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Affordable housing solutions in an expensive urban landscape

Housing Europe members visit cooperative and student housing projects in Geneva

Geneva, 27 September 2016 | Social, Urban

In a city where monthly rent can easily exceed 1.500 Euros while the overall living costs are among the highest in the world* affordable housing alternatives are crucial for many people who otherwise would be confronted with social exclusion. What forms does the response to these needs take in Geneva? Housing Europe members paid a visit to a cooperative and to a student housing project that provide solid proof about the balancing impact of affordable alternatives on a saturated housing market.

Cooperative Housing by CODHA

The day after the international conference ‘The Housing Policies of our Future: How to make them work’ a delegation of Housing Europe members was guided by CODHA through one of their cooperative housing projects at Rue Sonnex 30-36 in the area of Grand-Saconnex of Geneva. CODHA, a cooperative of housing associations that was founded in 1994 brings together people who want to have a different, more participatory, living experience within a group of mixed age groups and social backgrounds. So far, CODHA has around 2.600 members and owns 9 buildings, managing overall 190 flats.

The project at Rue Sonnex started in 2006 and consists of 36 flat, having received the Minergie-P and ECO labels, as it is a building with very low energy consumption using green building materials that contribute to better insulation and air quality.

Housing Europe members were particularly interested in the Lucido solar façade, a highly efficient insulation system based on a different physical principle proving to be an ideal alternative. This rather new innovative system absorbs the solar radiation and stores it as heat in the outer layer of the facade thus reducing the amount of conventional insulation needed. The basic components are a protective, transparent glass surface with an air gap and a solid wood absorber followed by a layer of regular insulation. The efficiency lies not only in the enhanced insulation qualities but also in the minimal use of raw materials keeping the walls thin (22 cm instead of 34 in the conventional way) while reducing the carbon footprint significantly. The Lucido system leads to a gain of 100m2 of living on the scale of the whole building.

As far as the cost is concerned 100% of the rent is controlled and subsidized by the State of Geneva that also controls the construction costs and other fixed costs such as heating, water, electricity etc. Apart from their own apartments tenants may also make use of the communal spaces that include a meeting room and kitchen for film screenings, board games, joint meals, parties etc. as well as of the green area and of the communal gardens.

The building at Rue Sonnex is entirely co-managed by the association of tenants and CODHA, a collaboration that lies on 3 different charters that regulate issues related to the environment, the tenant participation and the management of the dwellings. To facilitate the management several working groups have been set up, dealing with a range of activities from mobility (car sharing) to laundry room utilities and the cinema club.

The Housing Europe delegation was welcomed by Stephanie Guibentif of CODHA but also by tenants who spent an hour with the representatives from public, cooperative and social housing providers across Europe, replying to their questions and showing them around.

Meeting the Cantonal Architect of Geneva and a visit to a student housing project

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Following the visit at the site of CODHA the delegation met the Cantonal Architect of Geneva, Francesca Della Casa at the Cornavin train station for a quick introduction to the regional housing policy. Mr. Della Casa explained that there is a restriction regarding the social use of land and highlighted that social cooperatives become stronger in Geneva, moving towards the dominant model in the German speaking part of Switzerland where tenants of cooperative housing projects are also shareholders.

This is the case also in the student housing project at Place des Volontaires in Coulouvrenière neighbourhood that the group visited right after. The architect in charge, Charles Pictet shared a few insights regarding both the design and the social aspects of the project, while guiding the delegation around as well as inside the building. The building fills a very narrow gap in the formerly industrial 19th century quarter and aims to unite the two existing urban structures, which derive from different development strategies. While blocks from the 1960s are adjacent to the plot on the side and the back, the block perimeter development has been reconstructed since the 1980s.

The project was developed in a participatory process that involved a cooperative for student housing and future occupants. Certain rather strict conditions had to be fulfilled, both with respect to remaining within the budget and achieving the “Minergie Eco Plus” certificate. In particular, the protruding façade elements maintain the required distance from the street, while the window apertures (50cm.) fulfil the insulation requirements. The project received several awards and distinctions, including Distinction Romande d'Architecture 2014, Arc-Award 2014, Die Besten 2011, Hase de bronze.

Through an exchange with students who live in the building the delegation found out that the monthly rent is around 250 Swiss Francs (230 €) with the tenants also being shareholders of the cooperative. The idea is that when they move in, students buy one share for a price no greater than that or a rent deposit and when they move out they sell it to the next occupant of the apartment. 

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