Natural Life Magazine

Cohousing - Creating a Sustainable Housing Solution

Cohousing – Creating a Sustainable Housing Solution
by Wendy Priesnitz

A small but growing number of people in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, the US, and Canada are reinventing the village model of housing. They’re popularizing Collaborative Housing or “Cohousing” for short, which provides an alternative to the isolation, alienation, and lack of sustainability in their current single-family housing styles.

The first cohousing community was built near Copenhagen Denmark in 1972, by 27 families who were “frustrated with suburban subdivisions and apartment complexes,” according to Kathryn McCamant who, with her husband Charles Durrett, brought the concept to North America. They wrote a book Cohousing, a Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, which was published in 1988 by Ten Speed Press and remains the prime guide to cohousing.

Cohousing is a type of co-operatively managed housing with shared common space designed to facilitate community participation. In a cohousing neighborhood, each family or individual has their own private home, but some facilities are shared. These could include a common gathering or dining area, playground or playroom, daycare, vegetable garden, office equipment, or workshop.

Creating a cohousing neighborhood can be as simple as taking down the fences between existing homes, or as complex as designing and constructing a new development from scratch. Benefits include cost savings, availability of shared facilities, and the safety and support of friendly neighbors.

Neighborhoods are usually planned for ten to 40 households and are built with equity from the future occupants, invested mainly in their private units. Neighborhoods can include houses, apartments, or renovated buildings.

According to Donna Spreitzer of the Collaborative Housing Society, who spoke at an Affordable Cohousing Marketplace held in Toronto in May of 1998, there were more than 150 cohousing projects in the planning stages across Canada at that time. The concept’s popularity was evident at that event; there was a capacity crowd of 150 people, with a large waiting list.

Speakers at the one-day conference provided an overview of the skills, organizational structures, and attitudes necessary for successful launching of cohousing projects.

Chryse Gibson, an Interdependent Housing Solutions consultant, presented a variety of skill sets that are required for successful cohousing start-ups. These include people skills (motivator, spokesperson, facilitator), location-related skills (real estate expert, environmentalist, someone who knows the community), financing (people who know where and how to get money, and its cost), as well as designers and builders. She mused, “Is it any wonder many groups have stalled out?”

Peter Burns, from the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said that in his experience, the secrets to success include having a shared vision, being “hardnosed” about economics, and being project based. Watch out for “analysis paralysis,” he warned at the conference.

Burns pointed out that it is possible for cohousing to foster affordability, contrary to the prevailing notion that it’s a middle class phenomenon. Decreased costs stem from developers’ margins falling to unit holders, sweat equity being used to finish the project, the possibility of smaller-than-conventional individual units, decreased servicing costs, the absence of marketing costs, and the ease of daycare and other amenities.

Many of the speakers pointed out the need for process skills among groups planning cohousing projects. Toronto lawyer Brian Iler, whose presentation focused on legal structures, suggested that groups work on their conflict resolution skills.

Iler, who has a long history of assisting non-profit and alternative types of projects, advised groups to clarify their common social and economic values and decide whether they’re collectively or individually motivated, and whether the project should be market-driven or cost-driven.

In our society, it’s not a simple matter for a group of people to come together and see a cohousing project through from beginning to end. But increasing numbers of people are finding that the effort is worth it, both in terms of personal interdependence and environmental sustainability.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has has also authored thirteen books, with three more in process. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine's July/August 1998 issue and updated in 2018.

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Related Natural Life Magazine Articles:

Wild Sage Cohousing Sets Sustainability Standard

Inside WindSong Cohousing

Quayside Cohousing - An Environmentally Sustainable Lifestyle

Cohousing Comes to Canada

Finding Community

Communal Food: The Community Kitchen Movement

Moving to an Eco Village

Cooperatively Solar

Other Resources:

Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett (Ten Speed Press, 1993) 

Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett (New Society Publishers, 2011)

Reinventing Community: Stories from the Walkways of Cohousing by David Wann (Fulcrum Publishing, 2005)

Sustainable Community: Learning from the Cohousing Model by Graham Meltzer (Trafford Publishing, 2005)

The Cohousing Handbook: Building A Place For Community by Chris ScottHanson and Kelly ScottHanson (New Society Publishers, 1996, 2004)

The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach to Independent Living, 2nd Edition by Charles Durrett and William H. Thomas (New Society Publishers, 2009)


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