15/07/2013 08:28 BST | Updated 11/09/2013 06:12 BST

Centraal Wonen in Haarlem

My first visit to the Netherlands has taken me to the historic city of Haarlem, located to the west of Amsterdam. Here there are several multigenerational 'Centraal Wonen' projects. Centraal Wonen translates as 'Central Living'. In the UK we use the term 'cohousing' which follows the US who coined the term 'cohousing' when bringing the concept to America in the late 1980's.

Many of the projects in Haarlem are concentrated in an area to the south of the town which has been the location of other housing experiments constructed during the Eighties. The area Rolenpolder was developed as a pilot area for projects following the principles of 'Human and Environment Friendly Living and Working'. In addition to several Centraal Wonen projects, the area also includes a live work community and special housing designed to allow both dementia sufferers and their partners to live within the same complex. Neither of these other projects were successful long term (both projects are now converted to more conventional arrangements), but it does show the amount of innovation in housing in the Netherlands at this time.

Whilst in Haarlem I stayed with Woongroep Lavendelstraat and was shown around by one of the founders. From the outside the building looks like a fairly regular urban, medium density housing development, yet on the inside it is a cleverly arranged mixture of accommodation types designed around a naturally lit internal street. This street is the focal area for the residents, providing a semi-private space in which to interact. At the end of the street there is a high quality common area with a glazed connection so that any passerby can see activity taking place inside.

This project is unique in that the community focuses on providing light support for up to six vulnerable people at a time. This variation of Centraal Wonen is reflected in the architecture. Twelve three to five bedroom homes are mixed with an additional six single apartments for the temporary residents (in which a resident can stay for up to four years). These temporary apartments are each suitable for a single resident and priority is given to people who are in need of a supportive social environment - for example a person who has recently been divorced, recovering from a serious incident in their life or has experienced some form of hardship.

Considerable thought went into the planning and design of this building, and the total group size of twenty accommodation units was found to be the most appropriate. The group is considered large enough not to be oppressive, but small enough to allow residents to know one another.

An interesting innovation is a flexible expansion room between some of the residential units. This room can be used for common storage, or could be used by either adjoining unit if an extra bedroom is required.

This project is a good example of how to create this type of community in a relatively high density building on a limited urban plot size. Perhaps the only limitation with this building density is that residents in some of the upper apartments have no direct visual connection with the street below so may feel less connected with activities taking place in the covered street.

I think the lesson from this visit is that it opens up the possibilities for a mixture of residential types within cohousing projects. In this case having a shared vision has strengthened the residential community and having a number of short term accommodation units in a housing project not only allows for support projects, but also allows additional flexibility for family changes and a place for residents who would like to try a housing project before fully committing to moving in. It is worth noting that this project allows older generations to have a direct positive impact on the lives of others with the concept of supporting other residents.