Cohousing in the United States is on the rise, but that doesn’t mean that the term has firmly made its way into the American lexicon. That’s partly because the phenomenon remains often misunderstood, bringing to mind either a college co-op dormitory or a 1970s commune where residents share sleeping quarters, childcare and giant pots of vegetarian stews on remote wildflower farms off the electrical grid. Clothing may be optional.
Not so fast. While contemporary cohousing stays true to the concept of an intentional community that embraces the spirit of collaboration and sharing, the similarities to outdated notions of bygone communes mostly end there. The primary difference between other cohousing arrangements — say co-op houses and dormitories, where bedrooms may be the only private space — is that individuals and families live in their separate domiciles that tend to have private living and bath, and often kitchen, facilities. While in major metropolitan areas, such as London or San Francisco, these living and sleeping quarters may be apartment-style rather than detached or semidetached single-family homes, the principle remains the same. (For more, see: Housing Cooperatives: A Unique Type of Home Ownership.)
Shared Space, Shared Experiences
So where do the sharing, collaboration and socializing come in? These intentional communities are designed with common spaces — such a common house or lounge, courtyards, playgrounds, recreational facilities, cooking or dining facilities, and meeting/event rooms — where residents can gather to socialize, eat, play, celebrate or hold business or club meetings. While residents have their own private kitchens, some cohousing communities also offer communal meals prepared by residents. While amenities between specific communities vary widely, the ideals of trust, support and cooperation remain consistent.
It Takes a Village
If all of this sharing and caring sounds like a small town atmosphere more akin to the classic 1940s film It’s a Wonderful Life than anything resembling a modern American neighborhood, you’re correct. Yet while cohousing theoretically attempts to capture the kind of community values lost when village life gave way to urbanity, it’s only old-fashioned in the sense that the values of cooperation, collaboration and trust are intentionally embraced. (For more, see: A $50,000 House - But at What Cost?)
As the number of people living alone skyrockets worldwide, especially in first world nations, isolation and loneliness have become widespread problems. Not only does loneliness present a significant barrier to quality of life, studies have shown that its health risks are significant. Among older adults, loneliness and social isolation are correlated with poor health and, ultimately, decreased longevity. A 2012 study conducted by the University of California – San Francisco, found that older adults who lacked meaningful connections with others were 45% more likely to die than their non-lonely peers. While cohousing does not present a solution to the global problem of loneliness, it offers a more social, cooperative alternative to traditional housing.
The Roots of Cohousing
The seeds of cohousing were not sown on a California commune during the Summer of Love. Rather, the concept was born in Denmark back in the 1960s. Originally, young families saw cohousing arrangements as a solution to ease the burden of childcare for working parents: childcare duties could be easily shared among a close knit group who bought houses adjacent to one another.
Since then, the concept has evolved to include a more diverse array of Danish households, who share eating facilities, grow food in communal gardens, and divide maintenance tasks among the community. The proportion of Danish households who now participate in cohousing is in itself staggering: 8% of the population lives in these communities.
If this kind of intentional community sounds like the perfect arrangement through which to experience life abroad, keep in mind that the original Danish concept has spread across Europe, taking hold in Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, and Austria, among other nations. Further afield, cohousing communities in Australia, New Zealand and China are also popping up.
Play Together, Work Together
If a cohousing community sounds like a kind of adult Disneyland where neighbors cook your dinner, bake you a birthday cake, keep an eye on your kids on the playground, and celebrate your retirement in the communal lounge, you might not be wrong. Yet cohousing, like normal life, comes with significant responsibilities. Residents usually share chores, maintenance and decision-making in regarding to common spaces and facilities. Decisions are often made on the consensus model, which not only takes into account every community member’s opinion, but also encourages collaboration, listening and empathy.
Disputes tend to be resolved as a group, with a high level of transparency. While your former next door neighbor may have been able to tune out your request that his six Rottweilers not be let outside to bark at 5 a.m. each day, your new next door neighbor will have a chance to go through a structured dispute resolution moderated by other community members. (For more, see: The Oddest Houses You Can Rent or Buy.)
A Sustainable Choice
Cohousing won’t stop climate change. Yet don’t underestimate the energy saving effects of sharing common spaces. By pooling resources to build and maintain common eating, dining and recreational facilities, savings on materials, manpower and ongoing energy and maintenance costs are significant. While a single family might use tremendous resources to fund the purchase of a swimming pool, barbecue, swing set or top-of-the-line stove or big screen TV, these expenditures might not actually be justified by the frequency of their actual use or the energy output required. In contrast, co-housing offers the opportunity to enrich each family’s quality of life while making a lesser impact on the environment — not to mention the electric, gas or water bill. (For related reading, see: How to Find the Right Retirement Community.)
Rural to Urban
It was more than a decade ago that BedZED, an English community of 82 water-efficient, low-energy homes, successfully introduced a contemporary version of eco-friendly cohousing. While such a concept sounds like a quaint throwback to the hippie commune, it’s anything but. For starters, BedZed sits squarely in one of the world’s great metropolitan areas — South London, to be exact. Since then, the founders of BedZED have launched BioRegional, an innovative property that develops larger scale “eco-villages” in places like Guangzhou, China and Yorkshire, England. Expect these environmentally low-impact communities to focus on building energy efficient apartment style, rather than single family, dwellings.
While it may be difficult to shed the image of cohousing as a rural phenomenon, many new cohousing projects are being launched in or near urban areas, such as Ottawa, the Bay Area, and Brighton, U.K. In the United States, you’ll find the cohousing movement going strong in college towns like Ann Arbor and Iowa City. (For related reading, see: 11 Hidden Costs of Owning a Home.)
The Bottom Line
If you’re ready to embrace the spirit of cohousing — if not loving thy neighbor, at least collaborating harmoniously with them in a village-like community — be aware that this idyllic way of life comes with a steep price tag that keeps it unaffordable to many. The average cohousing participant is, compared to the rest of the U.S. population, disproportionately college-educated and white, with incomes sufficiently high to invest in houses that range from a quarter to half a million dollars. Another investment you’ll need to consider is time. How much do you ideally want to spend working, eating and hanging out with your neighbors? (For related reading, see: Are You Ready to Buy a House?)