Terrain Magazine article on cohousing (full text)
From: Fred H Olson (fholsontcfreenet.org)
Date: Wed, 15 May 2002 09:21:29 -0600 (MDT)
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Terrain
magazine, published by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California.
510-548-2220 or http://www.ecologycenter.org

Group Ecology, Cohousing Communities Lighten the Load
By Carol Hunter

At a Pleasant Hill Cohousing open house, a crowd of people mills around
the 32-unit complex in suburban northern California. The common house,
still mostly bare and smelling of new wood and paint, is being
inaugurated after four years of planning. Handmade signs foretell a
craft room, a teen room, children's play area, home offices, and guest

Outside, a group of children digs happily in the sandbox.

"Now that we're living here, the community has definitely met our
expectations, which were quite high after all that planning," says
resident Mark Goehring, his new two-bedroom unit behind him, his
8-month-old daughter Indigo bouncing happily on his chest. "We spent
thousands of hours with these people in the planning process, but the
advantage is that we know everyone very well."

That sense of a working neighborhood is exactly what draws some people
to cohousing experiments like Pleasant Hill's.

Cohousing, a Danish concept first introduced to the United States in the
late 80s by Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, is a relatively new
type of intentional community. Such communities, which also include
cooperatives, group houses, ecovillages, communes (where residents pool
financial resources), and ashrams, all have members living together
based on explicit common values. Many arrangements, including cohousing,
share common living space - and some sort of consensus decision-making,
often intense and time-consuming. Cohousing projects are
pedestrian-friendly, usually secular, and mostly urban or suburban. But
unlike in some communities, cohousing residents also own their own
homes, complete with kitchens.

"It's one of the fastest moving segments of the community movement,"
said Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional
Community, a clearinghouse based in Rutledge, Missouri. "About 150
projects are in various stages of development, with about 60 already
done." Six of those are in the East Bay alone. "It's tapping into a
dissatisfaction in the mainstream [with] isolation and alienation. At
the surface, cohousing looks familiar."

But it's not accessible to everyone.

"It's the upper end," said Schaub. "In cohousing, you're paying
above-market rates because you're also buying access to a common house."

At a cost of more than $6 million, with with no subsidized low-income
units, the Pleasant Hill complex attracted mostly white middle class
residents; the flats, townhouses, and houses went for $180,000 to

Apart from any other cultural obstacles, money poses a problem. And
securing subsidies for cohousing units can hit a snag: Public agencies
generally decline to subsidize the large amount of common space involved
in cohousing, perceiving it as "extraneous," said Rick Lewis of the
Northern California Land Trust, which advises collective households and
cooperatives. "That is one impediment to the mixed-class composition of

Most cohousing is instigated by prospective home buyers - who can afford
market rates. But the cohousing model, minus the private ownership, can
also extend to nonprofit developers, who can choose low-income
residents. In Santa Clara, said Durrett, Catholic Charities Housing used
cohousing as the inspiration for 25 units of new transitional housing
for single mothers who had endured spousal abuse.

"You strive to not warehouse people," he said. "Housing needs to
facilitate relationships."

Because of its level of resource use and minimal sharing, the community
movement's leaders do not view private cohousing groups as ecological
"shining light[s]," said Schaub, who touted ecovillage cooperatives like
the Dancing Rabbit in Rutlege, Missouri, with its off-the-grid energy
and biodiesel-based car co-op. "[Cohousing residents] still want
individual homes, with relatively modest sharing."

But that attracts many people who consider other intentional communities
"a fringe element, too exotic," said Schaub. "[Cohousing is] touching a
population that did not see themselves in intentional communities."

>From the rehabilitated factory of Emeryville's Doyle Street Cohousing to
the suburban N Street Cohousing in Davis, where neighbors removed fences
and created a common yard and building, intentional communities are only
as environmentally conscious as their inhabitants choose, or can afford,
to be.

But as with other communities, cohousing can facilitate conservation.
"Ecological sustainability was part of our original mission statement,"
says Tom Prince, a resident and founding member at Temescal Commons
Cohousing, a nine-unit complex in Oakland, "to be good stewards of
creation - what that means as to how to build and use energy

In planning their new living quarters, residents at Temescal Commons
designed the three new buildings with north/south orientation to take
advantage of passive solar heating. The buildings averaged only 1000
square feet, 50% less than the Bay Area's average for single-family
homes. The group invested in wet-blown cellulose insulation - made from
recycled newspaper and cardboard and exceeding state energy standards by
a considerable margin. They chose sustainably harvested wood, advanced
framing that reduces the house-frame lumber by 25%, energy efficient
appliances, compact fluorescents, active photovoltaics on the roofs, and
"on-demand" water heaters; switched on, they'll heat domestic water -
and, in this case, flow to hydronic (water-heated) coils under "radiant"
floors. All told, Temescal Commons units use one-seventh the electricity
of the average local home, and less than half the gas.

Sharing resources can also provide greater design options - and
ecological benefits. At Pleasant Hill Cohousing, for example, residents
decided to forgo central air conditioning in their homes - a significant
sacrifice where summer temperatures can reach 110 F. Instead, they
installed central air conditioning in the common house only, saving an
anticipated $50 to $70 a month in each household's summer energy bills.
The group trusted design elements including three-foot eaves, trellises,
and shade trees to cool their homes, then invested in hydronic baseboard
heating. At Doyle Street, on-demand water heating helped cut average
household energy bills more than 65%, from $125 to $40 a month.

"Cost is always a factor in design decisions," says McCamant, whose
Berkeley-based CoHousing Company facilitates new projects. "Green
building almost always comes up as one of the top goals of a cohousing
community, but some of the most innovative green techniques are
extremely expensive and beyond the scope of cohousing."

Temescal Commons, one of the more ecologically sensitive communities in
the East Bay, had a separate $40,000 budget from a few families and a
private foundation to use exclusively for eco-design, a luxury not
available to every cohousing group. At Swan's Market, a 20-unit complex
in downtown Oakland, the group had to forgo wool for nylon carpeting as
construction costs mounted.

In any definition of "community," the devil is in the details, which
often reveal themselves well after the planning and purchase. According
to Goehring, one early member at Pleasant Hill Cohousing protested the
amount of waste caused by new construction. She also maintained that
other residents did not share her passion for lifestyle choices,
including organic food. She eventually left.

Ecologically minded individuals who do stay in cohousing, however, can
have a powerful effect on more mainstream members. "In almost every
cohousing group, there are people who come in for the community only,
while others are very excited about this opportunity to be green," says
McCamant. "They can fertilize each other." As she says often in her
presentations to new cohousing groups: "You only need a couple solar
nerds for the whole community. The rest of us don't need to worry about

In a 1996 study, Australian architect Dr. Graham Meltzer examined the
social and environmental sustainability of 18 American cohousing
communities. Meltzer found that, overall, cohousing residents owned
fewer cars than they did before living in cohousing, and were more
actively involved in recycling and composting. Residents of most
communities eat together several times a week, saving energy and
allowing the purchase of bulk food. They also participate in informal
childcare, tool sharing, and other resource-reducing activities.
According to a US EPA-funded study of the Nyland cohousing community in
Colorado, residents made 25% fewer car trips per household than the
residents of adjacent condominiums and single-family houses. In the East
Bay, Temescal Creek and Pleasant Hill have car-sharing systems, Swan's
Market owns a shared electric car, and Temescal Commons is planning to
buy one and charge it with the community's rooftop photovoltaics.

"We were always interested in [sustainable] practices, but did not have
much knowledge and little time to learn," one resident told Meltzer
about the Nyland community, where fliers circulated on recycling,
composting, gardening, and vegetarianism. "Here it was easy."

Community living can help motivate people to take actions they might not
take otherwise. "It's easy to be an environmentalist," as another Nyland
resident put it, "when all [those] around you are also."

o The Cohousing Network, http://www.cohousing.org
o Fellowship for Intentional Community, (660) 883-5545, http://fic.ic.org
o Northern California Land Trust, (510) 548-7878, http://www.nclt.org
o Cohousing Research and Education (Graham Meltzer) via
   Cohousing Australia http://www.cohousing.org.au
o CoHousing Company - Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant
o Terrain magazine / the Ecology Center
   510-548-2220 or http://www.ecologycenter.org

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