infect us now… because of the way we live, close to each other, it could have a devastating effect! This was just before the official ‘lockdown’ started in the Netherlands, so it was up to us to figure out how to react. But we didn’t have to worry; our Italian resident went into a self-chosen quarantine. We didn’t see him for two weeks. When we spoke to him afterwards, he appeared to be very concerned. As he said, he had seen a grim future in Italy.       

Then the ‘intelligent lockdown’ came into effect. This was the term used by the Dutch government to refer to the Dutch approach to the pandemic, which basically consisted of a strong advice for all households to stay at home, and if possible, to work from home.

How did this apply to us? We were neighbours, but living together in a cluster, we also looked like big household, sharing our kitchens, a laundry room and other facilities. As a first step we decided not to invite outsiders. An exception was made for children under 12 and for the partners of two of our housemates that lived outside.

To realize the ‘intelligent lockdown’ within our ‘green’ cluster we decided not to act as a big household, but to split up into subgroups. One subgroup settled down in one of the common kitchens. Other subgroups used different common and private kitchens and avoided overlap in the use of the common bathrooms. One resident was ‘evacuated’ by his parents and stayed with them for a few weeks.

The members of the kitchen group were working on their laptops during the daytime, and had a lot of fun together. And it was good to see more people being at home, also in the other common spaces. We kept our distance, but still it felt better than the normal situation when residents would arrive at the end of the afternoon, tired, with private plans for the evening. So in a way now we could say ‘viva corona’. See illustration below.

 Fig 3 – “Viva Corona”

For our scheduled house meeting we went over to the garden, where we could keep our distance. One resident was so nervous about Corona that she represented herself by using facetime. Her smartphone was put in a tree and from there she communicated with the rest of us.

Fig 4 – House meeting in the garden

Because we could keep our distance in the garden, we organized a party here. There were drinks and there was music and after some time there was also a policeman appearing at the garden gate. A neighbour had complained about the noise. It was not clear if he could give us a ticket, we were keeping the 1,5 m distance (most of the time) but we were clearly with more than three persons together. That was not allowed in public space, but this was our private garden… We didn’t get a fine. (These fines were 400 Euro per person).

Later on, the lockdown rules were adjusted for student houses and other types of shared housing. Now, we were regarded as a big household. But still inside the house we kept our subgroups separated.

In the garden, however, we could feel free. The weather in May was really like summer, with long warm evenings, so many evenings we sat in the garden and put on a fire. Having a drink and a lot of fun. We started at 1,5 meters distance, but as it got later, and colder, we tended to move closer to the fire, and to each other.

Fig 5 – By the fire

The use of the cluster garden triggered a renewed interest in it. So we started working in it, after all it was a safe place. Parts that had grown wild were recaptured, our chickens were fenced in, so that they would not go on adventures in neighbouring gardens, plants were planted, and the rubble that came out of the ground while we were rearranging the ‘landscape’ was disposed of in a container. Usable bricks were kept for a new terrace, and an old plan for a building hot tub was revived.

Corona and the other clusters

The central meeting room was closed, to avoid contact between the residents of different clusters. So in order to write about it, I had to make some calls to find out what happened there. But it appeared that life in the ‘red’ and the ‘yellow’ cluster was similar to that of the ‘green’ cluster. In the ‘red’ cluster there were two people infected. Of course they stayed in isolation, but housemates took care of them by making food and shopping. For an impression of life in the ‘blue’ cluster, see the text below.    

Corona and the ‘blue’ cluster (by Annalena, resident of this cluster)

Our cluster has four groups that very naturally separated when the lockdown hit us. For a few weeks, the groups had no contact with each other, and an inter-group couple settled into our kitchen together, only using their bedroom and shower with great care and lots of cleaning. All groups renovated their kitchens and had a thorough spring cleaning. When the weather got better, we had meals outside and slowly, the groups grew back into one cluster with people visiting each other. We keep our distances though, try not to hug.

Some people were really afraid of the virus and isolated themselves from the groups without really telling others why. That has been accepted, but was noticed.

Nonetheless, the quarantine has affected the group feeling in a good way as well: within the four groups there is more friendship now, a deeper connection due to trying-to-work-from-home, shared meals and shared scares. We also talked a lot about neighbours, since we were here all day every day, getting closer looks into our neighbours’ lives. We now have inside jokes, movie nights and preferred takeout dinners.                  

What did we learn so far?

By staying at home all day, residents have gradually rediscovered their own private space, that they started to upgrade it like never before. Others rediscovered and upgraded the common garden, where they could keep distance. And those who took a small risk, by forming somewhat bigger social units in the common kitchens, could rediscover, and deepen, the relation with their fellow residents. And in the end: they started to appreciate, more than before, their contacts in the outside world. With friends, at work, in a bar, a restaurant, a movie theatre… So this lockdown can be seen as a kind of social experiment that had deepened the interest in their living environment and in each other on one hand, and revived the meaning of contacts outside the project on the other hand.     

Second wave in the ‘green’ cluster

After the initial lockdown we did the same as the rest of the country, we got more and more relaxed about the virus. And then, after the summer, the second wave of the virus emerged.

At first it didn’t alarm us too much, we even had a party, all cosy being together in our common living room. But later it appeared that one of our residents was tested positive…

She was infected by her boyfriend, and to avoid contact she moved out, to stay at his place, for as long as needed. Serious busines.

Sinterklaas party

Now we have had our traditional ‘Sinterklaas’ party in a special way. Normally we all come together in the common living room and give each other presents. Anonymous, with little, funny poems that refer to the receiver, sometimes in a teasing way. A great tradition, but now we had to organise it differently. We split in four subgroups, in different private living rooms, and had a ‘teams’ meeting. Before we started we had put all the presents in the common living room. From each subgroup one person was allowed to pick up the presents for his or her subgroup. The unpacking of these presents, the reading of the poems and thanking Sinterklaas took place in front of the ‘teams’ screen in each subgroup, so the other  subgroups, could watch and hear. 

Fig 6 – One subgroup celebrating ‘Sinterklaas’ via ‘teams’

The future

The lockdown may have had a positive effect on us, it made us appreciate our immediate living environment and our housemates, and it showed that we took care of each other when needed. Nobody got lonely, as many people in regular houses, especially when they live alone.  

On the other hand we can say that a lockdown makes living difficult in a cohousing project, especially in a project where many facilities are shared. It might be wise to plan future projects in such a way that different households can operate independently, having their own kitchen and sanitation. Or are we overreacting? Now we are impressed by the corona virus, but nobody knows if such a pandemic will ever happen again.  

*Architect, resident and initiator of Centraalwonen Delft; ** Resident of Centraalwonen Delft

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