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What is Cohousing?

In Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett's original 1988 book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, they set out a series of criteria defining cohousing. Here are our modern riffs on their core principles:

1. Participatory Process: Residents organize and participate in the planning and design process for the housing development and are responsible as a group for all the final decisions, although most often these days successful communities work in partnership with an experienced developer and process, design, and marketing professionals throughout the process.

2. Design Facilitates Community: The physical design encourages a strong sense of community ...[and] increases the possibilities for social contact. This shows most strongly in common design elements such as parking pushed to the periphery, multiple gath- ering spaces, and inward-facing kitchen windows on units.

 3. Private Homes Supplemented by Extensive Common Facilities: Each household has a private residence--complete with kitchen-but has access to all of the common facilities. As far as government agencies and bankers are concerned, a cohousing community is just another condominium project, so it can easily obtain approvals and financing.

4. Complete Resident Management: Residents manage the devel- opment, making decisions of common concern at community meetings.

5. Nonhierarchical Structures: While there are leadership roles, the responsibility for the decisions is shared by the community's adults. No one person dominates the decisions or the commu- nity process, traditionally using consensus.

6. Separate Income Sources: There is no shared community economy in most cohousing communities. Because the units are typically sold at market rate and designed to conform to market standards, and a resale market is assured, buyers can obtain low-down payment mortgages from most banks, credit unions, and mortgage brokers. Communities benefit from the screening performed by lenders, but many have taken steps to ease the barriers to entry through affordability initiatives.

A growing number of communities and developers, in creating everything from student housing to women's shelters to affordable rental projects, are using elements of this model. Not all cohousing communities use all six of these elements, so when counting and choosing whether to list community projects on its web- site as "cohousing," the Cohousing Association looks not just at whether a community uses the term, but also at its underlying intent. If key elements such as regular common meals and a common house are not part of the project, Coho/US applies greater scrutiny to the other aspects.

By Raynes Cohen and Betsy Morris
Communities-A Journal of Cooperative Living, Summer, 2005


Cohousing Communities

Sustaining Ourselves, Sustaining Our Communities

It's five o'clock in the evening, and Anne is glad the work day is over. As she pulls into her driveway, she begins to unwind at last. Some neighborhood kids dart through the trees. Her daughter yells, "Hi Mom!" as she runs by with three other children.

Instead of frantically trying to put together a nutritious dinner, Anne can relax now, spend some time; : with her children, and then eat, with her family in the common house. Walking through the common house on her way home, she stops to chat with the evening's cooks, two of her neighbors, who are busy preparing dinner in the kitchen. Anne continues down the lane to her own house. After dropping her things off at home, Anne walks through the birch trees behind the houses to the childcare center where she picks up her four year-old son, Peter. She will have some time to read Peter a story before dinner, she thinks to herself.

Anne and her husband, Eric helped design the development in which they live, though neither is an architect or builder. Six years ago, after responding to a short announcement in the local newspaper, they joined a group of families who were looking for a realistic housing alternative. They wanted a place where children would live near playmates; where individuals would have a feeling of belonging; where they would know people of all ages; and where they would be able to grow old and continue to contribute productively.

Two and a half years later, Anne and Eric moved into their new home-a community of clustered houses that share a large common house. By working together, these people had created the kind of neighbor- hood they wanted to live in, a cohousing community.


Traditional forms of housing no longer address the needs of many people. Dramatic demographic and economic changes are taking place in our society and most of us feel the effects of these trends in our own lives. Things that people once took for granted-family, community, a sense of belonging-must now be actively sought out. Many people are mis-housed, ill-housed, or un-housed because of the lack of appropriate options. This article introduces a new housing model which addresses such changes and sketches out the path to making it happen. Pioneered primarily in Denmark and now being adopted in other countries, the cohousing concept reestablishes many of the advantages of traditional villages within the context of late twentieth-century life.

In Denmark, people frustrated by housing options very similar to our own have developed a new housing type that redefines the concept of neighborhood. Tired of the isolation and impracticality of single-family houses and apartment units, they have built housing that combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living. Each household has a private residence, but also shares extensive common facilities with the larger group, such as a kitchen and dining hall, children's playrooms, workshops, guest rooms, and laundry facilities. Although individual dwellings are designed to be self- sufficient and each has its own kitchen, the common facilities, and particularly common dinners, are an important aspect of community life both for social and practical reasons.

Today, over 120 of these communities have been built in Denmark and over 30 are being constructed or are in the latter stages of the planning process. They range in size from 6 to 80 households, with the majority between 15 and 33 residences.

A New Type of Housing

Cohousing is a grass-roots movement whose initiators drew inspiration from the increasing popularity of shared households, in which several unrelated people share a traditional house, and from the cooperative movement in general. Yet, cohousing is distinctive in that each family or household has a separate dwelling and chooses how much they want to participate In community activities. There are, of course, other innovative ideas being experimented with for example, single-parent cooperatives and congregate housing for a the elderly with private rooms arranged around shared living :2 m spaces. But unlike these approaches, cohousing developments are not targeted for any specific age or family type; residents represent a cross section of old and young, families and singles.

Cohousing also differs from intentional communities and communes. Communes are often organized around strong ideological beliefs. Most intentional communities function as educational or spiritual centers. Cohousing, on the other hand, offers a new approach to housing rather than a new way of life. Based on democratic principles, cohousing developments espouse no ideology other than the desire for a more practical and social home environment.

By Kathryn McCamant & Charles Durrett
Spring 1991/Co-op America Ouarlerly 13


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