Living In A Bofaelleskab

The impact of cluster housing on everyday life in Denmark

One of the articles in Sustainable Habitat (IC#14)
Originally published in Autumn 1986 on page 19
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Hildur Jackson has lived in cluster housing near Copenhagen in Denmark for 12 years. In this interview, she describes how being part of this kind of community deeply affects many facets of daily life.

Robert: Hildur, you live in one of the earliest examples of cluster housing in Denmark. Can you describe some of your experience with it and how this approach to housing has developed?

Hildur: We got the idea when I had two babies, and I found out that I didn’t want to live in ordinary family housing. I thought it was very lonely with the kids, and so we started talking with friends about how we could arrange ourselves in a better way. We were five families. We spent three years looking for a place, and then all of a sudden we found we could buy the place just next to where we had been living, and so we did. I have been living here now for 12 years in extended family life. That’s the way I look upon it; it’s a level between the local community and the family.

Robert: Each one of you has your own separate house?

Hildur: Yes, and then we have a house that we share, where we have our activities together. This is a more conservative bofaelleskab- cluster dwelling. Since we started, 70 different cluster dwellings have come into being in Denmark. Ours is among the smallest. Some of them are up to 30 families, 30 houses, and they have very big common houses, they have swimming pools, they have sheep and horses. They have a lot of facilities that we cannot have because we are such a small group of people. But still, even if this is a small and a rather conservative bofaelleskab, it is very different from living in ordinary family housing. Four out of five men in this bofaelleskab have their jobs in the private sector. They work with information technology and other such things. Many people can’t believe that these four men live in a bofaelleskab. That shows something about the Danish society, that you can be in the most capitalistic part of the economy and still have values about wanting to live a different life. All the men who are in this association love to stay here. Everybody agrees that this is a much better way of living than in ordinary family housing.

The building we share is an old farmhouse, three buildings together. One of the wings we rent to a woman with two children, and then we have a room where we can all eat together. We use it for children’s birthdays and for all kinds of meetings. The Nordic Alternative Campaign has had several weekend meetings here. We use it quite a lot. We really don’t understand how other people get along without having a place where 40 people can sit and eat together. It becomes self evident that it’s a very, very important thing in one’s life. My oldest son was 18 and he invited 16 of his young friends for a big party there two weeks ago, and they spent weeks preparing it. They built up a scene for performing music, and they played all through the night.

A lot of things about our life here aren’t formal; you can’t tell them from the shape of the buildings. That is, I see all these grownups and all these kids every day. We follow each other closely.

One of the men came up with the idea of having a party where we celebrate the way they did hundreds of years ago in this area, where we dance around the May pole and hang the flower rings on the May pole as fertility symbols. That night I had a beautiful dream. I dreamt that a lot of kids were riding on small ponies around in a circle. And that shows that movement and it shows how important the circle is for our new way of understanding life.

Robert: What are some of the practical things you do share? You mentioned earlier that you share the care of the chickens.

Hildur: We share the bringing up of kids. For instance, we have a rule that if a kid is in my house, and the parents are there, they don’t scold their child. I am the one who is responsible in my house, and it affects the relationship between grownups and kids in very positive ways. Also, my little son has been playing soccer with big ones since he was two years old. It gives the others a totally different morality about how to behave towards small children. When I am away on trips, then there is always somebody to look after the kids.

If some of the grownups have problems, there is always somebody to rely upon. For example, my husband was in India, and he had some fantastic experiences there, but the end of it was not very good. He was more or less insane when he came home. Thanks to living in this bofaelleskab, there were three grownup people with me all the time, so we got through those two very critical days, and he was not hospitalized, which would have prolonged it into half a year or something. That would have ruined our family economy. In two days, he was back to normal. If we hadn’t lived in a bofaelleskab, that wouldn’t have happened. It was a very positive experience, because we got so close to each other and really got so deep into talking about our lives and what was happening.

We meet every Wednesday night, and then we have programs or we just talk. One winter we had arranged so that every Wednesday night one person would write about his or her life and tell about it, and then people would ask questions. It was very, very interesting. We got very deep into what everybody believed in, what were the purposes, the ideas of life, and what were their problems.

Another example of what we do together is that next Sunday, my son of 17 has arranged a doubles in badminton; all the grownups and all the kids play together. I am going to play with a little boy of 5 in that double match. It is wonderful; we’ll just spend the whole day on it. Every year we take a weekend off together to go to Sweden or somewhere else, to cook in the forest. So in my opinion this is far superior to normal living, and I think it is going to spread around.

You solve a lot of problems with bringing up children. Our children are not afraid of being alone, which is normal among other children who usually think, "Oh, I’m not popular. I have to have somebody to hang my person on." They don’t have that because there is always somebody around, and they accept each other. We never see children fight here, and they are all good friends.

I’d also like to say something about the negative aspects of a place like this. One negative aspect is that one of the families just left us, and that was terrible. It was like being separated. I arranged a feast of sorrow. Everybody was dressed in black and white, and the food was black and white, and all the women here made a small play where we painted our faces black and white, and made our hair stand right up, and we just screamed and howled.

Diane: Why did they leave?

Hildur: Their children were grown up. They were the first family that was here with us, and they thought it was too expensive to live here. They had an old house and the man was very impractical, and when something broke, they didn’t know how to repair it, and he felt like the economy restricted other things. They were afraid of losing their jobs. Lots of Danes are hit by unemployment; this couple are teachers, and there are fewer children. And also, he is a very negative person. I think it was a choice between getting a divorce or trying something new. They have been out here every week since they left, and I think they regret it. You can’t move away from your problems; they know that by now. It was a very sad experience for us.

Another problem is that when we have new people in, it is decided by economics, because everybody wants to get as much for their house as possible so they can buy a new house, and the prices are fantastic for housing here in Denmark. So we can’t really choose freely, and that is a big problem. If I go on to a new project, I won’t accept market prices anymore. It ruins the possibility of choosing people. All the people I like the most are poor. That’s how things are.

Diane: What economic arrangements do you have?

Hildur: We each have our houses. Then we own those three wings of an old farm house together. It’s a problem, because when we put money into it we can never get it out. People are so fixated in thinking of money as investment that it’s difficult to make repairs or improve that old house. That’s a problem that’s part of the worldview that we have: economic humanity and economical rationality. I think that is one of the things we just simply have to change.

Diane: Who owns the land?

Hildur: Everybody owns the land their house is on individually. But we do have two soccer fields within our area, and that’s a very important part of it.

Robert: In some of the newer bofaelleskabs, do they have different economic arrangements?

Hildur: Yes, we have a law which makes it possible to produce these dwellings on a rental basis. That law is very reasonable, with very low rents. I know about two examples, functioning very well, where people with much smaller incomes can get a smaller place to live. So it’s becoming possible. A lot of the discussion in the press during this last ten years has been, "Oh, these bofaelleskabs are only for the wealthy people." A lot of people looked down on them because of that, but now we are seeing that they can be for everyone. I think that what is really going to affect the next generation from our epoch will be things like this.

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