Sharing Households: Eco-Collaborative Housing

Anitra Nelson
Associate Professor, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Melbourne

Ageing populations are a worldwide trend and empty-nesters, widows and widowers tend to stay in a family-sized home in preference to highly managed life in retirement villages, so responses based on sharing dwelling spaces are attracting greater attention from seniors and policy makers alike.

Moreover, right across adult age groups, different kinds of ‘eco-collaborative housing (opens new window)’ are attracting interest for affordability, sustainability and sociability reasons — resulting in a whole range of intergenerational, age-specific and family-oriented collaborative housing projects on the drawing board.

Sharing houses, sharing land, cohousing and ecovillage models include tenants as well as co-owners in various legal, financial and living arrangements. Here, I describe some common models of eco-collaborative housing, list some of the attributes of co-living, and discuss a range of barriers and challenges to such ‘alternative’ housing becoming more mainstream.

Common models

Eco-collaborative housing includes communes and squats but there are more familiar models.

Shared or joint households

Shared or joint households are often unfavourably viewed as last-resort accommodation for singles, students and the down at heel. Yet, in the twenty-first century, more intentional households are forming with non-kin co-owners and those who consider tenancy a more-or-less permanent option.

Take the example of middle-aged trio Karen, Louise and Jean who — in My House, Our House (opens new window) — tell the valuable story of a decade or so co-owning and co-residing in a suburban house in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania, USA). Similarly, edgy cohabiters in their 20s and 30s who practice simple living and sharing — to express their social justice and environmental values — take a serious approach to co-living, seeking co-residents through sites such as Ecoshout (opens new window).

What distinguishes such households from casual and shambolic images of share houses are formal agreements; transparency and responsibility in financial arrangements; co-designed protocol around sharing spaces, facilities and appliances, eating, hosting guests and noise; clear lines of interdependence and respected independence; defined expectations; and processes for entry, conflict resolution and exit.

Shared land

With the high cost of land and urban planning for density and compact living, extending or creating space in a backyard for one or two more dwellings can be done with convivial sharing in mind. Despite the extra privacy afforded by the built environment, shared land developments succeed by using similar principles to shared houses. Compared with the subdivided alternative, they benefit from more productive garden and larger leisure spaces, with more efficiencies in terms of carparks and car use, buying in bulk and sharing services.


Cohousing models are spreading in the UK — and Europe where city and national governments, especially in Germany, set aside land for such housing, and offer legal templates and financial models specifically for such developments. Typically cohousing involves around 20 co-located households (say in an apartment block or attached townhouses) with private dwellings and shared spaces and facilities under self-management, i.e. collective governance.

Shared spaces allow, say for collective dining, co-gardening and staying guests. Shared facilities and appliances include laundries, workshops and sports places. Environmental efficiencies arise where shared spaces and appliances translate into lower per capita use of a smaller number of white goods and devices, and greater onsite opportunities for re-use. Moreover, neighbourhood energy, water and waste services have become efficient and more affordable options.

It is not uncommon for cohousing in urban areas to offer community spaces to their wider co-located neighbourhoods for co-working, gardening, meeting and/or other activities. As such they become neighbourhood nodes enhancing diversity, inclusion, access and vibrancy (opens new window).


Many ecovillages represent more complex, ambitious and radical developments than cohousing. Pioneers tend to have a ‘system change’ approach to addressing environmental and social crises and see an ecovillage as an incubator of new technologies, built form and sustainable lifestyles. Often they extend over a greater space and incorporate more members than cohousing — typically 100+ — and ecovillages are more likely to involve more advanced forms of on-site work and collective sufficiency.

Some eco-collaborative communities limit or privilege entry by gender (e.g. all women), age (e.g. 55+) or culture (e.g. refugees or Spanish-speakers) but most encourage diversity and equality, even within such special interest groups.

All of these sharing models can involve income-sharing, but ‘one-purse’ communities represent only a minority of cases. It is, however, common to find in such models formal or informal schemes that address economic inequities and disadvantage.

Attributes: ‘MANER’

  • Mutual support: intergenerational and peer-support across abilities and capacities
  • Affordability: collective economies of scale; opportunities to self-build; non-monetary sharing and self-help models
  • Neighbourhood community: neighbourhood-wide relationships and activities are sought beyond the immediate eco-collaborative community characterised by diversity and inclusion
  • Environmental sustainability: one planet lifestyles; smaller size per capita; sharing; ethics around social justice and environmental care
  • Respect of privacy: private spaces; respectful protocol around interactions


Challenges of developing, say cohousing, are many and various.

One needs to find a coinidence or negotiated set of common values, approaches and practical goals between all residents.

There need to be more, and more diverse, social (public) housing models of cohousing available to tenants. More co-owned cohousing models need to incorporate tenancy options.

Entering an existing cohousing community might be easier because it is all set up in a practical and organisational sense. At the same time limitations of already existing communities can include feeling like a ‘newbie’ so that fitting in (rather than co-designing) and asserting your power can all be challenges.

Financial challenges need to be sorted and a legal model found that is appropriate and agreeable to all concerned. Only relatively recently have commercial sources of credit arisen for cohousing and certain other co-living arrangements in the UK.

The building, extending, retrofitting or renovating required will be complex due to the size and multi-various aspects of a cohousing project. Establishing a cohousing project can take years.

There will always be a range of personal limitation and interests that need to be taken into account. For instance, as a sixty-something year old it’s daunting to face joining — let alone establishing — a cohousing or ecovillage project. Questions include what happens with deteriorating health and whether buying into an arrangement will cause issues for beneficiaries of one’s estate.

For these reasons many seniors experiment with less challenging changes, sharing their house or land with relatives. Where this involves multiple generations financial and support services integrate easily following aspects of the traditional extended family household. However, family arrangements often do not get off the ground or founder — for instance, legal formalisations might be considered unnecessary in the first instance but family dynamics and baggage quickly get in the way of the necessary mutual respect and transparency of co-living.

Whatever arrangement one enters, with whatever people, simple legal agreements must cover aims, obligations and processes for entry, conflict resolution and exit. Transparency over key financial interests and social expectations is essential. However, the benefits of successful eco-collaborative housing can be various and numerous.

"Eco-collaborative housing... affordability, sustainability and sociability"

Anitra is author of the recently released Small Is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet

Follow Anitra on Twitter - @anitranelson (opens new window)


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