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Contemporary cohousing experiments in the Brussels-Capital Region

Notes de la rédaction

This is the press release related to the article from d'Emmanuelle Lenel, François Demonty and Christine Schaut published on February 10, 2020. Read the article.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, as in many European cities, cohousing experiments have generated enthusiasm in Brussels. After examining the extent of the phenomenon and clarifying the socio-political context of the current success of cohousing, Emmanuelle Lenel (Université Saint-Louis - Bruxelles), François Demonty (Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles) and Christine Schaut (Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles and Université libre de Bruxelles), in issue 142 of Brussels Studies, characterise the architectural typologies which are often attached to them as well as the ideological principles underlying these typologies. The article is based on empirical material collected during a two-year field survey conducted in nine recent cohousing projects, occupied or under construction, in the Brussels-Capital Region (BCR), regardless of whether or not the occupants were the project initiators.

Cohousing is often presented as a new way of living which is more convivial, supportive, economical and ecological. It also highlights the possibility of combining community life with respect for autonomy. Other factors may also explain the interest in it, such as difficulties to access housing, a desire for a community which promotes social integration, contemporary changes in families and support from the public authorities.

These projects contain emblematic architectural elements: construction in a “closed block”, use of transparent materials and wood, access to a multi-purpose room from the street, centrally located gardens, etc. These elements are aimed at making a strong link between three aspects of housing: the private space, the collective space and the immediate environment. This relative architectural standardisation seems to be the spatial imprint of a way of living which, in reaction to the contemporary “individualist withdrawal”, places renewed value on living together.

Common spaces are of particular importance because they are intended to allow the emergence of a community which is an intermediary between the family, the neighbourhood and the wider environment. But the private spaces dedicated to the family and the individual – far from being neglected – are also considered carefully. Private life is therefore valued by the designers of these projects, who seek to develop “a form of community [...] which is not obligatory and leaves room for withdrawal into the private sphere of the domestic space”. This architecture is strongly linked to the ideology it manifests. It is driven by the idea that the physical environment must not only express a way of living based on the importance of living together, but that it must also maintain, enliven and even create it if it is not the primary motivation of the residents.

But as the survey shows, this postulate whereby the space controls the nature of the social relations within it does not always stand up to the test. The space is used differently according to the socio-economic profiles of the residents and their reasons for living there. Cohousing projects initiated and managed by groups of individuals attract a certain fringe of the intellectual middle classes. These projects are the result of a gathering of individuals and households around an ideal of a shared way of living. As homeowners, they are willing to invest time and energy in a place which serves functions other than housing.

The projects initiated by associations or public operators (municipalities, CPASs, SLRB) target individuals and households which are much less well off economically and see these projects above all as an opportunity to have access to affordable, decent and spacious housing. However, strong constraints often weigh on these individuals and may constitute obstacles to their participation in the collective project: tenant status, need to “have a break” after work, etc. For these people, the proposed model may need to be developed further.

Lenel, Emmanuelle, Demonty, Fraçois, Schaut, Christine, “Contemporary cohousing experiments in the Brussels-Capital Region”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 142, 10 February 2020. URL:
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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