Cohousing & Community
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Thu, 19 Jul 2001 19:31:01 -0600 (MDT)
> M. Scott Peck's main thesis about community.  For
> true community to form, the members need to go through a crisis and
> confrontation and expose their mutual vulnerabilities.  The design of
> cohousing by its future residents invariably creates opportunities for
> crisis, confrontation and vulnerability.  Thus when the design is complete
> and the residents move in, the residents have become a true community.

Actually all they have when they move in is a commitment to be a community
and _some_ experience with confronting issues together. The design and
building process brings them together and gives them something to confront
that is not _just_ an exercise in self exploration, but is an essential
human vulnerability.

> Crisis, confrontation, and exposing mutual vulnerabilities

The definition of life is crisis -- each moment is filled with decisions
that once made influence the course of life ever after. We are just more
aware of some and less aware of others. Can you eat just one potato chip?

"Exposing" mutual vulnerabilities may be better phrased as "recognizing and
accepting" mutual vulnerabilities. It is the _acceptance_ of our own and
others vulnerabilities that allows us to bond in relationships. Otherwise we
have only attached to idealizations and fantasies, which require continued
non-confrontation to maintain themselves.

The commitment to "confront together" is the defining requirement in forming
and maintaining a community. Some commit to confronting drug abuse. Others
commit to confront the need for civic gardens or child care. Communities
form around all these commitments. Some loose, some very strong.

Since the need for housing, a place to live safely and happily, is a major
human vulnerability, the ways in which we confront it define a major part of
who we are. Unlike many vulnerabilities, it involves physical, temporal,
economic, and social commitments. It confronts us with both limitations and
opportunities. It involves confronting a vast number of decisions that are
binding and define one's personal future at a very fundamental level.

Designing the living space and making the economic and social decisions
necessary to attract the number of members needed to actually build the
dream is _one_ beginning of community. The process of confronting these
issues before you are literally living in them is easier than confronting
them afterward, but many issues only arise _after_ you are living together.
The commitment one makes early on is only a piece of the commitment one has
to keep remaking, over and over, for the community to grow.

In architectural terms, "cohousing" requires participation in the design
process (new or retrofit) but more important than the design process itself
is the opportunity the process brings for confronting life together and
continuing to make "architectural" decisions about one's own life in
relation to the community, rather than in spite of it.

> But here is the rub.  In Muir Commons, one of the oldest cohousing
> communities in the country, about 75% of its residents weren't there when
> it began.  What happens when it becomes 100%.  Does this mean it no longer
> is cohousing?
> Or what about N Street?.  We didn't design our houses or our community
> layout. It was all determined by the developers in 1955.  Since the first
> fence was torn down in 1986 and we began eating meals in a common space in
> 1989, we have gone through numerous decision making episodes where we had
> crisis, confrontation and exposed vulnerabilities.  This helped bind many
> of us together.  But because we have a lot of turnover through rentals
> changes and sales, only six households have members who have been here for
> ten years or more and only two households have original members.  Does all
> this mean we can't claim to be a cohousing community?
> I am now involved in helping developed a hybrid retrofit/developed
> cohousing community in the Sierra foothills.  I don't intend to live there
> though I may have a granny flat to share time there when my wife and I
> retire in 15-20 years or so.  Right now, only one of the main partners
> plans on living there.  This next year we intend to build five units to add
> to the one that is there now and rent them to prospective members.  In
> three or four years, we expect that another 4-6 units will be built along
> with the common house.  Within 6-10 years we anticipate all 16-20 units
> being built.  But we will likely be deciding many of the major design
> issues without these future residents.  Does this mean that what is
> eventually created there won't be a cohousing community because there
> future residents won't be involved with many of the design decisions?
> Here is my thesis.
> Cohousing is design and most any good architect who studies such
> communities can craft a design that works. (If you believe that residents
> have to design it to be a workable cohousing, come to N Street and we will
> show by example that this doesn't have to be.)
> Community is key to cohousing and you don't have to have a great design to
> create a wonderful community.
> Chuck is right that the resident-driven design process creates
> community.  But community can be created without this.
> My experience in living for 25 years in co-op housing and at N Street is
> that good community comes from common principles, values, and goals and a
> willingness to eat, work and play together.  When 25 families all move in
> together into a non-resident developed "cohousing" complex, community is
> hugely difficult to form because there was no way for those 25 to have
> common goals, values, and principles.  When the residents design it, they
> weed out prospective members without these commonalities, or they likely
> fail to ever get the cohousing completed.
> N Street works so well because almost everyone who has ever lived here for
> a long time has gone through a screening process where they rented a room
> before gaining permanent status.  A percentage of them leave soon after
> arriving or when their lease is up, because they find they do not fit
> in.  If they had bought the house they moved into, they would have a much
> more difficult time leaving.  When people move in, they know how we work,
> what is expected of them, and what values we have as a community.
> Thus in the new cohousing community some of us are working to create, we
> will use the same processes that have worked well at N Street. People can
> rent before they buy.  The goals, values and principles will be set before
> they move in.  If they don't like them, they shouldn't move in and attempt
> to change them.    There will be plenty of opportunity over the years for
> the crises, confrontations and vulnerabilities to occur to bind them as a
> community.  It just won't be through the initial design process.
> In the end, just like Muir Commons will  likely continue to be cohousing
> long after all the original owners have moved on and just like N Street is
> now, the "developer" designed community I am helping develop in the
> foothills will be a cohousing community because it will follow the
> architectural principles of cohousing, and it will have members who share
> common values and care about, help and like being with each other.
> Kevin
> ****************
> Kevin Wolf
> N Street Cohousing Community member
> 724 N St, Davis, CA  95616
> 530-758-4211
> kjwolf [at]
> To download my facilitation manual or other material on
> consensus decision making, visit
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