Monday, January 25, 2010

So, is that, like, a commune? (Cohousing, part I)

So, we’ve been talking about cohousing lately.

Who’s we? My Tuesday-Nighters, naturally. Cuthbert, Lisey, Mia, Jack, and I particularly, but we’re open to others joining the conversation.


Before any of this ‘H became a mommy’ stuff happened, we started thinking about the idea of living more closely as a community. We’d been meeting pretty regularly for over 2 years at that point, and the idea of living closer together seemed like a natural next step.

Each and every time we spoke to someone about this, they would respond with, “So, is that, like, a commune?” And we would say something witty like, “yes, but without all the brainwashing,” because we really didn’t know what to call our idea, but we were pretty clear that it wasn’t a commune.

We looked into a few properties and eventually put our idea on hold mostly due to financial constraints and prior financial commitments of some of the members.

Fastforward, and here we are again. We’ve now been meeting regularly for something like 4 ½ years, and the desire for community and a way to live closer together has only grown. This time, Lisey went out and found lots of resources for us, and it turns out there are already people living this kind of lifestyle in the US. Apparently, they call it cohousing.

This is all great and wonderful for a variety of reasons, most notably that there is a wealth of experience we can now draw from in trying to sort this out. Most cohousing communities are open to visitors, and we’ve discovered that there are consultants and architects who work pretty much exclusively with cohousing communities. Whoo hoo! Now we’ve got something to go on!

Plus, we have an awesome new name for our idea. Instead of fumbling around with, “So, we want to live in the same place, but not all in the same room, but we want a common room – and a library!, but have our own space, but someone has to own the building and we don’t know how that works, but we’re all going to be really close neighbors, so, erm, yea, we want to have some sort of community,” now we go around saying things like, “Oh, yes, we’re very interested in the idea of cohousing.”

Which sounds much more sophisticated, and much less like we’re a spastic bunch of hippies, if you ask me.

And now people respond to us with, “So, is that, like, a commune?”

*bangs head on desk*

Anyway, it’s given me a little motivation to do a write up on cohousing. Perhaps writing this won’t make any of you, my dear readers, interested in co-housing, but it will give me something to go on the next time my grandma wants to know what I’m up to, or my boss expresses concern that I’ve joined a cult.

It’s not a cult. Really. We’re quite serious about making that clear.

We’ve gone so far as to have banned Kool-Aid.

Anyway, back to cohousing.

The idea of cohousing is essentially the idea of building a neighborhood on purpose. Jim Leach, a cohousing developer and builder, says, “…cohousing was very much resident driven: it is basically a group of people who want to design and build their own neighborhood and do a better job of it than conventional builders are doing.” Take your current living situation – your house or your condo or your apartment – and then imagine having meaningful relationships with the majority of your neighbors and having a shared common space for things like shared meals, events, etc. That’s the basic idea. Obviously, it’s a little more involved than that, but this is a good starting point.

Cohousing happens in all ways, shapes, and forms. Some communities choose to build new housing commodities from the ground up. Some retrofit existing structures. Some live in the country, some in the suburbs, and some in the city. Some co-exist with urban businesses; some are located on farmland. Regardless of when/where/how a cohousing community is built, there are some basic things that usually stay the same:

Cohousing communities provide private living space for residents. No, you do not have to share a bathroom with everyone on your block or building. Individuals and families have their own homes, whether in the forms of single family structures, condos, or rented apartments. Most cohousing communities also have a designated outdoor area that is private. For example, the back yard might be a private area, while the front yard is a public area. If you’re in your back yard, people generally leave you alone. If you’re in your front yard, they might stop to chat. Or, depending on the structure of the neighborhood, it might be the other way around. Either way, privacy is a part of the structure.

Cohousing communities provide shared living space for residents. What this shared living space will look like depends on the type of community you live in. Communities with a series of single-family structures usually have a common house which is a separate building with shared living space. Communities comprised of condos or apartments in a single or series of buildings might have a room or series of rooms dedicated to common space. Nearly all common houses (or common rooms) contain a shared kitchen and dining area. Community meals are popular among cohousing residents, and the shared kitchen and dining space facilitate this. Depending on the atmosphere of the community, shared living spaces could also include children’s playrooms, libraries, adult sitting rooms, entertainment rooms, or meeting rooms. Or whatever your community wants and can afford. Common spaces are typically maintained by the entire community and are paid for with dues paid by each resident.

In addition to indoor common areas, outdoor common areas are frequently seen in cohousing. Community gardens are common, along with community playgrounds and a community lawn for gathering. Of course, this is all dependent on what your community wants and is able to maintain.

Cohousing communities are developed with the participation of future residents. Future residents participate in planning and designing their community so that it meets their needs. Every group of people has a different group of needs. By participating in the planning of the community, cohousing communities are able to work to have their particular needs met.

Most cohousing communities operate by consensus. In other words, all the residents have to be on board with a plan (or at least not oppose it) in order to it to move forward. While this means lots of meetings and lots of debates, it also means that no one’s needs are ignored and that cohousers are typically awesome problem solvers.

Ok, that's going to be part I of my cohousing write up. I'll soon be back with part II, including some of the benefits of living in cohousing and some additional cohousing resources. I'll be back soon!

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