Newsletter | May/Jun 1989

Cohousing: A Contemporary Approache to Housing Ourselves

by Vera Westerfaard

The book Cohousing is written by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durett, forwarded by Architect Charles W. Moore, published by Ten Speed Press.

Women design professionals know the problems and the dilemma of wanting both professional career and family. We know how hard it is to find and afford a home, an increasingly difficult task for more and more Americans. We know that more housing is needed. We feel the threat of homelessness in the background. But all we see as a solution to the housing crisis is more of the same, more suburbia and more "urban renewal". What we need is a new way to address the larger social issues, a new way to address the fact that we are experiencing radical changes in our family life and.patterns of work.

One shift in the pattern of American life is the increasing mobility and shrinking household size of the family. Life is becoming fragmented and many Americans are finding the lack of community to be an unfortunate by-product of this changing lifestyle. Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durett, in their new book Cohousing, begin with the premise that "traditional fonns of housing no longer address the needs of many people. Many are mis-housed, ill-housed or unhoused because of the lack of appropriate options". Their own search for appropriate housing brought them back to Denmark where they had studied earlier. They sought a balance between community and privacy. They were frustrated at the isolation offered by current housing options. They wanted a spontaneous social life that did not require making appointments with friends. They wanted more contact with people of different ages and needed a better and safer place to raise children.

The authors spent thirteen months living in and visiting forty-six cohousing communities. Their book tells the story of what they found and how cohousing works.

Cohousing is a new housing type which redefines the concept of neighborhood to fit contemporary life. The concept is pedestrian oriented. Cars are parked on the periphery of complexes so that children are safe from traffic. Individual homes are clustered around a common house. Shared facilities include dining, children's play and care areas, workshops, guestrooms and laundry facilities. In this way cohousing combines the economy of private dwellings with the advantage of cooperative living. Although individual private residences are designed to be self-sufficient with their own kitchens, the common facilities, particularly those for evening meals, are an important part of community life. They are supported for both social and practical reasons. These communities are unique in that they are organized, planned and managed by the residents themselves. Often they result in cross-generational neighborhoods of singles, families and elderly. Pioneered in Denmark twenty years ago, nearly one hundred cohousing communities have been built there. Other countries are following suit.

The book is written in a relaxed narrative way and divided into three sections. The first offers a thorough introduction to the cohousing concept. The second gives an inside look and eight unique cohousing communities. It shows how they work and how community developed. It includes conversations with residents and indicates how the concept Works for them. It shows the determination of the inhabitants to improve the quality of their lives through their built environment. The third and final part is called "Creating Cohousing". It is devoted to the evolution of cohousing and to the design and development considerations necessary to create successful cohousing. Throughout the book there is a lot of attention to detail in research, information. and layout. The text is enhanced by black and white and color photographs, diagrams and drawings.
As architects, designers and planners, we all have concerns for how our lives and work can have an impact, how we can positively effect change through the built environment. Here the book is powerful. It succeeds in giving a realistic contemporary alternative to the confused and dismal United States' housing situation. Somehow it all starts at home. Currently there are fifteen groups actively planning cohousing communities throughout the western states. Many more are to follow.

Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durett can be reached by writing to 48 Shattuck Square, Suite 15, Berkeley, Ca. 94704.

Larger developments can be subdivided into smaller clusters to retain a more intimate community atmosphere.

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