This week @Celine_D was generous enough to give the Reef group a tour of L’Échappée. In this post I want to make a note of what I think we learned. It is part of a series of topic threads grouped under the tag #cohousing-knowledge, which include reports from the visit to several other cohousings (Brutopia, De Okelaar, Earthsong) and from interviews to other projects we have not physically visited (like La Montagne).
L’Échappée is a close relative of Brutopia (and the future Reef), in the sense that it was coached by Mark and designed by Stekke&Fraas. It is a bit smaller than Brutopia: 18 units. The common spaces, from what I could see, consist of:
- A common room, that can be used as a meeting room or a living room-dining room space. It has its own kitchen and bathroom. The mezzanine serves as a play space for children, but also as sleeping quarters for guest (it accommodates up to 4-5 people in the same space).
- A 400 square meters garden, with composting facility.
- A laundry room with 4 washing machines and 1 dryer, all solar powered. All inhabitants except those of two unites use it.
- A workshop in the basement. The basement also contains space for parking cars and bicycles.
- A vegetable garden on a rooftop terrace.
From the visit, I was struck by three elements.
First: solarpunk look. Some areas of L’Échappée (like the common room, and of course the apartments themselves) are super cosy and “lived in”, with wooden panels and bookshelves and children’s toys. Others are starkly utilitarian, like the stairs: quite narrow to conserve the temperature, steps and landings made of polished concrete, metal railings. This not only helps contain costs, but it also makes aesthetic sense, at least to my eye.
Second: social conventions supporting tight and respectful neighbourly interaction. People in L’Échappée seems very aware that the essence of a cohousing is not only in the architectural infrastructure it offers, but also in the pattern of interaction across the inhabitants. They do a lot of stuff together: a monthly day to “fix and improve things”; a weekly communal meal, with teams of two taking turns (I am not sure it really is weekly); the vegetable garden is tended by teams of people, each team responsible for some of the plants; the garbage is also handled by teams (Celine: “two months a year I am in the team that needs to take out the garbage and keep the bin room clean; the other ten, I do not have to think about it at all”). They even organize a weekend every year that they spend together. Another thing I noticed is the soundscape: everyone was really respectful of everyone else’s quiet. We walked past a group of people (including a child) having a barbecue in the garden, and they were speaking sotto voce, clearly aware of their neigbours, invisible but present in their own units.
All this is supported by an ASBL, whose members are all the inhabitants (including those that do not own a unit, but rent one). This gives non-owners a voice and a stake in the community, and it makes doing common projects easier. For example, the ASBL can ask for subsidies to buy seeds and equipment for the vegetable garden.
Third: people keep experimenting. We learned that there are solar panels on the roof: they are not nearly enough to make the building self-sufficient; for now they power the laundry room and the ventilation sysyem, but about two thirds of the energy generated is not used. So, people joined an ULB initiative called Voisins d’énergie, where they try to figure out how they can share power in mutually profitable way. Also, one of the apartments we visited was experimentally lit with solar lamps.
All in all, a really inspiring visit. Thanks Céline and everyone at L’Échappée for putting up with us!