Imagine you could design an apartment block for you and your friends to live in. Would you give yourselves giant balconies?
What about communal space? A roof-top terrace with a garden and barbecues? A gym with a sauna? A purpose-built laundry facility?
In the countryside in Ireland it is not uncommon for people to build their own homes. More people should team up to do it in the city too, says architect Greg Jackson.
Jackson has been interested in co-housing for some time, working to develop a project with his company Jackson Groarke.
He has a personal interest as well, coming from Mayo where “we wave at everything that moves”, he says. He’s never got used to the atomised living of city apartment blocks, to not knowing his neighbours.
In Germany, around 200,000 people live in co-housing projects, which means they formed a group, got a piece of land, hired an architect to design what they wanted, and then tendered for a builder, says Jackson.
“Rather than being driven by profit and thinking about houses as commodities that you flip on, or sell on, [with co-housing] you are thinking more about families and homes,” he says.
Now a group of architects, including Jackson, have come together to form a policy research and advocacy group, Co-Housing Ireland, to promote the idea here.
“The purpose is to raise awareness and shape a bit of policy around it and look at proposals to clear some of the blockages that are in the way,” says Jackson.
Can We Do It Here?
City apartments here in Dublin don’t have a great reputation. They are often pokey, and lack storage and outside space.
“Every apartment in Dublin is built for a young couple; they are completely unsuitable for families or older people,” says Tom O’Donnell, an Irish architect who is living in Hamburg.
Co-housing has the potential to change that, says Mark Price, an architecture lecturer at University College Dublin and one of the founders of Co-Housing Ireland.
Such projects usually produce higher-quality, more environmentally sustainable buildings, as the designer knows she or he will have to pay the energy bills, says Price.
Co-housing is a rather mainstream model in Germany, says O’Donnell. “For the city (authority) it’s a way of ensuring they get sustainable development as there is a big problem with gentrification in Berlin,” he says.
Each person owns their own unit, and when they form the group at the beginning they agree on what happens if someone wishes to sell.
“It depends on the project. Every project is different,” he says. Usually there is a stipulation that you can’t sell your home on for a profit within the first ten or fifteen years.
After that, you can often sell at the market rate, but the remaining people in the co-housing project may have a say in who moves in, O’Donnell says.
Many of the co-housing projects in German cities have roof gardens, saunas, or even swimming pools, says O’Donnell.
Says Price: “The whole thing seems impossible if it wasn’t for the fact that it works well in Germany.”
Communal-living is an important part of the concept, he says. “People can help each other and share facilities.”
There can be disagreements between those who are co-housed – but those can be resolved in creative ways.
Take the dispute in one Berlin project over who would get the penthouse, says Jackson. Residents agreed to make it a timeshare that they could each use for guests, or at other times rent out via Airbnb to fund the management company.
“It can be really innovative, interesting and democratic,” he says.
Cheaper Land Equals Cheaper Housing
Dublin City Council sold land to a Ballymun co-housing project for one-thirtieth of what it would normally cost.
If the land is made available at below the market rate like this, then the houses can be much cheaper, says Price.
At the Ballymun project, the cheapest two-bedroom is €140,000, the majority of the three-bedroom homes are €170,000, and the four-bedroom homes range from €200,000 to €219,000.
So it is not surprising that the architects involved in Co-Housing Ireland would like to see the local authorities providing land to get these initiatives started.
While Dublin City Council officials have expressed interest in different housing models with the potential to produce affordable housing, they’ve said they need to prioritise social housing.
“[T]here clearly is insufficient land in [council] ownership to cater for both social and affordable needs,” a press spokesperson said, by email back in June.
But O’Donnell says that co-housing projects could help with the social-housing shortage, too, by agreeing to provide a greater proportion of social housing than a private developer would.
Under rules set out in Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, each developer of a site with ten or more units has to set aside 10 percent of a development to sell to the state for social housing.
The cost to the state of providing that social housing would also be lower, as the developer’s profit margin of up to 30 percent wouldn’t be a factor, he says.
O’Donnell, in Hamburg, says that a co-housing group doesn’t necessarily need to get a discount on the land.
If they purchase it at the market rate, they can still provide themselves with better, cheaper accommodation by cutting out the developer’s profit margin, he says.
But arranging the finance is a real challenge.
Banks don’t like anything that isn’t tried and tested, says Jackson. And co-housing projects are complex: if you want to build apartments there are three different tranches of finance required.
The first is for the land, the second is for the communal areas, and the third is for your own unit. It’s relatively easy to get the loan to build your own apartment, but not for the first two tranches, he says.
“There is no bank out there at the moment willing to finance the purchase of a site that doesn’t have planning permission,” Jackson says. (Permission could be refused, and then what?)
Jackson thinks a few co-housing projects need to get pushed through so banks will see they work. Then banks might get on board with the idea, as they have in Germany, he says.
O’Donnell says finding the land, and arranging the finance are the major challenges for co-housing projects in Ireland.
In Germany, state banks finance co-housing projects at a discounted rate, says O’Donnell. Here “the banks might baulk at the potential complexity of a project like this”, he says.
If the local authority would hold a site for a co-housing project, which they could then purchase it once everything was in place, that would make it a lot easier, says O’Donnell.
“If sites were made available, they don’t have to be cheaper, but if they were held for a co-housing project, to get the right people together and the financing in order and get the planning …”, he says.
It is to push for ideas like this one that the architects have come together to form Co-Housing Ireland.
“We have set up the group as a think tank,” says O’Donnell. “To promote the idea of co-housing in Ireland and alternative approaches to housing and living.”
“It’s time in Ireland. People are definitely open to new ideas,” he says. “For the last 20 years, we have had a permanent crisis of either over-supply or under-supply of housing.”
Jackson wants to roll out a co-housing project in Foxrock, and says he has hundreds of people interested.