Cohousing: the future of living
What about your privacy? Don’t you want your own little piece of heaven on earth? Is it like some kind of sect? These are some of the common reactions one receives when mentioning that you are thinking about or participating in a cohousing project. A big part of the population is not familiar with the concept and falls back on the, mostly negative, images they have from groups of grownups living together: (ex. sects). Nevertheless this type of living has been gaining a steady increase in interest for decades now throughout the west. In this article we explore why.
So, what exactly is this co-living thing?
The well trusted, and globally loved, online encyclopedia known as Wikipedia defines cohousing as: “An intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space. Each attached or single family home has traditional amenities, including a private kitchen. Shared spaces typically feature a common house, which may include a large kitchen and dining area, laundry, and recreational spaces. Shared outdoor space may include parking, walkways, open space, and gardens. Neighbors also share resources like tools and lawnmowers.”
So, in this definition we find a couple of elements that deviate from the “traditional” western way of living. Let’s look at these in detail:
The majority of cohousing communities are 15 to 35 private and individual homes built around a common area that encourages interaction. These “intentional neighborhoods” invite residents to be “neighborly” and stay socially active. Community activities feature regularly-scheduled shared meals, meetings, and workdays. Neighbors gather for parties, games, movies, or other events. Cohousing makes it easy to form clubs, organize child and elder care, and carpool. Nearly all communities have a common house with a kitchen and meeting space, while others have a garden, a pool or hot tub. What’s obvious is that when neighbors know each other well, it provides a useful solution for anyone who just occasionally needs a helping hand.
Cohousing originated in Denmark in the 1960’s among groups of families who were dissatisfied with existing housing and communities.
The strange thing is that the above explanation sounds like, I have been told, the way people used to live back in “the good old days”. They had potlucks, kept an eye on each other’s kids, loaned out lawnmowers and cups of sugar. Each home was its family’s castle, but the instinct to participate in a caring community transcended the temptation to isolate in private houses.
The problem seems that we apparently strayed so far from that norm, over the last half-century or so, that it now takes a conscious effort to recreate it. That’s one way to view cohousing, a collaborative housing model imported throughout the west from Denmark in the 1970s, in which “residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods.” In the approximately 125 cohousing communities in the U.S., residents share chores and responsibilities, come together for meals and other activities in a common house, and make decisions based on consensus. It’s a conscious way of living designed to encourage social interaction and investment in the greater good.
The instinct to participate in a caring community transcended the temptation to isolate in private houses.
So, let’s sum up the advantages:
- You experience stronger social connections.
- You typically have a large garden
- You do not have to buy everything on your own. Think of your tumble dryer, washing machine or lawn mower, all of which remain unused more than 50% of the time.
- You can share maintenance costs.
- If you have children there is always a babysitter in the area.
- There is more social control.
- You can rent out a flat together for additional income.
- You usually have a large flexible spaces or parties, meetings, work and/or relaxation.
Because each cohousing community is planned and designed in its urban context, a key feature is its flexibility to the needs and values of its residents and the characteristics of the site. Cohousing can be urban, suburban or rural. The physical form is typically compact but varies from low-rise apartments to townhouses to clustered detached houses. They tend to keep cars to the periphery which promotes walking through the community and interacting with neighbors as well as increasing safety for children at play within the community.
Shared green space is another common characteristic, whether for gardening, picnics, or food production. When more land is available than is needed for the physical structures, the structures are usually clustered closely together, leaving as much of the land for “open” shared use. This is another, neat little, environmental advantage of cohousing as it directly addresses the growing problem of suburban sprawl.
In addition to completely newly-built and designed projects, there are also “organic” communities. In these, neighbors created “intentional neighborhoods” by buying adjacent properties and removing fences. Amenities such as Common Houses, ponds or garden sheds are added throughout the organic cohousing process, while living there. N Street Cohousing in Davis, CA, is the canonical example of this type. It even came together before the term Cohousing was popularized. Here, once again, the instinct to participate in a caring community transcended the temptation to isolate ones garden.
Cohousing differs from most types of intentional communities in that the residents do not have a shared economy or a common set of beliefs or religion. They do invest in creating a socially rich and interconnected community. In most cases a consensus decision-making model based on a non-hierarchical structure is used to manage the cohousing. Individuals do, however, take on leadership roles, such as being responsible for coordinating a garden or facilitating a meeting.
And beyond just rearranging the way we live, cohousing has great potential to reduce the amount we consume. It is ideally suited to ventures such as group-purchased renewable energy, car shares, and hyper-local food production. Many rural and suburban cohousing neighborhoods have a farm or garden on-site.
Residents are able to choose how much they engage in order to find the right balance between their privacy and the community.
The future of living?
Even if the neighborhood you are building or living in isn’t cohousing, the concepts and principles of cohousing are making their way into mainstream urban planning. The growth of the sharing economy, a focus on walkable neighborhoods, a preference for smaller, more efficient homes — all these developments reflect central values of cohousing.
There’s a lot of need for affordable housing, there’s a lot of need for people to not feel isolated, and there’s a huge interest in sustainability. So all of those things kind of come together in a swirling vortex and create cohousing.
In other words, we’re starting to realize that our long-term future won’t be built around highways, automobiles, and detached houses with fertilized lawns. As more people seek out a different kind of community, cohousing (or projects like it) will grow in popularity.
At Bao we believe the challenges we are facing in the construction industry are substantial on multiple levels. Throughout the last decades housing has become increasingly more expensive, wasteful, energy intensive and socially exclusive. We hope to make a first positive impact on these issues through the introduction of our SAM system. We do however also recognize the great potential in new types of living arrangements like cohousing. We, for one, will be constantly on the lookout for how we can use the advantages they offer in our future product offerings.