Saving by Sharing – Collective Housing for Sustainable Lifestyles
Paper for the Second International Conference on Degrowth, Barcelona, 25-29 March 2010.
Saving by Sharing – Collective Housing for Sustainable Lifestyles
Dick Urban Vestbro, Professor Emeritus, School of Architecture and the Built Environment,
The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, firstname.lastname@example.org
It is well known that the richest 20 per cent of world population consume 80 per cent of
global resources. One of the major areas of resource use is housing. In Sweden the average
resident has at her/his disposal 90 tons of building materials. Housing areas serve as gigantic
flow pumps. The largest flows are air and water. An average household exchanges 700 tons
of air and carries home 1 ton of food and other daily goods and uses up to 100-150 tons of
water per year. In Sweden water is cheap but heating and cleaning it requires vast amounts of
energy. When it comes to energy use, the average resident uses 7-8 MWh per year, half of
which comes from non-renewable energy (Svane 2002:14-15). To change this situation it is
necessary not only to apply new technology, but also to change lifestyles.
The need for collective organisation
Individuals left to themselves are less motivated to change behaviour compared to groups
who work out their own procedures for change. If many individuals must change their
behaviour to achieve an environmental impact, there is little incentive for a particular
individual to change his/her behaviour. However, social norms, communication among group
members, and large pay-offs can foster cooperation for pro-environment behaviour.
Prescriptive norms for cooperation should include the norm of reciprocity. It has proved
successful if people have face-to-face communication, and if one can monitor what other
people do. In such a situation a person may have no personal opinion about what is the right
thing to do, but once one learns what others think, this is all that matters (Biel 2003).
Similar observations have been made by Lundgren, who notes that only a few people are
prepared to sacrifice their short-term interest unless others do so too. He finds that the best
way to change other people’s opinions is to change the possibilities open to them, and that it
is easier to achieve results through collective measures. Often there is, however, a reluctance
to influence others, the assumption being that non-interference in other people’s behaviour
warrants non-interference in one’s own (Lundgren 1999).
In his report Nordic Households and Sustainable Housing architect professor Örjan
Svane discusses the dilemma between individual and collective actions. Households often
belong to a neighbourhood, to a homeowners or a tenants association, which may become
important actors for the reduction of harmful environmental impacts. In his research Svane
puts special emphasis on ‘the small neighbourhood’ where residents have a chance to know
each other. Here a number of actions may be taken to reduce environmental impacts. Such
actions include refurbishment of the buildings, new maintenance practices and participation
of the residents in maintenance (Svane 2002:32-37).
The alternative living movement
Groups of people getting together to achieve environmental goals are not new. The
alternative living movement of the 1970s usually had far-reaching environmental goals. A
more recent example is the network Eurotopia, to which European cohousing units, eco-
villages and other types of communities are attached. In the USA an alternative living
movement is gaining momentum. The Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) includes
eco-villages, cohousing units, religious communities, and appropriate technology groups that
advocate cooperative lifestyles, citizens’ participation in planning and house building,
ecological farming, use of sustainable energy and peaceful conflict resolution (Downey &
Elph 2000; FIC 2004).
A part of the alternative living movement consists of eco-villages. Swedish eco-villages
typically focus on passive heating or heating through solar panels, waste water that is taken
care of locally, composing organic waste, natural ventilation, and eco-labelled building
materials. Often residents participate in the planning of the settlement (Lanne 2004). In a
study by architect researcher Palm Lindén the author notes that living in an eco-village means
a move away from individual or family-centred lifestyle towards cooperation and a more
sensual life, closer to nature (Palm Lindén 1999).
An interesting part of the alternative living movement consists of what is usually called
collaborative housing or cohousing. In Sweden the most frequent type of such housing is the
self-work model developed in the 1980s, a unit of 15-50 apartments, where the residents take
care of meal services and other tasks through communal efforts. Today about 40 such units
exist in Sweden. Cohousing residents usually favour gender equality and ‘post-materialist’
values – those that give weight to parents’ time with children, meaningful leisure time
activities and care for qualities in nature rather than in consumer products (McCamant &
Durrett 1988; Woodward 1989; Vestbro 2000, Vestbro 2009).
In North American cohousing the ideological base seems to be the same. In a chapter of
the FIC Directory US cohousing is presented as standing in opposition to the materialistic
‘American Dream’, the one where owning a single-family detached house, a two-car garage,
and a private yard is the desired goal. Instead cohousers look for a simpler, less materialistic,
more sustainable way of life. The author points out that it is unrealistic to expect that those
who have not experienced those lifestyles want to live simpler (Paiss 2000:142). In another
chapter of the same book it is noted that cohousing took root in North America in the 1990s
in response to the overwhelming emphasis on the home as private sanctuary. Characteristic
for US cohousing experiments are resident involvement in the design process, a site plan that
encourages interaction, a ‘common house’ that provides a place for varied resident activities,
and an emphasis on resident self-management.
The Australian architect researcher Graham Meltzer has made a comprehensive study of
US cohousing as a place for pro-environment attitudes and behaviours. His research was
carried out in 1996 on 18 of the 22 cohousing units he traced. The number of households per
community ranged from six to 42 with an average of 22. Three were classified as urban, five
as small town, eight as suburban and two as rural. In a summary of his research he noted that
US cohousing communities express strong commitment to environmental values. The main
focus of the study was on cohousing as a context for change towards sustainable lifestyles
(Meltzer 2000, see further below).
Save by sharing
One of the most important aspects of sustainable living is to save on building materials and
heated (or cooled) indoor space by living in smaller housing units. In his study of US
cohousing Meltzer addresses this issue. He finds that the studied units range from 88 to 173
sqm, the average being 120 sqm. This deviates considerably from the US average one-family
house of 205 sqm (new houses built in 1993). When moving to cohousing settlements the
investigated households left houses of an average of 142 sqm behind. The reduction by only
22 sqm may seem small, but becomes more impressive if we assume that many of the
cohousers are middle class people in the process of forming a family, i.e. persons who
probably would build 200 sqm houses if they had been part of the mainstream. That residents
have made a conscious choice in favour of smaller houses is supported by the fact that
residents expressed a willingness to reduce dwellings and room sizes with reference to their
access to common facilities and the conviviality associated with shared facilities (Meltzer
To get a fair picture of the amount of space used we must add the communal spaces. In
Meltzer’s study the common facilities constitute an average of 15 sqm per household. The
common spaces were the following: 16 of the 18 units had a dining room, a kitchen, a work-
shop and some kind of social space; 15 had a kid’s room; 14 had a common laundry and a
guest room; 10 had a library, a pool and an office; 9 had a common TV room; 8 had a room
for teenagers; 5 had a crafts room, and 3 had an exercise room. Sharing is also done for
facilities such as lawn mowers, garden equipment, carpentry tools, washers, dryers, freezers,
TVs and video recorders. Sharing reduces household consumption and builds social relations
In Swedish cohousing one of the goals is to increase access to attractive indoor space by
abstaining from some private space in favour of common spaces such as dining room,
children’s play room, guest room, sauna, workshops and exercise room. In an influential
book written by ten women it was emphasised that the self-work model is a model that
“saves on material resources and liberates human resources”. Programmatically it was
proposed that the private kitchen and living room can be combined into one room, and that
kitchen equipment can be reduced since residents would eat their main means in the common
dining room (BIG-gruppen 1982).
In a study from the 1980s the issue of saving by sharing was addressed. Of seven investi-
gated units the proportion of common spaces varied from 3 to 21 % of the total amount of
floor space, representing 1.5 to 17 sqm per household. The study found that three of six
studied units had smaller apartments than normal. Between 23 and 70% of the residents
expressed a willingness to reduce apartment sizes, while 10 to 53% were ready to reduce
kitchen equipment (Woodward, Vestbro & Grossman 1989). The apartment sizes referred to
here are in the range of 55-100 sqm, which is considerably lower than the spaces noted for
US cohousing units.
In the biggest of the Swedish collective housing units of the 1980s, Stolplyckan in the
city of Linköping with 184 apartments, the working group initiating the project decided from
the start that housing costs should be the same as in other contemporary project, which in turn
meant that private apartment space was reduced in favour of communal spaces. To achieve
this, kitchens were either designed without space for a dining table or combined with living
rooms (Pedersen 1991).
One may note that the number of households per 10,000 inhabitants is higher in Sweden
than elsewhere in the world. The reason is that young people move from their parents at an
early age; that long life expectancy is combined with independent living, and that divorce
rates are high. Thus the number of one-person households has more than doubled in 25 years,
while households of more than four persons have been reduced substantially. About 75% of
Swedish households are one or two-person households. Overcrowding has been more or less
eradicated. Instead over-consumption of space is prominent. In a study from the 1980s it was
estimated that 66% of Swedish households have one room or more per person, living room
and kitchen not counted. In a study by Sanne it was found that the equivalent of 200,000
houses can be ‘saved’ if households in overstandard dwellings move to houses appropriate to
their needs. The main problem to achieve this is that big old houses are cheaper than new
small houses (Sanne 1986). In this case behavioural change towards sustainable lifestyle is a
question of moving to a smaller house.
Design to promote lifestyle changes
In his study of US cohousing Meltzer uses the wider concept ‘setting’ to comprise location,
site design and architecture. Site design comprises land-use, density, infrastructure and
landscaping. Among other things Meltzer finds that green belts are preserved and that
buildings are usually clustered so as to limit vehicle access. Furthermore, of the 18 units 8
have recycled building materials, 8 have super insulation, 7 have refurbished existing
buildings, 6 have programmable thermostats and heat exchangers and 3 have passive solar
design. Meltzer finds a strong improvement in recycling and composting practices, compared
to earlier residence, while repair and reuse as strategies to reduce unnecessary consumption
and waste, are not well applied (Meltzer 2000).
In the Swedish context design aspects of cohousing have been investigated by the author
of this paper. In a study from the 1980s house type, room system, number of apartments,
proportion and type of common spaces were discussed. The 45 studied units were found to
vary from 9 to 328 apartments. It was concluded that compact solutions are desirable in order
to facilitate easy access to common spaces. Concerning quality of common spaces, one of the
conclusions was that they should be located where residents pass frequently and be provided
with glazed walls in order to promote spontaneous use (Woodward, Vestbro & Grossman
The same conclusion was drawn in a study of the Stolplyckan unit. The researcher made
the observation that intermediary spaces between the private and collective constitutes impor-
tant social elements. It was concluded that the corridor (400 m long) becomes a free zone for
children and youngsters, a place where “they can develop their social life within their own
group” – a space that “provides excitement at the same time as adults feel that it is a safe
environment for the children” (Pedersen 1991).
Housing is an important area for efficient resource use. This may be achieved not only by
environment-friendly design when planning new areas, or by improving maintenance pro-
cedures, but also by creating a physical environment that promotes sustainable lifestyles.
Lifestyle changes do not depend only on information about environmental threats, but also on
social norms, physical cues and economic structures. Pro-environment behaviour may be
promoted by collective action and a spatial organisation that facilitates community
An important aspect of cohousing is its capacity to save by sharing facilities such as
common meals, childcare, hobby rooms, guest rooms, saunas etc. US cohousers use 30% less
space per person than other households. People in Swedish youth communes consume
considerably less space compared to that of the average Swedish citizen. In Swedish cohouses
one may save both by reducing the normal apartment by 10% and by accepting fewer rooms
than in non-collective living. Other design and planning factors of importance for behaviour
change are land-use, density, infrastructure and location. Location determines the need for
travel, access to public transport, and walking and biking. Compact house types facilitate easy
access to common spaces, which in turn stimulate more efficient use of space. Common
spaces should be located where residents pass frequently and be provided with glazed walls in
order to stimulate spontaneous use. Spatial organisation may influence the level of social
control, which in turn may constitute a determining factor for pro-environment behaviour.
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