Building A Cohousing Community

Imported from Denmark, cohousing is a successful innovation
that reawakens the spirit of village life

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 42
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute


Positive changes both within the family and at the level of national policy could potentially be helped along by improvements in their middle ground, community. Suburbs, exurbs, and urban highrises often lack that crucial ingredient of community so important to the nurture of families and individuals, and a large part of the problem is their physical design. Meeting neighbors (much less cooperating with them) is not only difficult – it’s discouraged, and all in the name of privacy.

In our issue on "Sustainable Habitat" (IC No. 14), we interviewed the resident of one of Denmark’s bofoellesskaber ("living communities"), an innovative approach to housing design that retains the benefits of private homes while also fostering a truly cooperative community. Now two architects, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, have begun spreading the word about this design in the U.S. through workshops, media appearances, and their excellent book, Cohousing. Their efforts are paying off, as cohousing groups are springing up in several places around the country.

In this article, adapted from the book, the authors explain what cohousing is and how you can make it happen. The book is highly recommended, especially for those looking seriously at cohousing for themselves, and available for $19.95 (plus $1.50 shipping) from Habitat Press, 48 Shattuck Square, Ste. 15a, Berkeley, CA 94704. Information on McCamant and Durrett’s speaking engagements (we’ve seen them, and they’re good) is available from the same address.


T
raditional forms of housing no longer address the needs of many people. Dramatic demographic and economic changes are taking place in our society and most of us feel the effects of these trends in our own lives. Things that people once took for granted – family, community, a sense of belonging – must now be actively sought out. Many people are mis-housed, ill-housed or unhoused because of the lack of appropriate options. This article introduces a new housing model which addresses such changes and sketches out the path to making it happen. Pioneered primarily in Denmark and now being adopted in other countries, the cohousing concept reestablishes many of the advantages of traditional villages within the context of late twentieth-century life.

In Denmark, people frustrated by housing options very similar to our own have developed a new housing type that redefines the concept of neighborhood. Tired of the isolation and impracticality of single-family houses and apartment units, they have built housing that combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living. Each household has a private residence, but also shares extensive common facilities with the larger group, such as a kitchen and dining hall, children’s playrooms, workshops, guest rooms, and laundry facilities. Although individual dwellings are designed to be self-sufficient and each has its own kitchen, the common facilities, and particularly common dinners, are an important aspect of community life both for social and practical reasons.

Today, nearly 100 of these communities have been built in Denmark and over 30 are being constructed or in the latter stages of the planning process. They range in size from 6 to 80 households, with the majority between 15 and 33 residences. These communities are called bofoellesskaber in Danish (directly translated as "living communities"), for which we have coined the English term "cohousing." First built in the early 1970s, cohousing developments have quadrupled in number in the last five years. Their success and growing acceptance attest to the viability of the concept.

A NEW TYPE OF HOUSING

Cohousing is a grass-roots movement whose initiators drew inspiration from the increasing popularity of shared households, in which several unrelated people share a traditional house, and from the cooperative movement in general. Yet cohousing is distinctive in that each family or household has a separate dwelling and chooses how much they want to participate in community activities. There are of course other innovative ideas being experimented with – for example, single-parent cooperatives and congregate housing for the elderly with private rooms arranged around shared living spaces. But unlike these approaches, cohousing developments are not targeted for any specific age or family type; residents represent a cross section of old and young, families and singles.

Cohousing also differs from most of the intentional communities and communes we know in the United States. Communes are often organized around strong ideological beliefs and may depend on a charismatic leader to establish the direction of the community and hold the group together. Most intentional communities function as educational or spiritual centers. Cohousing, on the other hand, offers a new approach to housing rather than a new way of life. Based on democratic principles, cohousing developments espouse no ideology other than the desire for a more practical and social home environment.

In many respects, cohousing is not new. In the past most people lived in villages or tightly knit neighborhoods. Even today people in less industrialized regions typically live in small communities linked by multiple interdependencies. Members of such communities know each other over many years; they are familiar with each other’s families and histories, talents and weaknesses. This kind of relationship demands accountability, but in return provides security and a sense of belonging. Cohousing offers a contemporary model for recreating this sense of place and neighborhood, while responding to today’s needs for a less constraining environment.

A GUIDED TOUR

It’s five o’clock in the evening, and Anne is glad the work day is over. As she pulls into her driveway, she begins to unwind at last. Some neighborhood kids dart through the trees, playing a mysterious game at the edge of the gravel parking lot. Her daughter yells, "Hi Mom!" as she runs by with three other children.

Instead of frantically trying to put together a nutritious dinner, Anne can relax now, spend some time with her children, and then eat with her family in the common house. Walking through the common house on her way home, she stops to chat with the evening’s cooks, two of her neighbors, who are busy preparing dinner – broiled chicken with mushroom sauce – in the kitchen. Several children are setting the tables. Outside on the patio, some neighbors share a pot of tea in the late afternoon sun. Anne waves hello, and continues down the lane to her own house, catching glimpses into the kitchens of the houses she passes. Here a child is seated, doing homework at the kitchen table; next door, John reads his ritual after-work newspaper.

After dropping her things off at home, Anne walks through the birch trees behind the houses to the child-care center where she picks up her four-year-old son, Peter. She will have some time to read Peter a story before dinner, she thinks to herself.

Anne and her husband, Eric, helped design the development in which they live, though neither is an architect or builder. Six years ago, after responding to a short announcement in the local newspaper, they joined a group of families who were looking for a realistic housing alternative. They wanted a place where children would live near playmates; where individuals would have a feeling of belonging; where they would know people of all ages; and where they would be able to grow old and continue to contribute productively.

In the months that followed, the group further defined their goals and began the long, difficult process of turning their dream into reality. Some people dropped out and others joined. Two and a half years later, Anne and Eric moved into their new home – a community of clustered houses that share a large common house. By working together, these people had created the kind of neighborhood they wanted to live in, a cohousing community.

COMMON CHARACTERISTICS

Cohousing developments vary in size, location, type of ownership, design, and priorities. Yet in our research we were able to identify four common characteristics:

Participatory Process * Residents organize and participate in the planning and design process for the development and are responsible as a group for all final decisions. This element is essential; no cohousing development has been built any other way. The process can be long and frustrating, but those now living in cohousing communities universally agree that it was well worth the effort. As one resident commented, "Those meetings created an openness between us as we learned each other’s strong and weak sides. . . . Without that phase I would not have the same relationship to the common house or the outdoor areas."

Intentional Neighborhood Design * The physical design itself encourages a strong sense of community. A successful design depends largely on the architect’s and the organizing group’s understanding of how design factors affect community life. For example, if residents must pass by the common house on their way home, they are more likely to use it. Without thoughtful consideration, many such opportunities can be easily missed.

Extensive Common Facilities * The common area is designed for daily use, to supplement private living areas. The heart of a cohousing community, the common house is a place for common dinners, afternoon tea, children’s games on rainy days, a Friday night bar, crafts workshops, laundry facilities, and numerous other organized and informal activities. Common facilities often extend beyond the common house to include barns and animal sheds, greenhouses, a car repair garage, and the like. Common dinners, prepared by small teams on a rotating basis, have proven enormously popular and provide residents with the option of eating communally or privately. By allowing residents to get acquainted, discover mutual interests and share experiences, common facilities contribute greatly to the formation of a tightly knit community.

Complete Resident Management * Residents – renters and owners alike – manage the development, making decisions of common concern at community meetings. Inevitably some residents feel they do more than their share, and the process of discussing and solving problems often involves long discussions and debates. But once an agreement is reached, it is usually respected, because everyone knows they had a say in it.

A DIVERSITY OF EXPRESSION

While these four characteristics are not unique to cohousing, their consistent combination is. And their application in practice has been quite diverse, since each community is developed to fit the particular needs and desires of its residents.

Size * Although there are cohousing developments as small as 2 households, we have found that groups smaller than 6 households tend to function more like situations in which a number of unrelated people share a house or apartment. Such small groups are more demanding because residents depend so heavily on each other. The average cohousing size of around 40 to 100 people allows residents to retain their autonomy and choose when or when not to participate in community activities. Those living in larger communities of around 80 households sometimes feel they are too large and institutional; often they subdivide into smaller groups.

Location * The location of cohousing developments are limited only by the availability of affordable sites. The majority are situated just outside metropolitan areas where sites are affordable and yet within reasonable distance from work, schools, and other urban attractions. Ten communities have been established in rural settings, some of them using an old farmhouse for the common house. While these developments have a "rural atmosphere," most residents must still commute to nearby cities for work. Still other communities are located in the inner cities.

Design * Most cohousing communities have attached dwellings clustered around pedestrian streets or courtyards. Generally they are new construction because it is difficult to create the desired relationships between spaces in existing buildings. Nevertheless, two communities have adapted old factory buildings and another an old school building. While all the newly constructed Danish developments are low-rise in scale, in both Denmark and Sweden high-rises as well as sections of huge housing projects have been converted to cohousing to overcome impersonal environments that encouraged vandalism and high turnover.

Financing and Ownership * Cohousing developments utilize a variety of financing mechanisms and ownership structures: privately owned condominiums, limited equity cooperatives, rentals owned by non-profit organizations, and a combination of private ownership and nonprofit-owned rental units. While financing does determine who can afford to live in a particular development, it makes little difference in the actual functioning of cohousing. Cohousing refers to an idea about how people can live together, rather than any particular financing or ownership type.

Priorities * The priorities of cohousing developments 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 theater groups, classes, or political organizations. Priorities often change over the years, reflecting the desires of the residents.

THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS

Resident participation in the development process is cohousing’s greatest asset and its most limiting factor. It is a huge task for a group of people, inexperienced in both collective decision making and the building industry, to take on a project of this complexity. Most residents have little knowledge of financing, design, and construction issues for housing development. They encounter problems in maintaining an efficient timeline, avoiding the domination of a few strong personalities and integrating new members without backtracking.

Luckily, in dealing with these issues today, we can benefit from two decades of cohousing experience. Features now taken for granted, such as common dining and smaller individual residences, required months of discussion in earlier projects. The first cohousing projects took from five to eight years to develop; today it can take as little as two years from the first meetings to moving in.

The process is different for every cohousing community. In some cases, the group forms with the intention of developing a specific site. In others, the group establishes its goals and objectives before identifying a site. Often both happen simultaneously. The process generally includes the following phases, although the sequence may vary:

Getting Started

  • Find others interested in the proposal.
  • Establish an organizing group.
  • Come to an agreement on general goals, location, and financial expectations.

Preparing a Development Program

  • Define the organizational structure and decision-making procedures; draw up an initial legal agreement.
  • Specify your goals and establish priorities.
  • Choose consultants – architect, financial consultant, attorney, etc.
  • Identify potential sites
  • Formulate a development strategy: consider the financing options, the concerns of officials, the role of residents, and the project timeline.
  • Consider the design objectives and requirements.
  • Draw up legal agreements for a partnership or joint venture arrangement.
  • Acquire a site.
  • Complete the development program.

Design and Construction Documents

  • Develop a schematic design proposal.
  • Design the development.
  • Obtain the necessary planning approvals.
  • Clarify the financing arrangements.
  • Complete the working drawings and building specifications.
  • Obtain building permits.
  • Solicit and negotiate constructions bids.
  • Select a contractor.
  • Finalize the construction contract, loan, and schedule.

Construction

  • Monitor the contracted work.
  • Complete the resident-built work.

Move in!

It is important early in the planning process to set a realistic timeline outlining phases and the timing of key decisions. The group should make every effort to stick to its timeline, even though it is difficult to control outside influences, because this will keep the process moving forward and reduce resident turnover.

Keeping to a timeline means avoiding backtracking. For example, Sun and Wind (a Danish cohousing community based on principles of energy conservation and alternative energy use) attracted over 100 people to their first meeting and then spent a year and a half discussing their goals. With new people continually coming into the group, previously resolved issues often resurfaced and had to be discussed again. When a site was finally chosen, half the group dropped out anyway.

For a more timely development process, groups have found it easier to start with an organizing, or core, group of five to fifteen households who define general goals, identify a site, and establish financial expectations. Once these decisions have been made, other people can decide if they are interested in the project. Indeed, as a project becomes more clearly defined, more people are attracted to it. Lars Bjerre, who initiated the community he now lives in and consulted on several others, commented: "You need at least one burning soul who really wants to live there to carry a project through. If you have one to four burning souls, then there is not a problem. Others will become interested when it begins to smell like something real."

COHOUSING IN A MULTICULTURAL U.S.A.

Our multicultural society presents unique challenges for the development of cohousing. Within the diversity of the American population, however, many people of differing ethnicity share the basic values needed to live together successfully in cohousing: an appreciation of the benefits of community and a willingness to work together to achieve them. Although it may require greater effort to establish shared values and clarify expectations, the cultural diversity of the United States should provide the opportunity for anyone interested in cohousing to find a group they can live with.

Another concern is that cohousing might further emphasize already existing American patterns of residential and social segregation. Certainly cohousing could be applied as just another variation on the planned communities of the affluent; but such exclusivity runs counter to one of the primary reasons for the concept’s appeal – the desire for an integrated residential environment. As one Danish group wrote in its development plan, cohousing residents generally "seek a varied resident composition with diverse incomes, interests, and political perspectives . . . encouraging an attitude of openness and tolerance." They also make special efforts to integrate their community into the existing neighborhood.

Cohousing groups now forming in the U.S. voice similar goals as they grapple with issues of affordability and diverse priorities. Cohousing offers an opportunity to overcome the current patterns of segregation by interest, age, income, race, and household composition that these people deem undesirable. In choosing cohousing, residents choose to respect each other’s differences, while building on their commonalities.

Our experience in introducing the cohousing model to American audiences has confirmed that a broad demand exists for this housing alternative. The workshops and presentations we conduct are always well attended, and a surprising number of people have contacted us who had already discussed building housing communities with other families, but did not know any similar developments existed. Inspired by the Danish examples, people interested in cohousing have begun meeting with each other to explore local possibilities.

Despite these promising prospects, barriers to developing cohousing remain: the conservative biases of financial institutions and planning departments, legal and liability issues, and public skepticism. These problems, while very real, are not insurmountable. The first cohousing developments in the United States will have much to overcome, but those who believe that the benefits outweigh the difficulties will make cohousing possible. After all, similar barriers initially existed in Denmark.

One potential strategy is a partnership between a non-profit or private developer and a resident group. Each gets the benefit of the other’s strengths – the direct input and dedication of residents, and the expertise and track record of a knowledgeable developer. The developer is guaranteed immediate occupancy, which decreases marketing expenses, while residents get the community they want. In fact, joint venturing with an experienced developer may be necessary to obtain financing for the first American cohousing projects. Within such a development, a non-profit developer can also assist in financing units for low- and moderate-income households, either as rentals or lease/purchase options.

The cohousing model is a major contribution to society’s concept of home and community. Yet it obviously has its limitations. At an average size of 15 to 35 units, cohousing developments have limited impact on larger urban and regional design issues. Realizing the goal of providing good, affordable housing for all Americans will require a commitment from government and society as a whole. In the meantime, more informal approaches are necessary.

In the coming years, we will learn much more about adapting the Danish cohousing model to an American setting. Clearly, many people are seeking alternatives not provided by the traditional housing industry, and some are ready to do something about it. We hope our work will provide the inspiration and the rudimentary tools for such people to take decisive steps toward a creative solution.

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