La Borda: Barcelona’s Social Housing Utopia

Julissa Gonzalez Farias
8 min readDec 17, 2020
La Borda Housing Cooperative from the outside - Source: Architects’ Journal (Kafka)

La Borda Housing Cooperative, located on Constitució Street in Barcelona, Spain, is a successful self-organized, community-driven project that provides affordable housing for residents in a working-class neighborhood, promoting community and social sustainability. This affordable housing project borders the industrial area of Can Batlló faces the existing neighborhood of La Bordeta and is located on public land that was negotiated with the municipal government for a 75-year lease. The idea for this project emerged in 2012 as an effort for residents to address the housing crisis they were facing at the time and in response to the lack of development for public spaces and affordable housing from the City Council [4]. From when the project was completed in 2018 to today, La Borda is not only recognized as one of the area’s affordable housing projects but also promotes a collaborative community life for its residents that focuses on social economy and environmental sustainability.

Before La Borda

Can Batlló is an industrial site located in La Bordeta, a neighborhood in the Sants district of Barcelona, that was once a garment industry hub in the 1960s, but has since been fragmented and used for other industrial work and later entirely blighted [2]. Since 1976, the Metropolitan General Plan of Barcelona has managed the land uses of the area, and until the housing crisis beginning after the 2008 recession, major plans for urban renewal of the area were halted [2]. Tired of the delay in the construction of public spaces and affordable housing promised by the City Council, a group of community members formed a “neighborhood movement”, Recuperem Can Batlló to take matters into their own hands [2]. After taking over the site in June 2011, the group made the objective to develop and operate the land themselves and has since “articulated itself through an open assembly where neighbors and local organizations share information and make decisions” [2]. Part of this initiative was the design and development of La Borda Housing Cooperative, which was first thought up in 2012. [4]

Recuperem Can Batlló decided to take on affordable housing through the creation of a cession of use housing cooperative, which is modeled after existing projects in Northern European Countries [2]. The Andel cooperative model sees housing as a “basic right rather than a commodity, in the framework of a consolidated capitalist economy”, and “long-term affordability is one of the pillars of the model” [2]. La Borda is unique to Spain, as it is non-profit, and its commitment to providing fair and affordably priced housing, with neighborhood support and a sense of community, is of the utmost importance [2].

La Borda’s Genesis

The construction of La Borda was a direct response to the lack of affordable housing in the midst of a detrimental housing crisis and recession in the early 2000s [2]. As a result, the collective effort of residents to design a collaborative housing model was influenced by the emergence of the social economy, a strong neighborhood movement, and in order to address the housing crisis. The goal was to provide affordable housing and a sense of community for residents who lived in the region, but while promoting environmental sustainability through design and construction. The idea of La Borda was initiated in 2012 and by 2014, a group legally formed a residents’ cooperative, and members of the Lacol Arquitectura Cooperativa wanted to address Barcelona’s housing crisis with more urgency [1,3]. The design choices made for the building were done in a collective manner in which they valued all input during the design process, most importantly from the future residents of the cooperative. Each household had to contribute an initial share to guarantee financial support for the project, but they implemented a non-speculative system in which residents wouldn’t own or rent out units but “rather have ‘grant of use’ housing, by paying a monthly fee to the cooperative” [1]. The residents’ contract also guarantees housing to the residents and their families forever so long as they continue wanting to reside there and the cooperative has access to the land. Residents are also able to pass their units down to family members in order to secure quality and affordable housing for generations to come. Ultimately, the collaborative effort of La Borda has turned out to be a success in addressing the housing and economic crises in Barcelona.

Design & Development Process

Nearly $3.7M was put in to transform a portion of the blighted industrial site of Can Batlló into the cooperative housing complex that it is today [6]. The original group that envisioned the project in 2012 created a cooperative in 2014, which paired with LaCol, a local architectural cooperative, and together moved forward with the design process [1]. The cooperative governs itself through the general assembly, which monitored the entire development process; it was important that the future residents were able to take a hands-on approach to the design process, as they chose the industry professionals that assisted, selected materials, decided on construction techniques, and the general organization of the space (Lacol). They even participated in the physical construction of the project [2].

One of the goals of the project was having sustainability and environmental quality in mind in order to build with the lowest environmental impact during and after construction, minimal consumption in each home while also achieving comfort, and eliminating energy poverty for users, so with the help of green building consultants, the building was constructed with environmental sustainability in mind [4]. As power is an expensive utility in Barcelona, it was important for the project to be designed in such a way that reduced the need for electricity use, thus saving its resident's money. The 3,000m² complex is made of concrete and cross-laminated timber, a lightweight, high-quality, renewable material, that is expensive, but is often prefabricated, making the fit of pieces tight, thus increasing natural insulation and reducing the need for additional HVAC and heating usage. In order to reduce energy use, the project implements passive design, which includes a polycarbonate roof that acts as a greenhouse (trapping heat in the winter and creating extra ventilation in the summer), a high level of air-tightness, solar panels, and a centralized system that heats water and air using a biomass boiler [3].

The residents also chose not to build a parking garage in order to reduce carbon emissions from driving. There are six stories, twenty-eight residential units, which were completed by residents after moving in to create uniquity, multiple communal spaces, laundry room, collective kitchen, and dining room, all organized around a central courtyard [3].

The cooperative faced many challenges during the development process but did end up persevering. Because of zoning requirements, building a parking garage is mandatory for a building such as La Borda, but after proving that the residents did not have the need for the garage due to lack of cars or parking availability elsewhere, they received an exemption [1]. It was also difficult to be granted a common energy contract and receive insurance for the building, as it is the tallest timber-structure building in Spain [1]. Community involvement throughout the entire design and development process made such a uniquely sustainable cooperative possible.

Social Design Elements of La Borda

La Borda was developed with three fundamental principles in mind. The first was to redefine the collective housing program that acknowledges and incorporates private spaces and public spaces in order to enhance community life [4]. Some design aspects that address this effort include a common kitchen-dining room space, laundry, and multipurpose space that were built around a central courtyard. Although the size of the actual living spaces is modestly sized, the shared spaces are what make the housing cooperative’s design possible. What the private units lack is made up of what the common rooms offer, which is both the function of the room itself as well as the social interactions and community building it offers. The communal kitchen and dining space is an extremely integral design feature; it takes La Borda’s residents out of their private units and into the collective areas where they can cook, spend time together, learn about each other’s’ cultures, and more. Another goal of La Borda's construction was user participation through self-promotion and collective management, which is implemented every day. This principle is highlighted, for example, by the participation of the future residents in the design process in order to address their needs [4]. As there is no owner of La Borda, the residents, or users, participate in the running of the building every day and do so as a group effort.

Residents gathered in the multipurpose space — Source: Architects’ Journal (Kafka)

La Bordeta

The location of La Borda also adds to its ability to be such a community-centered and affordable place to live. The existing residential area of La Bordeta has a variety of multi-story mixed-use buildings that normally have businesses at the first level and residents living above, meaning it is very high density and extremely diverse in use. So, even though a design aspect of the project was to completely omit a parking lot, residents of La Borda have walkable access to bus stops and a major metro line, as shown in the context map. Without having to pay for a car and its upkeep, residents are able to get around town either on foot, which additionally gives them exercise or by public transit which is affordable and allows people to engage in the community setting around them. Within minutes on foot, any La Borda resident can buy groceries, go out to eat, go to the bank, and pick their prescriptions at a pharmacy, all while supporting the local economy. There are also a few green spaces within walking distance from La Borda and multiple public open areas for people to immerse themselves in the community.

La Borda Housing Cooperative Site Context Map

Final Words

La Borda Housing Cooperative will hopefully be recognized as a great example of when a community comes together to combat economic and environmental hardships, and they did so through brownfield development. When the city couldn’t, the neighbors chose to do it themselves after envisioning a better future for their rundown industrial area, and in doing so have made a positive change for the Can Batlló area.

Although there has been little follow-up research to confirm the goals that were set while designing the project, we hope that the housing cooperative is running successfully. If things are working as they were envisioned, we could say that creating affordable housing while combating housing speculation is not impossible, and doing so sustainably should be the newest standard. People often spend outrageous amounts of their income on housing and energy, but sustainably built cooperative living, like La Borda, can be a great fix while also fostering great community values.