Re: Statistics on common house usage
From: Ann Zabaldo (
Date: Sun, 16 May 2021 22:01:24 -0700 (PDT)
Janey —pasted into this email is the summary from a study of CH usage by 
Rebecca Disbrow in 2011.  I don’t have the full study.  I believe she found the 
CH to be unused most of the time (people are at work during the day) it gets 
most of its use from dinners, meetings, tv watching but most of the time it’s 
empty.  I always thought renting out our space for small workshops during 
daytime hours would be a good synergistic use but some folks believe the 
liability is too much.  Someone connected w/ the Cohousing Research Network may 
have the full study.

In addition to CH “use" I would also consider CH cleaning, maintenance and 
repair.  We have a lovely CH at Takoma Village in Washington, DC.  BIG 2 story 
height DR, Sun room, fireplace area.  We have to hire a cheery picker to clean 
the lights in the main DR.  

Windows are wonderful.  They let in lots of light plus you can see folks 
outside and the folks outside can see who is in the CH.  We love our windows.  
But they are a b - - - h to clean.  I know because as a power wheelchair user, 
I wash the lower 2/3rds of them on Workdays.  There are whole sets of them I 
cannot access.  And it still takes me over an hour to wash the ones I can 
reach.  Another neighbor does the upper part of the windows and doors I clean 
plus all the ones I can’t reach.  Some of them are simply inaccessible because 
they are at the top of the 2nd story open space.  Thankfully we only clean 
those when the cheery picker shows up.  All the double hung windows have 
screens which we haven’t washed in …  I don’t know if they’ve ever been washed. 
And don’t forget — windows and glass doors have to be washed inside and 
outside.  Two glass doors = 4 surfaces.  Plus outside the CH we have 4 fire 
doors w/ glass framed in the majority of the door surface. 

I tried to write up an inventory of doors and windows and gave up.  So I 
inventoried just 4 areas and came up w/ this:   in the entrance to the CH, the 
workshop, the Tween Room  and Sun room I count 4 doors w/ sidelights, 21 double 
hung windows — the does not include the exterior facing windows of the workshop 
which I estimate is another 5-7 windows.   Plus because we are in a historic 
preservation area all doors facing out to the street have to maintain historic 
requirements.  This means our out facing doors are divided into 15 smaller 
squares on both sides of the door.  Three of the 4 doors are divided like this. 
I can understand why the out facing doors have this configuration but some of 
the interior doors not visible to the outside are also configured like this.   
AND also required by historic preservation … just to make life very interesting 
… the upper half of the double hung windows are divided into 6 squares.  

Every month when I clean these windows I think living in a cave has some 
advantages …

When designing your CH and any other structures think carefully about who is 
going to clean, maintain and repair your facilities.

See Rebecca’s summary of her study below my signature block. It’s in plain 
text.  This means some formatting is missing.   I think you can still figure it 
out.  Hope you find it useful for your needs, Janey.   Again, maybe someone 
connected w/ CRN has a copy of the full study.

Best —

Ann Zabaldo
Takoma Village Cohousing
Washington, DC
Ex. Dir. & Mbr. Board of Directors
Mid Atlantic Cohousing
Principal, Cohousing Collaborative, LLC
Falls Church, VA
zabaldo [at]

Being a little older, I am very fortunate to have someone call and check on me 
everyday.  He is from overseas and is very concerned about my car warranty.

NOTE:  I’m switching back to using zabaldo [at]  Many apologies!


2000 words 021211

Common Houses: Where Are All the People?
A Study into Common House Vitality and Some Recommendations for Increasing its 
By Rebecca Disbrow

This afternoon I was working in a park in New York City, at a free outdoor 
performance by the New York City Ballet. At some point between three and two 
hours before the event start time, the concern among my colleagues switched 
from, “Will we have enough of a turn-out?” to “What measures can we take for 
crowd control?” I reflected on my previous year of research—for which I spent 
countless hours trying to approximate that formula of how many people will use 
a space—and realized just how widespread and important this estimation can be.

Cohousing communities across the country tend to grumble more along the lines 
of “under-use” when talking about their common houses. These shared spaces, 
often expensive and laboriously designed, are not meeting residents’ basic 
expectations of use. I spent six months visiting 14 cohousing communities in 
Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Colorado, and California. From these visits, 
extensive interviews, and 168 survey respondents, I tried to extract the things 
most important to maintaining bustling common houses—the things successful 
communities seemed to have in common. 

Of the 168 residents participating in the study, 63 percent indicated they felt 
their common house was used too little. The goal of this research project was 
to create a guide, useful to current and forming communities, which helps 
residents create and maintain socially vital common houses. In this 
comprehensive study, I probed into every topic relevant to common house life, 
from resident relations to meal times to common house floor plan. 

Many of the things I looked at were important, as expected: Common houses need 
to be comfortable and pleasant; they should feel like an extension of 
residents’ homes. They should be well-lit and have a steady schedule of both 
meals and events. The common house should be situated so that it acts as a 
gateway to the community; a space overrun with pedestrians rather than cars. 
Aside from these basics, which can be found in most cohousing guidebooks, a few 
less-discussed factors surfaced having particular importance to common house 
vitality. These topics will be the subject of this article, but for more detail 
request the full paper (Rebecca.disbrow [at] <mailto:Rebecca.disbrow 

First, there are some philosophical ideas that guide the design and management 
of common houses in order to maximize their use: 
Make the common house incredibly easy to use. 
Keep the distance from houses to common house short, keep the common house 
doors unlocked whenever possible, etc. People are lazier than most would think.
Make the common house a necessity in as many ways as possible. 
Mail, newspapers, community news, etc. located inside.
Make being in the common house a better alternative to private homes. 
Complete with, for example (depending on your lifestyle choices), a better TV, 
AC, kitchen, space to entertain, etc.
Give residents a multitude of excuses to use the space. 
Puzzles, retrieving mail, food, a library, tea/coffee machines—the more the 

Getting more specific, the data pointed to three less expected areas that 
appear to weigh heavily on the amount of use a common house receives. These 
include the amount of personal input residents have into the design and 
decoration of their CH, how informal the space feels as well as how informally 
it is used, and the tensions among residents in the community. 

Personal Input

The first area of apparently high importance, personal input, makes a strong 
case for the use of cohousing-specific professionals in the design and 
development of communities. Architects and developers who work primarily with 
cohousing communities have developed methods to include future residents in the 
decision and design process far more than conventional development methods. 
Further, architectural theorists and social/psychological researchers have long 
touted the importance of personal connection to one’s environment.

Christopher Alexander, in his book The Pattern Language, titled one of his 272 
patterns of design “Things From Your Life.” In the modernist era his book was 
written, he stressed the forgotten importance of keeping personal items in your 
physical spaces. “It is far more fascinating to come into a room which is the 
living expression of a person, or a group of people, so that you can see their 
lives, their histories, their inclinations, displayed in manifest form around 
the walls, in the furniture, on the shelves.” Alexander is far from the first 
to espouse the importance of personal items in design and decoration; for 
example, Winifred Gallagher in “House Thinking” talks not only about the 
aesthetic appeal but also the health benefits of being surrounded by items that 
hold personal meaning and memories. 

How can communities increase this personal investment, particularly after the 
common house is already built? Here are some examples of the ways I came across 
in the communities visited: 

Children’s height markings on the wall (Pioneer Valley)
Community photo walls
Resident art displays (Great Oak, Sonora)
Resident-painted tiles in the kitchen counter and backsplash (Tierra Nueva)
Donated furniture (Stone Curves)
Resident repainting of common house rooms
Children-painted fence mural (Great Oak)
Hanging recent/fun projects, like tie-dyed tee shirts, in the CH (Great Oak)
 “Pinecones” board—appreciation board or wall acknowledging communal/positive 
acts by specific residents
Community history timeline on a wall with resident-made index-card-histories of 
important events (Pioneer Valley)
Resident photo board with a favorite quote/food/CH room/activity under it
Larger personal “cubbies” for storing items such as slippers (Mosaic)

Of course, one of the proven most effective methods to increase feelings of 
personal sentiment or investment other than tangible items is to incorporate 
members extensively in the community design. This is one of the guiding 
principles of cohousing and most residents reflect its importance. According to 
this research, having participated in the design or decorating process is 
highly correlated to both satisfaction with the CH and its social vitality. As 
noted above, the use of a cohousing-specific architect becomes extremely 
important in this regard. These specialized individuals not only understand the 
goals of cohousing, but further they know and expect to incorporate residents 
in the designing process. Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant from The 
Cohousing Company have a well-developed and resident-based design process. One 
of these steps, for example, includes writing the name of each desired room on 
an index card and then systematically comparing one-by-one until the group 
creates a hierarchy of importance. According to budget, they use this to decide 
which rooms to include in their Common House.

If you want to design a shared space which attracts residents and in which they 
feel comfortable, make it a space over which they feel a sense of ownership. 
When residents can point to furniture/art/photographs/wall colors and say, 
“That’s mine” or “I picked that,” they are more likely to sit and stay a while. 

Informal Use

Of the 183 residents included in my study, the average number of hours per week 
spent informally (defined as not for a scheduled event, work hours, etc.—just 
“hanging out”) was less than two. The single largest complaint from 
residents—more so than overall wishing for a busier common house—was the desire 
for a common house that was used in a more informal, spontaneous way. The best 
way to encourage people regularly coming through and bumping into each other is 
to build the CH into their daily routines. A community can do this in several 
ways: by placing this common house on the throughway into the community, by 
building the mailroom and laundry facilities into the common house, and by 
leaving things that need to be regularly done or checked in the CH. Examples of 
the latter include food left out, regularly changing news and message boards, 
and common house daily chores. 

Many communities tried making some sort of food/drink available in the common 
house, but I would suggest they take the idea further than a box of tea on a 
counter. People simply love food. As William Whyte, renowned urban and social 
theorist said, “food attracts people, who attract more people.” Relating 
Whyte’s ideas, which were intended for public parks, back to common houses, 
there is an abundance of ways to incorporate food in a similar way. Leftovers 
are excellent and easy to ensure; ask cooks to prepare meals for five-10 extra 
people per evening and leave them in the fridge. Breakfast also has the power 
to bring in many people. Some communities have tried automatic coffee machines 
(with great success) as well as occasional bagels or pastries. These need to be 
routine, however, to truly work. A constantly supplied basket of pastries and 
an automatic coffee machine could be all the impetus residents need to stop 
into the common house on their way into work rather than going to a coffee shop 
or grabbing something from their own kitchen. Throw in a newspaper delivered 
daily, wireless internet, and/or the news on a television (again, depending on 
your lifestyle choices), and the place could take on a new life every morning. 

If a community was large enough and wanted to get more elaborate, they could 
have a few items, such as bagels, pastries, and fruit laid out, plus coffee and 
tea, with a resident preparing it in the mornings and collecting small amounts 
of money to support it. 

In addition, preliminary findings suggest that, in communities where 
televisions are already part of the culture, residents use the common house two 
or more extra hours per week on average when the common house has a television 
rated as superior to residents’ own. Something that provides background noise 
and a common, pressure-free, reason to be in the CH can act as a drawing 
force—or the attraction that allows residents to linger that one or two seconds 
longer, under the real or fake guise of watching a couple minutes of the news. 

Just as tensions in a family can disrupt the way the living room is used, 
tensions in a community can disrupt the way a common house is used. The vast 
majority of communities I spoke with expressed problems with community 
relations, and further expressed and demonstrated how greatly such problems can 
interrupt CH use. One community had “East Side vs. West Side” rivalries. 
Another had an interpersonal dispute become so heated it effectively ended 
weekly CH events as these two residents—and the allies of each—refused to come 
into the CH.

Less dramatically, many community residents I spoke with expressed feelings of 
helplessness or giving in to prevailing social powers during group process. How 
skillfully a group handles governance, community-building, and conflict 
resolution can have a major impact on feelings about meetings and about the 
common house in which they commonly occur. Whether a group uses consensus, 
voting, a combination, or some other method, it is important that members feel 
safe expressing their opinions, which may involve allowing for anonymous 
feedback. In this way the group can create and maintain a community atmosphere 
that gives to rather than detracts from common house life. 

When designing common houses, residents rarely are concerned with “will this 
get enough use?” Most future residents envision using it constantly. This is 
simply not always the practical reality of daily life—even in a neighborhood 
built for community. Being aware of the possibility of future under-use—and 
further aware of some of the most effective ways to combat it—can save 
residents time, money, and heartache later.

Just remember, make the common house easy (to use), necessary (to daily life), 
and better (than private homes)—and give people an excuse to use it!

Rebecca Disbrow 

— END — 

> On May 16, 2021, at 9:52 PM, Janey Harper <jkharper [at]> wrote:
> Hi,
> First question:
> I'm currently working on a project that will be built in Sechelt BC.  The
> designer/developer I'm working with would like to see some statistics on how
> much the community kitchen/dining room/lounge area REALLY gets used in
> cohousing communities.
> Could anyone help me find such statistics?

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