How a group of friends built a multi-generational community
Ecological sustainability, energy scarcity, the rising cost of living – these are the critical global issues with which we struggle. On top of these sits the more private and silent crisis of loneliness. We may live close to each other and yet be out of touch. Living alone, or experiencing loneliness, can be strenuous, busy, expensive and sad.
Around 15 years ago, I found myself in this situation. I had divorced my husband and was alone with my three young children. A highly educated, successful woman in my 40s, I was not marginalised in any way, but found my life so busy that, apart from work contacts, I spent my weekdays practically without adult interaction. With children and household needs to attend to after work, there was simply no time even for a cup of tea with a friend. I had a group of close friends and, together, we had dreamed about living under the same roof as we grew older. At that point in my life this dream began to rekindle. Why wait until old age? If we lived in the same building, we could daily share life’s joys, sorrows and responsibilities and still have time for the occasional cup of tea in the midst of our busy lives.
This vision spurred the process of designing and building a cohousing project and, after six and a half years of persistent effort, Malta House, a 10-storey, 61-unit communal apartment building with space for around 120 residents, was completed. ‘Malta’ comes from the Finnish word meaning ‘have patience’ – a useful reminder to repeat as we worked to make our dream a reality. Completed in 2013, Malta House – the brainchild of architect (and professor) Pentti Kareoja – is a handsome building with a red façade made up of ceramic tiles in different shades, a symbol of the colourful life inside the building.
Co-creating a sustainable and smart building
In addition to advancing social wellbeing and alleviating loneliness, another key objective was to give residents the opportunity to fulfil their individual needs and ideas, and to express themselves creatively in the context of an apartment building. Residents made a significant creative contribution to the overall look and design of the building and common areas. We also wanted to build ecologically sustainable, high-quality housing at a reasonable cost. As future residents – those paying the eventual energy bills – we were given the opportunity to make long-term decisions on construction, and were eager to choose energy-efficient options.
Transforming the idea of a small circle of friends into a construction project worth over €20 million (£17.5 million) was a huge endeavour. We put together our own capital and mortgages as well as those of our neighbours, responding to everyone’s dreams of better housing and aspirations for life as a community. We organised, studied world, defined our goals, negotiated the lease of a plot with the city, promoted the project and recruited more people, found designers, project managers and funding, created modalities for governance and decision-making, found solutions to unprecedented problems. We also learned to know and trust each other, reach consensus, celebrate and share meals, becoming a community long before the building was finished.
The social fabric of Malta House resembles a traditional country village. Not everyone is close personal friends, but everyone knows their neighbours
Life in the urban village
Our lifestyle in Malta House can be described as modern cohousing. This model originated in Denmark in the late 1960s and has spread to Sweden, Germany, England, the US and other parts of the world. The basic idea is that residents have their own homes where they can live in complete privacy as they wish. Community life comes as an option on top of this, and all participation is voluntary.
For the purpose of communal activities, Malta House has over 500 m² (5,382 sq ft) of well-designed and equipped common spaces. These include a common hall/dining room of around 140 m² (1,507 sq ft) and a professional kitchen. The top (10th) floor of the house is all common space, including a den, a guest room, an orangery, extensive outdoor terrace areas and, of course, our traditional Finnish sancto sanctorum: the saunas. The house has a common laundry, hobby and workshop facilities, and a pleasant courtyard. The basic principle for using these shared facilities is that they are always available to all residents unless someone has reserved them for a private occasion.
All this results in savings. For example, when we heat our common saunas instead of individual saunas (in Finland, even the smallest apartments may include a sauna), or when dinner is cooked on the common stove instead of in numerous private kitchens, energy is saved. Not everyone needs their own drill or sewing machine when they can find one in a shared workshop.
Over the past nine years, community life has taken many forms, with concerts, poetry events, pop-up restaurants, yoga, film nights, gymnastics and dance classes, craft clubs, reading circles and countless private and community parties taking place in the common spaces. The social fabric of Malta House resembles a traditional country village. Not everyone is close personal friends, but everyone knows their neighbours. Shared spaces are somewhere between private and public, and provide a low-effort place to meet, such as on a Friday evening, when we sit down for a common meal and catch up over a glass of wine with our neighbours.
There is also a lot of invisible cooperation between neighbours. Several pre-existing communities moved into the house together: families in three generations; old friends; cousins and their families; and families of young children who knew each other beforehand. The years of planning and living here have also led to many new friendships. People have developed strong mutual trust, which is manifested, for example, in the way we lend things to each other: everything from bottles of wine and kitchen utensils to apartments and cars. If someone falls ill, their shopping and errands get taken care of and, when travelling, one can always rely on finding someone to water the plants and pet-sit.
Families with children have organised themselves to provide transport, activities, childcare and meals; indeed, this was a significant part of my motivation for starting the project, although by the time the building was finished my own children were teenagers. On the other hand, my elderly and ailing parents also moved into Malta House. Their lives are rich and vibrant even if they do not spend much time outside their homes anymore; neighbours drop by, there is always something interesting happening to engage them and if they were to have an emergency, there would always be help available.
All in all, we have come to witness that the village can be reinvented. Ordinary people can learn to work consciously together, take on big projects and make a real difference to their lives and the lives of those around them. An urban environment can be transformed from alien, unwelcoming or even hostile, to interesting, rich, safe and nurturing. Most importantly, being rooted in a meaningful community and interacting with it is not only a means to ease the burdens of everyday life, but a deeply satisfying goal in itself.
From consumers to makers of our own fate.
Malta House was the first apartment-building-scale cohousing project in Finland to be developed by the residents themselves, but not the last. Currently, there are about half a dozen finished similar projects in Helsinki and several more in the pipeline. Although cohousing is still a relatively small phenomenon, it is attracting great interest among citizens, the media and policymakers. Creating intentional communities is a means to tackle complex personal and societal problems that even the most advanced publicly provided social services cannot solve, such as structural loneliness and the toll it takes on people’s mental health, the heavy workload of the nuclear family, age-related isolation and the safety of local communities.
In Finland – where 70% of people own their own homes – the middle class has become increasingly frustrated with its position as mere consumers in the cyclical and highly speculated housing market. A group of future residents organising itself to take on responsibility for developing their own housing is a concrete way for ordinary citizens to take the lead.
On a more philosophical level, intentional community reflects the transformation of the forces that drive humanity. For centuries, human development has been outlined as a series of turning points in which decisive steps have been taken by the actions or insights of great individuals. Today, there is increasing consensus that the future forces of change will come from communities rather than from individual great minds: from people joining forces and visions to take control of an area of life or to create something new.
Recent global crises have also made redundant the idea that we can be safe and sound in some form of private, secluded paradise whose gates shut out the world and its problems. Solving problems that transcend all borders, sharing scarce resources in meaningful ways and taking responsibility for local wellbeing is a joint effort.
Another utopia or a movement of hope?
In the 15 years that I have been working with cohousing projects, I have encountered suspicion, prejudice and outright cynicism. I have heard warnings about how these projects are bound to end in failure, “just as utopian communities always have”. However, the oldest Danish and Swedish cohousing projects have been in operation for around 50 years and have fulfilled the goals of economic, social and environmental sustainability as well as human wellbeing on which they were built. And the intentional community movement is not limited to these countries. Similar projects are being built at an accelerating pace in other parts of the world. In the US, cohousing communities have created the American Cohousing Association, of which about 170 completed communities are members, and there are almost as many more in the pipeline.
A key challenge to making intentional housing more widespread is finding ways to develop models that are accessible to people on lower incomes. In Finland, the model is based 100% on home ownership and requires private citizens to take on quite a significant responsibility and risk. In Sweden, however, where it is much more common to rent, some active, visionary people have organised and managed to persuade their local government-owned rental housing companies to build houses similar to Malta House, with similar facilities and activities, for renters.
These projects are born and thrive on the willpower and vision of the people who ultimately wish to live there and are inevitably bottom–up. Local and central government can and should play a supportive role. For example, local government in Helsinki did this by allotting land and the Finnish government has passed legislation aimed at making it more secure for banks to give loans to these projects.
The major challenges we face are similar all over the world, as are the deep basic needs of people across cultures and societies: to belong and live meaningful lives in safe and sustainable conditions. Communal solutions for housing and everyday life could, I believe, become a more common response to these challenges; the spread of intentional communities can be seen as a movement of hope and the signal of an emerging megatrend.
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