Cohousing Text Summary – ‘An Old Idea: A Contemporary Approach’

Here is my summary of the choosing text – An Old Idea: A Contemporary Approach.

It is quite a long summary, however, due to the detail and important aspects that it covers and the potential usefulness that it holds for our design in Hexham, I felt it was appropriate to try and include all of these. So here it is:


Cohousing blog post.


An Old Idea: A Contemporary Approach


It is believed that cohousing is not a new concept. In the past it is apparent that many villages or communities were very tightly woven and they often did things together. This ranged from building community facilities to growing crops and celebrating the harvest. Many of these aspects can be seen in the more contemporary features of cohousing communities. In the modern co-housing communities there are many different professions, people will live in close proximity, however they may work away from this area. This does not stop people from living together in fact it can help if anything, a doctor could help a child who has been injured or a plumber could help with leaks. In order for this to work in a community, it is about the residents being comfortable to ask for the help of their fellow co-housing residents.


Over time co-housing has had to change and adapt to different elements such as society and technological advancements. In the past co-housing had to relate to zoning, however now with the push towards mixed-use neighbourhoods, the zoning had to accommodated various changes. Therefore in some cohousing communities there are retail, business and social space. People can live and work here without the need to specifically work at home or travel distances to work.


Cohousing can come in a range of shapes, sizes, ownership and design however in the literature it is identified that there are six common characteristics:


  • Participatory Process – residents are involved in the planned and design process. As a result of the willingness to live here, the drive to get it completed is strong. Residents can often link with a private developer, however the residents themselves make the major decisions. In addition, the majority of homes are often sold or rented before the development is even built. Even though there is a proven success with cohousing, developers do not seek to build down this route. Residents have a will to commit their time and energy to projects because they strive to be part of this more satisfying living environment. There is an on going process of people participating in the development and even with the challenges it faces, the reward comes from the experience. The community feel is apparent when residents work together to achieve their goals. The difficulties in the planning stage, in turn actually makes the bonds between residents stronger.


  • Designs that facilitate community – design encourages a strong community feel. Certain features are designed in a way so that community interaction is paramount. For example, parking at the periphery of the site allowing the majority of the site to be pedestrian only and provide safety for children. Location of the common house to a more primary route, for example on the way home so people are more likely to pop in. Children areas located in a site where the community can self-police it for safety. Physical design is key to enhance the social interactions and atmosphere. Without thoughtful considerations into the design, certain opportunities can be missed.


  • Extensive common facilities – common areas are the heart of the community. The common house provides a space for community meals, interaction, games and classes etc. In addition there are areas for laundry and cooking facilities. It is essential for community life and acts as an extension to private areas. The common house is just one aspect; there may be other common facilities around the site. Common facilities remove the need for individual houses to have individual resources; it is about sharing what the community has. If several houses share the cost of something expensive, that expensive resource becomes more affordable and benefits more residents. In addition, storage space is greatly reduced by the use of sharing. High functioning cohousing communities see about 250-400 hours of common house use a week. As the site develops, certain features may be converted to meet the changing needs of people.


  • Complete resident management – residents manage the community themselves. Major decisions are made at common meetings. Responsibilities are often divided between the residents, so each contributes to the site. Outside entities cannot be blamed for issues within the cohousing if the residents do their own duties, therefore all responsibility lies within the cohousing residents. Some residents may contribute more to others and attend more meetings, but apart from the basic management, you can put in as much as you want to.


  • Non-Hierarchal Structure – community share the responsibilities. The community do not depend on one person to make all the decisions. It is possible for certain people to contribute to the management, but they only do so if they feel that they benefit in a way.


  • Separate income sources – residents have their own primary incomes, they do not rely on the retail or businesses to generate income. They all pay a monthly fees and membership fees.


All of these six characteristics essentially create the definition of co housing. They are all individual aspects, however they are not unique, they all merge together to contribute to the 21st century living. The factors make cohousing a unique entity. Each cohousing community will be different, but all have similar underlying aspects.


Cohousing communities can vary in size, the average cohousing site has between 15 to 35 households. Communities that have less than 6 households are more like when people share a house or apartment and living in smaller numbers can be harder due to the lack of sharing of duties. Each member is required to complete certain tasks compared to being divided up. The literature highlights that ‘The Danes’ believe that a cohousing community should not have more than 50 adults, due to the varying differences in opinions. The Danes have a better history of creating cohousing communities than that of the Americans, therefore their views are more influential. 51 or more adults challenge the spirit of community housing, but less than 20 and the social aspects are challenged. `The location of cohousing sites are limited to affordable and available land. Many of the cohousing sites have a rural feel, however, many of the residents commute to nearby towns or city to work. Some are located in inner cities.


Key design characteristics of cohousing are providing a car-free living environment and suffice places for social interaction on various scales. Within the walkways there should be places and nodes (such as picnic tables) where people can stop and interact with one another, they are located every 5 to 9 houses. With regards to climate, the cohousing can have certain features to allow for optimum social interaction, such as covered walkways. In the hotter climates, trees, providing shade from the sun. Within the houses the orientation of rooms is key, the kitchen often faces out to the common side of the house so people can see one another, where as the private areas are often facing another direction.


Cohousing provides both environmental and economic advantages as well as the social ones already highlighted. Firstly, environmental, it is apparent that residents use less energy, own fewer cars and drive less than people who do not live in cohousing. Therefore, it is clear this is very advantageous for the environment. The sharing of resources also aids the environment, as households do not own one of everything. Even down to the transportation of goods reduces the energy required. In addition, cohousing buildings are often produced to a high environmental standard to help with efficiency. Secondly, economic, a smaller home compared to an average family home is cheaper to maintain. Residents can limit their expenses. Due to efficient homes, there are cheaper household bills. Less driving means less fuel costs.


With regards to financing, there are different financing models. Many of the earlier schemes started with a homeowners association, however some are now private bank financing or through non-profit organisations. They believe the best way to fund the community is to find the easiest way. To finish, there are many priorities that the cohousing residents have. Residents can start out with certain priorities, but over time they can change. Each project has been created from different options, learning from past projects, the residents themselves create the high quality cohousing communities; the residents make it a high quality place.


An Old Idea: A contemporary Approach (book chapter), Creating Co-housing, McCamant, Durrett 2011


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