"There are different forms of shared living: communes, cohousing, house-sharing etc.", explain Federico, Mia and Koenraad. "In the case of cohousing, everyone has their own house or apartment. That includes pretty much everything that you would expect in a "normal" house: bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, bathroom, toilet, and maybe even a private garden."
"In addition, there is also a common area - or a floor if it is a high-rise block - that is available to all the residents. This usually consists of a large living space, a dining room, a large-scale kitchen, a playroom and a laundry room. Depending on what the residents want, it can also include some other types of space: guest rooms, sauna, workshop, a coworking space, fitness room, pool, music room, anything really."
In practice, the cohousers are sharing more than just bricks, mortar and grass. From cars to wheelbarrows. From toys to grinding discs. From newspapers to fruit trees. From barbecue sites to fitness equipment. "All kinds of things are passed around. But of course always totally respecting other people's stuff", the trio continue. "Sharing is not just convenient, space-saving and more environmentally-friendly. It also saves a chunk of change."
Talking about savings... Is it cheaper to become part of a cohousing project than to buy your own piece of land and build your own house? "No. It is not significantly cheaper, but neither is it more expensive. The money that you save on your own house or flat (including being able to forget about a guest room, garage, laundry, etc.) goes instead into the common areas and garden. Because the builder will of course be putting up a number of houses together, you can negotiate a "group discount". For most projects, the future owners will also often roll up their sleeves and contribute plenty to keep the costs down", add Koenraad, Federico and Mia. "You don't really get into cohousing because it's a bargain, but rather because you believe in the added value."
Cohousers spend all day running in and out of each other's doors, and you have to eat together every evening. Privacy? Forget it! Federico and Koenraad laugh out loud at this prejudice. "When you are building a cohousing project, the architects will deliberately take everyone's privacy into account. You don't only have your own house or flat. You can also close yourself off if you want, and there are escape routes all over the place if you don't feel like being sociable", they joke. "But because you all know each other from the start - and have already shared some good times and less good times together - you can be honest with each other. Let's say you run into another resident in the shared garden, and you don't feel like a chat? Then you just say: Sorry mate. I don't much feel like chatting today. And Bert's not going to think for a moment: Oh dear, she doesn't really like me."
-Want to find out more about cohousing? Vzw Samenhuizen (a cohousing non-profit) has bundled the basic info intoa handy beginner's guide (in Dutch).
From dream to reality
You can expect it to take between 4 and 5 years from the first meeting with potential cohousers to the moment when everyone has their keys in their hand. "That's not a whole lot longer than having your own place built. Finding a building plot, drawing up the plans, getting the permits, finding contractors, financing the whole thing, etc. A private house or flat doesn't normally happen very quickly either", they say. But there are always exceptions. Some cohousing projects manage it in 2 years, others take more than 5 years to get there.
Talking to the bank
Although banks used to be suspicious about the concept, their mistrust has now fallen away for the most part. "The legal structure of a cohousing project is normally much the same as for an apartment, an owners' association. Basically, it works almost exactly like an apartment: you are not just acquiring your own apartment but also a share in the land and the common areas (lift, corridors, basement, garage, etc.)", explains Federico. "And when you want to sell your house or apartment you are totally free to do so, to any prospective buyer. That is not a joint decision."
Federico was involved in setting up Cohousing Vinderhoute (near Ghent), with 19 units. He has also been assisting cohousing projects for 7 years now, through all the different steps. "At the time, cohousing was as good as non-existent in Belgium. Once that project was completed, the idea was floated of applying all the acquired knowledge and experience to help with new cohousing projects."
"For me, the major strength is the group aspect. That proves its worth right from the startup phase. There is always a handy DIY'er and an administrative wizard in the group. Because you have already known each other for years, in all kinds of situations, strokes of bad luck, hilarious moments, you feel the whole area is your home. You have brainstormed, built, laughed and cursed together. Not all residents are automatically "best friends", but they are all sure to be good neighbours."
Mia started up De Okelaar in Wolvertem (near Meise) with her husband. The cohousing project is located in a former monastery, kindergarten and primary school. "Ever since I was a student I felt that this was a natural way of living. When I met my husband in 2008, it turned out we both had the same secret dream, and then we got the ball rolling."
"Our plan involves apartments for sale, for rent and also social housing. We have a broad mix of old and young people, singles and families. We place the emphasis on 3 aspects: social, ecological and spiritual. By spiritual, I don't mean that we sit round the campfire every evening. But we do live mindfully, with respect for each other's philosophies, for each person and for the earth. Shared living - whatever form it takes - sometimes leads to conflicts. The spiritual basis helps to resolve this better."
Koenraad was there at the birth of the Vinderhoute cohousing project. "As a student I used to rent big villas, which I then sub-let to friends. When I was 25, it was time to open a new chapter, and my partner and I decided to start up a cohousing project. A few months after posting a small ad on samenhuizen.net (shared living site) we were sitting round the table with about ten potential cohousers. Cohousing Vinderhoute is now the result: 1.2 hectares of land with about 70 residents, about half of whom are children."
"Apart from material things, we also share our joys and sorrows with each other: from wedding parties to funerals. Cohousing for me is synonymous with a life of luxury. For example, we have a rota each day to take all the children to school and bring them home. I worked it out once: that saves me and my partner 8 hours every week. 8 hours! Need a babysitter? That's organised too."