Collaborative housing turns out to be potentially more affordable than other forms of housing, especially if the future residents are co-designing. It often produces better quality, too, according to doctoral research by Sara Brysch. "When residents are involved in the design, they can arrive through trade-offs at a building design that meets their needs, at the lowest possible building cost." says Brysch.

Her doctoral research focuses on "Existenzminimum”. This term was coined a century ago in Germany and stands for affordable housing with optimal use of space and a number of minimum quality requirements. Houses had to be healthy, cheaper to build and tailored to a modern family. "Collaborative living redefines this “Existenzminimum”, because in it the residents themselves set their own minimum requirements," Brysch says.

Profit margin

Collaborative living is an umbrella term for forms of housing in which residents pull their own strings. Examples include resident-led housing cooperatives and CPOs (Collective Private Ownership). Together these residents create a pleasant living environment through self-organization. In many cases this is done by being involved themselves from the design and development stage. The good thing about this is that the building design is by definition tailored to the needs of the resident group. That can contribute to lower construction costs compared to traditional housing, the study found. "First of all, the profit margin of the developer is often eliminated and can be used for qualities that the group values," Brysch says. "In addition, collaborative housing has spaces for shared use. This makes it possible to build smaller private units."
Another advantage is that future residents can make strategic decisions together to achieve their minimum goals. For example, in today's time, relatively expensive requirements such as energy efficiency, high-quality insulation and solar panels are usually high on the wish list. These involve investments that bring down utility costs in the long run. Unlike in top-down organized housing projects, future residents can come up with a ruse together to realize their such wishes after all. For example, by agreeing to finish communal areas at a later date or by making each resident responsible for finishing their private unit.

I think collaborative housing can play a big role in realizing the affordable, sustainable housing Europe needs.

Sara Dos Santos Vieira Brysch

La Borda

Brysch found this type of strategy in many of the 16 collaborative housing projects she examined in various European cities. For example, a case study of the recently built La Borda project in Barcelona shows how residents removed a two-story underground parking garage from the design. "That took great effort and many conversations with the municipality, because that garage was required by law," Brysch says. "But in the end, these residents not only realized a substantial reduction in their construction costs, they also made sure the law was changed." The money they saved they put into sustainability measures.

A simulation model she made, comparing collaborative residential buildings with comparable regular buildings shows that construction costs per unit can be lower when residents co-design. The spaces are also more efficiently designed. Co-designing residents also contribute to architectural quality because they feel more involved, she observes. They do not shy away from architectural design experiments if they feel it adds value. The design is also tailored to the specific needs of the resident group. "And at a lower cost," she says. "It belies the prevailing idea that collaborative housing is more expensive than regularly organized housing because of all kinds of extras."


In her dissertation, Brysch formulates a set of general design principles for affordable collaborative housing. These include not only the design ‘product’ – for example compact private spaces, high-quality communal spaces – but also the design process. For example, it is good to strategically use the expertise of professionals, she argues, but also give future residents room to do some of the work themselves.
Communal living is not for everyone, but neither is it marginal. There are 963 housing collectives in the Netherlands alone, according to the European database she is working on. Partly this revolves around affordability, but community building often also plays a key role. For example, for elderly people who don't want to stay alone after the children are out of the house. "Collaborative living makes for them an attractive alternative," Brysch concludes. "I think collaborative housing can play a big role in realizing the affordable, sustainable housing Europe needs."

Published: December 2023

More information

  • On 20 December, Sara Brysch will defend her thesis ‘Towards a new Existenzminimum: Defining principles for the co-design of affordable collaborative housing’. 
  • The European database can be found here.

Sara Dos Santos Vieira Brysch

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