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S400: Bringing Community to the Micro-level – The Opportunities of Urban Cohousing

2012 March 5
by Josh Mahar

< Daybreak Cohousing in Portland - Common areas aren't used a couple times a year, they are focal points for community interaction - click to enlarge; photo by Grace Kim >

The idea of cooperative housing is not new. For many of us it conjures up utopian dreams of cultish flower children. But over the past 20 years a new form of communal housing, cohousing, has developed into an intriguing, and more down-to-earth, approach to collective living in the United States. Rather than far-flung communes in the woods, many cohousing communities are choosing urban locations to capitalize on the social benefits of denser neighborhoods. Here in Seattle, there are currently three communities, Duwamish and Puget Ridge in West Seattle, and Jackson Place in the Central Area. Capitol Hill Urban Housing, the most urban project of all, is currently in the works on 12thAve.

There hasn’t been much popular interest in cohousing to date; but a number of recent studies suggest that cohousing could be one of the most effective ways of addressing sustainability goals: socially, economically and environmentally. Perhaps it’s time we stop thinking about communal living at the fringe, and start considering it a fundamental part of creating better, more livable cities.

< Quayside Village Cohousing, British Columbia - Rather than dead space, walkways are considered communal and used to the fullest; photo by Grace Kim >

Cohousing in many ways is the goldilocks solution to modern housing. It provides just the right amount of communal interaction but with clear places for personal space. The key physical differences of cohousing are that it is designed through a participatory process and incorporates shared spaces. These come in diverse forms: from gardens, to kitchens, to guest rooms, or even wine cellars.  Other than that, the only real distinction of cohousing is that residents are “consciously committed to living as a community”. While each person has their own home, residents come together for various kinds of activities, such as monthly shared dinners. They also use group decision-making to deal with maintenance issues and other community concerns.

This may not sound all that different from a condo building with an HOA and a shared gym, but the intentionality of cohousing makes a world of difference. A 2011 survey of cohousing residents by COHOUS found that a majority of cohousers frequently helped with childcare, provided support to sick or injured neighbors, and exchanged services and equipment. What’s more, a whopping 48% said they occasionally provided voluntary financial aid or assistance to a neighbor in need. Way beyond the intermittent cup of sugar, cohousing neighbors provide a web of support to each other that forms a robust social and financial safety net.

< Quayside Village, British Columbia - Nothing special on the outside; it's what's on the inside that counts. Photo by Grace Kim >

It should come as no surprise that this collective living pays environmental dividends as well. An EPA study of a Colorado cohousing community found that their utility bills were around 50% lower than surrounding homes. Other research suggests that water use and driving are significantly lower in cohousing communities as well.  Although some of this comes from shared space and group activities, much of the efficiency and savings come from the ability of cohousing communities to leverage each other’s skills, knowledge, and resources to integrate and maintain green technologies in their homes.  As of 2011, at least 39 of the country’s 120 cohousing communities had won one or more awards for excellence in sustainability.

Communal living has never been popular in a country founded on the values of individualism. But, humans are by nature social animals; a strong social fabric is how societies collectively overcome hard times, and thrive in good. If we fail to cultivate these bonds, our efforts toward sustainability, literally, our ability to endure, are necessarily doomed. Cohousing is a good opportunity to leverage the benefits of communal living to make our cities more resilient to climate challenges, while respecting our tradition of personal freedom.


Josh Mahar currently helps with community engagement at Seattle’s P-Patch Program. He has worked on community development issues with a number of organizations including Forterra, Historic Seattle, and the Capitol Hill Community Council. He is pursuing his Master’s Degree in Public Administration at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.

Note: Information for this post was provided by Grace Kim, principal at Schemata Workshop and past Board Chair of COHOUS. Contact Kim for local cohousing opportunities or to set up a cohousing informational session.



7 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt the Engineer permalink
    March 5, 2012

    I find this style of living very interesting. Intellectually, it solves a lot of problems – bringing the small village lifestyle to the city. Shared resources – anything from kitchens to tools to child care – could make life easier and cheaper.

    My fear is that I’ve had some pretty terrible neighbors. One nice feature of a city is the ability to detach from your immediate neighbors and find friends that suit your personality – I would be afraid of being locked in to a relationship that doesn’t work. Of course, having never tried this lifestyle, it could be an unwarranted fear.

    (“condom building” heh. is that a highrise?)

  2. March 6, 2012

    I think Matt’s fear of being locked into neighborly relationships with unsavory types is largely unwarranted. What you have to remember is that cohousing groups are self selecting. By definition, you’re going to get people who share common outlooks, goals, habits, skills, etc…rather than the crap shoot you get with apartment or condo neighbors.

    Thanks for this piece, do you happen to have any further reading suggestions, or links to groups that might have more information about forming new cohousing communities? I’ve been interested in cohousing since I first read about a community in Golden, Co several years ago and would love more info than what I’ve been able to find.

  3. JoshMahar permalink
    March 6, 2012

    Hey Jesse, is your best bet for information on cohousing, local communities, and strategies for developing your own. Keep an eye on the events page for meetings and tours in the NW. Grace Kim of Schemata workshop also does a lot of informational sessions about cohousing and is spearheading the Capitol Hill project. She may be a good mentor for how to start.

    If you’re feeling really ambitious the 2012 Cohousing Conference is taking place in SF June 13-17.

  4. Chris permalink
    March 8, 2012

    The co-housing model makes a lot of sense, although I think it would be hard to find enough people seeking a similar level of community interaction, personal space, amenities and price points. I personally would not want anything so prescriptive as mandated communal dinners, but rather have the place set up to take advantage of much more interaction than one might have in a typical development. Others might like the “intentionality” of the community events.

  5. March 9, 2012

    Jesse is correct. Although we can never completely grasp the myriad ways people communicate and socialize, the cohousing process is one that filters participants and finely tunes the eventual cohousing group. Going through the motions of workshops planning, design studies, permits, land studies, and whatever curveball may come tends to solidify the group and further their understanding and empathy for each other. The result is a group of private individuals living within a socially and physically supportive community. Who wouldn’t like that?

    Jesse, is a great place to get the basics of cohousing, as well as find out more about cohousing sites through their directory. The absolute primer, a cohousing bible, is the third edition of Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities, by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. It is full of case studies, ideas to get started, and is an invaluable resource for getting the most out of the cohousing process. Chuck and Katie coined “cohousing” and championed it in North America. They are the principals of McCamant & Durrett Architects, otherwise known as the Cohousing Company.

    It is difficult to gauge similarity on those levels. What I’ve found among many cohousing communities are people with a diverse range of expectations and comfort zones who approach situations with an open mind. Some don’t mind a community laundry room, others want their own machines – the cohousing design process can accommodate both. The retired have free time and there is no summer school for the children/teens – the cohousing environment provides the opportunity for them to do things together (working parents definitely appreciate this). Cohousing isn’t about mandates; it’s for people who proactively work towards the type of home life and community they want.

    For the most part, cohousing provides exactly what you’re suggesting. The common house, located centrally and often times the main entry to the property, provides opportunity for interaction and socializing. Porches at unit entries along a shared walking path also extend those opportunities. The only meaningful mandate of cohousing is that cohousers make a concerted effort to live happily, sustainably, and respectively within their community.

    Great article! The perfect read over lunch.

  6. September 27, 2013

    Hello – My name is Vanessa Quirk, I’m an editor at ArchDaily (the world’s most visited architecture site). We’d like to use that first image, by Grace Kim, for an editorial we are publishing on communal housing. Could you please get in touch and let me know if we’d have permission?



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