Observations of Dutch Centraal Wonen and Woongroep Projects

One of the most interesting things that I have experienced from visiting a number of cohousing projects within the Netherlands is the variation in how both 'centraal wonen' projects and 'woongroeps' are organised.

One of the most interesting things that I have experienced from visiting a number of cohousing projects within the Netherlands is the variation in how both 'centraal wonen' projects and 'woongroeps' are organised. In Dutch, centraal wonen translates as 'living community' and woongroep as 'residential group'. I would like to be clear however, that I had some confusion using translation software which often translates woongroep as 'commune' but in reality these projects are very different to what we commonly recognise as communes.

Woongroeps are used by residents who want to know their neighbours, manage their community, share some activities but also maintain a level of privacy and independence. Residents always have their own accommodation unit and in most projects have a complete self contained house or flat including their own kitchen. In addition, residents have access to some form of communal space either for a smaller group of residents (usually called a group or cluster) or for the entire project. There are some exceptions to this as I will try to explain.

Some projects lean towards more group interaction, whereas others are more private - and these are both factors in which the architecture can play a vital function. To explain I have divided these different types of projects into four categories:

1.Projects most focussed on group living with shared kitchens, usually between three to eight people. An example of such a project is 'Woongroep Fultonia' where kitchens and bathrooms are shared between up to three residents but each resident has their own private living room and bedroom. Some of these projects have quite advanced configurations providing different living accommodation for different resident types. In these projects young singles or couples have shared kitchens, while apartments designed for families have more privacy and feature their own kitchen. Centraal Wonen Delft is a good example of this and reveals some interesting design concepts which I will discuss in a later blog.

Two shared kitchens located adjacently at Woongroep Fultonia, Den Haag - copyright John Killock 2013

2.Projects which still utilise the principle of clusters providing a communal kitchen and living space but each apartment is completely autonomous with its own kitchen. Centraal Wonen De Hilversum Meent is a typical example of this. As a resident you have your own apartment, but also have an intermediate cluster common space shared with the other five residential units. There are also series of central common spaces shared by the whole project of around 50 residential units. At Hilversum Meent each cluster has a mixture of accommodation units varying in size and design for different resident types such as families, single adults, elderly, etc. Clusters can also be used to group together similar types of residents. There are advantages and disadvantages of both options.

3.Some projects also have completely autonomous accommodation units, just like a normal house, where there is no subdivision of residents in a cluster or intermediate group arrangement so all common facilities in the project are shared by all the residents. This model appears to be the most common, particularly in more modern projects and from my experience in the UK and US. An example of this type of project in the Netherlands is Centraal Wonen Hof van Heden in Hoogvilet in which there is no subdivision or cluster system, there is simply a central common house shared by all residents.

Common house at Hof van Heden Hoogvliet - copyright John Killock 2013

4.Projects with the most private arrangement usually consist of a typical apartment block with a common room on the ground floor. An example of this type of senior woongroep arrangement is Woongroep Castellum in Amersfoort. Some projects have a room with a functioning kitchen, while some only have tea/coffee facilities.

Woongroep Lavendelstraat, common room - copyright John Killock 2013

It is worth mentioning that there is also a project type which is essentially a normal residential development with no specially designed or designated common space. In these cases a normal residential unit is usually converted into a common space and shared by a number of the building residents. Less focus has been placed on these projects as there is usually less potential for the architectural design to make a difference as the physical building has not been designed or planned as cohousing or a woongroep from the outset.

I was surprised to discover that many of the senior woongroep projects I visited in the Netherlands follow the most private arrangement (type 4). This differs considerably to the more common arrangement of multigenerational projects. One could argue that perhaps shared kitchens are less suited to senior residents. However, I am still surprised that the vast majority of woongroep projects do not take advantage of architectural features more commonly found in multigenerational cohousing projects such as site layout, the location of the common house and visual connectivity between spaces. Important areas such as the main common spaces were often located in areas with little or no visual connection to other parts of the project. This means that the room was only used for pre-arranged events, rather than spontaneous meetings or casual use.

The quality of the circulation area also varied considerably. Some projects tried to promote visual connections between residential units and circulation space allowing passers by to say hello to their neighbour and provided a larger, more gradual threshold between the private residence and the circulation space. Despite the use of such concepts in a few projects, the majority had typical corridors which did not allow any intermediate space between public and private areas.

Projects which were retrofitted into an existing building understandably had limited flexibility in terms of layout and planning, but I also visited a number of new build projects which lacked a community orientated design. This seems a missed opportunity and suggests that many recent projects do not necessarily make use of design features trialled in earlier projects.

The most important factor in any cohousing project or senior woongroep is the community itself and it is important to note that nearly all of these projects were still successful in terms of active resident groups and resident satisfaction. However, as someone with a background in architecture I still feel that design can play an important part when helping to facilitate the interaction of residents and community as a whole. In the next blog I will highlight several Dutch senior woongroeps projects in which I felt the architectural design of the project really did make a difference to the residential community.

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