Cohousing not just for boomer hippies

Model's economic, social benefits attracts a surprising demographic

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Apr. 13, 2012

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Model's economic, social benefits attracts a surprising demographic

Steve Bergsman
Inman News®

Back in the 1980s, Katie McCamant and Charles Durrett were architectural students in Denmark when they came across a residential concept called cohousing, which was a type of community where people owned their housing units but nevertheless lived communally, sharing activities such as cooking, child care, gardening and governance.

When McCamant and Durrett came back to the U.S., they proceeded to write a book about cohousing, which was the impetus for the concept being introduced here.

"Cohousing really struck a chord for us," McCamant said. "When you look at how you and your partner hold down two careers and raise kids, having a viable neighborhood is huge. It made a lot of sense to us. Our first book, 'Cohousing, A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves,' was published in 1988 and that brought cohousing to the (U.S.)"

It took about a decade for cohousing to catch on, getting a bump up in the late 1990s when financing became more accessible for these types of communities. Today, there are 125 cohousing communities in the country and another 100 in formation, said Rebecca Lane, executive director of the U.S. Cohousing Association.

These aren't large communities -- the biggest counts no more than 60 homes.

In Lane's definition, cohousing communities are old-fashioned neighborhoods created with a little ingenuity; they bring together the value of private homes with more sustainable living. Cohousing communities always include common facilities with good connections to the neighbors.

While everyone owns a residence, there is almost always a common house where people cook and eat together, plus do other chores or enjoy leisure activities. Cars are parked on the perimeter of the property so residences are connected by walkways, not roadways.

There can be a common grassy plaza, workshops, gardens, etc., but these features are not universal. What is most important is that foot traffic be directed to and through the common house to increase interaction with neighbors.

"The key to the design of a cohousing facility is that it makes it easy to have community and easy to have privacy if that's what one wants," McCamant said.

"Good design is about running into neighbors on the way home to chat, organize or help with babysitting. A good design facilitates the community side and the privacy side."

Jim Leach not only lives in a cohousing community -- Silver Sage in Boulder, Colo. -- but he builds them, as well. His company, Boulder-based Wonderland Hill Development Co., in partnership with McCamant's CoHousing Partners, has developed 21 cohousing communities such as Silver Sage, where he and his wife live today.

"When we decided to develop Silver Sage as one of the first cohousing facilities targeting seniors, my wife decided she wanted to move in," Leach said. "I reluctantly came along, but my wife was smarter than me. Living here has been amazing for us. This makes a lot of difference to seniors because of the support network."

Most cohousing remains intergenerational, but senior cohousing has taken off in recent years, and as Lane notes, has really given a boost to the sector.

Silver Sage was developed four years ago and has 16 units. It was built across the street from another Wonderland Hill Development cohousing project, Wild Sage, which is intergenerational.

"The average cohousing community is more like 30 units," Leach said.

Since cohousing consists of privately owned residences, I was interested to see how they held up through the recession.

No cohousing projects have gone under, Lane said. "Cohousing tends to hold value more and sell faster because they are more desirable."

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Comments 1 - 2 of 2
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1. Erick said... on Apr 16, 2012 at 07:27PM

“The association between cohousing residents and hippy-culture is a sweeping, and largely inaccurate, generalization. The typical cohouser simply wants to live in a safer, healthier, more economical, sustainable, and social neighborhood. I’m sure that’s a fairly common desire.

It is a form of intentional community, but it isn’t founded on ideology or specific interests. The strength of the community comes from close proximity and the design principles of cohousing that facilitate the opportunity to interact with neighbors. Prioritizing walkways and moving parking to the perimeter, for instance, grants cohousers the space and spontaneity to congregate along a path or porch and start a conversation.

To get a complete sense of what cohousing communities value, how they work, and how to get one started, check out Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities, by Chuck and Katie.

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2. Neysa said... on May 11, 2012 at 12:52PM

“I noticed this was a widely shared article. Cohousing makes so much sense - for boomer hippies and everyone else. There are many options on the West Coast but unfortunately not as many in the East, although we're gaining momentum for a community in Philadelphia.


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