The Reef vs. lockdown: living in a co-housing space in a time of pandemic


With cleaning services locked down, there are enough people living at The Reef to keep it clean and reasonably tidy

I live in Brussels, a city currently in lockdown as it struggles with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Like everyone else, I engage in social distancing, and stay at home a lot.

But not exactly like everyone else. My life is a little different, because my home is different. I live in The Reef, the prototype of a new kind of lived space. Its inhabitants are humans and small businesses. They share a roof to live in harmony with each other, their neighborhood, and the planet. What we have now is only a prototype, four bedrooms instead of the 15-30 we envision. But still, the pandemic is putting it through an unexpected test. What can we learn from it? How does one live in a co-housing space during a pandemic?

Pretty well, it turns out.

The compound structure creates a natural “oasis”

The Reef prototype consists of two self-standing lofts, facing each other across a courtyard, plus various bits and pieces. The compound squats in what used to be a factory complex. Access to the street is through a long and narrow private hallway. During the lockdown phase, the hallway is a natural “hot zone”. Deliveries arrive here, where we can disinfect them or simply leave them for a few days, until out-of-host viral DNA breaks down. We also keep masks, rubber gloves and hand sanitizer here for when we go out.

Once inside the Reef proper, the dweller gets a nice sense of peace and protection. The city seems far away (unless the school next door is giving children a mid-morning break, which of course does not happen in lockdown). The courtyard is a great resource when the weather is sunny. It gets direct sunlight for most of the year, and its high surrounding walls create a sense of quiet and concentration, a little like an oasis.

Instant neighborhood office

We reconverted to office one of the living room + kitchen open spaces. Edgeryders rents it as its Brussels office. So, in a normal weekday 2-5 of my colleagues work from here, though I am the only one that also lives in the compound. During lockdown, my colleagues work from home, so I have offered the office to my housemates. No working from the couch for us! We get a proper professional space, clean and minimalistic, with fast Internet, a decent printer, a whiteboard, projectors, external screens and so on.

This is especially nice, because it realizes our vision of the “neighborhood co-working space”. Many people appreciate going to the office, where they can socialize with colleagues and work from a space that is physically and mentally separated from the home and the family. But there is no reason to dive into traffic: you can get the same things in a remote work-ready facility five minutes walking from your door. No more commuting!

As I write this, four people use the office of the Reef every day. One works in the IT department of a bookshops chain. Another is a developer for a mobile phone company. Yet another works in a logistics company. And finally, I work for Edgeryders. We work side by side, chat over lunch breaks, and generally do everything you do in any office. It works great, there are no problems that I can see.

Redundancy brings resilience

Each of our two lofts is a fully independent unit. We have eliminated some duplication: for example, as I wrote above, one of the two living-kitchen spaces has become the office. But the redundancy is still there, and can be deployed as needed. Last week, for example, we had a brief scare when we found some water on the kitchen floor. We determined it was coming from the dishwasher. During lockdown, it could be problematic to get a plumber to come over and fix it. But guess what: in the office we have a second dishwasher – in fact we have two full kitchens, two full bathrooms and two toilets. It takes a lot of trouble to take us down. Redundant systems for the win!

We even have a sketch of a plan for if one of us gets infected. The infected person’s room immediately becomes a “hot room”. We will vacate the floor, and leave it at the disposal of the infected person (only two rooms per floor, so only one room to vacate). This way, the infected person will have a bit of breathing space, and his or her own bathroom. One of us will have to sleep in the living room or the office (we have couches and an inflatable mattrass), which sucks but beats the alternatives.

Extra spaces for unusual activities

More people living in the same roof means getting some economies of scale. For example, we only have one washing machine in the whole compound. This means that we are more efficient than nuclear families in using space. We use the extra square meters for unusual, nice-to-have activities, especially in lockdown. For example, we now use one of the landings as a mini-workout space.

The sink of the second kitchen is now the basis for producing DIY hand sanitizer.

And this is nothing. A former housemate had reclaimed our largest closet to use as a sort of biohacking lab, where he grew all sorts of mushrooms and yeasts. I expect even more creativity as we go.

Social distancing, but not isolation

Even in lockdown, the microcosm of The Reef offers some sociality. We have small or long chat over the dining table. We play board games. Last Friday we ordered in some Thai food. It beats living alone in a studio apartment.

And, even with only four people, we have a bit of social structure. We are four individuals; two of us are a couple, and they spend more time with each other than with the rest of us. And then there is the collective, everyone together, for activities like planning the groceries or the cleaning. With 15-30 people, I expect to observe a richer structure, much like that you would find in a band of hunters-gatherers.

In sum, pretty good!

The prototype Reef is just this: a prototype. If this were the full Reef, we would be twenty instead of four. We would have more skills, manpower, facilities. We would probably be making masks for the whole neighborhood. Hell, we would be making electricity. We would be handing out spare laptops to families in need of extra devices for the kids’ remote learning. And so on.

But, as long as the full Reef lies still in the future, I can’t think of a better place to be locked in than this. This is remarkable, because we certainly did not design it with a pandemic in mind! In my book, this shows that the Reef’s concept is robust to unknown unknowns. I look forward to seeing it bloom to its full potential in the coming years.

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I like the concept. What does it take to create a Reef near where I live?

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Hello @xaver, welcome! In our case, step one was for was a small group of people who agreed to live together as a choice rather than out of necessity. That was in 2012. Step two was change the concept slightly to “people and small businesses agreeing to live together”. That was in 2017.

Edgeryders pays rent in The Reef. It gets an office for its Brussels-based employees; and that allows us, who live there, to live more cheaply and sustainably, and have extra space at nights and over weekends. Plus, it allows us an extra degree of freedom, since there is a fully equipped office at home. My housemates used it only rarely until two weeks ago, but when the lockdown came it was there.

@noemi knows more about this. Also ping @Malcolm, @Sabine and @BaobabUrbain, to whom this post is dedicated :slight_smile:

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Hi @xaver, I am normally one of the regulars office people at The Reef and lived there for 3 years myself.
Like Alberto says, wanting to set it up is probably the first decision to make :slight_smile:

Where are you based? Are you still in Switzerland as you profile says? It would be useful to look at the potential market for the Reef there - how people relate to co-housing and if there is affordable property.
The end game would be to own collectively a building, which is where we are looking in the near future, because of the need for increased safety nets nowadays, and also practically: to be able to reconvert closets and sinks, and especially build on top of existing rented setup, you’d need more freedom.

cc @Val.Muresan for the moneyquote on ‘instant neighborhood office’ as a resilience measure and inspiration for any community spaces :stuck_out_tongue:

Hi @noemi and @alberto

Yes. I feel like it is time to make a decision :slight_smile:

At the moment I live in a house in Switzerland wehre we share space like garden, bicycle garage, laundry room, a van and so on. Beyond that I share an office space with other coworkers and I try to create an „open space“ in the Langhuus for various socio-cultural activities (Bar, bicycle workshop, ateliers, …) together with people living in our village.

All these parts and activities could fit into an even more densely connected cohousing, coliving, coworking structure. I am wondering about the right balance between shared space for community activities and private space for individual retreat.

  • What is your experience with „dense“ cohousing, colinving, coworking structures?
  • What is unique to the Reef concept?
  • What are the necessary conditions to create a Reef - besides „wanting to set it up“? :slight_smile:
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Which book?

I learned the importance of the space in fostering the kind of social interaction you want. At The Reef, we insist on one single living room and kitchen (for 3-6 adults), because otherwise we would almost never see each other, and no sense of familiarity would develop. If we were 20, we would probably have 2 or 3. On the other hand, it is important to have comfortable private spaces where people can be alone. Private bathrooms would be ideal, but they are had to get in Brussels if you rent.

The idea of people and small businesses sharing a space, and doing it optimally, by which I mean looking for ways that the same square meter can do double or triple duty. For example, we can do movie nights in the office after office hours. If you do it right, you can choose your business housemates so that they fit your values and preferred lifestyle. A repair café? A yoga studio?

We also care about the climate, and dream of offering some space to a university lab that would experiment with green innovation within the space itself.

Not sure what you mean. Look for a suitable building. Look for people and businesses who agree with the idea, and are willing to pay into it. Then, take responsibility for the building and the fledgling community within it.

Figure of speech. “By my reckoning”, “as far as I can see”, and such. :slight_smile:

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@Alessandro and I had a similar conversation about setting something like this in Armenia - and he was telling me that it really depends on having a connected group of people, or that’s an important need to act on. It seems that it would be an encouragement when you’re not the only one looking in that direction, and it feels more like starting together with others something.

If you have already other people wanting to do this with you @xaver, these decisions about density and use of the space should come easier because they depend on what people want and their access to resources.

Well, at the small scale of the prototype that was not necessary. What was needed was a first mover: “I am going to do this, no matter what”. This gives the second mover some certainties: “the opportunity is there, I do not have to make it, but only to decide if I want to move in”. The prototype happened because Nadia and I decided to make it, back in 2012. The group happened later, coalescing around the space.

For a full, larger Reef, that one person or one family would go it alone is unrealistic. I think you still need a first mover, but now it’s a small group. Makes sense?

Yes this makes sense. Follow your heart and learn while you go. This is a good way to grow community and build trust and engagement.

I found this in some of the projects I am involved in: Community is formed by the members by their desires, behavior and actions. There is no big plan needed but some basic ingredients like space, shared values, openness and respect.

Since cohousing and coliving rely on a healthy community this is the way to go: provide space and invite people to join who are willing to contribute to a fun, open, connected experience. And: let it grow.

As you said @alberto:
For a small project, two people may get it started and provide the space.
For a larger project a small group (5-10 people?) is needed to get it started, to provide larger space and do the coordination work.

I am not sure which path I will follow. Just checking my options now …

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Yes!

@xaver, FIY we have something called the Reef Alliance. It is only a commitment to stay in touch and share relevant information. You join the alliance by signing a memorandum of understanding. We have three signatories (Edgeryders, Haus Blivande in Stockholm, Fondazione per l’Innovazione Civica in Bologna). Two more, one in Romania and one in Sicily, are likely to sign in the next week or so. If you decide you want to go into this and maintain an open knowledge attitude, maybe you could consider it. You do not need an incorporation or anything, I do not see why you could not sign it as an individual. In case let me know, I’ll send you the document so you can look at it. Signing happens digitally, we subscribe to a service for that.

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sounds good - yes please.

@xaver done. If you want to sign it, just let us know. @noemi let’s take a note: when the webkit is finally done (@owen are we ready), the new Reef website should also have a simple way for people to sign the MOU, there is no reason this should be in our corporate space!

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@alberto what’s needed (technically speaking) to sign the MOU? Is it just like a user agreement page? if you can send me a link to the doc, I’ll see how it can be implemented as a web form.

We can port this page to using the webkit components, which are ready.

No, I would like to make it a little more formal. It’s a PDF, that gets signed via SignRequest. But people looking at the site should be aware that there is a Reef Alliance, and they can be part of it even if they are not involved in The Reef Brussels.

Ok will be straight forward enough.

Someone who lives in a similar situation is @felix.wolfsteller who lives at Ecovillage Sieben Linden in Germany. I wonder how that community is coping. The housing there is apartment style with a lot of common areas.

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Indeed. And also @emsone at Wir Bauen Zukunft. Ping Henry and the future builders crowd!

And @Kai from Happy Pigeons cohousing community in Berlin.

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