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Cohousing: A New Type of Housing for the Way We Live

Knowledgebase > Cohousing: A New Type of Housing for the Way We Live

Ellen Hertzman describes the attraction of cohousing in relation to traditional housing options, giving an overview of community life in a few of the first North American cohousing developments. Along the way, she gives a feel for the variety and possibilities of this fast-growing choice.

It’s 6:45 p.m, and people are beginning to congregate in the common sitting room and dining room. Jean pulls into the parking lot and ducks into her house to change from her office clothes. Jack has been outside playing a version of basketball with Tim and Gina’s two-year-old. Martin glances up from his magazine from time to time. Sally’s 11-year-old daughter comes in, proudly carrying the chocolate cake she baked for her mother’s birthday. Norm is trying out the paper he’ll deliver at a Seattle conference on a small group of listeners in the corner. His wife Gerda (who’s already heard it a dozen times) is still up in their home, wrapping presents for their granddaughter whom they’ll visit in the city. The tables are set and Elizabeth and Tim, the evening’s cooks, put finishing touches on the meal. In the Emeryville CoHousing Community, dinner is about to start.

This dinner has been two years in the making. It evolved as a direct response to the common needs felt by a varied group of individuals: the need for responsive housing that provides privacy while at the same time facilitating community interaction and co operation. Traditional housing was not adequately addressing their needs, so these individuals came together, engaged The CoHousing Company plus other housing professionals, and, working by consensus, designed housing that was planned according to their personal needs.

Dramatic demographic and economic changes are taking place in our society, and most of us are feeling the effects of those trends on our own lives. Common values that people once took for granted (family, community, and a sense of belonging) must now be actively sought out. Contemporary households are characterized by smaller families, women working outside the home, single parents, elderly, and singles living alone. These smaller households face a child-care crisis, social isolation, and a chronic time crunch, in part because their housing no longer suits them.

At the same time, increasing mobility has distanced many Americans from the extended families that have traditionally provided close social and economic support. Many people find themselves mis-housed, ill-housed, or even unhoused because of the lack of appropriate options.

To compound matters, the toll on the environment from current housing options is becoming more evident. The apparently unstoppable demand for more single-family housing is reducing the remaining green space around cities. Resources are devoured in the name of housing, and yet some of the key issues of ecological efficiency have not even been addressed.

The cohousing approach addresses such questions, with solutions that appeal to a wide variety of individuals. Pioneered 20 years ago, primarily in Denmark, over 200 such communities now exist there. In North America, the cohousing concept has experienced a groundswell of popular enthusiasm. People are looking for new answers to the realities of late-twentieth-century life.

Cohousing communities differ from typical housing developments on several levels. They are designed by the future residents, in conjunction with architects, developers, and other professionals, to address the needs of the residents, most specifically the desire for community. Residents come together frustrated at the isolation they feel in current housing designs, or because they wish to create for themselves a neighborhood in the old-fashioned sense, with a mix of generations and family types who interact and depend on each other. Cohousing communities are designed to have a neighborhood layout. There are self-sufficient individual dwellings, complete with kitchens, but the community focus is a common house with kitchen and dining room, children’s room, workshop, guest room, laundry, and perhaps other facilities that the group may desire (teen room, office space, crafts room, exercise room. The common house is designed to be used daily, as an extension of the private homes. Interaction there can be planned or spontaneous, and the possibilities for making life simpler and more enjoyable are delightfully endless!

Cohousing communities have evolved as a grassroots movement of people taking responsibility for their housing options. They draw on the best aspects of both traditional housing and community-oriented housing. Cohousing communities are distinctive in that each family or household has a separate dwelling and chooses how much they want to participate in community activities. A minimum level of participation is encouraged at the least. That participation might include cooking in the common house one night a month and serving on one committee. Cohousing developments are strengthened by accommodating a variety of ages and family types. Residents represent a cross section of old and young, families and singles (the variety adds depth to community life.

In many respects, cohousing communities are not a new idea. In the past, most people lived in villages or tightly knit urban neighborhoods. Even today, people in less-industrialized regions typically live in small communities. Members of such communities know one another’s families and histories, talents and weaknesses. Traditional community relationships demand accountability, but in return provide security and a sense of belonging. Cohousing aims to provide the small household of today with a community designed to foster such values.


Cohousing Communities in the United States

Since the book CoHousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves was first published in the fall of 1988 (and revised and expanded in 1994), there has been a tremendous interest in this type of shared housing from a wide variety of individuals and groups. People of all ages, incomes, and lifestyles are attracted to the social and practical aspects of cohousing communities, as well as to the potential for shared resources and services. By 1994 more than 150 groups all across the continent were meeting to plan cohousing communities. Residents have occupied nine communities, several more are under construction, and many others are in some stage of the planning process.

Though cohousing groups can do much of the development work themselves, most hire professionals (attorneys, architects, developers (somewhere along the line. The CoHousing Company provides services in group organizing and facilitation, site search and acquisition, land development, architectural design, project management, and finance. The CoHousing Company works with groups through the entire development process, from the “Getting It Built” workshop that we have offered all over the country, through predevelopment basics, design, construction, and even the ongoing management of the community. Within the bounds of commercial development, the firm assists groups in creating housing that stretches the limits, believing that everyone should have a choice among many types of housing to find the type that suits them best.

Cohousing communities take many forms. Completed in 1991, the first American project is in suburban Davis, California, where a community of 26 town houses and a 3,600-square-foot common house stands on three acres. In contrast, the Emeryville community renovated an existing warehouse near the San Francisco Bay Area. In Benicia, California, 27 homes plus communal facilities will be built in a traditional small-town setting. In Colorado, 42 semirural acres are the site of a beautiful community. Whether urban, suburban, or rural, the key to the cohousing concept is the blend of privacy and community, and the involvement of future residents in the planning, design, and management of the community.


Thoughtful Housing Consumers

A group of future residents actively involved in the development process can address many issues not generally undertaken in conventional development. Areas that can be strongly affected before construction by a united group of consumers include energy efficiency, nontoxic building materials, and pedestrian orientation. Continuing resident participation in the development process encourages more thoughtful construction and waste management.In Emeryville, an existing warehouse building was renovated, bringing new residential life to land that was already developed. At a density of 42 units per acre, the project makes particularly good use of the land. This density is five to ten times greater than many of the residents of the project had been used to. Yet it feels right, because residents consciously seek both to respect the privacy of others and to interact as a community. Residents will probably drive less than their conventionally housed counterparts, because the community they seek is just outside their door. Cohousing communities promise a way of breaking old patterns and creating new, more thoughtful neighborhoods.

As a warehouse conversion, the Emeryville project adds to the diversity of life in the neighborhood. The location in a transitional neighborhood of residences and light industry provides around the clock activity that is a deterrent to crime. Also, by creating a community in which the residents can feel secure, the Emeryville project helps answer the pressing question of how to create a comfortable and safe urban home for those who have much to fear in the city, especially women, children, and seniors. The innovative approaches of the Emeryville group provides an attractive model for revitalizing our cities and slowing down the urban sprawl.

The Benicia community has also had a positive impact on its surroundings, though as of this writing, construction has not yet begun. In seeking planning approvals from the city of Benicia (a small California town concerned with preserving its comfortable, people-oriented atmosphere (the cohousing planning group developed a careful presentation. They wished to demonstrate that the city requirement of two on-site parking spaces per town house was excessive. The project developer surveyed existing condominiums and determined that none of them made full use of all the allotted pavement. As a result of this survey, the city subsequently lowered its parking space requirement, not only for the Benicia cohousing project but for all future projects, too. This decision will benefit the entire town by lessening the hold that cars have on it.

In Sacramento, The CoHousing Company worked with the Southside Park Cohousing Community, which is built on a downtown site bought from the Redevelopment Agency. This community provides a mixture of low, moderate, and market-rate housing.

Municipalities nationwide are in the process of defining and addressing the specific needs of the people who live there. Ultimately, like all communities, cohousing groups are about people and creating housing that seeks to meet people’s needs: for community, for autonomy, for security, for simplicity, for efficiency, for cooperation, for fun.

It’s 9:30, and in the Emeryville common house, dinner has been over for some time. Tim and Elizabeth are finishing up the dishes. They won’t have to cook and clean again for another month. A few people are still drinking coffee and chatting in the dining room. Martin is back at his magazine; he could take it home to read but he prefers the swirl of life in the common house. Carrie dashed in to grab dinner, then headed home for a late night of desk work. The little ones have reluctantly been persuaded away from the children’s room and home to bed. These people, who didn’t know each other two years ago, have become a community.

About the Author

Ellen Hertzman has worked as Project Coordinator with The CoHousing Company for the past four years. The CoHousing Company was founded by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who brought cohousing from Denmark to North America with their book, CoHousing. The Company offers architectural design services and consultation on all aspects of cohousing development. Ellen is coauthor of the second edition of CoHousing, and her articles on cohousing, community building, and group process have appeared in a variety of places. She has been facilitating groups and teaching consensus and group-process skills for over ten years.

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