What we learned at Brutopia

This post is now a wiki, edit at will if you remember something I forgot to put in.

Yesterday, a Reef delegation with @Sabine_B_Frank, @Lee and myself visited Brutopia, in Forest. We had a two hour chat with Mark Van den Dries, a resident who was also the de facto leader of the group that colonized Brutopia. We were inspired by the space and its story. Lie looked at me and said “Now there is no going back”.

Brutopia’s main thrust was to foster diversity. By “diversity” they mean “attractive for the well-off, but affordable to the less solvent”. This was done by building, in the same co-housing, units with different prices per square meter. At the time of building (2015?), the evaluation per square meter ranged from 1,060 EUR (first-floor apartments, rue de Mérode side) to 2,200 EUR (fifth floor, overlooking the Marais Wiels).

The building is passive. Modern passive buildings allow for large, floor-to-ceiling windows. However, they require building in a compact way. So, Brutopia’s corridors are all external, and most of them face the roads rather than the garden, which is more reserved for balconies (you see them in the photo). These corridors become social spaces in the summer, as people drag tiny tables onto them to have coffee in the sun, and meet their neighbors walking by to and from their own units.

Key takeaways

Unfiltered for now by critical appraisal.

  1. Finding people that want to leave in a co-housing is very easy (ça va très vite). There is a hunger in Belgium, especially in the largest cities.
  2. With patience and method, it is not difficult to bring a group of such people to put money on the table. It is just like buying your own apartment, but in a coordinated way. This is greatly facilitated by the existence of a body of experience on governance, finance, legals.
  3. A good size for the group is 20-30 units. This allows some margin in financing the common spaces.
  4. 1 and 2 mean that there exists a model that does not rely on a real estate developer. Brutopia and other co-housings were developed by their respective founding groups.
  5. This model is based on creating an ASBL, which has two functions.
    • One is to make sure the founding group has coherent and realistic objectives (members are accepted, they need to sign off to the values and goals statements of the ASBL, etc.).
    • The other is to guarantee each member of the group against hesitations or changes of plan of others. This is done by an array of legal and financial instruments: statutes, locked accounts, and so on.
    • It is important to ask people to put money on the table early on. An initial payout of 500 EUR per unit separates the “tourists” from the people that really want to move forward.
  6. Decisions were (and still are) made by consensus, except that of purchasing the terrain. That went by qualified majority. You put that in the statute of the ASBL: the decision to purchase must be backed by at least 60% of the members, for example.
  7. Mark is himself a consultant active in this work (as a hobby only, he is retired). He has acoompanied or offered consultancy to more than 45 co-housing projects (!). Not all of them crossed the finishing line, but from all of them there was something to learn.

Their process in steps

  1. Convene a group. It would be great to recruit some people that know something about construction and architecture :slight_smile: We are already the kernel of a group, so for us the advice is to set up an ASBL right up, and put into its aims what we already know we want. This way, what we have already decided gets hardcoded in the project, and it does not need to be discussed anymore.
  2. Involve an architect and a notary, early on. Maybe even in the first meeting.
  3. Set up parameters (how many units, total surface, which areas of Brussels, what characteristics etc.). People should also make personal choices, of the type “I want 90 square meters at an upper floor, my budget is 350K EUR”, or something like that. Brutopia did this last bit on the basis of a person called le confesseur, an ex banker. This guy helped people to make realistic estimate of their own solvency. This is called le programme.
  4. Hunt for empty spaces or buildings that could potentially work. Brutopians did this themselves, by cutting a map of Brussels, giving each person a piece, and telling them to go scout the territory in their piece of the map.
  5. When a space/building looks promising enough, ask the architect to do a feasibility study. This leads to an estimate of the price of the finished product per square meter.
  6. When a feasibility study works out, a decision on whether to buy must be made quickly (one month). This might require a bigger payout, depending on the requests of the owner. This is also the only decision Brutopia made by majority vote: it is easy, Marc says, to “get stuck”, because there is always somebody that would prefer a location closer to their children’s school, or their parents’ home. The risk is that this phase stretches forever.
  7. After acquiring the terrain (or old building), the architects make the real project, dividing the space in different lots on the basis of le programme.
  8. The different lots are given a price, on the basis of their estimated resale value and not of cost of building. The same square meter is worth more on upper floors, etc.
  9. Each person is asked to choose three lots, in order of preference. Next, each person saw the architect separately, stated her desires, needs and budget, and the architect tried to find a solution for everyone.
  10. Once that is decided, people put their share of the funding needed to build the entire project in locked accounts to their name, which the ASBL manages in their name. At this point, the funding is secure. The ASBL hires a construction company, and the work is done.

Is this a reasonable synthesis, ladies?

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off-topic: architecture-wise the picture(s) reminded me immediately of Mascobado, Montpellier, but steel and less need for air throughput.

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