There’s no place like home: can reimagining our concept of the “good home” help us reach sustainability goals?

Close your eyes and imagine a good home. What do you see – a house in a garden, a cottage by the sea, an apartment, high up, in the city? Who lives there? Go inside – what do the rooms you walk through look like? How does it feel?

As KTH architect Erik Stenberg’s blog showed, urban planners and architects had a clear set of answers to these questions when they started building mass public housing in Sweden during the 1960’s – the so-called Million Homes Programme era. They saw bold, modern apartments set admits nature and connected to the city by sweeping roads. These apartments were inhabited by Swedish nuclear families, each with 2.7 kids.

Time and changing circumstances have shown how transitory this image of the good home and its inhabitants really is. We have moved on, become different and more diverse. The apartments built during this period however remain, sustaining in weather-bleached concrete a fading ideal of the good home.

The Ideal of Home

The research of Pernilla Hagbert, a doctoral student associated with both Chalmers and KTH, is deepening our appreciation of the powerful role that such ideals of the good home play in our personal living decisions, as well as in the development of housing market more widely.

“Today’s media presents us with a clear but limited set of images of what the home looks like,” Pernilla comments. An owner-occupied detached house sits proudly in a well-maintained garden plot – or the childless residents of an apartment look out through floor-to-ceiling windows over the lights of the city. “These norms are attractive and work for many people,” Pernilla continues, “however, in an increasingly diverse society, there is a clear need for alternative ideas about home, particularly ideas that make more effective use of our limited resources.”

Pernilla’s work has led her to explore contemporary collaborative housing initiatives, sometimes called collective housing initiatives in Sweden – though Pernilla warns that the word “collective” comes with outdated associations that can hinder discussions and exploration of this form of housing.

A collaborative house development in Sofielund in Malmo opened December 2014. Image from Pernilla Hagbert.

“In a contemporary collaborative housing initiative”, Pernilla continues, “a group of people take decisions about how they can live better through sharing certain resources and facilities.”

Contemporary Collaborative Housing Initiatives in Sweden

Pernilla gives an example from Sofielund in Malmö where a community of residents has worked together with the local housing authority, MKB, and developers NCC to deliver a diverse set of homes that make different use of shared facilities. One-person homes have a private living area but share facilities for making food and socialising. Larger units provide a home for example for small teams of single parents who share social spaces, this allowing them to support each other with childcare. “These homes challenge norms about the good home, allowing us to become more creative and responsive to the real needs of our lives,” Pernilla reflects.

Pernilla is especially interested in the role that new ideas about the good home can play in helping us live more sustainably. “Collaborative housing allows us to live smaller and share, using less resources,” Pernilla comments. She draws attention to the work of architects such as Hauschild Siegel who are re-thinking the detached suburban house in a compact urban form – that still manages to capture the ideals that led homeowners to seek a property in the suburbs such as access to a garden and individualised design choices – whilst (at least in theory) aiming to limit their environmental footprint.

A multi-dwelling in Malmö by Hauschild Siegel. Image from hauschild-siegel.com
A multi-dwelling in Malmö by Hauschild Siegel. Image from hauschild-siegel.com

 Utopia Architects in Stockholm have put forward a collaborative housing proposal focused on younger city residents called KomBo  that outlines a plan for a housing block with a mix of private and shared facilities. The goal is to speed up the provision of housing to this vulnerable group as well as establish a sense of friendship and community.

KomBo

Drawings of how the KomBo development might look in plan. Images from Utopia Architects.
Drawings of how the KomBo development might look in plan with shared and private spaces. The image above shows the outside of the building. Images from Utopia Architects.

Architects Paradiso in Stockholm and OkiDoki! in Gothenberg are also producing cutting-edge work exploring new combinations of housing forms that make less use of resources.

Building with Flexibility in Mind

As earlier blogs in this series have shown,this re-thinking isn’t only about new housing. Existing housing can be renovated and repurposed to permit greater diversity and resource sharing.

Pernilla and many others at KTH argue that any new building unit conceived today should be designed with flexibility and repurposing in mind; our ideals, needs and resources change over time and the built environment must be designed to adapt effectively.

Looking forward, the main challenge – and opportunity – Pernilla identifies to the acceptance of new ideas about the good home is amongst housing policy makers and other actors in the traditional housing market. “The system today is designed for an idea of the good home that is standardized,” Pernilla reflects. “Many actors are interested in exploring alternative models, however, it is challenging to move these in to the mainstream when, for example, it is difficult to get bank loans for collaborative housing initiatives.”

Pernialla Hagbert can be contacted here: hagbert@chalmers.se