Full Service House

The Full Service House, Part I

By John Taylor; 04 July, 2006

Note: this is a re-write of an essay drafted last October.

The 1960's and 1970's saw a mass retreat by idealistic youth who went "back to nature." The flower children changed how thought, dressed and ate. Organic farming began out of that, and it has since become, in modified form, a billion dollar industry, the fastest growing branch of mainstream agriculture. Some youths "opted out" completely and fled into the wilderness to live as hermits, while others experimented with communal living on cooperative farms. Their ideal was a leaderless community run by common consent, a truer democracy than those implicated in Vietnam and the Cold War. Unfortunately, few communes lasted longer than a decade and those that endured were run by strong leaders more autocratic than old-style leaders in society at large. After the initial burst of enthusiasm the movement died out in North America.

The true inheritors of the commune movement turned out to be certain Danish and other Scandinavian architects and planners. They erected entire housing blocks using some of the best principles worked out by those idealistic youths. In fact, the evolution of communal dwellings, known as the Kollektivhus, predated the youth revolution. It had already started in the early 1950's. In his history of housing, Norbert Schoenauer writes,

"One of the first postwar Danish collective houses, Hoje Soborg (1951) designed by architects P. E. Hoff and B. Windinge, was built in a Copenhagen suburb, Gladaxe. The 120 dwellings of this five-story elevator serviced building ranged in size from one to four rooms. Apart from a doorman, collective services included a common dining room with central kitchen catering, housekeeping services, a children's center serving all age groups, two guest rooms for tenant's visitors, and, at the roof level, common party and meeting rooms with access to a terrace garden." (6000 years of housing, by Norbert Schoenauer, WW Norton & Co., New York, 2000, p. 460)

The evolution of collective or communal housing continued until by the late 1970's an improved version was now called a "service house." One in development in Stockholm was so popular that it had a waiting list of 13,000 names. Schoenauer writes,

"Collective habitation is an attractive proposition to many families and households. A young working couple would find it very convenient to move into an apartment building where food catering and housecleaning is available on request. Similarly, a new family, transferred from their hometown to an unfamiliar city, would find security in a collective house. Working single parents with preschool children would benefit greatly from using the in-house day-care and kindergarten. Elderly couples and retired people too can benefit from collective services offered in these buildings. In particular, single people: whether young, middle-aged, or elderly, divorced, or widowed: are all potential collective house residents who want to live in comfort without sacrificing their privacy." (Id.)

As a result of the high demand, many of these Scandinavian projects were built too tall and large and became overly institutionalized; it was difficult to maintain a homey, informal atmosphere in a high-rise. Meanwhile, in North America there was no effort to see that in-home services reached more than a tiny elite.

"If Otto Fick were alive today, and he visited an American family living in a luxury apartment complex like Chicago's River city, a building with 24 hour doorman service and amenities such as swimming pool, sauna, exercise room, rooftop party room, and roof gardens as well as food delivery from an in-house restaurant, he would insist the River city is a Kollektivhus, although in reality it is a mixed-use development. In fact, most American luxury apartment buildings offer services to the residents that are similar to those of collective habitation. But Fick's original intention of making similar services accessible to moderate or lower income groups remains just a dream." (Ib., 460-462)

This dream I share with Fick. Service house attributes would be basic, requisite parameters in the design of mound architecture and hillside housing developments.

The problems that have turned up in service house developments tend to be the same as a commune: how do you maintain both unity of thought and economic viability? How to reconcile volunteer services with commercial, for-profit enterprises? How do you maintain informal, consensual management among large numbers of tenants? Schoenauer writes,

"Experience shows that moderate sized collective house, with 60 to 100 dwellings and collective services limited exclusively to residents, may be desirable from a social point of view but unrealistic economically. Moderate sized collective habitation is only viable if the residents are willing to operate it communally, as is the case in low-rise communal houses such as Bofaellesskaber, in Denmark, or in a mixed-use apartment building where collective services are provided by in-house commercial outlets." (Ib., 460)

Done right, a collective or service house can be made an attractive choice for the poor as well as the wealthy. This would happen if every high density housing development be required by design to offer such facilities. Just as we all require basics like food, clothing, shelter and -- as is increasing recognized, exercise -- everyone needs the same range of collective services that Fick envisaged, such as communal gardens, kitchens, dining and childcare, cleaning services delivered to the home, and, close by, participatory education and entertainment.

I see no reason, therefore, not to have both communal services and commercial enterprises operating simultaneously in what is being called "co-opetition" (cooperative competition, where rivals participate in agreeing upon common standards, a phenomenon now restricted to the world of high technology corporations). With a new kind of flexible, open, computerized building code it would be easy to tweak residency so as to enforce basic standards of diversity, striking a balance between the number of rich and poor, short and long-term residents, and to strike a happy balance of immigrants and native-born, as well as mixing various racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Credits and funding would be conditional upon how a given move contributes to the basic human need for unity in diversity.

For example, an employed resident would pay cash for local services, such as cooking and laundry, in order to save the most time and effort. Even those who enjoy cooking, for example, might still wish to have a fresh salad delivered and served every day. Meanwhile poorer residents of the service house would have the option of participating full time in the growing, preparing or serving of that salad. Depending upon need and time invested, this could be done on a voluntary basis or, depending upon merit, a part-time service could grow into a full time career.

A service house neighborhood therefore would not have a hard distinction between employed and unemployed, between working people and the retired or disabled. A person who loses their job could make ends meet by spending their time puttering in neighborhood collective gardens, or communal kitchens, workshops, recreation centers, or other local facilities. Subsistence living in cooperative services would offer a carry-over job to skilled workers, and a way for the interloper and immigrant to integrate quickly into the community.

What is essential is that all have equal access to basic human needs, for example, a standard, high quality, scientifically designed and locally grown diet including every proper nutrient the body requires -- for example, that salad delivered along with meals -- but also, less obvious but just as essential, all should have access to those time saving services that increase everybody's productivity, whether the person is privileged or not. This is in the interest the rich as well as the poor. A service house should be a design for everybody, not only the rich or only the middle class or only the poor but all of them at once.

The big wrench in the works of communal housing is politics. It has proven very difficult for people with widely varying backgrounds, opinions and outlooks to arrive at democratic decisions. The few communal projects that endure tend to do so by ejecting dissenters; as a result they end up with no diversity among their members. Schoenauer points out:

"Communal housing groups seem to function best, and with less friction, if their members share similar values and have similar backgrounds. This is one of the reasons they are so successful in Denmark, a country with a culturally homogeneous population. It is tempting to compare the members of communal housing to a large extended family or a clan, but there are two basic distinctions: (1) membership is voluntary, and (2) there is no patriarch or leader and all important decisions are made democratically." (Ibid., 466)

While everybody likes the ideal of a full participatory democracy, in practice consulting is slow drudgery, consuming much time and energy and -- let us face it -- it is extremely tedious for most people most of the time. Participants who try to reduce boredom by spicing up deliberations tend only to stir up more contention, which tears away the roots of the tree. Yet the potential benefits of communal living are too great to ignore. Schoenauer, in summing up the educational advantages of one experiment in communal housing, Bofaellesskaber, points out that such contacts can be edifying too, forcing upon residence the discipline that democracy demands. Here,

"First, individuals have the option at all times either to enjoy the privacy of their own homes or to engage in social activities the community's common areas. Second, these residential communities foster voluntary social interaction as well as social and environmental responsibility; most communities practice composting and recycling. Last, but not least, they foster first-hand experience in harmonious communal living: not unlike members of band-type food gathering societies, they learn to compromise after realizing that what is good for the individual may not always be in the best interests of the community." (Ib., 466)

Next time, I will go into more detail about the computerized building codes that I referred to earlier, the invisible legislative structure behind the girders that would make this kind of development possible.

John Taylor

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