Winslow Cohousing: A Self-Portrait

Members of North America's first resident-developed cohousing group reflect on a year of living in community

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 39
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Perhaps more than most kinds of intentional communities, cohousing is founded on the premise that the design and layout of houses, common spaces, sidewalks, and parking can either foster or inhibit a sense of community.

At Winslow Cohousing, like most cohousing communities, homes are tightly clustered, leaving space for orchards, organic gardens, play fields, forested land, and small gathering spaces along pedestrian pathways. Cars are kept to the periphery, making the outdoors an inviting, safe space for both adults and children. The Common House, with facilities for community meals and other gatherings, is the focus of community life.

The cohousing concept was brought to North America from Denmark (where cohousing has been flourishing for 20 years) by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, a husband and wife team with a background in architecture and environmental design (see IC #14 and #21).

But this story is not about the theory or design of cohousing communities; it’s a self-portrait by the first group in the US to develop and build a cohousing community. Sarah van Gelder, IC managing editor and one of the early members of the community, interviewed her neighbors about the ways their lives have changed since they moved into the community one year ago. Therese Künzi-Clark, also a cohousing member, took the photographs for this article.

As of this writing, there was room for two more households to join the community. For information, write Winslow Cohousing, 353 Wallace Way, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. For other cohousing information, see page 60.

Jane Trancho, 40, office administrator for a steel fabrication company, mother of Aiden (age 9) and Courtney (age 11).

Before we moved into cohousing, we lived in a nice single family house in Seattle in a nice spot. We had nice neighbors and all that, but I kept looking around. When I saw the flyer about Winslow Cohousing, it was something really intuitive – I knew this was the piece that was missing and I just didn’t turn back.

I feel better about my kids growing up here. I can’t be around all the time, but I know there’s someone looking out for my kids. I know that they’re in a place where, not only are they safer than in a single-family house situation, but they’re also getting support and caring.

There are times when cohousing is a mixed blessing. Moving here added a lot of time to my commute, and all the meetings and all the decisions and all the interactions take a lot of work.

There are times when I feel really frustrated and I go, "I’ve had it with this. I’m leaving!" Then I think, I can’t leave. There’s so much here that is so good; just being able to talk with your neighbors and know that, even if you have an argument, if push comes to shove, if you need something, they’re going to be there. That’s one thing that is so amazing about this place. So for all of its frustrations, I can’t leave!

I look at being here long term. I’m putting in my little garden in the backyard and planning what it may look like in 10 – 20 years, feeling that this is where I am going to stay.

Patsy Casey, 48, is one of the founding members of Winslow Cohousing and the mother of Alison (age 17) and Ian (age 19).

I have an especially good time with the little ones. I love the way they view the world. Nina [age 2], for example, was visiting me, along with Isabelle, Emily, and Ian [all age 2]. She had gone into my bed where Moji the cat was asleep, and he woke up and snuggled next to her face putting his wet nose on her forehead, and that just thrilled her to no end. She came out and said with her lisp: "Pathy, Pathy, Moji kithed me, Moji kithed me. He kithed me right on my …" she patted her forehead and couldn’t think of the word, then her eyes lit up, "… he kithed me right on my ceiling!"

My daughter Alison won’t be at home all that much longer, but I can see her forming very close friendships and feeling good knowing that there are grown-ups around her who like her and value her and who she can be herself with.

As for myself, I’m going through a really hard personal transition. Being here in cohousing has made a big difference. Not so much that I talk about it with everyone, but most people sense that I’m kind of vulnerable, and there’s a softness about the way I’m treated. They can tell when I’ve had a bad day, and there’ll be a hug or two, or a pat. It’s clear that the people care and that they know that I have to go through this myself, but they’re with me in it.

When you are going through a grief process, you’re feeling the anger and the tears, and you’re into denial and rage, and you never know what’s going to happen; it sort of comes in waves over you. It’s important for you to be in a place where you can have time by yourself. Even though I’m in one of the smallest units, and even though I am basically an introverted person, I’ve never felt intruded upon. I’ve always felt that I have as much space as I need to be by myself, to heal myself.

That was one of our goals, because there was a lot of concern that we were going to share ourselves ad nauseam. I think we can pat ourselves on the back and say, "Hey, we did manage to create a very nice balance." People can have their needs for solitude met, as well as their needs for community.

Kim Clark, 36, is a computer analyst, father of Patsy’s good friend Nina (age 2) as well as Lucas (age 7), and a great bike mechanic .

Nina and Patsy are a great combination; that eases our burden a lot.

It’s really special that Nina can walk across the sidewalk by herself to Ian’s house; that’s a unique experience for a two-year-old. As a parent I’ve benefited when, for example, Tim takes the kids sledding, Jeff gives us things that are broken and Lucas gets to take them apart.

I think we have developed a shared sense of what it takes to get along together. We are all willing to be a little softer, to listen to people, and to reconsider what we want in light of what other people want.

At this stage of our society, I think we have to develop skills to get along better. I’m a person that tries to live my ideals, and so it seems like my only choice was to do this.

Therese Künzi-Clark, 36, is a member of the cohousing board, Kim Clark’s wife, the photographer for this article, and Nina’s and Lucas’ mother. She grew up in Switzerland.

I have a much better support system here than I did when we lived back East. When we first moved here, Kim was sick in the hospital. I had people helping me with the move and taking care of the children; I don’t know how I would have dealt with that emergency if we had just moved from one house to another.

Then when my mom died, we were even thinking of leaving the kids here when we went to Switzerland for the funeral, feeling comfortable that they have a support system here.

It’s great to cook once a week and be able to eat the other times without spending that time cooking. The other day, I made a meal just for our family and spent two hours, and I thought, I much prefer cooking for a big group of people – it only takes an hour more. I used to spend a lot of time in the car driving Lucas to his friends’ houses and making appointments to see his friends. It’s totally different here, because he can just take off on his own.

It’s fun to see the kids grow and to get to know people better. We will be here for awhile and are living together every day, so we don’t have to rush relationships.

I keep looking at my needs versus the community’s needs. Do I need a study in my unit or could I just have a little space for my art supplies in the barn, if we ever have a barn? How much of my energy do I want to put into the common facilities?

It’s important for me to share and not use up too many resources. We don’t all need three cars, lawn mowers, big yards. It’s important to me to preserve some land and live a little more simply.

Paulie Thadigsman, 60 (going on 14), was, until her recent retirement, a psychiatric nurse. She and her husband Jim are preparing to leave the home in which they raised their seven children to move into their cohousing unit.

I don’t like living in isolation. We’re leaving a lovely home on the lake with manicured lawns and icy cold neighbors, and I feel that I’m not leaving anything behind, but I’m coming to something very positive.

I’ve known the people in this community now for three and a half years; some of them are closer to me than members of my own family, with the exception of my kids.

The children here are always so warm and receptive. So often I’ve seen young kids afraid of old people or poking fun at them, and withdrawing from them. I’d like to be able to convey to the kids a healthy respect for older people and to convey to them that older people still do things like ski and sail and hike.

I surmise that I remind the kids here of grandparents, whom they see very sporadically. I gush and ohh and ahh over them and tell them how important they are and how much I love them. So when they see me, they come up and give me hugs and kisses and remember that I bring treats sometimes, and I certainly am going to spoil them much of the time, and that’s a good feeling.

Tom Moench, 43, is a quality consultant, the husband of Ann Chadwick, and the father of Theora (age 5).

There’s something about this place that is very nurturing; the sounds and smells. I like just walking around and saying hello or striking up conversations with people. I know that if I want to learn something or vent that there’s a place to go.

One of my expectations about cohousing was that Theora would have an opportunity to really engage and play with other kids. What I didn’t expect is that she would so totally lose interest in television. Now she always has some place to put her energy and something interesting to do and she experiences children of all different ages. She doesn’t have time for television.

Life here has been more of a challenge for the adults. Before we moved here, it was like you were private, and to have community or to have other people you had to call them up and have them come over.

Now it’s like you gotta try to figure out some way not to have them come over. There’s constantly a kind of pulling and beckoning you in, so you can’t just throw up your hands and say ‘I’m not part of the larger whole.’

Which means, of course, that the architectural design is working. It’s much easier to get solitude in the midst of community than to get community in the midst of solitude.

This is a demanding environment. Especially because there’s so much that we’re learning. It’s not for the faint of heart! I think the intimacy and the knowledge and the strength of being able to work through things and know where people are, and rely on them, is great.

The fact that this place exists is an example of doing something that’s bigger than any one of us. So we’ve seen that physically, and now in terms of the emotional and the social, there’s real opportunities to wade through the challenges and emotional ups and downs, and learn the kinds of behaviors, understandings and patience to really connect at the community level.

Bob Kincheloe, 66, recently retired from Stanford, where he taught electrical engineering. He spent six years in the Navy, and quite a few more as an anti-war activist.

For me, it’s nice to have the contact with the kids because my own kids are all grown, and I have no grandkids.

The neighborhood where I was living in California was pretty much mature families living in large homes that are separated, so that there’s no contact with others. We had friends, but it’s not nearly as convenient to have day-to-day contact as it is here.

Things can happen here on the spur of the moment – like a potluck, or a job needs to be done and you need help, and there are people willing to help.

I guess I’m a bit of a pessimist about where our culture’s going. And things like this are one of the few positive things that I’ve seen.

Francie Powell, 43, is taking a sabbatical from her career as a marriage and family counseler to raise Ian (age 2).

The community part is not working as I imagined it would but it is definitely working. Somebody will say, "You’re ill, you need some help?" or they’ll make time to just get together and talk when you are stressed out.

With a two-year-old, there are times when it gets to be too much, and it means a lot to be able to say to someone, "Can you just take him while I get it halfway together?"

Making meals together, or somebody helping you plant something because they happen to have the time and energy – it’s the little things that are creating the community. It is happening in unseen ways, but is very deeply felt.

The trades between parents help dilute parenting on a full-time basis a little bit. I feel rejuvenated and not stuck. I shrink to imagine what it would have been like raising a child in a single-family dwelling. Then when [my husband] Steve isn’t around there’s adult company that I wouldn’t have if I lived in a single-family home. That has felt good!

The part that strikes me as being tough is that there have been so many changes. My ideas about what family life would be like have had to be altered and changed. Being in the Common House setting is wonderful in some ways, but you have to find a new time to sit down together and find out what is going on with the family.

When we first moved in, I felt like I was riding a wave. Cooperative living for me has been a real stretch. I didn’t realize that my finances and my time could be so impacted by our needing to work things out together. I’ve seen some of the best relating between people that I’ve ever seen because of that, but I’ve also felt the frustration of, "Are we ever going to get anything done?"

As much as I am bellyaching, I find it hard to imagine living in a traditional setting, at least not with kids. I don’t know what my needs will be when we no longer have children, but right now, I don’t know what took us so long to come up with this idea! s

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