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A view of the Fredensborg Housing project designed by Jørn Utzon Photo used with permission of Pál Jauernik, Administrationschef, Fredensborghusene, Fredensborg, Denmark.

A paragon of affordable housing across the globe

Occasional Observer

The small suburban town of Fredensborg, Denmark, located about 20 miles north of Cøpenhagen and 10 miles southwest of Helsingor (Hamlet’s home), is the site of an extraordinary housing project constructed in the early 1960s for Danish citizens returning home after working for long periods abroad, many as civil servants in the Danish Foreign Service. Residents typically are retired and in their mid 70s.

The project was the brainchild of Danske Samvirke, an organization established to cater to the needs of Danes returning to their home country after a long absence, these folks most basic need being to find a suitable place to live. In this regard, the sponsors have done a wonderful job.

Even before firming up the program, Danske Samvirke hired local architect Jørn Utzon, who had recently become famous for winning the international competition for the design of the Sydney Opera House. Having lived most of his life nearby, Utzon knew the territory and was instrumental in finding an exceptional site, a 15-acre meadow abutting a golf course and forest to the south and surrounded on the remaining sides by pleasant suburban housing. Utzon’s finding the site, designing the landscape, and helping to program the facility assured an harmonious, well considered solution.

Visually the most striking aspect of the overall array is the arrangement of the courtyard houses, connected together to form a kind of ribbon or chain which extends over the site in folds going from north to south and back again. While at first glance the site plan looks almost whimsical, actually it is very rational in grouping the various elements to efficiently use the irregularly shaped property and also to provide privacy for the individual houses. The compact arrangement of cul-de-sacs and continuous greensward make the most of the public spaces for the benefit of the residents.

This being Denmark, only one car (with garage) per unit was programmed and paved areas throughout are more modest   than would be the case in the U.S. Because of the very light vehicular traffic, sidewalks were not required. There are additional parking spaces for service vehicles and guests.

The building program consisted of 47 courtyard houses, 30 very small row houses, and a communal facility housing a lounge, dining room, kitchen,  meeting room, several guest rooms and service areas.

Each L-shaped courtyard house with adjacent wings wrapping around two sides of a private exterior courtyard of about 1,000 sq. ft. contains either 1,150 or 1,350 sq. ft. The courtyards of every house face either southeast or southwest, thereby offering the most sun to the interiors and the best external views for every house. The exterior walls of the courtyard houses are  solid brick but become stepped garden walls as they wrap the courtyard. The walls between the courtyards and the interior rooms are mostly glass, providing the residents with good light and splendid views. By providing each house a private outdoor space, the courtyards offer the residents a wonderful benefit seldom found in a housing project.

Because of the slope of the land, the special detailing by the architects of the garden walls facing the lawn is notable:  no one can peer in from outside into the private courtyards or interiors, thus maintaining exceptional privacy for the occupants.

The tiny row houses, each 790 sq. ft., occupy a small separate portion of the site. Their pitched roofs rise to provide each unit a balcony containing a bedroom.

The construction throughout is typically Danish. Floors and exterior walls are brick, roofs and wall copings clay tile, interior finishes mostly natural wood or plasterboard. Brick paving on sand in the courtyards was chosen to facilitate  likely removal of some bricks by the occupants to accommodate future planting — which has happened with great flourish. The continuous lawn comprising nearly half the property meets the golf course fairway at the southern edge of the property in such a way as to create the illusion of a much larger site.

The residents all have reasonably priced long term rentals and there is a waiting list of over 400 for apartments as they become available. Residents must pay for at least 12 meals a month in the communal dining hall and are encouraged to, and do, participate in the community’s other various social activities.

The Fredensborg Housing is very site specific and would not lend itself to being simply replicated in another location. Not only is the site itself very particular, but so is the program and the specific conditions underlying its existence. But like the affordable housing we are trying to build here in the Northwest Corner, it was accomplished with modest means. What sets it apart from most other low cost housing schemes is the special concern for the occupants’ well being and the exceptional design quality that went into its creation.

For those interested in knowing more about this complex, go to:  Fredensborg Housing (on the internet) and look at the many pictures and articles.


Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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