Author: Alex Daniell
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #136
I’ve visited a lot of cohousing communities over the past two years, accompanying my partner who leads process and communication workshops. But nothing prepared me for eight-yearold Arcadia Cohousing in the small North Carolina city of Carrboro (called the “Paris of the Piedmont” because of its many artists and writers), which I visited on the bus tour of the National Cohousing Conference held in North Carolina last year. In Arcadia, 33 individual homes or duplex or triplex units and a common house are clustered on 5 acres of a 16-acre site with woods, fields, pond, and garden.
“Arcadia” refers to an imagined rural paradise in Greek, Roman, and Renaissance literature. And this particular Arcadia blew my mind—it was quite obvious that the place was well-named, and beauty in the built environment was important to these folks!
Most cohousing communities I’ve seen consist of standard housing units arranged in two-story townhouse-style duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and so on. Even when painted with slightly different, coordinated colors, these are basically neighborhoods where everything looks alike. There’s more variety when the community is comprised of detached single-family homes or when the group lives in retrofitted existing buildings. However, usually you can tell at a glance that the place is cohousing, with every building cut from the same cloth.
But Arcadia looks and feels like a well-cared-for 19th-century village. Every house seems unique. The detached one and two-story houses and triplex units—in shades of yellow, pale blue, dark blue, soft green, dark red, golden cream—are set amidst meandering paths and alleyways, with overhanging trees and front-yard gardens. You see a kaleidoscope of sloping low roofs, peaked tall roofs, second-floor balconies, wraparound porches, picket fences, garden gates, inviting benches, vine-covered archways, and overgrown trellises leading to woodsheds and back-door gardens.
It’s all held together with a continuity of style, an architectural language taken from Carrboro’s vernacular buildings: textile mill workers’ homes in the 19th- and early 20th-centuries. Although the sizes, shapes, and colors of each home are quite different, the clapboard or board-and-batten exterior walls, barn red metal roofs, eave and trim details, and the same proportions of the casement windows appear on every dwelling. So among the meandering paths the eye is charmed by variety as well as by the subtle hint of connection. Though predominantly the creation of one person, Arcadia was designed in such a way that the neighborhood looks like a village that grew of its own accord over time. As one wanders around, seeing varied front yards plush with giant perennials and small trees, a porch rising up high on stuccoed pillars, a home set back among the bushes, it all just seems to make sense. And so different from every other cohousing community I’d seen.
This cohousing community is an example of how future communities should be designed, in my opinion. The houses are really just a step back a couple of generations to a time when homes were more modest than they are today, only these have the latest energy-saving technologies. All are passive- solar custom homes, some with solar hot water, some with photovoltaic systems, most with gardens. Most of the the individual units are modest, as small as 800 square feet, in both attached and detached residences. But the units are spaciously laid out, with kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, and sunrooms that flow into each other, and bedrooms and utility rooms off to the sides. Angles vary, stairs and walls afford privacy between rooms, and rooms have generous windows. And the quality is higher and the costs lower than the homes of several generations ago, because these were all constructed around the same time. Built between 1994 and 1997, they sold at the time for between $90,000 and $200,000. The current market value is more than twice that.
What most amazes me is how spacious the neighborhood feels, even with 33 houses clustered on only 5 acres, especially in a building climate where cookiecutter housing must deliver maximum square feet, usually with minimum beauty. But Arcadia shows we can build densely in a way that seems spacious, and build efficiently in a way that seems organic.
As a builder and building renovator myself, I was intrigued: who designed this place? So I arranged to meet Arcadia’s architect and founder, Giles Blunden. He turned out to be a tall, unassuming 64-year-old Australian who managed the project and designed two-thirds of the houses. I met him in the 800-square-foot off-grid house he shares with his wife Ginger. His house is the essence of simplicity— a Zen-like space.
I learned that he drew inspiration for Arcadia from the broad roofed farm houses of Australia as well as the eclectic charm of small French and English villages. A master of collaborative design with other building and landscape architects, Giles appears to have a deep understanding of both human nature and of nature itself. He is a master of overseeing the natural interaction of human and natural forces so that they interact in ways that complement each other, and both move toward his vision of the completed project.
The Japanese have a way of building stone paths by first placing stones of importance in spots where the stones naturally need to be. Then they fill in the spaces in between the first stones with other paving stones. The idea is that the stones seem to “know” how to connect the whole, of their own accord.
During the building of Arcadia, which obviously involved many complex issues, Giles liked to return to his small home and spend the evening with a pile of stones in his backyard, building a pathway to his woodshed. In homage to the unseen hand, it could be said that this woodshed pathway built itself. And in a way, Arcadia “built itself” too.
Giles began by creating architectural guidelines that resulted in continuity through a common architectural language, which helped keep construction costs relatively low. He set limitations in lot configurations around the winding paths, and this resulted in community members naturally choosing to face their homes toward those pathways, with their backyards clustered around interior gardens. He designed each house individually, without regard to the house next door, which resulted in homes of striking individuality—homes that were sited like the important stones of a pathway where they were “meant to be.”
In designing the homes, there was also an efficient, smooth, organic flow. Giles approached each individual house as what architects call a “sketch problem”—an exercise to create a home with certain features such as three bedrooms and two bathrooms and a sun porch and a 300- square-foot living room. Schematic designs were completed quickly, some in less than a day—just enough time to get it right but not enough time to fuss over it. These designs were then handed off to a mechanical draftperson, who knocked out the construction plans at low cost.
Giles knew that around five percent of his clients would want to defy the architectural language—for example, wanting a round window or an undersized dormer. He knew that this five percent (and not much more) of odd and unexpected design elements would only add to the beauty of Arcadia, and it did.
We can ask ourselves if aesthetics and beauty in the built environment and the landscape are important in community. After visiting this particular version of an “imagined rural paradise,” I am quite sure they are!