by Don Lindermann
Cohousing, a type of community that took root in North America in the 1990s, represents a new attempt to bridge the gap between two concepts: home as private sanctuary from the outside world versus home as a place rooted in a comforting web of relationships in a place-based community. Both concepts have a strong basis in the history and culture of the United States, but cohousing has emerged as a response to the overwhelming emphasis on home as private retreat and sanctuary that has dominated the thinking of conventional builders, especially since World War II. The number of completed cohousing communities in North America has grown from just one in 1991 and only three in 1992 to more than 40 in 1999—with dozens of others in the planning or construction stages. They are located all over the United States, with the greatest concentration in the northwest, northern California, and Colorado, and several have now been completed in British Columbia as well. The projects range from around a dozen to 40 or more homes, and they are located about equally in urban, suburban, and rural settings. The architectural styles run the gamut from detached homes, to rows of townhouses framing a ‘pedestrian street,’ to apartment buildings. It is difficult to attach a precise definition to cohousing, but we can start with a classic definition offered by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in their book, Cohousing, which has inspired thousands of people since its original publication back in 1988. Cohousing, they say, is characterized by resident involvement in the design process, a site plan that encourages interaction, a ‘common house’ that provides a place for varied resident activities, and an emphasis on resident self-management. Frequent shared meals in the common house are also a prominent feature of cohousing, though not always mentioned in definitions of the concept. In addition to a kitchen and dining area large enough for most of the residents to eat together at one time, the common house often includes a sitting area/lounge, one or more playrooms for kids, laundry facilities, one or more guest rooms, and perhaps other spaces desired and planned by residents. In many cases, cohousing projects have been conceived and carried out by groups of people with little or no real estate experience, though today many groups employ development consultants or enter into some kind of partnership with a seasoned developer. Also, some projects have been jump-started by developers (either nonprofit or for-profit) who are starting to perceive cohousing as a new market niche. According to McCamant and Durrett, cohousing is ‘based on democratic principles, that espouse no ideology other than the desire for a more practical and social home environment.’ Such statements help to allay the fears of many people who are just beginning to tentatively explore alternatives to the isolation of conventional housing, but they also obscure the reality that cohousing does contain explicit or implicit values and goals. The cohousing development process and the design of communities emphasize the values of participation, cooperation, sharing, and just plain intermingling of neighbors. Then, too, many cohousers—especially those who catalyze cohousing projects and those who join in the early stages—are ecologically aware people who want to minimize the environmental impacts of home construction and daily life thereafter. At the same time, the lack of a formal cohousing philosophy, and the looseness of the cohousing definition, have resulted in projects that display a great range in terms of ‘sense of community.’ In some cohousing developments, residents live in small, tightly clustered homes, enjoy well-attended dinners with neighbors up to five times a week, and bump into each other constantly on compact sites where the common house is a focus of daily life. But there are other projects—consciously developed on the cohousing model—where residents live in large detached houses on private lots and shared meals are less frequent. This is cohousing as well, and the residents may be perfectly happy with their living situations. In any case, most cohousing communities have a look, feel, and social ambience that is quite a marked contrast from most housing projects built by conventional developers. When a core group of people gets involved in the planning of something so important as the physical space they will share as neighbors, when they learn to dream together and then fashion these dreams into reality, they learn a lasting lesson about the power of people, working collectively, to shape their environment and create a better life for all.
- The CoHousing Network: http://www.cohousing.org/
- Rob Sandelin’s resources for cohousing:http://www.infoteam.com/nonprofit/nica/cohores.htm
- CoHousing-L email discussion group—several hundred messages a month; a lively discussion on creating and living in cohousing. See http://www.cohousing.org/for instructions on how to join.
- CoHousing: The Journal of The Cohousing Network. Quarterly. The CoHousing Network, PO Box 2584, Berkeley CA 94702, USA. Tel: 510-486-2656. Email: [email protected]
- McCamant, Kathryn and Charles Durrett, with Ellen Hertzmann. Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, Second Edition. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1994.
- Hanson, Chris. The CoHousing Handbook: Building a Place for Community. Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks Pub. Inc., 1996.