The History of Cohousing in Denmark

The first attempt to build what Danes refer to today as bofoellesskaber (“living communities”) began in 1964. A small group of people met to discuss new ways of living. This meant housing that was an antidote to the ills of the industrial age and less than friendly subdivisions; housing that embraced the needs of human beings; housing that created a joyful and thriving community.

The Danes wanted to combine the qualities of village life with the freedom to pursue the cultural and professional qualities of a nearby city. They agreed that neither the single-family home nor the multi-story apartment building were acceptable alternatives. Both lacked the common facilities needed to create a true sense of community.

It was agreed that cooperation was as necessary in the home as it was in the workplace. The group decided that their housing complex should be small enough to allow residents to know each other and to feel comfortable using the common area as an extended living room.

Danish cohousing remains the gold standard for cohousing worldwide. These places represent the pinnacle of site design, common house design and private house design. Critically, they do so because the residents have proactively set themselves up for long-term success.

Though originally planned for young families, cohousing communities have more and more residents who are single parents, empty nesters, singles and seniors. Not only does cohousing address the social ills of loneliness and isolation, it also provides an effective social services network that our larger society is unable to provide.

Definition of Cohousing (Graham Meltzer 2005)

Cohousing communities place a strong emphasis on the balance between community life and the privacy of individuals and households. Dwellings are self-sufficient, and household autonomy is symbolically expressed in architectural form, as is the importance of the common house with its ‘vital social and practical purpose’.

Cohousing Takes Hold

By 1980 twelve owner-occupied cohousing communities, ranging in size from 6 to 36 households, had been built in Denmark. With one exception, all were initiated by people who wanted to live there; future residents participated in the planning and design processes for all of them. Today there are approximately 250 cohousing communities in Denmark.

New Financing Possibilities

Since 1981 the Danish government has been consistently supporting the development of many cohousing communities with new legislations and guaranteed loans. This is in part because cohousing offers an opportunity to create high-functioning neighbourhoods instead of big houses.

Cohousing is now a well-established housing option in Denmark. Not only do new communities continue to be built, the concept has also been incorporated into master plans for new areas of development. Banks were once reluctant to loan to cohousing groups but this sentiment has evolved. Cohousing communities are now considered “a preferred risk” since most units are pre-sold long before construction is completed.

The Future of Cohousing in Denmark

The trend toward working part or full-time at home has been apparent for some time. Having a greater number of residents at home during the day can further enrich community life and eliminate the social isolation that often results from working alone at home. The provision of office space in the common house where several people can share resources is on the increase as commuting becomes more difficult, less desirable and less necessary.

Cohousing in Other Countries

While cohousing was pioneered in Denmark, and it remains the country with the largest number of cohousing developments, other European countries – most notably the Netherlands – have established cohousing communities. Cohousing projects have also been built in Sweden, Norway, Germany, England, France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

Cohousing in North America

By building on the Danes’ experience, we in North America have avoided many of the pitfalls and now have clear methodologies that make it just as straightforward to build projects in Canada and the U.S. as it is in Denmark. The only real difference is that almost everyone in Denmark is familiar with cohousing and its advantages and therefore more people choose it.