Satisfaction and sense of ownership in a Co-Commissioning process

One of the promises of developing an area through the bottom-up collaboration in building groups rather than through the top down strategies of project developers is that the future residents will be more satisfied with their new houses, and will also have developed a stronger sense of ownership or belonging in their neighborhoods.

This claim is also made by the architects who are involved in Beleef BSH, a consortium of building groups in Buiksloterham. They state that the (future) residents of the apartments they initiated are highly satisfied with their future homes. In their view this is a result of including the homeowners early on in the process of designing and building these apartments and giving them more opportunities to influence the final design. As a consequence, they developed a sense of ownership of their apartments as well as the neighborhood even before these were built.

This participatory approach taken by the buildings groups is an exemption in the Netherlands, as buyers of these kinds of medium sized developments are not often given the opportunity to influence the final design. In the case of Buiksloterham, the involvement of the residents has lead to a few specific solutions like apartments with double floor heights (leading to possibilities for vides and lofts), wide orientation (instead of the normative narrow and long houses) and live-work combinations (instead of the, by zoning law, acquired separate workspaces).

The claim of improved buyer satisfaction and an increased sense of ownership of the neighborhood is an interesting one. Yet at the same time, it’s problematic to measure. Not only would we need to find a way to measure satisfaction and a sense of ownership to the neighborhood, we would also need to compare their sense of ownership and satisfaction with regular buyers.

To make a first attempt to arrive at a number of criteria, we have interviewed four couples, belonging to four different building groups. During the interviews we asked specifically about their motivation to participate in these projects in this neighborhood (Buiksloterham). How they define or indicate the success of the project? How have they experienced the process and its duration? Did their wishes and choices change along the way? And what could be done better in the future? Of course all buildings were different, had their own process, way of financing and levels of participation, but after speaking to the homeowners there are a few general lessons to be learned. What’s particularly interesting for the architects involved is that it teaches how to organize such developments and how to manage a building group with future inhabitants.

Before elating on the interviews it is important to say a little bit more about various types of building groups, and the involvement of its members in the design process. A difference can be made between the ‘Collective Private Commissioning’ (CPO) and a Co-Commissioning (MO) process. CPO in its purest form consists of a group of people who collaboratively formulate a set of criteria for their future building, and either design it themselves or employ an architect. Here, the group is formed first, and the architect works at their service. In the case of an MO, the projects are initiated by architects and future residents are recruited on the base on some central ideas proposed by the architects. After they have come on board, they can give their input into the design process, especially with concern to their own apartment and – if applicable – communal spaces. Usually, the earlier they step into the process, the more influence they can exercise in the design the process. In these MO building groups, the architects (or group managers) play a central role, both in articulating the vision for the building as well as in the management process. In the CPO ones, it’s the collective of future residents that plays the central role as a commissioner. Since a CPO starts with a group of people who have shared ideals and values, these projects often lead to exemplary buildings with large communal spaces. German Baugruppen, as researched and written about by Kristien Ring, display some of the best examples for these kinds of projects. In these projects one sees the use of communal gardens, rooftops, workspaces and ateliers for artists. All leading to new types of housing popular amongst urban oriented families.

The building groups assembled under the flag of Beleef BSH fall in the latter MO category. The architects and contractors involved initiated the projects; residents were gathered along the way.

In their study Ruimte voor de Tussenmaat et. al. have compared traditional building processes in which developers are in the lead with MOs in which architects are in the lead and CPO in which collectives are in the lead. In the diagram below they have sketched in which phases various parties are involved in the design and building process.

comparing processes From: Lay-out21 Ruimte voor de Tussenmaat, December 2012

As shown in the diagram, a traditional development involves buyers only in the last stages of the project. The collective doesn’t partake within this process. A CPO project (like the Baugruppen) is led by the collective. They orientate and initiate themselves, sometimes with the help of an architect. Beleef BSH can be categorized as architects in the lead. . Here buyers are involved early on, during the initiation phase, but shaping the collective has to be done while designing and building.

In the discussion around building groups, it is often claimed that residents do not really want to be involved in the design and building process of their houses. The claim therefore is made that the developer led process is the most efficient. As a foundation for this reasoning, often the study is “Nieuwbouw in de toekomst: meer keuzevrijheid en slimme begeleiding voor de woonconsument” [DBMI, Nirov en Nieuwbouw Nederland, 2012] is refered to. This study concluded that most consumers want a freedom of choice, but not necessarily as initiator of the project. Especially when a house becomes more expensive, the consumer expects more options. But at the same time having options frightens people. They would rather have a professional making the most fundamental choices. As such the results of this study are usually explained in such a way that the Dutch housing consumers does not want to engage in participatory projects. Sure, they want options, but they don’t necessarily want to be the initiator of such a project (83%).

table from “Nieuwbouw in de toekomst: meer keuzevrijheid en slimme begeleiding voor de woonconsument” [DBMI, Nirov en Nieuwbouw Nederland, 2012]

Yet after a closer look at this study, the reverse argument could also be made. Although not everyone wants to commission their own house or apartment, there is quite a large number of people who are interested in being involved in the design process. If we look at the table above, half of the consumers would be interested in building their own house (PO) or finishing a hull. 30 Percent is positive about CPO. Even though the market is positive, at the moment these kinds of possibilities are hardly afforded in new housing developments. [see also our blogpost on housing development in The Netherlands]

To be fair, building groups are still a niche market. Even if your attitude towards self-building is positive, wanting to do things yourself is highly dependent on the price range of the house, financial possibilities and the experience owners have. At the same time, even architect-led building groups provide buyers with different levels of potential involvement in the design process. Those who step in early in the process still have quite a few options to work out collectively, those who step in later have less options. For them, the experience is closer to buying a regular house. For instance the projects in Beleef BSH started with a small group of initiators who wanted to be involved early on and had many ideas and ideals about their living situations. When the design has progressed past these initial stages, new buyers have come on board who can still make some choices, and the last houses are sold to people who more or less have to accept a ‘standard’ apartment.

Individual satisfaction

To go back to the statement of the Beleef BSH architects: Can we conclude from the interviews that the owners are satisfied and feel a sense of ownership over the project? All the interviewees were indeed satisfied with their house. They chose this neighborhood because of its spaciousness (compared to the cramped Amsterdam inner-city), its slow development (making sure it would stay divers and a little edgy in architecture, functions and inhabitants, unlike other area developments) and because they could afford relatively large family apartment with beautiful views and big outdoor spaces.

“The dedication of the architect was really special, we felt there was a lot love put into it. It’s beautifully designed and detailed.”

“We enjoyed filling in all the specifics, the openness of the process made us feel at home. Somehow, in the past years, we forgot we were allowed to have housing wishes and dreams.”

“For us involvement was a criteria to choose the project, all the sustainability measures were a bonus and do fit our lifestyle well.”

But they also all mentioned it took some time before they decided to take part in these developments. At first they were all somewhat reluctant about the location, the outcomes and whether they would indeed be empowered to fulfill their dreams. It helped that at the time they stepped in, the market pressure was low enough to take some time to choose and adept slowly. It’s often said that these kinds of projects take a longer time to be built. According to the data of Beleef BSH that is untrue. However, buyers are involved early on, so they experience the process as relatively long. At the same time, they need this length to adept to the project and choices that need to be made.

“It was a long process, but everything went gradually and we knew this at the start. We really grew along with it, also our ideas changed along the way. In the end it’s all for a beautiful result. However delays can cause anxiety, especially for families with kids who have to change schools etc.”

Trust is a word that pops up many times. The term is used in the sense of ‘confidence’ in the neighborhood and the architect. But also in the sense of confidence that the process will eventually work out and their money is well spent.

The discussions on trust brought up the fact that taking part in building groups is relatively new for customers in The Netherlands. They are not used to take risks when buying a house and need the time to let trust grow, time which is often not a given in an overstrained market like Amsterdam. Next to that, trust is a breeding ground for growing a sense of ownership and therefor a basic need within a community process.

“The open, transparent attitude of the architect and contractor helped us cross the line. We think their flexibility and thinking along is unique.”

“There weren’t any flashy brochures, often some prints were made during our conversation, but that also made us feel they were working hard without focusing on ancillary matters.”

Another issue one needs to be aware of is communication. Most of the buyers are not used to the process of building a house. Therefore every step that is undertaken is new to them and periods without any communication often cause feelings of anxiety. It also seems like the perfect group manager had not been invented yet. At the moment the architect or communication office usually fulfills this role. Things have to be very clear at all times, even when they are still uncertain. The sales drawings need to be precise (what are we buying exactly? What does hull or wallpaper ready mean?) And costs need to be stated (unexpected costs can cause funding gaps).

“It’s hard to understand what needs to be decided when and how to communicate it.”

“Communication needs to be optimized, there are different people involved for every aspect, sometimes I really didn’t know whom to contact about what.”

During the interviews also some of the negative sides of the process were mentioned. The fact that these architects were dedicated was highly appreciated, but also raised issues because the buyers felt the architects took too much upon themselves. So much it started to slow the process down. Things that could usually be done by different parties simultaneously (like designing and sales, or technical and juridical aspects) were now done one after the other, minimizing efficiency.

Some buyers also started to expect an unrealistic level of flexibility that could often not be met due to technical or constructive reasons. But it was also mentioned that perhaps the architects weren’t really aware of the consequences of the freedom they had created in the plans.

Sense of ownership

As mentioned before, the buyers needed a little period to adjust to the project, but become very dedicated. Sometimes maybe a but too much, making it important to have responsibilities clear from the start.

“Some buyers seem to reason from an owner’s perspective, but during the building process, when basically the contractor is still the owner, they don’t have this privilege yet.”

“All the houses are very different, it really becomes our own place. And you need to decide about everything, even about sockets!”

The community building process really starts early on and people do appreciate getting to know their neighbors. One of the building groups, Noord4Us, really saw the potential and made sure they organized monthly get-togethers in an informal manner. They understood that discussing with a group about money could easily lead to disruptions. Getting acquainted helped them to solve disputes in a friendly manner. It also made sure that some of the collective ambitions raised by the architects of this particular building, for the most part, were realized.

The groups of the other buildings started this process much later, during the creation of the owners association (VVE). They still would help each other out by creating small knowledge around specific issues, but the process was much more asynchronously with the designing process and also very individual. Some of these residents sighed they would have liked to have more collective things in the design, but there wasn’t a shared sense of values at the moment this needed to be decided.

“In the end it is a very individualistic process. We were hoping for a sense of community and are a bit disappointed by the lack of communal spaces in the end result. But perhaps we weren’t ready for the questions when they were asked and there was little time and space to think about it.”

“Especially for the hull houses it is important the buyers consult with each other. Otherwise you’re in each others way when constructing the interior.”

12 different apartments in one of the Beleef BSH buildings (ELTA) showing diversity in options and choices.

From the interviews we can conclude the future residents of Beleef BSH are indeed satisfied with their house. Using the open, transparent process to develop trust and a sense of ownership over the project as a whole. However the interviews also showed how important it is to manage these groups in the right way. At the moment, none of the professionals concerned with the project really had the change to moderate and lead the buyers smoothly along the process. Perhaps this calls for a new type of group manager who can take care of the communication and helps to form a collective.

Beleef BSH sales day at SO De Heldring school


Interviews with:
Paul van der Vlis & Hicham Khabbazy, Patch 22
Joke Huisman, Blackjack
Tijn Hartman & Vladka Meduzova, ELTA
Jos & Anne Carien Beishuizen, Noord4Us