How A Little Community Is Born

Residents of a Swedish housing cluster
designing their homes together

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

Community is more than buildings. Johannes Olivegren, a Swedish architect who says that even Scandinavia has much to learn about good town planning, has been emphasizing the human process side of community design for many years. The following article is excerpted, with permission, from The Scope Of Social Architecture, edited by Richard Hatch (New York: Van Nostrands Reinhold Co., 1984).

AS SOON AS WE BUILD for more than one person, we build a community. What methods and tools do we have for building such a social structure? Nearly none. Without really recognizing what we were doing, we’ve attempted to build a social structure with houses, streets, and infrastructure, rather than with people. This hasn’t produced a particularly good social community.

What is needed is a social process which brings people together in new relationships and patterns of living – in other words, a continual community-building process where individuals and groups develop by giving each other support and stimulation as they work to design their immediate environment and take responsibility for its maintenance and future development.

This article is an account of one application of a long-range design research project that is attempting to meet this need. It was commissioned by the local authorities of the city of Goteborg, Sweden, and took place on a site called Klostermuren on the island of Hisingen. Due to existing legal, political, and economic conditions, it was practical for us to begin with single-family houses. However, given the proper framework, the methods and procedures of this project can by used for designing all types of housing. Other applications are already in progress.

The basic principle for the construction of a community should be that all the inhabitants in the area are given the opportunity to participate in continuing development. This can be accomplished both in renovations and improvements to existing neighborhoods and in the building of new areas. Inhabitants of the area are relatively well acquainted with its conditions, and they are very capable of contributing to improvements in their own interest and in the interest of the community. In this way, a community grows from the inside with the help of its own residents and in harmony with its particular characteristics. This type of community development must, of course, occur in balance with regional, national, and international conditions, but it should be primarily driven by the local inhabitants.


Our objective was the design of 12 houses and the creation of a working community. The process we used involves some specific techniques and concepts, the essential tools for this social process. Seven simple group process guidelines were outlined in a pocket-sized pamphlet that the participants carried with them from the beginning of the project. These techniques are as follows:

1) Introduce yourself. What’s your name? Where do you come from? What’s your occupation? What are your special interests? What kind of support would you like from your neighbors? What kind of support are you able to give?

2) Do "round the group." Here, avoid discussion and polemics. Give each person about the same amount of time. Give everyone attention and show appreciation for their ideas. Discussion is then often unnecessary.

3) Discuss. If discussion is necessary, give each subject a time limit and everyone about the same amount of time. No one should speak four times before all have spoken twice. Finish with "round the group."

4) Avoid majority decision. If 2) and 3) are used, in general a solution can be found which meets different needs. Majority decisions are often unfair to the minority. Seek consensus.

5) Take someone aside. If you become unhappy or angry with someone, take someone else aside and express how you feel. (The listener should avoid making comments and should keep the session private.) Afterwards, it will be easier for you to speak with the first person in a relaxed way.

6) Take the opposing point of view. When two parties are locked in their attitudes, i.e., continually repeating the same arguments, have each try for a while to defend the other’s point of view. Attitudes will soon become less one-sided.

7) Encourage and appreciate. Encouragement is the best form of criticism. Harsh comments, even in the name of honesty, shut the door to flexible thinking. Give encouragement and appreciation and the door will be opened. In addition to these group process guidelines, the other elements of the process are as follows:

Professional Assistance from architects plays an essential role; they serve as advisors and group leaders.

Step-by-Step is the working schedule which divides the design work the users have to do into relatively short periods during which a substantial result is achieved each time. About 30 steps are needed for users to design their environment and their houses in single-family housing areas.

Patterns are design tools taken from Christopher Alexander. Patterns are employed especially to make future residents aware of all the issues involved in site planning.

Field Trips to existing housing areas are essential so that the participants are able to see good and bad solutions to common design problems. Through such fields trips, the architects gain an understanding of the preferences of the users and are able to discuss them intelligently.

Price Lists of different kinds are introduced so that the users can get an idea of the costs of their own houses and common facilities at any point in the process.

The House Design Procedure is a system for determining the form of the house in general. Styrofoam blocks of different shapes are used in this process. These are tools for the design process. They are not intended to represent prefabricated building units.

The Procedure for Interior Planning involves the use of styrofoam pinboards and yarn (for trying partition locations) and paper cutouts for utilities, staircases, furniture, etc.


The Klostermuren site in Goteborg was chosen as the location of the pilot project. On November 29, 1974, after presentations and political negotiations, local authorities approved the project and appointed a committee to follow its progress.

The work began with the preparation of a map that illustrated the building site boundaries. The neighbors were informed of the project and gave their written approval. The local authorities invited eight builders to bid on a simulated project so that costs could be determined and price lists could be made up.

Invitations were sent out to 800 households on the waiting list for single family houses. About 20 of the most interested families got together in order to get better acquainted before making a final decision. After further considerations (size of the household, economic status, etc.), 12 families were selected, with four in reserve.

At the end of the design period (which took two months), a second general meeting was held where the households reviewed their work. By that time, the group leader (who was the architect) had executed professional drawings of the users’ designs that were delivered to the local authorities for approval and to the selected builder for final estimates and contracts. During the summer, working drawings were made, and in September the households signed individual contracts with the builder. In October, ground was broken, about four working months after the households had started their designing. They moved in in May and June of 1975.

The intention is that the households will, even in the future, use the cooperative working techniques to help solve problems they may have in common. And by using our design tools, they can also create additions and alterations to their homes and common areas. If new households move in, they will be welcomed and introduced to the other households, and the manner in which the project was developed and functions will be explained to them.


Klostermuren is situated a 20-minute tram ride from downtown Goteborg. The site is surrounded by single-family houses, apartment houses, a grammar school, a green area, a ball park, and a playground with animals. At a distance of about 500 yards is a day care center, post office, shops, and a bus stop.

The 12 new houses are organized in four groups of three each. In the center of the houses is a common area with a playground, sitting areas, and birch trees, which were saved during construction. All entrances face the common area to promote spontaneous contact between neighbors. The entrances to the garages face outward to the surrounding streets. At the main entrance in the southwest corner is a house shared by all, the use of which is open-ended. (It is often used for visitors, or for communal celebrations.)

The houses are different in design, and vary in size from 1000 to 1350 sq. ft. of living space. Almost every house has balconies and outdoor sitting areas in two different locations. The floor plans closely follow the needs and wishes of each household. The heights of the houses vary from one to three stories, and the space is used to full advantage. Several households have designed rooms with double height ceilings and contact between the first and second floors. Some have extended the house depth. Others have widened different parts from the original proportions. The plans speak for themselves.


The 12 families which took part varied in size from two to five people per household. The adults ranged from 24 to 55 years of age. There were 19 children, of whom three were above 16 years of age. One of the adults was from Japan, one was from Hungary, and the others were Swedes. Six of the women were housewives, two women had part-time jobs, and four had full-time jobs. All of the men had full-time jobs. The occupations included office worker, nurse, carpenter, taxi driver, engineer, teacher, and architect. Most were in the middle of the income range.

Meeting attendance during the design phase was very high. No household dropped out during the process. The excellent participation was due to the stimulating and fruitful social interaction, the relatively short design time, and the expected quality of the homes at a comparatively low cost. The households were generally very positive about the project and its methods. They particularly appreciated that they had the opportunity to get to know each other before moving in.

The more unpopular aspects of the process were the time limit, which was experienced as a pressure by all, having to wait to know about the final costs of the house, and, in some cases, unsatisfied expectations about techniques for working together toward consensus, as we hadn’t the time necessary to use all of them entirely successfully. Conflicts concerned mainly the communal house and the choice of house sites.

The nearby neighbors took part mainly in formal presentations and by approving the map of building limitations and the drawings that had to be delivered to the local authorities for building permission. In general, their attitude was positive toward the project. They were astonished that their opinions were asked and that their participation was invited.

The common house has been located by the residents on the outer edge of the site, and has, among other things, the aim of facilitating contact with the surrounding areas.


Design meetings were held twice a week, which seemed to be too often. (One evening a week should be enough. Extra design meetings and study evenings could then be added as the need arose.) The time, 6 to 10 p.m. with a half-hour break, was excellent. The two design weekends during the early stages of the project were successful. They provided the project participants several opportunities to meet outside of work/study periods under free and easy circumstances, during meals, walks, volleyball games, and evening parties. Three design weekends would perhaps be an improvement. Work to be done at home was assigned for nearly every design meeting. These two design months were quite intensive, enough so that the harmony of some households was put under stress.

The guidelines for group process became the essential tool for the social interaction within the project, especially "round the group," which was used some 100 times with great success. Majority votes were used very rarely. As a rule, the group found flexible solutions for its problems which could satisfy individuals in different ways. Formal decision- making procedures were used less than originally expected, mainly as a result of using these techniques for working together. However, this sometimes created confusion about what had been decided. In the future, a clear distinction has to be made between informal discussion and formal decisions.

The step-by-step procedure proved invaluable, but it should never become rigid. It’s essential that every step contain neither too little nor too much to do. When a step contains too little to do, the interest of the participants slackens, and when there is too much to do, they feel stressed and dissatisfied. The participatory phase of planning and design at Klostermuren took two months. (Three months would have been about right.) The time spent in group work amounted to 120 hours.

The procedure for designing the site worked well. In one session, 11 households made 33 variations for the layout of the site. After evaluation and elaboration with the help of patterns, one of these solutions was selected as the design for the area. Then the time came for each household to choose a site. A tentative choice of site went quite well; no serious conflicts arose. When the choice was to be final, the situation became different. Real conflicts came out which previously had been covered up. Conflicts were resolved by choosing sites in the order that the households held in the original queue for obtaining a site. An interesting thing was noted at this time: in their selection of a site, those who had the opportunity gave as much importance to who their neighbors would be as to the physical location.

The procedure for designing the houses with styrofoam blocks also functioned well. An essential quality of this method was that the households didn’t get caught up in details at the outset. Each family placed the main volumes of the house on the site, concentrating on orientation with reference to the neighbors’ houses, the grounds, and the sun. They could make rapid adjustments with the help of styrofoam pieces that they were able to group and regroup very quickly.

The procedure for laying out the interiors also worked quite well. The closer we came to the details of the dwelling, the more experienced and proficient the members of the households became. All of the dwellings ended up being very different inside.

The patterns were generally considered to be a valuable design tool, but due to the shortage of time, they weren’t used as much as they might have been. We did a list of patterns and discussed them as we went through the list. People were able to keep in mind what the different patterns contained. They also seemed to have subconscious patterns that showed up when they worked closely with their site plans and houses.

The field trips (project visits) proved to be educational in the same way, but, due to time limitations, they were too few. On the other hand, the families made several field studies on their own during the project.

The general contractor collaborated in the design work and made regular cost calculations. The personnel of the construction firm had the delicate and laborious task of helping the users at the same time as they looked after their own interests as builders. The prices written on the design volumes that were used in the beginning could only be used in the very first stage, as they represented gross estimates. As soon as possible, estimates should be based on prices per square foot. We found that this gives more precise figures.

The development and research costs for this project were considerable: about $60,000. The cost of future applications will be more reasonable. With projects of 40 to 60 households, the cost per household would vary from $900 to $1250. This is quite reasonable, if one thinks of what the families get in exchange, namely a supportive and democratic community.


Application to this project was voluntary, and the choice of households was made somewhat at random, as they were taken in the order of their position on the public list for sites, as well as according to the size of the household and the age of the adults. This procedure resulted in a relatively heterogeneous social mixture. We have observed that common interests or lack of such among the households have influenced physical groupings. The attraction people have for others with similar interests was given a chance to develop at Klostermuren and influenced the creation of the community.

The method of going round the group in order to give everyone a chance to speak at meetings was an essential aspect of the social process. Most important, perhaps, is that design work done collectively involves a great deal of problem solving toward a common goal. The end result was that we all got to know one another quite well as human beings. The contact within Klostermuren today is far greater than in a usual housing area where people have been neighbors for decades. And this will continue to be true, because the inhabitants decided to turn their entrances inward toward the common area in the middle. The users made this choice in spite of the fact that the garages are entered from the street, and that visitors will have difficulty in finding their way to the front doors. By coming and going through the common space, the chances for friendly encounters will be considerably greater than if they had turned the entrances outward toward the streets.

What one recognizes at once while approaching the area is that all of the houses are different and have individual characteristics, but that there are some architectural forms in common. The houses vary from one to three stories, have different colors and also different roof material and roof colors for each group. One house has one balcony, another has three, and the rest have two. Some houses form a row (similar to town houses), others are set back from each other in varying combinations. Some have small sites; others have bigger sites. The specific quality of this area is that all the variation is genuine. That is, the variations arise from the different needs and wishes of the inhabitants and have therefore a real background; they are not the imposed imagination of a single architect who is trying to make an environment more interesting. This factor alone means that there is a very substantial difference between this area and other areas planned by people who don’t use them.

A quick visit to all 12 houses reveals that no house is like any of the others, either outside, in plan, in section, in interior decoration, or in utilities. The construction of the houses (post and beam) is such that the users are free to change the arrangement of rooms on both floors to some extent. Evolution according to changing needs has, in this way, been allowed for. Walking through the houses, one is able to experience that people are unique and have personal opinions and wishes that they want to keep as they form something in common with others. In conclusion, one could say that this small area expresses both individuality and community in the physical environment.

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