Cohousing communities

24Jan15

Can Boomers Make Cohousing Mainstream?

Popular in northern Europe, cohousing is still a fringe option in the U.S. But the number of cohousing communities here is set to climb, thanks to Baby Boomers.

CHRIS BENTLEY @Cementley

When architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett made their first pilgrimage to Denmark in the early 1980s, they were out to learn whatever they could. What they brought back would earn them a reputation as the mother and father of cohousing in the U.S.

They visited communities like Copenhagen’s Trudeslund (where they would later live), noting the common spaces that linked small clusters of private residences with public life. Kids ran along car-free paths; families gathered around meals in a common house or stayed in their private homes as they pleased.

Trudeslund, in Copenhagen (seier+seier/Flickr)

“I think the thing that really impressed us,” says McCamant, “is how normal it is. It seems [there] like the single-family house world is the strange one. That still is what baffles me, that people think it’s some radical thing.”

Cohousing refers to a kind of shared housing in between that single-family world and the hippie communes (or hipster co-ops) it’s often confused with. Danish architect Jan Gudmand-Høyer pioneered the model in the late ’60s and early ’70s, bringing together friends and like-minded utopians to co-design and develop multi-unit homes that would foster a sense of community among their residents. He talked about reintroducing “play” into daily life or, as he put it, “moving from Homo productivo to Homo ludens“—from worker drones to more joyful beings.

The idea has caught on in Europe, where somewhere between 1 and 8 percent of Danes live in a form of cohousing. (In the U.S., that figure is less than one hundreth of one percent of total housing units.) Gudmand-Høyer’s Skråplanet and Trudeslund communities still thrive. But in the U.S. it has been a slow climb.

About 130 cohousing communities exist in the U.S., according to the Cohousing Association, a nonprofit based in Durham, North Carolina. McCamant, whose firm Cohousing Partners has built dozens of communities, predicts the number will double within 10 years. If that happens it will be thanks to one demographic force of nature: baby boomers.

“A large majority of these communities are being driven by baby boomers looking at downsizing when they retire. For whatever reason, cohousing didn’t work for them earlier, but now they’re in a transition in life,” she says.

She could be referring to Alice Alexander, executive director of the Cohousing Association. Alexander, 57, and her husband are residents of one of the nation’s newest cohousing communities, or “cohos”: Durham Central Park Cohousing.

Mostly empty-nesters, its members came together several years ago to plan a 24-unit cluster of condominiums with solar water heaters and shared resources, like a media room and performance space for the community’s numerous artists and musicians. They successfully petitioned local authorities for a single electric meter, instead of 24.

That communal spirit extends beyond the utility bill. Alexander says daily life among her “true neighbors” is a stark contrast with the suburban subdivisions of her native northern Virginia, where she lived in single-family homes for decades before discovering cohousing.

“I did what everybody did. I was in commuter hell, I didn’t know my neighbors, all that. There wasn’t a choice, or we didn’t know another choice existed,” Alexander says. “Baby boomers are demanding a better way to live. We want to be sustainable; we want community, happiness.”

Read the full article here.

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