Browsing the website of l’Echappée, the co-housing that was on one of the panels of the Triodos webinars I found that they made a rather interesting manual about building a co-housing. They also published a copy of their “chartre” (vision) and statutes.
Interesting facts about l’Echappée
- 18 units of all together 2000 m² (30 adults and 18 children)
- 7 units financed by the “Fonds du Logement” (which offers mortgages to those who can’t get one on the regular market)
- same architect as Brutopia (Stekke & Fraas)
- moved in in 2017 (took 6 years to get there)
- lots of common spaces (400 m²) (multip-purpose room with kitchen and salon / library, workshop, play room for children, laundry room and 400 m² garden)
- plenty of common activities (ciné club, philosophy café, all sorts of classes (yoga etc), homework school etc)
The manual “Comment construire un co-habitat?” (how to build a co-housing) is 15 pages long and is quite an interesting read. I strongly recommend it to everybody who is considering to sign up to build the Reef together.
Quick summary of the manual
Danish-style co-housings (p. 3)
- Objective: make life more pleasant, easier and with more solidarity, while at the same time preserving everybody’s privacy
- Common rooms / facilities often include the following: multi-purpose room (“salle polyvalente”), laundry room, play room for children, workshop, bike shed, kitchen, solar panels and boiler
- Usually between 15 and 35 families or else between 50 and 100 people. This is because of the following reasons:
– If the group is too small it comes at the cost of privacy and having too many tasks to be distributed.
– If the group is too big it becomes too difficult to know everybody, which comes at the cost of social cohesion.
- Six characteristics of a co-housing (p. 4):
- Participatory process
- Social architecture
- Common spaces and activities
- Expectation of active participation to daily management of the co-housing
- Decentralised hierarchy / management
- Independent household income for every unit
The essentials (organisation and working together)
1. Active listening (p. 4)
- Strong recommendation to invest in hiring faciliators to train the group in active listing, i.e. learning to activily try to understand what the other person is trying to say and why
2. Decentralised leadership (p. 4)
- Reading suggestion: “Reinventing organisations” by Frédéric Laloux
- It’s ok to have people who take up strong leadership roles, but they need to be able to let go of their role and not stick to it at all costs.
- In l’Echappée at some point every adult has taken the leadership for one or the other task.
3. Consensus (and Plan B)
- L’Echappée has invested rather strongly in the beginning in group facilitation techniques.
- Deciding by consensus (as opposed to deciding by majority) costs more time, but is useful because it allows you to understand why people don’t agree with something. This way of working builds a sort of “capital of respect” because people feel heard without being judged.
- Method they use:
- Round for clarifications
- Round for opposition
- Consensus (not everybody needs to agree, but everybody needs to feel heard)
- The “Plan B” when decisions had to be taken quickly was to proceed by voting, but not without having done a “tour de table” at the general assembly
4. Trusting others
A) Accepting new people to the group
- L’Echappée started out with 3 people only.
- In the beginning they organised information evenings to which 30-50 people would show up. Afterwards 10-15 turned out to be interested who wanted to get to know them better.
- In the next phase they invited people who were interested to their working groups. These people were invited to express their point of view but were not given the possibility to take part in the decisions that were being made.
- The bigger the group became, the stricter the criteria they used for new candidates, in order to guarantee as much diversity as possible.
- In certain cases they decided to not continue with some people. These people were offered a polite explanation of the reason why.
B) Accounting of hours contributed
- At some point they had a conflict because somebody felt they were putting in too many hours compared to others. The solution they agreed on was to account for hours contributed.
- In their system every unit is expected to put in 100 hours per year. Units that don’t meet this target are asked to make a monetary contribution to make up the deficit, based on 100 hours = 1% of the casco price of the unit. So if one unit only puts in 50 hours, they need to contribute 0.5% of the casco price of their unit.
- In their experience this system has contributed to providing an indirect acknowledgement of the work done by those who contributed a lot of time.
5. Finding a balance between efficiency and spontaneity (p. 7)
- From the beginning: set up of an asbl (not-for-profit association) with a general assembly and a board (conseil d’administration)
- Working groups they used: architecture, legal, finances, communication, subsidies, internal rules (règlement d’ordre intérieur), IT and others
- When the works started they set up a “société civile” that took on the job of overseeing the construction works. The manual uses the word “travail titanesque” (a titanic job) for the people who were part of this (for two years). At the beginning of each general assembly an update was given and the decisions to be taken were presented.
- L’Echappée hired Mark van den Dries as a coach, based on a contract that stipulated some precisely defined tasks (p. 8).
- The help of an architect and a notary was called in early in the process.
- To facilitate meetings, the following roles / tasks were defined: 1) general facilitator who guides the meeting through the agenda, 2) a chair who gives people the floor, 3) a time keeper and 4) a note taker.
The different stages
1. First steps (p. 9)
- Just go for it.
2. Vision (“chartre”) (p. 9)
- Summarise the essentials of your values and what you want on a two-page document.
- This document is useful for people who are potentially interested, and also as a reference in case the project would drift away from the original intentions.
3. First public event (p. 9)
- L’Echappée had several. In the beginning the had a very formal set-up, while towards the end they just had very casual “open evenings” (auberge espagnole style)
4. Working groups (p. 10)
- Everyone was free to chose which working groups they wanted to participate in.
- The maximum recommended number of people per group is 4-5.
- Every group needs one person who keeps an overview on all information.
5. Cooperative vs co-ownership (co-propriété) (p. 10)
- A choice on the legal structure needs to be taken relatively early in the process and is difficult to reverse.
- A co-ownership leaves more control to individual owners, but opens the possibility for real estate speculation.
- In a cooperative decisions are taken by the cooperative’s general assembly.
6. Meeting up with financial institutions (p. 11)
- Not all banks are open to or familiar with the concept of co-housing. At Triodos however they were received with open arms.
- L’Echappée claims to be the first ones who went to the Fonds du Logement with the concept of a co-housing, with success.
- L’Echappée strongly recommends being open about everyone’s financial situation.
7. Finding a site (p. 11)
- This is one of the last stages, because you need to be ready with all your legal and financial issues to be able to compete with professional real estate project developers.
- For l’Echappée it took one year to reach this stage.
- They divided Brussels into 30 zones and allocated these among the adults in the group to scout them. Overall they scrutinised 100 sites, yet only 5 turned out to be suitable candidates.
Building a nest without the help of a real estate project developer
This part of the manual offers a number of pieces of advice written by the person who followed up the works from the first until the last day.
1. Be mindful of time management (p. 12)
- Time required during the works is one person day per week (for l’Echappée this stage took 2 years).
- They had a “construction site” meeting every week, which took 2-6 hours plus preparation time.
- Total estimated hours: 300-400.
2. Don’t give all the responsibility to only one person (p. 12)
- In l’Echappée they were two, which gave them more flexibility.
- Their coach also played an important role.
- It’s important that it’s the same 2-3 people who take up the role of contact point for the construction site leader.
3. Keep track of time invested and agree on a system to “remunerate” time (p. 12)
- This allows for everybody to get invested in function of their availabilities and preferences, without anybody needing to feel guilty or frustrated.
4. Everybody needs to foresee a 10% budget buffer (p. 12)
- This is because there are too many factors that are difficult to predict.
5. Choose an architect who has experience with building a co-housing (p. 13)
6. Keep a close eye on the budget (p. 13)
- It’s important to always now how much money there is available and which are the expenses.
- In l’Echappée there was a written agreement between the société civile, Triodos and the Fond du Logement which allowed the société civile to pay the contractor when the construction site progressed.
7. Maintain a transparent but well-considered line of communication with the general assembly (p. 13)
- There is a delicate balance between providing information in a transparent way and not over-burdening the general assembly at every moment of panic. Sometimes the people who are member of the société civile just need to deal with the stress they are experiencing on their own and just present a succinct summary of the problem and possible solutions to the general assembly.
Short list on p. 13:
- Association Eco-Quartier Strasbourg, Le guide pratique de l’autopromotion - à l’attention de
ceux qui souhaitent construire ensemble un habitat collectif écologique, 2015
- Diana Leafe Christian, Vivre Autrement, éd. EcoSociété, 2015
- Charles Durrett & Katie McCamant - Creating Cohousing, éd. New Society, 2011
- Rob Hopkins, Manuel de Transition, éd. EcoSociété, 2010
- Matthieu Lietaert, Le Cohabitat. Reconstruisons des villages en villes, éd. Couleur Livres, 2012
(+DVD sur plusieurs projets en Scandinavie et aux Pays-Bas)
- Marthe Marandola et Geneviève Lefebvre, Cohabiter pour mieux vivre, JC Lattes, 2009
- Marshall Rosenberg, La Communication Non Violente Au Quotidien, éd. Jouvance, 2003
Co-housing projects in Brussels
Short list on p. 14