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Lacol Arquitectura Cooperativa: ‘We collaborate with different causes, as neighbours’

The Spanish co-operative, founded a decade ago by freshly graduated students, continue to work together in the difficult context of Barcelona’s housing crisis

In June 2015, housing activist and campaigner Ada Colau became Barcelona’s first female mayor, representing the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú. Rather than protesting outside the Casa da la Ciutat (city hall), Colau found herself on the inside, heralded as a significant moment for municipalism – a rejection of traditional party politics in favour of the collective and co-operative (comú means ‘common’). Far from a recent invention, however, co-operatives have a long history in Spain and are present in every sector of life from politics to energy suppliers, agriculture to supermarkets, and increasingly in housing.

‘Made out of cross-laminated timber (and currently the tallest timber building in the country), the project is also highly sustainable – lavishly insulated, passively ventilated, and furnished with water harvesting and recycling technology’

Founded in 2009 by a group of freshly graduated students, Lacol is a co-operative of architects (currently numbering 14) working in the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona. ‘The area’s historical and current urban movements shaped us as a group,’ founding member Carles Baiges Camprubí explains. ‘We collaborate with different causes as neighbours, using our knowledge and tools.’ Lacol were quick to roll up their sleeves, deftly transforming a nearby dilapidated warehoused into Bloc Onze – a library, an auditorium and flexible workshop and meeting spaces (as well as a climbing wall on the first floor). Bloc Onze was designed as part of the Can Batlló platform, a group of local campaigners and neighbours involved in a 30-year battle to reclaim a colossal, largely abandoned 19th-century textile factory for the public. ‘Can Batlló was very experimental’, remembers co-founder Cristina Gamboa. ‘It was like a laboratory. We learned a lot of things from that experience about working with people, building with people and with our hands.’ There are now plans to construct almost 1,500 homes on the Can Batlló site – nearly a third of which will be social housing.

Perhaps surprisingly, just 2.5 per cent of Spanish housing stock is available for social rent (the UK clocks in at 17.6 per cent) – a statistic Barcelona en Comú have attempted to increase with the introduction in 2018 of a social housing quota of 30 per cent for new large developments, and set to rise to a half this year. Homes in Spain are overwhelmingly owner-occupied at 77 per cent, and when the financial crash struck, the country suffered a slew of repossessions. In excess of 65,000 properties were repossessed in Barcelona alone between 2008 and 2011. Since coming to power four years ago, Barcelona en Comú have tried to release pressure on the city’s overheated housing market: levying hefty fines on banks owning unoccupied apartments and shutting down illegal holiday lets, hitting Airbnb with a fine of €600,000 for advertising unlicensed properties.

It is in this context that the La Borda housing co-operative was born, established by a group of neighbours who met at Can Batlló in 2012. Learning from the Danish model, La Borda’s building is owned collectively, the budget of €2.7 million funded by family contributions of €15,000 each and supplemented by co-operative bank loans, grants and a micro-lending campaign. The land is owned by the city council, leased to La Borda for 75 years and classified as Habitatges amb Protecció Oficial (HPO), crucially placing a limit on income for eligible members of the co-operative and controlling rent levels. Monthly rents of €300 to €600 (half the market rate) initially contribute towards paying off loans, assisted by income from the commercial unit on the ground floor – currently a co-operative supermarket. Once the debts are paid, the rents will be reduced further and eventually generate collective savings.

Lacol developed the design for the 28 apartments in close collaboration with its future inhabitants through workshops and discussions over the course of nearly three years. The six-storey building was inspired by the corrala – an old Spanish building type where front doors are accessed from continuous balconies lining a central courtyard. Decks are shared by the inhabitants, dotted with pot plants, benches and washing lines. Political banners flap from the railings. Outdoor terraces are shared and many facilities are communal, such as the laundry, a large kitchen, a guest room, and bicycle storage. There is even a cupboard on each floor for storing communal vacuum cleaners and shopping trolleys. Made out of cross-laminated timber (and currently the tallest timber building in the country), the project is also highly sustainable – lavishly insulated, passively ventilated, and furnished with water harvesting and recycling technology – also guarding against soaring energy costs.

But despite these new models (Lacol are about to break ground on a housing co-op in Poblenou and another has just received a plot of land in Manresa), Barcelona’s housing crisis rages on: rents have increased by a half since 2013. In the May elections, Barcelona en Comú dropped 4.5 per cent of its vote, Colau reconfirmed as mayor despite a narrow minority. For many, this marks the end of a decade of radically challenging politics in Catalonia: municipalism spluttering to its death in the face of old political titans. But while the comú, the collective and the co-operative may have been unable to triumph within the unyielding walls of city hall, perhaps they will always survive in the places they were born – in the streets, squares and homes of the city.

This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today 

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