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Cohousing: An Old Idea A Contemporary Approach


In villages, people work together to build a schoolhouse, raise a barn, harvest the crops, celebrate the harvest, and more. Similarly, residents in cohousing enjoy the benefits of cooperation, whether by organizing common dinners, social activities, or caring for an elderly resident. Both communities build social relationships by working together to address practical needs. Cohousing offers the social and practical advantages of a closely-knit neighborhood consistent with the realities of 21st-century life.

In non-industrial communities, work is integrated with the rest of life. Small towns are not divided into residential, commercial, and industrial areas; rather, residences are built on top of shops, and cottage industries flourish in neighborhoods. Although cohousing developments are primarily residential, daily patterns develop that begin to weave work and home life together again. Most cohousing residents (if they are still working) go outside the community for their professional work, but there is also informal trading of skills within the community. One resident, a plumber, tends to a leaky faucet; another helps repair a neighbor’s car. Several residents make wine together. A woman who makes pottery finds her best customers are fellow residents who buy her goods for gifts.

These neighbors know each other’s skills and feel comfortable asking for assistance, understanding they will be able to reciprocate later.

Technological advances make it increasingly common for people to work part-time or full-time at home. In most living situations today, working at home can be very isolating (we know a computer programmer who could easily work from home, but chooses to drive 45 minutes to the office for companionship). The cohousing environment allows residents to enjoy the benefits of working at home without feeling isolated. As the trend toward working at home continues to grow, so cohousing responds; a recently completed cohousing community in Northern California included office space adjacent to its common facilities. In addition to office spaces, there is a coffee shop, a hair salon, and other commercial and retail establishments. With a tip of the hat toward traditional village life, some residential cohousing units are situated above the business spaces. Cohousing takes the loneliness out of being alone.

While incorporating many of the qualities of traditional communities, cohousing is distinctively contemporary in its approach, based on the values of choice and tolerance. Residents choose when and how often to participate in community activities and seek to live with a diverse group of people. Cohousing is a “best of all worlds” solution.

While cohousing is becoming popular in Europe, it remains a relatively new concept in the United States. The first American intergenerational cohousing projects were built here in 1991. Currently, there are more than 100 of these communities in the country, about 20 more are under construction, and there are another 120 to 150 or so in the planning stage. The trend is catching on. Before we look in detail at senior cohousing – what it is and what it can be – it is good to know something about what intergenerational cohousing communities are.

Six Components of Cohousing

Cohousing can be found in many forms – from urban factory loft conversions to suburban cities to small towns. Whatever the form, cohousing projects share the six components that are listed here and described more fully below:

1. Participatory Process:

Residents help organize and participate in the planning and design process for the housing development, and they are responsible as a group for final decisions.

2. Deliberate Neighborhood Design:

The physical design encourages a strong sense of community.

3. Extensive Common Facilities:

Common areas are an integral part of the community, designed for daily use and to supplement private living areas.

4. Complete Resident Management:

Residents manage the development, making decisions of common concern at community meetings.

5. Non-Hierarchal Structure:

There are not really leadership roles. The responsibilities for the decisions are shared by the community’s adults.

6. Separate Income Sources:

Residents have their own primary incomes; the community does not generate income.

1. Participatory Process

Active participation of residents, from the earliest planning stages through construction, is the first – and possibly the most important – component of cohousing. The desire to live in a cohousing community provides the driving force to get it built, and in some instances, the residents themselves initiate the project.

The number of residents who participate throughout the planning and development process varies from project to project. Often a core group of 6 to 12 families establishes a development program, finds the site, hires the architect, and then seeks other interested people. Typically, all of the houses are sold or rented before the project is finished. In some cases, the resident group collaborates with nonprofit housing associations or a private developer, but even then, the residents play a key role.

The participatory process has both advantages and disadvantages, but no cohousing community has ever been built any other way. Even with the proven success of cohousing, developers hesitate to build on their own, and probably couldn’t do it successfully even if they wanted to. Experience shows that only people who seek new residential options for themselves will be motivated to push through the planning and design process without making serious compromises. Future residents usually play a key role in getting the project approved, especially when citizens, planning commissions, and even city councils are prejudiced against multi-family housing. Neighbors fear that cohousing will attract “unconventional” people, adversely affect the neighborhood, and reduce property values.

Such fears are completely unfounded and are dispelled once neighbors get to know the future cohousing residents. Cohousing residents tend to be conscientious, taxpaying citizens, active in school and other community activities; cohousing developments have helped to stabilize neighborhoods and make them more desirable.

Many resident groups have been able to push their projects through the labyrinth of barriers they’ve met with. When a city council denied approval of one cohousing project, the residents built models, went to meetings, and eventually convinced the council they were respectable citizens with worthy intentions. When banks questioned feasibility, residents risked their own assets to convince the bank to give them the construction loan. When cuts had to be made to build within a construction budget, residents insisted the architect cut the size of amenities of the individual units to preserve the common facilities. Few developers – for-profit or nonprofit – would ever take such measures or risks.

Organizing and planning a cohousing community requires time for group meetings, research, and decision making. But anything worthwhile requires time and effort. People organize to build schools, town halls, fire stations, and churches, so why not a viable working neighborhood? Residents volunteer their time because of their commitment to the idea and their own desire for a more satisfying residential environment.

The most active members are likely to attend one to two meetings a month for one or two years. The process can be long, but those now living in cohousing communities universally agree it was not only well worth the effort, but one of the best things they ever did for themselves, their families, and the larger community.

A feeling of community emerges during the period when residents are working together to reach their common goal. Typically, few participants k
now each other before joining the group. During the planning and development phases, they must agree on many issues closely tied to their personal values. Despite the inevitable frustrations and disagreements, the intensity of the planning period forms bonds between residents that greatly contribute to the community after they move in. Having fought and sacrificed together for the place where they will live builds a sense of pride and community that no outside developer can “build into a project.”

2. Deliberate Neighborhood Design

A physical environment that encourages a strong neighborhood atmosphere is the second most important component of cohousing. People often talk about how enjoyable it would be if they could live somewhere where they knew their neighbors and felt secure. Yet, few residential developments include areas where neighbors can meet casually. Cohousing residents can build an environment that reflects their desire for community. Beginning with the initial development plan, residents emphasize design aspects that increase the possibilities for social contact. For example, placing parking at the edge of the site allows the majority of the development to be pedestrian-oriented and thus safe for seniors and grandchildren alike, which enhances the neighborhood atmosphere. Informal gathering places are created with benches and tables. The location of the common house determines how it will be used. If the residents pass by the common house on their way home, they are more likely to drop in. If the common house can be seen from many of the houses, it will be used more often.

Physical design is critically important in facilitating a social atmosphere. While the participatory development process establishes the initial sense of community, it is the physical design that sustains it over time. Whether the design succeeds depends largely on the architect’s and organizing groups’ understanding of how design factors affect community life. Without thoughtful consideration, many opportunities are lost.

For senior cohousing, design must be tailored to seniors, but every possible interior safety feature does not have to be installed at the outset. It is critical that every possible measure should be taken to avoid an institutional look. Houses should be warm and inviting and well lit. The common house should be giving and community-sustaining – like a Parisian café. A flexible building design is also important, so that the units can be modified to suit owners who are aging or who are new owners. Every senior cohousing community I visited had remote parking. When asked, these especially conscious seniors said things like, “I used to simply drive directly into my garage. But it’s more important for my long-term well-being to see, talk to, and hang out with my neighbors. While the community is built in the planning phase, the design sustains the community once the honeymoon has worn off.”

3. Common Facilities

While each private home is a complete house in and of itself, just like any traditional home, cohousing communities have common areas that supplement the private houses. Private houses in cohousing can be smaller than typical houses because features such as workshops, guest rooms, and laundry are located in the common house, and because large-scale entertainment can happen there. The common house is an extension of each private residence, based on what the group believes will make their lives easier and more economical, not to mention more fun and more interesting.

One lawnmower for 30 households, for example, represents a huge savings over one lawnmower per household. Items like ice chests, camping equipment, bike repair equipment, as well as hundreds of other items stored in cohousing not only save money but also room.

According to the Census Bureau, the average size of new homes built in the US at the start of the 21st century was 2,324 sq. ft. The average private house in a cohousing community is 1,250 sq. ft. On the other hand, the average common house for a typical 30-unit cohousing community averages 4,000 sq. ft., including workshops and other buildings.

The common house, which supplements the individual dwellings and provides a place for community activities, is the heart of a cohousing community. It is a place for common dinners, afternoon tea, games on rainy days, a Friday night bar, crafts workshop, laundry facilities, and numerous other organized and informal activities.

The common facilities often extend beyond the common house to include barns and animal sheds, greenhouses, a car repair garage, and in one case, a tennis court and swimming pool.

These facilities provide both practical and social benefits. For instance, the common workshop replaces the need for every family to have the space and tools to fix furniture and repair bicycles and cars. Expensive tools, such as a drill press or table saw, become much more affordable when several households share the cost. Not only do residents gain access to a wider range of tools through a common workshop, but they also enjoy the company of others using the shop or just passing by. They may also share and learn new techniques and skills along the way.

The concept of a common space in clustered housing is not in itself unusual. Many condominium developments have a clubhouse or community room. However, a clubhouse significantly differs from a common house both in the way and to the extent the space is used. Typically, a clubhouse is rented out by individual residents for private parties, or used for owner association meetings or exercise classes. Moreover, the clubhouse is usually small, providing only just enough room to accommodate small-scale entertainment needs. The exception is “adult” complexes, which may incorporate a bar and a well-equipped gym into its common area. Regardless, there is no place set aside specifically for children, and most of the time the clubhouse is empty and locked. The clubhouse idea is a nice touch on paper but in reality such rooms are usually poorly utilized. In contrast, a cohousing common house is open all day and is considered an essential part of daily community and even private life.

As cohousing has evolved, the common house has increased in size and importance. Today, the size of private dwellings is often reduced in order to build more extensive common facilities. These changes were dictated by experience. For instance, many residents of early cohousing developments were reluctant to commit to common dinners, thinking they would be nice once or maybe twice a week, but not on a regular basis. Yet, when the common house is designed well, common dinners have proven overwhelmingly successful, and today most new cohousing groups plan for meals in the common house several times a week, with about half of the residents participating on any given evening. Substantial space is thus allocated in the common house for pleasant dining rooms and spacious kitchens. Children’s play areas are often included, so that children can be children, and adults can sit and converse in an adult-oriented environment. The specific features of the common house depend on the interests and needs of the residents. Their use is likely to change over time in response to new community members and needs.

By allowing residents to become acquainted, discover mutual interests, and share experiences, common facilities and activities contribute greatly to the formation of a tightly knit community. These friendships then carry over into other areas. As one resident said, “The common house is an essential element. Through the activities there, life is added to the streets. Without it, the sense of community would be hard to maintain.”

The common house is also an asset for the surrounding neighborhood.

It can be used for meetings, classes, neighborhood organizations, and cultural programs. One Danish cohousing group organized a film club that attracts participants from the entire town. As the community’s primary meeting place, the common house has
infinite uses both for the residents and their neighbors.

4. Resident Management

In keeping with the spirit in which cohousing is built, residents – owners and renters alike – are responsible for the community’s ongoing management. Major decisions are made at common meetings, usually held once a month. These meetings provide a forum for residents to discuss issues and solve problems.

Responsibilities are typically divided among work groups in which all adults must participate. Duties like cooking common dinners and cleaning the common house are usually rotated. Under a system of resident management, problems cannot be blamed on outsiders. Residents must assume responsibility themselves. If the buildings are not well maintained, they will have to pay for repairs. If the common activities are disorganized, everyone loses.

Learning how to make decisions as a group is not easy. Most people grow up and work in hierarchical situations. Residents must learn to work together and find the best solution. They may adopt organizational formats developed by other groups, or create new methods for themselves. It is a process of learning by doing. Residents told us that over time they become more effective at working together and then were able to apply the lessons they learned at home to their work lives or to other organizations to which they belonged.

5. Non-Hierarchical Social Structure

Although residents state opinions about certain issues (for example, people who frequently use the workshop might propose the merits of investing more money on tools), the community shares responsibility. The community doesn’t depend on one person for direction. A “burning soul” may get the community off the ground, another may pull together the financing, and another may arrange the venue for each meeting. This division of labor is based on what each person feels he or she can fairly contribute. No one person, however, dominates the decisions or the community-building process, and no one person should become excessively taxed by the process.

6. Separate Income Sources

The economics of most cohousing communities are more or less like a typical condominium project. There is no shared community effort to produce income. As the example of a typical commune model has shown, when the community provides residents with their primary income, the dynamics among neighbors change – and it adds another level of community beyond the scope of cohousing.

A Unique Combination with Diverse Applications

These six components have come to define cohousing. None of these components is unique, but the consistent combination of all six is. Each builds on the others and contributes to the success of the whole. Although these components are consistently present, their applications have been diverse. Each community is different because each was developed by its residents to address and realize their particular needs and desires.

The Architecture of Cohousing

A central path usually connects the individual homes. Often, a common terrace faces the houses and can seat everyone for dinner or other activities. There are gathering nodes along the walkway, such as a picnic table or sand box. Such nodes are associated with every five to nine houses. The houses have front porches at least seven feet deep and nine feet wide, so people will actually use the space.

The kitchen is oriented toward the common side of the house, with the sink facing the community, so residents cooking or washing dishes can see people coming and going. More private areas (such as living rooms and bedrooms) face the rear, or private side, of the house.

Optimally, residents can see the common house from most, if not all, of the houses and can see if others are using it. The common house generally contains a common dining room, a kitchen, a media room, a laundry room, a sitting room, and other activity rooms such as a workshop, craft room, music room, and others depending on the group’s desires. In a senior cohousing community, the common house often has large guest rooms to accommodate an extended visit from family or for professional caregivers if residents need help.

Further Considerations

Building a viable cohousing community requires that the residents remain true to more than the spirit of the ideal. As such, the following issues greatly influence how a cohousing community develops, both in the short and long term.

Community Size

While the average cohousing development accommodates 15 to 30 households, some consist of as few as nine families. Living in a small community can be more demanding because residents depend more on each other. If one person temporarily needs extra time to concentrate on professional interests, thereby limiting community participation, the others feel the loss. However cohousing works best when everyone has five or six other people that they strongly relate to, so that on Friday after a hellish work week they can find someone to moan to. Sometimes a few individuals get lost in smaller communities because there isn’t someone who they relate to. Having generated lots of empirical date, the Danes are clear: “Don’t try to get consensus with more than 50 adults or 35 seniors. There are other problems with too many people. Decisions get delegated (Who cut down that tree?); people can’t get what’s important to them on to the agenda; and they don’t have a chance to discuss agenda items with folks before the meeting.”

The average size of a cohousing community, 40-100 people, allows residents to retain their autonomy and choose when – or when not – to participate in community activities. Many people are seeking a supportive environment, rather than a new family type. The freedom not to participate sometimes can help to create a living environment that accommodates people’s changing needs over the years.

Location

Locations of cohousing developments are limited by two factors, the availability of affordable sites and finding enough people interested in living in cohousing there. The majority are situated just outside metropolitan areas where sites are affordable and yet within reasonable distance from work, schools, and other urban attractions. That said, there are no hard and fast rules about location. Some cohousing communities are located in the inner cities. By contrast, at least ten communities have been established in semi-rural settings, some of them using a refurbished old farmhouse for the common house. While these developments have a “rural atmosphere,” most residents will commute to nearby cities for work. Bottom line: cohousing residents decide for themselves which location will work best for their particular desires and needs.

Design

Most cohousing communities have attached dwellings clustered around pedestrian streets or courtyards, although a few communities consist of detached single-family houses. Some communities mix attached dwellings with detached single-family structures. More recent complexes have dealt with their northern climate by covering a central pedestrian street with glass, thus allowing access between residences and the common house without needing to “go outside.”

Cohousing is generally a new design enterprise because it is difficult to create the desired relationships between spaces in existing buildings. Nevertheless, several communities in Denmark adapted old factory buildings; and another adapted an old school building. In another case, residents renovated nine dilapidated row houses to create a charming community in the inner city.

While all of the newly constructed Danish developments are low-rise in scale, in both Denmark and Sweden high-rises and sections of huge housing projects have been converted t
o cohousing to overcome impersonal environments that encouraged vandalism and high occupant turnover.

Types of Financing and Ownership

Cohousing developments utilize a variety of financing mechanisms and ownership structures, either by choice or by local ordinances: privately owned condominiums, limited-equity cooperatives, rentals owned by nonprofit organizations, and a combination of private ownership and nonprofit owned rental units. In each case, residents initiate, plan, and manage the community, whether or not the units are owner-occupied or rented. In Denmark, 18 of the 20 developments built before 1982 were completely privately financed and owned, similar to American condominiums. Then, for a period, most projects took advantage of new government- sponsored, index-linked loans that structured the developments as limited-equity cooperatives. More recently much government funding of nonprofit schemes has been withdrawn, including financial support for cohousing. Some cohousing projects have resulted from collaborations between nonprofit organizations and resident groups to build rental units.

Other than sometimes determining who can afford to live in the development, financing makes little difference in the actual functioning of a cohousing community. Thus, cohousing differs from other housing categories, such as cooperatives and condominiums, which are defined solely by their type of ownership. Cohousing refers to an idea about how people can live together, rather than any particular financing or ownership scheme.

Priorities

The priorities of cohousing groups are as varied as the residents themselves.

In addition to seeking a sense of community, some groups emphasize ecological concerns, such as solar and wind energy, recycling, and organic community gardens. In other developments, residents place less priority on community projects and spend more time on individual interests such as local theatre groups, classes, or political organizations. And, of course, others are devoted to seniors.

Why Cohousing just for seniors?

Why would someone want to create a cohousing community dedicated to seniors? There is no simple answer, since housing is an individual choice. Mixed-generational cohousing is an option for seniors who are enticed by the hustle and bustle of children and the energy for life they generate. But regular cohousing communities typically focus their energies in places where seniors have already been – building careers, raising families, and the like. As well, concerns of younger cohousers do not usually hinge on health issues. While some seniors find the youthful vigor of a regular cohousing community to be refreshing, others feel like they’ve “been there, done that.” They value living in a senior community that has been designed around their unique needs and aspirations for company, for quiet, etc. They appreciate an environment in which they feel supported in their activities, health needs, and in possible contemplative practices.

So what alternatives are there? For too many Americans who find themselves either widowed and lonely or otherwise unable to effectively care for themselves and their homes as they once did, a planned retirement “community” or assisted-care institution beckons. It’s an odd predicament: most seniors have been capable, reliable people throughout their adult lives. They raised families, owned property, worked in various jobs, and/or ran their own businesses. They were active members of a larger community. But those seniors who choose the planned retirement community route too often find themselves alone, and now locked down behind the walls of a gated compound. As for the seniors in assisted-living care, they become, in effect, patients within an institution, where hired staff dictates the choice of food, the people with whom they can socialize, and the types of activities offered. At best, activities might be modified with residents’ input, but essentially the residents have given up control of their lives. And there’s no going back.

By contrast, in senior cohousing the residents themselves make their own decisions. They are not alone, nor are they lonely. They collectively decide who will cook, what to cook, when to eat, and so on. After dinner, they go to a show or play a card game. They set up quilting racks, make music, and plan the next workday.

Since relationships are paramount in a cohousing community, residents live next door to their friends and, over time, their previous best friends (from life before senior cohousing) move in. These seniors live among people with whom they share a common bond of age, experience, and community – a community they themselves built to specifically meet their own needs. These relationships provide purpose and direction in their lives and are as meaningful as any they have ever had. This is why cohousing is perfect for seniors.

Charles Durrett is a principal at McCamant & Durrett in Nevada City, CA, a firm that specializes in affordable cohousing. The preceding is an excerpt from his new book, The Senior Cohousing Handbook, 2nd Edition, co-authored with his wife and business partner, Kathryn McCamant, and published by New Society Publishers (www.newsociety.com

To order a copy visit http://www.newsociety.com/bookid/4040




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