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Together we are strong

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Manuela Enggist

Published

04.02.2022

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More and more people with children decide to live in houseshares. Three families explain why the children benefit the most.

Life in this renovated farmhouse could be straight from an Astrid Lindgren novel: a picture-perfect Swedish idyll just outside of Bern. Laughing children skip through the common room, there is a large play corner with a slide, dozens of kids’ books line the shelves, a stack of board games leans against the wall. The spacious garden borders a stream, there are swings on the grass and the trampoline is always ready for a bounce. For the past year, 21 adults and seven children have been sharing this house. Four families have their own flats, two families share a larger flat spread across two floors, and eight more people live together in two flatshares. The youngest resident is baby Dimitri, the oldest is 65-year-old Marianne.

The common room on the ground floor, directly adjacent to a large kitchen, is the social centre of the building. Every evening, one member of the community cooks. Anyone can sign up to share in the dinner. Similarly, everyone is free to make their own arrangements as they please. Most flats only have a small kitchenette. Those who fancy cooking for everyone add their name to the list using a purpose-built app. «We are well organised and have about 10 work groups that get their tasks from the entire community.» From a gardening group to a finance group, all areas are covered. «The whole thing would not work without this self-organised structure,» Raffael Wüthrich explains. The 36-year-old lives here with his wife, Sarah (34), and their daughter, Sanna, who will be five soon.

Wüthrich realised during his studies that he enjoys communal living. «I believe it has many economic, ecological and social advantages.» The Bern native works in consumer protection and hopes to enter the Grand Council for the Green Party. A few years after graduating, he started the project with two school friends, his wife, Sarah, and three colleagues who joined later. They moved into an old mansion in Bolligen, Bern.

When the first babies were on the way in 2016, the group had to find a larger home. «We always wanted to be able to adapt our own house to our own wishes, and we knew that children would change communal life significantly.»

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Twenty-one adults and seven children live in a converted farmhouse in Urtenen. Some of them gather in the common room, including Raffael Wüthrich (in the hat).

A new houseshare in Urtenen

They jointly bought a property with an old farmhouse in Urtenen and expanded their community to 21 adults and seven children. During the conversion, they made sure to make the individual flats adaptable.  «We know that the needs of individuals and families change. If needed, we will be able to build additional rooms into some of the flats or connect them to other units,» Wüthrich explains.

The parents’ shared childcare service makes things a lot easier for everyone: except for two afternoons per week, all weekdays are covered. One of the children’s grandfathers looks after the kids for one morning every week, and he has become «Grandad Uwe» to all the children.

Of course, a lot of children make a lot of noise. «The common room tends to be a fairly loud place.» Eating dinner with all the children at the table can be challenging, too. «There have be-en very chaotic scenes. Every now and then, a child would race across the room hooting.» A few weeks ago, the community decided to implement a new rule. «Once dinner has been served, we ring a bell to signal that all children have to stay at the table for 15 minutes. It works better than we expected.»

When you live together like this, you grow quite close.

Raffael Wüthrich houseshare Urtenen

Wüthrich finds this living model very suitable for his current situation. «I am grateful that my daughter gets to grow up in this way. My own strengths and weaknesses are not the only in-fluence on her, as she has developed close relationships with others.» The kids of the house are used to seeking help from other adults, too. When a child needs help with a nursery rhyme, they go to Sarah Widmer, a trained classical singer. Wüthrich hopes that the friendships his daughter, Sanna, makes here will stay with her for a long time. «When you live together like this, you grow quite close. I hope that these connections will continue to give her many experi-ences that we, her parents, cannot offer her.»

Communal living is not a new concept, explains Margrit Hugentobler, a researcher focusing on co-living models. «But it has undergone a renaissance over the past years.» The sociologist and former director of the ETH Wohnforum has co-authored the book «Eine Geschichte des gemein-schaftlichen Wohnens» [A History of Communal Living]. She says: «Collective living models are always responses to social changes.» The alternative approaches to living which have emerged over the past 20 years are partially due to demographic changes.  «The traditional four-people family is no longer the dominant model.» In this context, it often makes sense for families or single parents with children to move in together – not least for financial reasons. «Especially in larger cities, such as Zurich, Basel and Geneva, living space is expensive and in short supply. Communal living with or without children can bring important financial relief.»

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The kitchen of the Schlössli Ins shared accommodation.

WG Schlössli Ins

Thick fog envelops the farmhouse at the centre of the village of Ins, Bern. Inside, Mira Majewski and her daughter Juna are sitting in the kitchen; the little girl’s cheeks are red from the warmth of the house. The six-year-old just got back from candle-making with her friends. Soon, Jelai, who lives under the same roof, will come over to play. Mira and Juna live in a three-bedroom flat with Mira’s partner Martin. The Battenhof, as the group have named their house, consists of 30 rooms and is inhabited by 17 residents who live in a wide variety of co-living concepts. Altogether, the Schlössli Ins project, which its residents call «a village within the village», is home to around 100 people who live in a tight-knit community spread out across many houses and flats. Mira, a 31-year-old special-needs teacher, moved in five year ago. She and Juna’s father separated soon after their daughter was born, and they were looking for a living model that would allow them to co-parent. «We have tried out various forms of family flatshares, timeshare custody models and patchwork family living since.» Mira, Juna and Martin eat their dinner with the neighbouring flatshare residents whenever they can. They moved into this flat, which gives them a little more privacy, for Juna’s sake. Before, they lived in a 12-people houseshare. «She wouldn’t settle down in the evening because there was so much going on. This made her sleep very poorly.»

My daughter learns to share, be considerate and feel comfortable in the company of others at a young age.

Mira Majewski houseshare Schlössli Ins

Apart from that, Mira believes that their living arrangements are entirely beneficial for their daughter. «She learns to share, be considerate and be comfortable in the company of others at a young age.» And the little girl has already made close friends, including some older housemates. «There are many people here who watched Juna grow up, know her, like to interact with her and take time for her. She benefits enormously from all this.» Juna’s contact with the other residents is so close that she even speaks another dialect. «She has developed a mixture between a Zurich and an Eastern Swiss dialect. I frequently get people asking me why my daughter doesn’t speak with a Bernese accent like I do.»

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Sarah Gröner (in the white jumper), Jonas (on the far left), Denise Köhler and her son Louis, and Bella the dog have been living together for the past few days.

Emmishofen houseshare

On a snowy day, Denise Köhler and her son Louis are sitting at the kitchen table in their house in Kreuzlingen Emmishofen, Thurgau. There is a climbing frame in the living room, a set of Pairs cards is strewn across the table, and a heap of moving boxes sits in the corner next to the door. Three years ago, the 39-year-old established a family houseshare here. «I wanted to live in a community with others. For me and my son.» There are four playgrounds close to their home, and the primary school is a mere stone’s throw away. Another children’s paradise.

In late January, new housemates moved in with Denise and Louis: Hanna (24), Peter (48) and Sarah (36) with her six-year-old son Jonas. Denise, a business analyst from Germany, deliberately sought out this living concept after Louis was born. «I was questioning existing family and relationship concepts. Before, I had fairly traditional values: father, mother, child, house, garden.» She spent a lot of time thinking about the values she wanted to convey to the next generation. «What was especially important to me was to show Louis that family is more than just living under the same roof. And I wanted him to know that there is nothing wrong with having parents who are separated – he can still rely on both of us. That is why we’re on a 50/50 custody schedule.»

I want my child to be influenced by as many people as possible.

Denise Köhler houseshare Emmishofen

Over the past three years, Denise and Louis lived with a father and his son. It worked well: the boys played together and learned from each other. «I want my child to be influenced by as many people as possible. Otherwise, there is a risk of him only developing my own traits, good or bad.» Others are frequently sceptical about her living arrangements. When she visited her family in Germany, acquaintances advised her not to tell others in the village that she and her child were living in a houseshare. «There is still a lot of prejudice against alternative living situations that deviate from the conventional model.» But there are supportive people, too: some consider her a role model. «When I see how much Louis and the other residents benefit from the situation, I don’t care about the prejudice. Because I know that our life is happy.» Nonetheless, she hopes that communal approaches become more widely accepted in the context of living, too. «We all crave it. We join clubs, sports teams, yoga groups. But when it comes to living, we have lost our communal ways.»

Photos: Nik Hunger

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