Co-Housing Architecture: An Urban Village

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Colour, Sketch, Students

Co-Housing Architecture: An Urban Village

Sarah Wu Martinez

*This post is part of a collaboration with McGill Univeristy where we will be sharing a selection of unrealized student projects.


In pursuing the answer to a simple, yet loaded question, “How can housing challenge the way we live in cities?”, Co-Housing Architecture investigates how architecture can become a catalyst in building communities and inspire human interactions of different scales.

Co-housing, a Danish housing model whose dwellers own their units and share community spaces, has sporadically mushroomed across North American suburbia since the 80’s. These communities, whose relentless internal negotiations eventually crystallize into architecture, remain quite marginal. Their houses usually blend with its surrounding suburban-scape, while their lifestyles have led to a rich network of relationships – unlike its counterpart, the nuclear family.

SarahWuMartinez - AxoSite_Zoom

However, the co-housing footprint is rarely seen in cities. Co-Housing Architecture confronts this reality at a large and dense scale, and sets the stage for a group of diverse urban individuals and families to grow into a community. In doing so, inevitably, it begs the questions: “What makes a community, and how can architecture play an active role in its development?” In designing around these questions, we can begin to mold an environment where meaningful interactions and social cohesion can take place. Co-Housing Architecture brings these concerns at the forefront. While mindfully attentive of the scales of communities, new and existing, it yields a home like no other.

Clean site Make 2d Raw [Converted]_colour


Who influences you graphically?

I’d like reframe this question from asking who influenced me, to what influenced me rather. This particular aesthetic was a graphic language in uncharted territory for me. I began the composition of the drawing with a clear and simultaneously unclear idea of what I was seeking. I sought inspiration from a few images I pulled online, notably two. A brilliant black and white playful axonometric of Elbphilharmonie Hamburg by Herzog & de Meuron was clear graphic precedent in this project. I also loved the gritty elegance and layering in pictures I found taken of the Long Museum in Shanghai by Atelier Deshaus – although the link with the latter is not as definitive. For the colours and patterns, I approached the challenge with my fashion sense: I draped the buildings as I would a look. The colours clash yet come together to be harmonious as a whole.

I tried to achieve an aesthetic that would be playful and looked as if it was taken from a page in a story book: not to be child-like, but to incite a sense of innocence and honesty, and a story to be told.

What is your take on colour?

Although you’ll see me sporting black and white mostly, I absolutely love colour, especially in cities. I view the usage of colour in city- and community-building as the antithesis of Modern Architecture’s corporate individualism. As opposed to promoting uniformity, conformism, competition, and a sense of muteness, colour in our public spaces advocates for accepted difference, unity, and identity, which I believe are important in building community.


To what extent do you agree with the notion of the axonometric as the most complete form of drawing?

In this project, I actually realized the axonometric is far from being the most complete form of representation. It can be sexy and aesthetically satisfying, but, for architects, it lacks the sober information that a plan or section would provide. Originally, as I configured this drawing to uncover certain interior spaces by cutting through walls and floors, I thought it would be a mashup of different types of drawings. However, it doesn’t quite work this way in practice. So, alongside these axos, I also included plans. Yet, this axonometric achieved something unexpected for which I am very happy. It dynamically engages people to zoom in and out of the drawing to piece together a representation of a community.

I certainly believe however that no one drawing can take the role as the most complete form of representation. They all show a glimpse of what is supposed to be a massive piece of construction, and each drawing completes the intention or the goal. For example, there’s the section to explain the spatial relationships, and the money-shot rendering to win competitions!

You seize to reveal the spaces of meaningful interactions you talk about, why so?

Without revealing these spaces, I would be missing an important part the design’s raison d’être. Every design move went through the sieve of: “Would this help social interaction and cohesion or hinder it? How?” Thus when it came time to design the representation, I wanted to underline this with the public, especially showing how the spaces work individually and cohesively to promote sociality.

What defined the use of the silhouettes? What is their role?

There two reasons behind the use of the silhouette. The first is from personal desire. In this project, I personally wanted to return to the basics in some ways, in at least part of the project. So, I actually drew them by hand, alongside most of the patterns. The second was a conscious decision not to focus on any one race or gender – to keep it as open as possible. What better way to do this than to draw simple silhouettes with ink? The reader cannot identify exactly who inhabits the building so it lets their imagination take precedent.

AxoBuildingWhole_Arch677_16F_Bressani_WuMartinez - Copy

How important was the programmatic distribution relevant when developing the proposal?

It was extremely important, and to be completely honest, it was quite difficult. There are two main issues which come up when designing for others, especially for a complex and dynamic entity such as a community. The spatial distribution and program dictates the interior movements and thus the interactions that would take place. I found myself playing some sort of amateur God toying with my imaginary inhabitant’s lives. Although fictional, it is a creepy position to be in. Second, my personal understanding of what builds community comes into fruition, and my views certainly shouldn’t be assumed the same for others. The third was the relationship of a supposed close-knit community that is in the Cohousing building and the greater neighbourhood; should it be open and borderless, or not? Lastly, the subtle dance between public and private was a challenge indeed.

program boxes [Converted]2

You can see how the importance of program and spatial distribution and relationships are integral in this project. Instead of going for a more conventional path of open-concept for community spaces, which I believe is boring and lends itself to a troubling lack of privacy, I went for the less obvious option. I designed a panoply of different spaces, spatial relationships, and programs throughout where I hoped each inhabitant would find at least one place they loved being – because, in the end, a real community is somewhere you can find your place.



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