Kasper, The Friendly Host (+ 9 other shared living lessons)

“Why do you want to be the one who organises it all and helps others”, I ask. “I just want things to to work”, Kasper says. He is a business student with a big grin. He seems to be one of those people who are easy to approach. We are in his kitchen with a group of architecture students. He lives in Copenhagen´s Tietgenkollegiet, one of Europe´s brightest beacons for shared living.

Kasper from Tietgenkollegiet

Of course Tietgenkollegiet it´s a stunning piece of architecture by Lundgaard-Tranberg. Of course you could point out that most student apartment buildings don´t get 100 million euros for Nordea Foundation.

Tietgenkollegiet

But that would miss the mark. The architecture is not the most stunning feature at Tietgenkollegiet. Not at all. It´s the lifestyle – how commons are administered. In that sense Tietgenkollegiet is so awesome that my head is about to explode. There´s tons of things we at Demos Helsinki can take up in our project developing shared and responsible student living in Helsinki ((World Design Capital project Hoas Lab) and also within the housing design studio we are carrying out with Aalto University´s Department of Architecture.

But on a more general note, there´s ten things housing providers should take note on from Tietgenkollegiet.

1. Shared Spaces Fill A Need
Filling a function is key when designing shared spaces. Still, in many apartment buildings they are built because they have to be built. As has come up in the interviews with Aalto students during our architecture studio course, many people have no idea what you are supposed to do in the provided shared spaces. This is why cafes are so popular. You know what you are supposed to do in them.

To some extent this is due to the rising wealth and cost of consumer goods. Common rooms were created in the 1970s for watching TV together as most students could not afford to buy a TV set themselves. Now most have a plasma screen.

This is why shared spaces need serious reinvention.

At Tietgenkollegiet, twelve rooms share a well-equipped kitchen. There are no cooking facilities in the rooms so the twelve to thirteen people within a unit end up interacting regularly. The kitchens are designed to be used by several people with lockable storage for everyone, basic glasses and dishware provided and a big kitchen island for cooking, chopping etc.

Same goes for the laundry room on the ground floor. They are easy to access. To minimise the normal problems of laundry rooms – such as people stealing your clothing –, drying facilities are provided in the kitchen units.

Shared Kitchen at Tietgenkollegiet
Shared Kitchen at Tietgenkollegiet

Laundry Room With Big Windows on Ground Floor
Laundry Room With Big Windows on Ground Floor

Laundry Room
Laundry Room
Instructions on the Washing Machine

2. You´re Wanted From Point Zero
The attractiveness of shared flats is usually reduced by the idea/fear that you can end up sharing with a random stranger. As everyone has heard horror stories of the flatmate from hell, we tend to prefer living alone.

Outside student housing this anxiousness is normally combated with sharing a place with people you already know. In most places the current tenants selecting the newcomers.

The Tietgenkollegiet community selects its members based on applications. People who apply know already about the culture of the building. As they have to make an effort to get in and they are selected by the other tenants, you immediately feel like part of the community.

This is definitely something to think of also in Helsinki. Should people who like to cook be grouped into a flat? Should outdoorsy types live together? What are the features of people we could build communities around?

3.  Functions of Shared Spaces Are Decided Together
It´s extremely common that people feel zero ownership for the shared spaces within an apartment or within a building. As negotiating the rules and interior design with your flatmates is normally a major hassle, often shared spaces are neglected, end up looking bland and are used to the minimum.

At Tietgenkollegiet, the architecture office had some ideas for shared facilities but in the end the tenants were given a budget and they made the choices. That´s why the building has for instance wood workshop. The key cards help seeing who has used what. The people who want to use the music room or the wood workshop pay a minimal sum to get access.

The major advantage of engaging the tenants in the design is that it builds a sense of ownership. Basically, at Tietgenkollegiet the tenants were empowered. The sense of ownership leads to a sense of responsibility.

Also by sharing the budget openly with the involved tenants, they were able to feel that they have made a choice. Such openness also encourages to search for creative solutions and put more effort in making the spaces work.

Wood Workshop on the Ground Floor

4. Social Norms Are Articulated And Visible
Design student Jenni Mäenpää has been working with us at Demos on her thesis on shared living. One of her key findings is that many of the problems are created by the lack of traditions and the inability to make up a simple set of rules.

Everyone who has ever been part of a family or lived with a partner or friend knows what would be the consequences of such behavior. We need to have some traditions to feel safe and included. And we need to agree on who takes out trash, who gets toilet paper and whether dishes need to be washed immediately or within a day.

At Tietgenkollegiet the rules of the community are decided by the tenants. Every kitchen makes up its own rules and they are visible on the walls, written by the tenants themselves. Communication with the other tenants is made easy with whiteboards and such.

Community Rules Overtake House Rules
Community Communication

Community Identity
Rules of the Community
Rules of the Community

5. You See The Community
The circular form of the building closes out the rest of the campus area. The shared rooms face the courtyard so you can see what others are doing together. The bike sheds are not in the basement but easily accessible and visible to all. Same goes for the party room and the laundry room.

The community is also made visible within the kitchen units by putting up pictures of parties and such. This builds up an idea of who are are are a community.

It´s pretty clear and self-evident that people wish to leave a mark in their surroundings. That makes us feel at home. We have tested a similar approach at Junailijankuja in Pasila in a building with foreign exchange students. We put up a world map in the laundry room and gave everyone a sticker to mark their place of origin.

This has been received well and will most likely be broadened to other Hoas buildings as well. It resonates well with the wishes of people today. We simultaneously wish to be unique and show where we come from but also feel like we are part of this great community of people from numerous places on the planet.

Courtyard of Tietgenkollegiet
Courtyard of Tietgenkollegiet (shared spaces are in the parts sticking out of the structure)

Bikes of the Building
Bikes of the Building

6. There Are Layers In The Community
We need preparatory phases between completely private and completely public spheres. At Tietgenkollegiet students belong to a kitchen (12–13 students), a floor (60 people), a block (72 people), the entire building (360 people) and to the campus – and through that the city. They also talk about “our kitchen”, “our block”, “our floor” and “our building”. Different communities have different traditions like movie nights or Tour de Cuisines with the students going from kitchen to kitchen tasting each other´s cooking.

The level of intimacy is highest in the smallest groups. The smaller communities give you skills you can use while moving towards the public realm.

Layers of Community at Tietgenkollegiet
Layers of Community at Tietgenkollegiet (sketched by Tommi Laitio)

7. Slacking Is Called Out
Too often the bad behavior of a few corrupts the entire community as people don´t have the tools or courage to intervene. At Tietgenkollegiet, the students understand that everyone needs to pitch in for the community to work. If someone does not clean their mess, there are ways to point that our – the call it Joey´s Bill after a former tenant –  like carrying the dirty dishes to that person´s door, putting them on his fridge shelf or asking for a higher contribution to the shared purchases.

8. There´s Possibilities and Limits to Customisation
The apartments are equipped with in-built storage but these can be moved around on railings to change the order and division of the room. The rooms are designed pretty bare but there are in-built things to hang your posters and bulletin boards on. You have an inning in front of your door for a doormat or so.

On the level of community, every kitchen can make up their own kitchen to work in the way they want. Many have for instance gotten rid of the second dinner table to make room for sofas and TVs. The community can also decide on the function of their club room – some have a cinema and some have a pool table.

Windowfarming at Tietgenkollegiet
Windowfarming at Tietgenkollegiet
Shared Room of a 12-unit
Shared Room of a 12-unit

Entrance to a Room

One-person Room

9. Kasper, The Friendly Host
Some people will always do more. And they want to. That should not be seen as a problem but they should be encouraged and appreciated for that. Community needs people who wish to host, arrange and mediate.

Even – as in the case of Kasper – when the helping role is normally explained through personal benefits – as that is more socially acceptable than talking about willingness to help–, desire to help is something wonderfully human. It generates positive emotions in us that we see the problems of others disappearing. This has come up also in our work with building hosts at Helsinki Region Student Housing Foundation. The current hosts say that they love the feeling of feeling useful.

Things like building hosts are a great way to channel that desire to be helpful and useful towards public good. And more often than not, this activity encourages others to take part as well.

10. Traditions And Functions Can Be Redone
The Tietgenkollegiet community has now been working for around five years. They have decided to go through the functions of the common spaces and revise some of the ones that have not worked. For instance the gym has been found out to be designed too much for men´s use so that needs to change.

Tietgenkollegiet would make Nobel laureate, economist Elinor Ostrom proud. It´s a great example of how a community uses its resources wisely when they are empowered to decide on the sharing themselves.