Cohousing in Denmark – A visit to Saettedammen, the world’s first co-housing community
Co-housing began in Denmark in the 1970s, but is only more recently spreading as a lifestyle choice across Britain. So when I had the opportunity to visit Saettedammen near Hillerod, some 30 miles north of Copenhagen, I could not resist the opportunity to pay a visit.
Although I had emailed the community some months before about a visit when researching different types of shared living, I hadn’t actually made an appointment! So on one sunny day in June, my son and I hired bikes in central Copenhagen and boarded the train to go for a look around Hillerod, and with luck try to visit Saettedammen whilst in the area.
Hillerod itself is a small provincial town but it boasts the magnificent 17th-century Frederiksborg Castle, set on a lake in the centre of town. The rolling countryside around the town is wonderful, with wood covered hills punctuated by green pastures. On a warm summer’s day and with bright sunshine to accompany us it felt like Eden cycling around. It helps to explain why this place was chosen as the location of Denmark’s, indeed the world’s, first cohousing community; it’s just 45 minutes by train to the city centre and the perfect place to bring up a family.
The community is located in a residential area near the golf club just a few kilometres from the station. Approaching the site via a suburban road, the community sits quietly around some smaller lakes. Here we parked our bikes and I asked the first person we met if we could have a look around.
As luck would have it this person turned out to be Arne Bjerre, one of the founders of the community who had for some years been Chairman of the Saettedammen development committee. Arne offered to show us around once he had finished mowing the communal lawns, but we were welcome to look around in the meantime.
First we walked down to the lake, past the trampoline and play area where it felt like any public park, then moved back up to look around the low-level housing and communal areas. One thing you notice is that the gardens have no fences, although there are private areas screened by bushes and plants.
The houses themselves are built using a modular design, some one-storey and some two storey like stacked bricks, allowing the interior walls to be moved around according to living needs. Their location, sitting up on a low ridge overlooking the rolling hills yet guarded by mature trees and plants, makes for a very picturesque scene; this place is naturally beautiful as well as socially innovative.
Whilst wandering about we meet Jakob who invited us in to see his house and to meet his wife and son. Jakob has ‘only’ lived in Saettedammen 15 years but again by luck it turns out that he is the local carpenter responsible for extending and moving around the design of all of the neighbour’s houses. He talks passionately about the architecture as well as about the design of the community and what it is like to live there.
He tells us how the only problem with Saettedammen these days is how desirable it has become; meaning that people don’t want to leave – many of the original residents still live there and are now quite elderly – and when owners do leave or die, then only the wealthier are able to afford the houses – and they too tend to be older. With only three families with children living there at present, Jakob is keen to see more families move in. Saettedammen started as an inter-generational community and this is still preferred by all of the residents he says.
Jakob’s own home is both spacious and light, the original building design modified to include an inner courtyard/atrium room. He explains how the children’s bedrooms and the lounges have been moved around over the years as the needs of the family have changed. Jakob and his wife now have their bedroom off the lounge with a view of the garden and use of the wood burning stove in winter; there is a feeling of contentment and love in this house.
That same contentment and love, as well as the smell of home cooking, is also present in Arne’s house when the time for our tour arrives. Arne takes us first to see the common room where the residents meet to eat some evenings and hold social events. He tells us that in 1967, he and his wife answered a newspaper advertisement inviting families to live together. The ad was placed in response to a newspaper article titled “Children Should Have One Hundred Parents,” by Bodil Graae, that encouraged architects and the community to experiment with communal living spaces. The idea appealed.
Arne has a chuckle as he tells us that the first meeting featured three groups of people really; those who just wanted to share a washing machine, those who just wanted to have free love (sex) with everyone, and those who wanted to bring up their family in a close community! Fortunately the latter group dominated and despite two or three years of nudity around the community, which Arne fondly remembered, the main focus became to build a community in which to bring up children and live communally.
We duly visited the washroom. Like a mini launderette this room featured four industrial looking washing machines and washing powder supplies for everyone to share. But what caught my eye was a board with tags on; what was that for I asked? Arne explained that if you came in with your washing and all machines were full, even if they had finished, then you would leave your dirty washing in front of a machine with a tag that provided the wash settings for your washing; when the person returned to unload their washing then they put on yours. Brilliant!
Next to the dining room Arne pointed to a very important room; the children’s playroom. He said that many an hour was spent in there by the younger children, allowing the adults time to eat and talk in peace. He explained that each of the 27 families/households has to prepare, cook and clear up one meal in the communal dining room each month. They pay for the food but in return can come in to dinner and have someone else cook for them the other 26 nights if they choose. In practice, community residents come 2 or 3 times a week, but always at least once a week, as that is expected. And anyway, everyone enjoys the communal aspects as that is the difference.
Back at Arne’s house we share a beer in the evening sun and he tells me more tales of the early days. In the meantime my son is invited back to dinner at Jakob’s where he gets on well with Cornelius Jakob’s son. One feels the communal spirit has touched us already – it’s such a warm and friendly place.
I mention to Arne the problem of recruiting younger families and he says he (they) do not know what to do about it. There is now a premium on the houses within Saettedammen compared to the local area, because it is recognised as a very nice place to live. Unfortunately younger families lack the money to compete. The residents, and especially the children of residents who have died, are free to sell to who they please and, despite all newcomers having the same communal mindset, this has led to some price inflation. It shows that Saettedammen is very successful but that market forces then create barriers to some families.
We leave the community to cycle back to the station and I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to visit and especially to have met Arne and Jakob and their families. They are truly community minded people and one can see that through their care and unrelenting commitment to living in a communal way, that they have helped to create and sustain a very special place.
Nick Henley visited Saettedammen on June 20th 2017 with his son Joseph (18).
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