Book Review: Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities

I know I live in a community because on a Friday night it takes me 45 minutes and two beers to get from the parking lot to my front door. – Trudeslund resident quoted in Creating Cohousing.

Nearly two decades after the show ended, I still find myself referencing moments from Northern Exposure. In an episode from the fifth season, Maggie gets fed up with the way the washers at the town laundromat are tearing up her clothes and decides to buy her own appliances. She doesn’t count on the psychological and social effects of privatizing this chore and somewhat manically and comically tries to get her old friends from the laundromat to come to her house to do their laundry. When they don’t, Maggie decides the social world of the laundromat counts for more than the quality of the washers there and purposefully breaks her own machines in order to return to her old routine.

For decades, Denmark (it’s always Denmark, isn’t it?) has recognized this fundamental human need for community by pioneering the practice of cohousing. Cohousing communities, as the architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant explain, have diverse flavors but share some basic characteristics: Residents, rather than developers, drive the design and planning process and therefore have more invested in their communities; common areas, especially the common house, are prioritized; residents share much more than in contemporary housing: maintenance responsibilities, childcare, tools, cars, laundry facilities and crucially, meals; and homes are typically smaller, clustered closer together and implement sustainable building design and practices (even in areas with abundant land).

Durrett and McCamant highlight cohousing communities around Denmark and in the US, where interest is also growing. They also interview residents and provide a rough blueprint for those interested in starting their own communities. Cohousing tries very intentionally to turn the tide of isolation that has Americans camped out in ever more ginourmous caves. It’s an ideal situation for parents with busy careers, children with their need for space and playmates, older folks and others with mobility issues and single people. The community benefits greatly from this multi-generational pool of wisdom and energy as well.

FrogSong Cohousing in Cotati, CA

Naturally, such novel communities have faced initial resistance from local governments and lenders but their reluctance has proven time and again to be unfounded: cohousing units tend to appreciate faster than other homes in the same region and, especially in the case of infill projects, to rejuvenate the community around them. Infill developments seem to be the most desirable from a sustainability perspective but it’s difficult to purchase the space required for 20 or more households in an existing neighborhood. Is there an easier way to retrofit a community atmosphere out of a neighborhood that’s already there? It’s not easy to do without that collaborative design process.

Making cohousing affordable is probably the biggest dilemma with these developments. While many homes, because of their small size, tend to be reasonably priced, they still require upfront financial commitment from residents. Most of the people pictured in the book seemed to be middle-aged WASPy types. Cohousing is also geared primarily toward homeowners over renters, although rental units have proven successful too. Near the end of the book, the authors highlight a few projects they designed specifically with low-income households in mind.

A site plan for Clearwater Commons near Seattle, WA

Because the book is written by a firm specializing in cohousing, it has a slight marketing brochure quality to it that might be glossing over some of the stickier issues. Still, it’s pretty incredible that housing developments like this aren’t the norm: they provide so many social, environmental and practical benefits. The idea seems to be catching on though: Durrett and McCamant say that even in places where cohousing isn’t feasible, developers are using aspects of cohousing (say, by putting parking at the periphery), a cohousing-lite, if you will.

We also obviously need new models in a housing market that’s been decimated by the financial crisis. Something in the way we’ve designed our neighborhoods these past decades is clearly not sustainable. Cohousing, along with other community-oriented and driven development ideas (under the larger umbrella of “intentional communities”), provides a great template going forward. The participatory approach also goes one step beyond typical smart growth plans in tapping into the growing vitality of hyper local decision-making. You look at a place like Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage in Maine where a cohousing neighborhood abuts a working farm and you can’t help but feel you’re seeing the future of housing.

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