Curant in Antwerp: Cohousing with newcomers in four moments

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The two-way street

The project is two weeks in and I hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with Binyam. Should I ask him to do something together, maybe? I want make sure he feels comfortable enough around me to ask for help. Saturday, I spend the afternoon in our living room. Kind of on purpose, hoping for a chance to casually hang out with my other cohousers. Binyam wakes up in the afternoon, prepares some Eritrean food and without even asking, I’m invited at the table for a late lunch.
Apart from the fact that it’s the perfect setting for our first meaningful conversation, I’m also having my first Curant-epiphany: integration is a two-way street. When joining the project, my most important motivation was to ‘welcome the refugees in our Belgian society’. I was going to show them that not all Belgians are racists, that they are welcome, and help them integrate in society. Instead, the opposite happened. I moved into a house where Binyam and Qadir were already comfortably living for more than a year. Habits and rules were already established, and I was the new girl in town. And by simply offering me half of his meal, Binyam welcomed me in his home. Our home.

The extra one

After a birthday dinner party with friends, I’m calling it an early night. I have to work tomorrow. I’m slightly tipsy, so I hope I don’t walk into Qadir and his friends in the living room. They are muslims and even though they never judge me for drinking alcohol, I find myself being very aware of how silly it is to get drunk on the slightest celebration when I’m around them.
They’re in the living room, drinking tea. I tell them about the great birthday I had, show them the presents I got, let them taste my Leonidas pralines (I warn them just in time that some of them might have alcohol in them. Seriously, that rubbish is everywhere!). They wish me a happy birthday and I drink some tea. Especially on birthdays, quality time with cohousers is more important than having a fresh mind for work. Oh, and by the way: I’m perfectly capable of hiding the tipsiness, yes!
One week later, there’s a huge cake in the fridge. ‘Last week we didn’t know it was your birthday, but now we do.’ A week after my actual birthday, I’m having an extra one. Sher and Kahraman come over and we have cake, play cards. It’s one of the many moments during this cohousing where the unexpected moments are the best ones. I’m having a great time. And again, I feel so welcome.

The party pooper

‘I don’t have the energy for this.’
After an exhausting week of working and social obligations, I was really looking forward to my night rest, before I had my family coming over to Antwerp to visit me the next day. Yet in the hallway, it’s obvious there’s an Eritrean party-something going on in our living room. (Two months in the project, I’ve become a pro in recognizing the differences in ways of talking and background music between the Eritrean and Afghan friends, so I’m pretty sure it’s Binyam and his friends.) I oblige myself to go say ‘Hi.’ for just a second.
I don’t know any of the people in my living room, but they all seem very happy to see me. I sit down, have a beer – and while I’m at it also some Indzjerra food – and talk for a while. Even though everyone is very sweet to me, I can’t help but think about the mess this party is going to leave behind. I feel like a party pooper when I mention my family coming over the next day. ‘Not a problem’, Binyam says.
Turns out, there was never a problem indeed. Binyam’s friends start cleaning the kitchen and the living room the next morning. With water and everything! Cohousing is a learning process. Maybe to save ourselves some stress, next time I will announce my family visits a bit sooner. And Binyam his parties. Communication is key.

The traveller

Holidays are great: visiting new places, meeting new people and meeting old friends to catch up on each other’s lives. And in between all that, there’s our home. Six months in the project, and our house has become a real safe haven for me. Somewhere along the road, it began to feel like home. The people you come home to, are the ones you don’t have to ‘catch up with’. They are always there, there’s nothing to catch up to. And you do the exact stuff with them you do by yourself when you’re completely comfortable.
So now after another great, yet tiring holiday, I come home to Qadir. He makes me some tea, we sit on the Afghan carpet, and watch some YouTube videos together.

The context

I’m Paulien, a 24-year-old journalist/teacher/Digital Storyteller, working in Brussels and living with Qadir (Afghanistan), Binyam (Eritrea) and Hannelore (Belgium) in a four-bedroom house in the South of Antwerp, just outside the centre. Qadir and Binyam had already lived there for more than a year with other Belgian buddies, and Hannelore and I moved in December of 2018. The four of us pay equal rent (335 euros per month all inclusive: internet, water, electricity…) and we share a kitchen, bathroom, living room… We basically share everything, except for our own bedroom.
Curant exists for more or less four years by now. I joined the project in December 2018, out of a feeling of ‘now or never’, because it stops in October 2019. The way we are handling the refugee crisis is a shame, most of the time. So whatever small things we can do as an individual, we should. Curant makes it so easy to do something useful in this context, that joining the project was an obvious choice. Without minimizing the commitment it takes to live in a diverse living situation like ours, I’m very happy with the decision I made to join. Of course it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I’m learning, growing and – most importantly – I’m having a great time.

By Paulien Caeyers

September 2019

The CURANT project; “Co-housing and case management for Unaccompanied young adult Refugees in ANTwerp” brings together young refugees and Flemish young adults. When unaccompanied minor refugees, those who are underage and fled on their own, turn 18 and legally become adults, much of the help and care they received earlier falls away. The goal of CURANT is to make their transition into adulthood go smoother by housing such refugees together with buddies and by providing intensive care and training. Since the project started in November 2016, approximately 80 refugees and 80 buddies have been sharing apartments. CURANT is a project of the City of Antwerp with the University of Antwerp and local welfare organisations as partners, cofunded by the European Union’s Urban Innovative Actions Fund. CURANT will end this coming November.

Project information can be found through uia-initiative.eu; uantwerpen.be; and www.antwerpen.be (this last site in Dutch).

 

 

Top-down Collaborative Housing?

Members of the self-management teams

Members of the self-management teams of the Startblok Riekerhaven and the Startblok Elzenhagen (source: facebook.com/startblok.elzenhagen)

I define collaborative housing as all forms of housing where residents by design interact more than in traditional forms of housing. This interaction sometimes already starts when the homes are developed, at other times it begins when people move in. Classical examples of collaborative housing include living groups and co-housing projects where individual households share some collective spaces. Often, it is assumed that such collaborative housing projects spring up spontaneously from a group of like-minded people that join forces to realise their ideal homes together. And when it is not assumed that this is the way collaborative housing comes about, it is often implied that this is the way that it should. But when I started studying the Startblok, I found that here was a collaborative housing project that was initiated by the landlord, a not-for-profit housing corporation, in a rather top-down manner.

The Startblok Riekerhaven is a project in Amsterdam that houses 265 recent refugees and 265 Dutch young adults. The tenants have access to common spaces, and for the large part, they manage the project themselves. The idea is that through close interaction by means of the shared space and by managing the project together, the recent refugees and the Dutch can learn from each other. In this way, better integration outcomes for the refugees might also result (Czischke & Huisman 2018). However, perhaps contrary to expectation, the tenants in organisational roles are not volunteers, but are part-time employed by home-owner De Key. The Startblok Riekerhaven is not a bottom-up democracy. While the tenants are more involved in and have more of a say about their own living environment than in traditional rental homes, the home-owner still retains quite some executive power in the project.

This might clash with images of bottom-up initiated social change, that many involved in collaborative housing cherish. I invite you to consider the advantages. Starting your own collaborative housing projects takes a lot of time and energy. Not all people have these resources readily available, and even if they do, they might not be inclined to use them in this way. They might need to spend the time earning money to provide for their family, or they might want to devote their time to, for instance, advancing climate justice, or watching all the episodes of Game of Thrones. The set-up of the Startblok allows for people to have more interaction with their neighbours than in more traditional estates, without having to undertake the gigantic task of developing a project housing over 500 people. If they want to become more involved in the management of the project, they can, and they will sometimes even be reimbursed for it. As such, the threshold for participating is much lower than in more autonomous self-organised projects, making it easier for tenants with other obligations or inclinations to take part.

Recently, the first tenants moved in to a second Startblok project, the Startblok Elzenhagen. The home-owners, housing corporations De Key and Eigen Haard, are implementing lessons learned from the first Startblok to improve the concept. The average number of people that share a communal living room has been decreased, for instance. While smaller, completely autonomous collaborative housing projects can inspire and pave the way for other such projects, we should not dismiss the power of more top-down initiatives. Precisely because they are not completely set up and ran by residents themselves, they can be more inclusive, giving access to people that would otherwise not be involved in such projects, and so giving tenants more of a say about their direct living environment.

Carla Huisman
Postdoctoral researcher at Co-Lab

May 2019

 

References:

Czischke, D. & C.J. Huisman (2018) ‘Integration through collaborative housing? Dutch starters and refugees forming self-managing communities in Amsterdam.’ Urban Planning, 3(4), 61-63. http://www.cogitatiopress.com/urbanplanning/article/view/1727

Self-organised housing: a change of perspective on the role of the architect

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Many people dream of one day designing their own home. For some it seems like a far-away dream, and for some it is the reality of their lives. When my parents set out to make their own home with their own hands 30 years ago, they probably had no idea what they were getting into. And even worse, they were not only building their future home, it would have to stay afloat too; that’s right, they were building a yacht. With my dad taking 6 months off work to complete the boat at the end of a 4-year process and my mom working 2 jobs to support the both of them, you might say they were crazy. Yet, in the present day they are at it again, renovating the largest home they ever lived in to make it their absolute dream home.

For a long time, I did not realise how this upbringing would affect the view I had on my profession. I had a similar urge to build, to create, and in the educational system I was in that soon translated into pursuing a career in architecture. Studying at TU Delft, I was taught all the right methods and approaches to analyse a brief and to come up with an interesting concept. I slowly learned how to suppress any doubts or insecurities I had about my designs in order to give a convincing presentation and present myself as the master architect.

However, during my master studies I got an itch to look into self-organised housing for a paper. I researched the emergence of bottom-up housing development in the twentieth century and became increasingly convinced of this movement. This caused a major identity crisis for me: I was trained to think for my clients, my future residents, for society. And now they had a will on their own. Looking at graduation topics I could not find meaning in the assignments presented, because they were all directed towards the architect looking at a situation, often even unfamiliar to him or her, analyzing it and coming up with a magic solution. I realised I had to come up with my own assignment.

While looking for a mentor to supervise my graduation project, which focussed on self-organised housing in cities and affordability, I came in contact with prof. Darinka Czischke. She was willing to guide me in my process, and put me in contact with amazing professionals and academics around Europe to feed my research. Even though I graduated with an Architecture degree (https://repository.tudelft.nl/islandora/object/uuid%3A76a43029-69e1-4d4f-a569-e343e4144b86), by doing this research in the department of Management of the Built Environment, I had also learned how to look at the built environment from a non-architect point of view.

I was lucky to be able to continue this dual involvement in the built environment and collaborative housing specifically, by combining practicing as a trainee architect at Inbo (www.inbo.com) and working with Darinka, Vincent, Carla and Sara on the “Samen Wonen, Samen Onderzoeken” project (https://co-lab-research.net/samen-wonen-samen-onderzoeken/). My intention with combining these jobs was that it would give new perspectives and create synergy, and it seems to do that more and more. At the TU Delft I can give insights into projects I have worked on or people I know that worked on it, and at the architecture office I have become known as the “collaborative housing specialist”. Both these jobs give me opportunities to contribute to projects that – in my opinion – make a better world. Through self-organisation by residents I can create my own dream world while they create their dream homes together. I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree…

 

Stephanie Zeulevoet
research assistant at Co-Lab Research

November 2018

Towards collaborative mat-hybrid housing. An experience for Co-lab.

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This is a small non-linear story gathered between Virginia Woolf’s own writing room and Perec’s shared species of spaces as imaginary. I was born in Madrid, the city of las corralas, a place filled with common spaces and “streets in the sky”. At the age of 7 I drew houses and trees planted on bridges with (permanent) coloured pencils on the walls of my parent’s house… I understood then that my thing was a “mind-hand-pencil” connection. In summer 2005 near Liege, I discovered the Belgian Béguinages and their development. Five years later I was lucky enough to discover Argentina thanks to my parents, where a friend took me to an intensive workshop at the NGO Un Techo para mi País. At that time, they were developing low-cost growth houses entirely built in a wooden structure (Ballon frame) at the outskirts of Salta.

During my stay in Argentina, a 5-year-old girl named Ana brought me a cold milk glass with a smile on her face while I was helping to set up the wooden piles of her future home. There I understood that architecture was my passion, not only for the knowledge I had acquired but also for its impressive social background. I liked the idea of contributing with proposals, ideas, projects for those who needed them the most in order to create something necessary as a home or a “minimum living sphere”.

In the middle of the economic crisis in Spain (2008), I decided to do Architecture out of absolute vocation and passion…it was my 1º, 2º and 3º choice on the list. I started the race in 2009. Visits to Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam, Barbican in London, “El Taray” Cooperative Pío XII in Segovia or the shared kitchens and common living spaces of Bari Vecchia, among other projects, inspired me in different ways to conduct my future research.

After almost 6 years of Master Degree in Architecture…my Final project was focused on searching for alternatives and mutable experimental housing with shared common spaces to be developed in the Poblado Dirigido de Fuencarral (Madrid, Spain). That same year (2015) I was awarded a scholarship for academic record by ARQUIA (Fundación Caja de Arquitectos) and gained a professional internship at EMBT (Enric Miralles Benedetta Tagliabue). Working in Barcelona I understood the importance of organization, consensus, creativity, but above all the need for a future revolution. In my opinion, this revolution is linked to the infinite and impressive world of research.

Before finishing the final project I was already thinking about it…I got several research fellowships during my studies so a year later I enrolled in the Doctorate part time as I was working in Madrid also part-time in an architectural studio, working on social housing on one hand, competitions with friends on the other and collaborating as an assistant in classes about architectural projects at the university, all this dividing myself between competitions and congresses, with many lost attempts and some achieved. So I became the co-author of the 1st Europan Prize (E14 in La Bazana) aimed at reactivating a rural area in Extremadura through a cooperative. In this research journey I have also participated in several congresses on Architecture and Gender (MORE or MoMoWo in Turin).

In 2015/6, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports (MECD-Spain) awarded me, on the basis of academic and professional merits, a four-year contract to do my PhD (FPU-MECD 2015). Without this award, it would have been very complex for me to do the PhD with constancy and continuity, rigor and depth. I didn’t have anyone in the family who needed a new house ironically talking and the construction sector was absolutely stagnant in Spain at that time…but I had energy, some ideas and a lot of desire to learn of course.

During the PhD, currently in progress (deadline: June 2019) I’ve read, among others, Liisa Horelli, D.U. Vestbro, Dolores Hayden or Giancarlo De Carlo, who advocated participatory architecture. The starting point of my PhD was the approach linked to the concept of “collaborative infrastructures” and ‘mat-hybrid housing‘. I learned about the Baugruppen experiences in Germany on a trip to Berlin in 2016 as part of the first part of my thesis. In addition to the cohousing experiences of Northern Europe, all part of the fieldwork of my doctoral thesis. Conducting two research stays, one at the Architectural Association in London (2017), and the other at the IUAV in Venice (2018), to consult archives and housing projects on site. In June of this year (2018), I was lucky enough to take part in the workshop “Collaborative Housing” in Uppsala, created by Darinka Czischke. In Sweden, at ENHR, Sara and Darinka offered me to write a little piece for Co-lab as a collaborative constellation of experiences and there it is.

Virginia de Jorge Huertas

October 2018

Embracing opportunities to collaborate

 

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Sometimes small opportunities, when embraced, have a broader influence than one might first imagine. Just such an opportunity emerged nearly a quarter of a century ago and continues to influence my work as an architect and researcher today.  As a student I found myself, quite by accident, working in a small design firm focused on residential design in Adelaide, Australia. The majority of our clients were housing cooperatives, a niche form of social housing in South Australia at the time.  In brief, groups of households were facilitated by the State Government social housing agency to form legal cooperatives and, after adequate training, were funded to develop housing for their own use as tenants. We built multiple buildings under this model, ranging from groups of four dwellings to multi-unit projects of around twenty.

The cooperative members effectively commissioned their own developments, finding a plot, employing their selected architect and preparing their own design brief. Residents also collectively held the responsibility to manage the resultant properties. Coop members were tenants, they were each other’s landlords, and they were administrators, collecting rents, managing finances and maintenance, and, of course, managing the challenges of living together over time.

Before long I found myself joining a group. A home was designed and built to suit my households’ needs in the centre of the City of Adelaide.  All members worked together on site over many weekends contributing ‘unskilled labour’ to the project, or as I saw it, getting our hands dirty building our common futures. Before completing architectural studies, I was living in an affordable rental property with eight neighbours I had come to know and admire through the long process of design and construction.

Physically, we shared laundry, storage and garden spaces. Socially, we shared meals, supported each other through life’s challenges and celebrated each other’s joy. Shortly after moving to our completed houses, my new-born daughter became the youngest resident of the coop and it was an ideal environment in which to spend her childhood.

Life moves on, and 12 years later we found ourselves moving on also. It was definitely a challenge to leave behind the environment we had collectively created and the social fabric which had grown around it. That is not to say living together was always smooth.  We definitely had to tackle some social and organisational difficulties. Living in the cooperative I established an architectural practice and taught at university; eventually becoming an ‘accidental academic.’  Although no longer living in the coop, I find the experiences continue to permeate both my teaching and research.

During my time in the cooperative, Australia experienced a property boom and is now one of the most unaffordable housing markets globally, with the average income to property value ratio in Melbourne and Sydney now exceeding that of London and New York. The resultant focus on houses as financial investment products and the dominance of large profit-seeking developers in urban housing provision has led to a miss-match between the housing available and the housing people need, or want.  I began to question how could future residents collectively commission dwelling for their own use as we had done in the previous era of state-funded cooperatives.  Importantly, I questioned how can we return to a focus on use values and liveability in preference to market values and profit. After following this course for some years in practice, teaching and research it was time to formalise the process and from 2013 to 2016 I completed a research thesis which asked “What are the impediments to collective self-organised multi-unit housing in Australia?” The research focused on both successful and unsuccessful attempts at collective self-organisation and drew on the range of international experiences mentioned by Darinka in a previous post here. In particular, lessons were drawn from self-development projects in Berlin, Germany and attempts to adapt those processes to the UK.

Post-PhD I continue to research emerging Australian experiences and learning lessons from international progress in the collaborative housing arena, with a focus on international comparison and policy transfer. The opportunity to visit the TUDelft CoLab as a guest researcher in 2018 has been an invaluable experience, allowing the expansion of this research to include the case of Dutch CPO/CPC projects.  I would like to thank the many residents, built environment professionals, politicians, and municipality officers who have kindly agreed to participate in research interviews and shared their immense knowledge and experiences.  With a plethora of new data now in hand, it is time to embark upon the process of analysis. Without wanting to predetermine outcomes, it is intended this research will not only inform Australia’s progress in this arena but also provide useful reflections and lessons to other collaborative housing markets, be they emerging or matured.

Special thanks go to the members of the CoLab team and MBE for embracing and assisting my research in the Netherlands and I look forward to continued collaboration over time.  Having now returned to Adelaide, it is saddening that my time in Delft has come to an end, but it was also a pleasure this week to return to my former coop home and share a meal with the current residents to celebrate the 21st anniversary of ‘moving-in day’.

Dr. Jasmine S Palmer,
visiting researcher at Co-Lab Research

August 2018

Image: ACRE Housing Cooperative Adelaide 1994-1997. Winner of the City of Adelaide award for Architecture 1998.