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



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 (, 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 ( and working with Darinka, Vincent, Carla and Sara on the “Samen Wonen, Samen Onderzoeken” project ( 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.


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.

Between minimum and collaborative housing: the journey that led me to Co-Lab Research

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As a three-year-old girl, I would sit in the improvised swing that my dad set up for me in the living-room-to-be (not a very safe thing to do, now that I think about it), and I would witness the fascinating process of transforming piles of bricks into thick walls and long glass slabs into windows. A part of the house was growing up at the same time that I was growing up. Ever since, I have always considered the built environment as a permanent process; a living organism, constantly adapting to new needs and demands.

Many years later, finally as an Architecture student at FAUP, Porto, Portugal (not surprisingly, after this bucolic and heart-warming introduction) I developed a particular interest in the origins of some collective housing models, more specifically on Existenzminimum, and decided to work on that topic in my Master Dissertation. Existenzminimum is one of those (German) concepts that cannot be accurately translated into other languages; the direct translation into English would be ‘minimum subsistence’ or ‘subsistence level’. However, neither of these expressions do justice to the progressive ideology of the concept. When specifically used in the housing domain, the term can be translated as minimum dwelling. This approach mainly aimed at creating a new way of collective living at affordable levels, more suitable to the new post-war societal needs, through a ‘mini-max dwelling concept’, where the minimum amount of space could accommodate the maximum of  life.

After my Master Defence, on the 9th of December 2011 (symbolically enough, on the exact same day that an international symposium was being held in Berlin on the redefinition of Existenzminimum), my supervisor Prof. Dr. Nuno Grande said to me: “Ok, now you have the basis to start a PhD.” Although his suggestion inspired me, after spending six sleepless years designing and making models, at that point I was itching to start working as an architect, to finally put into practice everything I had learned.

So there I was, freshly graduated, full of energy and ready to fly… little did I know that I was about to land in the middle of the economic crisis, which hit Portugal very harshly. No construction = no architecture design. And I had no uncles or cousins in need of a house or a refurbishment in that moment. So, I decided to fly somewhere else. I flew to Berlin, to work at Heim Balp Architekten; and then, two years and a half later, to Mexico City, where I worked at Tatiana Bilbao Estudio.

In both places, I was able to expand my knowledge on how different cultures explore the general approaches of housing in the contemporary context. In Berlin, I had the opportunity to develop a specific minimum housing model, which we called Bento Box, following the same principle of ‘minimum of space for maximum of life’. In Mexico – a completely different context – I learned about the practical qualities of incremental housing models, with Tatiana Bilbao’s Vivienda Popular, where a temporary minimum unit is set up (equipped with the basic services) with the possibility to grow over time, depending on the needs and financial possibilities of the household.

Professional practices aside, I also learned a lot about minimum and collective living arrangements through my personal daily life experience. During the first part of my stay in Berlin and then my whole stay in Mexico city, I had to share the space with other – often messy – flatmates. In total, five different apartments, five different layouts, five different social dynamics. In Berlin, the undersized and overstuffed kitchen didn’t contribute to a healthy social environment, and the shared bathroom was worth a ‘not recommended for sensitive people’ sign. In one of the places in Mexico, our room was directly connected to the shared living room, so every time someone was throwing a party and I just wanted to sleep after an intense working week, I had to discreetly roll into the common bathroom (next to the room, also facing the living room) with my pyjamas and a toothbrush in my hand, hoping that nobody would see my outfit, and then almost suffocate myself with pillows against my head to sound-proof my sleep.

These experiences taught me a great lesson: this kind of collective living arrangements requires a conscious design to guarantee the quality of spaces and to promote more natural social relationships. The ‘typical’ and conventional layouts, tailored for nuclear-family structures, are no longer suitable for the contemporary citizen, who has now different needs and demands.

‘The times they are a changin’! The way people live, work, consume, commute is taking new shapes… but how are people reacting to all this? How is design responding to these changes? What new approaches in housing are being developed to give answers to the societal and economic shifts that are becoming so obvious?

I raised these questions in a presentation I gave in November 2016 at the ENHR seminar Comparative Housing Policy: New approaches to affordable housing hosted by the TU Delft, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. One of the participants was Dr Darinka Czischke, who approached me to say that her research on Collaborative Housing touched exactly on the same issues. We immediately saw the potential to work together on this. A year and a half later, I’m working with Darinka as research assistant at Co-Lab Research and started carrying out my PhD on Existenzminimum in collaborative housing at TU Delft, where I intend to understand how the interplay between Existenzminimum design principles and collective design processes contribute to affordability in housing.

Sara Brysch,
research assistant at Co-Lab Research


May 2018

Why Co-Lab? A platform to catalyse mutual learning on Collaborative Housing

What can people do to house themselves, at a time when governments and market actors are increasingly failing to provide housing that meet their needs and aspirations? Are there any viable alternatives to conventional ways of ‘producing’ and ‘consuming’ housing? In the face of mayor challenges that are deeply affecting our lives, such as climate change, social exclusion, loneliness and isolation, can the way we plan, design and manage our homes and living environments provide any meaningful responses?

I began to ask myself these and other questions five years ago, while writing the conclusions of my PhD in housing management at TU Delft. For years I had been busy learning about the macro structures of housing provision; policies and markets, organisations, funding models, subsidies, regulations… a world of formal institutions and conventions. In my six years as research director of the European Social Housing Observatory, I had gained great knowledge on European housing systems and policies. But I wanted to go deeper; I wanted to better understand the tensions and dilemmas underpinning the provision of housing that meets social goals in an increasingly business-like environment. So I decided to embark on a PhD that looked at the interplay of social, commercial and public aims amongst social housing providers.

By the time I started my PhD, in March 2008, the Global Financial and Economic Crisis had begun to unfold. Over the next six years we would witness the unravelling of the assumed capacity of conventional forms of housing provision to fulfil their role across European countries. Defaulted mortgages; repossessions and evictions; the appearance of a ‘new’ class of homeless people, made of educated but dispossessed persons; and the gradual housing exclusion of middle income households, not ‘poor enough’ to qualify for social housing and ‘too poor’ or precariously employed to obtain a mortgage in the market… who was going to save the day? Were housing providers of different shapes and colours across Europe able or willing to provide solutions for these people? What if the solutions didn’t have to come from ‘above’; what if people could do something about their own situation, by themselves?

A breakthrough moment came when I had the privilege to meet Raquel Rolnik, the former UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, during her visit to the UK in the summer of 2013. Listening to the dire account of local stakeholders gathered to inform her about the state of housing in the country, she asked the question: “But, what are the people doing about it? Aren’t there any social movements addressing the housing crisis?” I could see where Raquel was coming from. Being raised in South America, just like her, I could understand her bewilderment at the seemingly lack of collective agency to confront the shortcomings of formal institutions.

Collective agency in housing is nothing new. Collaborative housing has existed for a long time in Europe, in many different guises. The tradition of housing co-operatives dates back to the 19th century, as a collective response from workers to their poor living conditions in the industrial revolution era in England, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Subsequent waves of collective self-organised housing include the Castors movement in France, which emerged in the aftermath of WW II; the work of architects who practiced and advocated participatory approaches to housing in the 1960s and 1970s, notably John Turner and Walter Segal; the ‘Kollektivhus’ movement in Sweden, driven by feminist and progressive thinkers and doers; ‘Bofællesskab’ in Denmark, a living form aimed at bringing people together in communities, translated as ‘co-housing’ by USA architects McCamant and Durrett; the ‘Baugruppen’ in Germany, and so on. Motivations at the core of all or most of these movements include a longing for community life, togetherness and belonging; gender equality and mutual help; care for others and for the environment.

More recently, collaborative housing has embraced a new set of drivers, in tune with social, political, environmental and economic changes. Research shows that affordability, the inclusion of a wider array of social groups, and housing an increasing proportion of elderly people in Europe are amongst the main current motivations behind contemporary forms of collaborative housing. If we believe that the ethos and practices found in collaborative housing do provide meaningful and effective answers to the many challenges outlined above, a relevant question is how these housing forms and their guiding principles and practices, can become embedded in planning and housing provision systems. Yet, while many advocate the scaling up or mainstreaming of collaborative housing, we need to acknowledge that this way of providing housing and living together is not for everyone. Collaborative housing is not meant to replace macro structures of housing provision. However, collaborative housing can help to improve current ways of providing housing by introducing innovation and new ways of looking at the user-producer relationship. Furthermore, collaborative housing can become a viable alternative for larger number of households than it is today, especially in countries where this is still a marginal option. This requires a stronger evidence base that sheds light on the relative merits of these housing forms vis-à-vis mainstream alternatives, and better knowledge on what works and what not. This evidence needs to be reliable, comparable and replicable.

Thanks to being awarded the Delft Technology Fellowship, three years ago I embarked on a journey to learn more about contemporary collaborative housing forms. I was amazed at the intense exchange and mutual learning happening amongst practitioners and groups of residents, both within and beyond national confines. Yet, the research community seemed to be lagging behind. The increasing research in this field tended to be scattered across disciplines and linguistic/geographical scholarly traditions, with little or no co-ordinated efforts to develop suitable theories and methodological frameworks. This is why, in November 2015, I launched the working group ‘Collaborative Housing’ at the European Network of Housing Research (ENHR), together with Dr Claire Carriou from the University of Nanterre, Paris. The response has been overwhelming; in the first two years of its existence, the working group has attracted the highest number of abstracts out of the 28 working groups within the ENHR. The group has drawn not only academic researchers, but also a significant number of practitioners, eager to discuss and reflect critically about these experiences. As a result, a variety of further events and collaborations have ensued, including the forthcoming special issue ‘Conceptualising Collaborative Housing’ in the scientific journal Housing, Theory and Society.

What have I learned so far in this journey? Collaborative housing, as a collective response to major 21st century challenges, deserves a place amongst the most pressing debates on urban and housing solutions for the future. Co-Lab Research aims to provide a platform to share knowledge and catalyse mutual learning that can add value to these discussions. We hope you enjoy this website and feel inspired to contribute to this broader aim.

Darinka Czischke,
Founder of Co-Lab Research

April 2018