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Coho Fever

Coho Fever
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photos courtesy of CoHousing Solutions/MCCamant & Durrett Architects.

By Dorothy Potter Snyder

Cohousing is a phenomenon that began in Scandinavia and Europe, came to America in the late 1980s, and has been on the rise in the U.S. and Canada ever since. But what is cohousing, anyway? And is it for you?

Currently, there are over 120 operating cohousing communities in the U.S., and more than 100 more in the planning stages. Husband and wife architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, co-principals of The Cohousing Company, introduced cohousing to North America in 1988 with their book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. The couple studied coho communities in Denmark, and over the years have been involved at some level in the creation of 50 coho communities. More and more Americans are becoming wise to the social and environmental benefits of planning and building their own communities “decision by decision”, instead of purchasing single homes in developer-planned communities. “Cohousing”, said McCamant at the 2015 National Cohousing Conference, “is a radical shift in the relationship between housing consumers and housing producers.”

But what is cohousing?

It’s not a co-op. It’s not a condo. It’s not a commune. So what is it?

Simply put, in a cohousing community a number of private residences are clustered near one or more shared facilities, and the residents design and manage all aspects of their own community.

Cohousing isn’t new. Monasteries and abbeys are an age-old kind of cohousing based on religious practice. You might say that a kind of cohousing exists anywhere people consciously share a vision, some land, their effort and talents to live better ­– together.

The 2015 National Cohousing Conference held in Durham, NC in June was the largest gathering of American cohousers ever. At the conference, the organizers noted that the definition of cohousing is constantly evolving. Each community reflects the circumstances and preferences of the people organizing it and the place it’s located.

Modern cohousing took shape in the countryside of Scandinavia where the retrofitted former estates and decommissioned government facilities made perfect venues for families to set up mutually-supportive eco-communities. Some, like just-opened Durham Central Park Cohousing, are brand-new, urban builds made for walkability in the middle of a thriving city. Others, like Frog Song (a McCamant-Durant project in Cosati, CA) are mixed use residential and commercial developments. The aim of cohousing is neither religious, nor political: rather, its purpose is for residents to design and maintain their own sustainable communities in ways that best serve their particular needs.

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What does cohousing look like?

Cohousing communities vary widely in how they look and function. They can be urban, suburban or rural. They can be built from the ground up in partnership between community residents, architects and construction managers, or in located in former factories, suburban neighborhoods, or even former shopping malls and hospitals. They may consist of one single building, or private multiple houses or apartments clustered around a common house or room. Architectural styles range from traditional, to modern, to industrial or even “tiny house”. The residents may be twenty-something, mixed ages, or seniors-only.

But all cohousing communities have certain characteristics in common. All are governed by consensus and managed by the residents. All feature a balance between smaller, more eco-efficient private spaces and larger shared facilities like common houses with professional kitchens, dining and meeting areas, libraries, guestrooms or guesthouses, community gardens  and even shared gym facilities and play areas for children.  Most coho communities have several (optional) group dinners a week to which residents contribute as cooks or clean up crew and which provide opportunities for social contact.  Many have the word “ecovillage” in their names, and unite residents around the central goal of sustainable living and ecological awareness, including everything from food production and energy consumption, to transportation (car-sharing) and recycling.

As cohousing pioneers share their experiences through venues like the The Cohousing Association of the United States and Cohousing-L, both the look and functionality of cohousing communities continues to evolve. The impetus behind the growing movement is an ever-stronger desire among people to abandon the old “we build it, you buy it” housing model, and to opt instead for conscious living, intentional community-building, eco-friendliness, and — oh, yes — happiness. Denmark, has the largest percentage of its population living in cohousing of any nation, and is also one of the happiest countries in the world. Is there a connection? Maybe.

Elder cohousing: a social way to age in place

Elder cohousing is on the up-tick as aging baby-boomers look for solutions to the question of how to live creatively and actively in their post-retirement years, while avoiding both the cost and the monoculture of corporate-run retirement communities.  Increasingly, seniors want to age in place, but without the physical and financial burden of maintaining a large family home. In cohousing, anyone can accomplish this without facing isolation when their children move away, life partners die, or workplace communities are lost. Seniors in cohousing enjoy peer support, regular group meals and community activities with neighbors, and they are more apt to maintain their physical and mental health in the atmosphere of abundant social contact.

While there are senior-only cohousing communities, many seniors prefer living in mixed-age cohos where they benefit from the enlivening presence of young families with children for whom they become valued and honored elders.  One elderly resident I spoke with at the SolTerra Cohousing Community in Chapel Hill, NC told FITNF she loves enjoying the privacy of her small home, while at the same time having the comfort of knowing that if she becomes ill, her neighbors will quickly organize themselves to visit her, bring meals and check in to see if she needs support.

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Is cohousing for me? Four questions to ask yourself.

The best way to start deciding if cohousing is a good option for you is to start reading up on it. There are abundant books and websites. Then find a cohousing community near you so you can talk frankly with the people who live there. Cohousing communities expect and invite visits from potential neighbors, and may even invite you to share a group meal or come to an event. If you think you might want to build your own coho community with friends, good for you! Just remember, it’s a big job, which is why still only 5% of coho communities that start to organize ever actually get built.

So as you consider the coho life, consider the following:

    1. Am I okay with paying more per square foot than other comparable housing in my area? The market value of cohousing in the U.S. is on average 24-112% higher than other forms of housing in the same real estate market. The Partnership for Affordable Cohousing is working to change that reality, but for now be aware that diversity is not necessarily easy to find in cohousing communities and you will be paying comparably more your roof.
    2. Am I really enthusiastic about contributing regularly to my community? Personal investment in the life of the community is fundamental in cohousing. While you can purchase a home in a coho community without being officially involved in decision-making or ever preparing lasagna for a group dinner, why do it? Cohousing neighbors take turns at leadership roles, and you don’t always have to be “on the job. But ultimately if you’re not into shaping a community life with your neighbors, there’s no point choosing cohousing, no matter how cute the community is.
    3. What do you want to get out of it? Be clear about your expectations from both yourself and any community you consider joining. Are you a family with children? Yes, it’s a boon to be excused from driving kids to playdates and literally having a village to help you raise them. Are you older, or disabled? Being interactive with a vibrant community while still downsizing and remaining independent is a huge plus. But everyone’s different: what do you want? Really?
    4. Are you going to be okay if things don’t always go your way?  Self-governance by consensus takes a lot of skill with compromise and communication. It involves time, discussion, and a willingness to occasionally stand aside if the rest of the community decides to spend group funds on a dog park, for example, and you are a cat person. Be honest with yourself about your willingness to abide by group’s decisions that go against your grain.
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