I meet Konstanze Winter in Delft, a canal-encircled city in the Netherlands best known for its distinctive blue-and-white pottery. We are in the Tanthof quarter, one of the Netherlands’ so-called “cauliflower neighbourhoods” beloved of 1970s town planners. These were conceived as an antidote to the rigid grid layouts and tower blocks of the era, featuring low-rise architecture and maze-like streets that are said to resemble the cruciferous vegetable when viewed from above.
Centraal Wonen Delft, one of the longest-established and most experimental Dutch living projects, blends right in here. A cluster of low-rise blocks decked with strips of bright colour, it could be mistaken for an extension of the neighbouring primary school.
Winter, 34, contacted me after I wrote about New Ground, a radical women’s cohousing development in London. Its founder mentioned that she was inspired by the collective communities, or centraal wonen (CW), that emerged in the Netherlands in the 1980s. Winter, who lives in one, asked if I would like to visit.
And so here I am, having a tour of the bright, utilitarian space that Winter shares with her boyfriend, a Dutch architect. The rooms are personalised with statement lighting and a full‑size bicycle traffic sign. CW Delft was groundbreaking because it was designed to initiate maximum opportunities for interaction between its 100 residents. “At the centre is the private cell – your room, or rooms,” says Winter. “You share a bathroom with one or two other households. That’s your staircase group. Then there’s a big communal kitchen shared by three staircase groups.”
The kitchen runs its own finances and makes decisions about whom to accept as residents. There are 13 kitchens, divided into four colour-coded clusters. Every cluster has its own garden, thrift cupboard, cycle store, laundry room and maintenance budget. “Each group has its own character, which makes sense, because they tend to choose new residents who are the same as them,” says Winter. “So, our cluster, blue, is the sporty house. We are serious people with serious jobs. Green, on the other hand, is the party house …” It sounds like a cross between the Big Brother house and a university hall of residence.
“The building design is strange, isn’t it?” says Winter, following my gaze towards a large interior window overlooking a corridor that leads to the communal kitchen. “Why would anyone put a big window there?” The answer lies in the CW origin story.
In July 1969, Lies van den Donk-Dooremaal, a teacher and mother of four, was featured in the progressive newspaper De Nieuwe Linie. She challenged architects to come up with a housing design that would enable women to work as well as run a household. Given that women tended to do the same domestic tasks, she argued, surely the solution was to form collectives. The article inspired a grassroots movement across the Netherlands. The first CW opened in Hilversum in 1977; today, there are more than 70 communities nationwide.
“The idea was that you could watch your own children, and those of other families, while you did the cooking,” says Winter. “But the concept never took off. There aren’t that many people with children here. It turned out that families preferred their privacy.”
Doesn’t she mind sharing a bathroom? She shrugs. “You have to look at the benefits we get in exchange for that.” All of the units qualify as social housing, for which the income ceiling is set by the government at €47,699 (£41,000) for a single person and €52,671 for a multi-person household (although there are no restrictions on earnings after someone moves in). Winter’s rent is €350 a month for a 12 sq metre room (many couples take over two or three adjoining rooms), plus about €150 for all the utilities, including internet, council tax and use of the communal bar and gardens.
Geoffrey and Esther Maher have two sons, six and four. Geoffrey, 41, is originally from Tooting in south London. He moved to the Netherlands after meeting 36-year-old Esther, who is Dutch, on a dating app. “Our first date was in London and lasted a week,” he says. As a bicycle mechanic, he had no problem finding work when he relocated.
“When we moved here seven years ago, we started a trend for families,” says Esther. “There are now six toddlers and they all play together.” It sounds like an ideal way to share the burden of childcare, but there are challenges. “The lack of privacy gets to me a bit,” she says, flipping pancakes for the children. “Sometimes, I don’t mind, but other times, when I’m very tired and I want to use the bathroom across the hall and get comfortable, I can’t relax. And you have to remember to put something on between bed and going to the shower.” Geoffrey agrees: “You can’t wander around in your pants.”
“It was difficult when I got pregnant for the second time, when our first was just a year old,” says Esther. “It wasn’t planned. I was exhausted and I did find it difficult to be nice to other people when I wanted to ignore them. When you’re living alongside others, you learn to make it work. But it’s not the same as family. If we have an argument, it might last 30 minutes and then we’re dancing around together again. Neighbours are not family.”
The site’s architect, Flip Krabbendam, 77, has lived at CW Delft since it was built in 1981 with local and central government funding. We meet in his lime-green living room, located in the party house. Colourful bunting hangs from the bookcases in a room dominated by a well-stocked cocktail bar. The mood is festive and Krabbendam is energetic and ebullient.
He began working on the project for his university thesis and developed it with would-be residents over a period of six years. “When we first approached the housing association, they thought we were a bunch of weirdos who were all about free love and maybe sleeping together. I mean, it was the 1970s, after all,” he says. “But there was a climate of people looking for housing where they could connect with others and avoid isolation. The local council passed a motion that there needed to be a CW community in Delft. That meant that the housing association had to listen to us.”
Henk Klunder, a renowned architect in nearby Rotterdam, had been hired to design the site and Krabbendam decided to pay him a visit. “I wanted to ensure he took all of our ideas on board. He said to me: ‘You designed a centraal wonen project for your thesis? You can do this one.’ So, at the next housing association meeting, there I was. Not only a future resident with what they considered to be extreme views, but their new architect!”
He is generous about sharing details of all the things that didn’t work. One sorrow is that the large on-site bar was never a success. “We wanted the neighbourhood to use it, but the only people who turned up were a gang of 15-year-old boys,” he says. “But even residents don’t use it very often. The trouble is, we are too close to Delft, where there are many places to go out.”
Krabbendam is still on a mission to get the community to understand what CW is all about. “In the early days, I used to enjoy standing at the bus stop outside, listening to people gossiping about us and our sleeping arrangements.” The feeling of isolation has lessened, but it is still an issue: “We want to feel like we are part of the community and not living on an island. We have already started hosting a dementia group in a common room every week, which has been a great success. The next step is to talk to the parents waiting to pick their kids up from the school next door and invite them in for a coffee, so they can see the setup for themselves.”
The project has given a lot back to Krabbendam. Twenty years ago, he fell in love with his nextdoor neighbour, Susanne; they have a 16-year-old son. “The biggest regret I have about this place is that I wish it wasn’t mostly young people who live here,” he says. “The pattern is people move here, get a better job or have to move to a new city, then they’re off. It’s a shame.”
Increasingly, though, residents are staying for the long-term. The Netherlands is experiencing a housing crisis; the shortage of affordable homes was a hot topic in 2023’s general election. While one-third of residents leave CW Delft after a year, two-thirds stay longer, with many celebrating a decade of occupancy. The community doesn’t collect stats on the percentage of international residents, but the wider region is known for its diversity. In Rotterdam, close to half the population were born abroad or have at least one non-Dutch parent.
Dan Riley, 40, is a British entrepreneur with six startups under his belt. After Brexit, he realised that he needed to be based in Europe to expand his VR visualisation company. “The Netherlands is English-speaking, so it was an obvious choice, plus I had recently visited an old college friend in Delft.” During the first lockdown of 2020, he made the move; a year later, he met his girlfriend, who was living at CW Delft.
“It’s very international here, which I like,” he says, adding that he enjoys the sense of belonging and the busy calendar of social events. As a Briton with a business brain, has it been difficult for him to let go of the idea that property is linked inextricably to the accumulation of wealth? “Well, you are saving money here by sharing resources, so that’s an alternative way of generating wealth,” he counters. “Plus, we are creating benefits for the planet by living in a way that reduces our carbon emissions. So it depends, really. How do you define wealth? Every Englishman’s home is their castle and every castle needs a moat around it. It’s isolationism. A place like CW allows you to overcome that isolation.”
British people may think the Netherlands has a more progressive attitude towards social policy and housing solutions, but there are still many bureaucratic headaches. “This way of living is by no means normalised here,” says Winter. “I wish it would happen. For example, it’s still impossible for us to have a bank account as a group unless we register as a business. It doesn’t make sense to give our living room formal company status and it’s costly to do. We are just a group of people who want to pay for our internet together.”
She also cites uncooperative insurance companies: “How do you insure a microwave if, technically, no individual person actually owns it? Same with all our furniture. There is organisational prejudice against people who choose to live like us.”
That evening, I join a group of residents for dinner in the communal bar. Over pumpkin and cinnamon soup and wholegrain salads, they mention some of their favourite things about living at CW Delft. These include an annual Christmas dinner in March (because many are away in December); enjoying the experimental flavours from one kitchen’s ice-cream machine; and the joy of discovering that someone else has heated the oven.
How does a person get selected as a housemate? “I wouldn’t exactly describe it as an audition, although I did have to sing at my interview,” says Marten, who moved in after a relationship broke down. “That was unusual and it happened because I told the housemates that one of my hobbies was singing. Understandably, they said: ’Well, let’s hear what you sound like before we say yes.’”
Before their interview, prospective residents have to write what Marten describes as “a motivational letter”. “We want people to tell us why they are interested in living here,” he says. “All the kitchen read it. Then you might get invited to have dinner, to see if you’re a good fit. One of our key questions is: what traffic sign do you identify with, and why? We get some really interesting responses. If you cannot answer that, then you do not belong here.”
Of course, residents don’t always get along. There is a system for dealing with disagreements – the Orwellian-sounding “trust committee”, whereby members of a different house act as a go-between. “Usually, it’s enough to just provide a listening ear,” says Marten. “But if it gets really out of hand, we do have a budget for professional mediation – and we have used it. We have a formal procedure to deal with disputes. To be honest, it’s usually disputes about cleaning.”
For those who have come to CW Delft from countries where this style of community is unknown, it can lead to some misunderstandings. Karla, who moved from Mexico to Delft with her Dutch wife, says her family and friends back home still ask awkward questions. “Honestly, everyone thinks that I am living in some kind of wild cult, where we all smoke marijuana and walk around naked all day.”
“I hope you told them that only happens on Tuesdays,” says Marten.
Now that would give them something to talk about at the bus stop.