Distinctives of cohousing

Posted by Anthony Kidd | 28 February 2009

Cohousing began in Denmark in the early 1970s. People were looking for an environment with more community than the suburban neighbourhoods being offered at the time. It was a reaction to the suburban neighbourhoods we all know where each household lives on its own island, many people do not know their neighbours and the motor car is king.


The first cohousing developments were public housing developments. Denmark had built tower blocks of flats for public housing just has most European countries did. These developments were designed around the philosophies and ideas of early 20th century. The result of these projects were large tower buildings containing many, often hundreds, of flats. These developments were also build in Victoria and many of them still remain. There are examples of this type of architecture in Carlton, Collingwood and Abbortsford.


The tower buildings were not a success. People found them isolating and they had an institutional feel to them. Living in one is like living in a shoebox in a big stack of other shoeboxes. These factors as well as some of the other issues surrounding public housing led to these buildings becoming undesirable places to live. There were crime problems which contributed to the bad public image of these places. In Melbourne they are sometimes described as “vertical slums”.


The experience in Denmark was similar. Therefore, in the 60s the Danish authorities held meetings with those who were to live in new public housing developments. They asked people what they would like in a house and the surrounding neighbourhood. The future residents then became involved in the design process.


There were two positive outcomes from the Danish initiative. The first was a new way of designing neighbourhoods to create more community. The other was that involving people in the design process halped to create a sense of community which continued once the development was completed. The model they created is now known as cohousing.



What is cohousing?

Cohousing aims to design a neighbourhood which is more like the village of the past. A place where neighbours know and trust each other. This is achieved by greater cooperation between the neighbours. This cooperation begins when the project is conceived and continues once it is completed. As mentioned below there are many benefits of this cooperation.


Cohousing is a type of ‘Intentional Community’, a term which refers to organisations which make a deliberate attempt to create a community. The Intentional Communities website says that an ‘Intentional Community’ is an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives and other related projects and dreams. The site lists hundreds of communities, mostly in the United States. These communities range from ‘hippy communes’ to communities populated by religious groups such as the hitterites. The website lists Over 1300 such communities and is a wealth of information on this topic.


In their book on cohousing1 McCamant and Durrett identified 6 common characteristics of cohousing developments

  1. Participatory Process
  2. Intentional Neighbourhood design
  3. Extensive Common Facilities
  4. Complete Resident Management
  5. Non-Hierachical Structure
  6. Separate Income Sources

These characteristics are not exclusive and there may be some developments which do not have all of these features.


By Participatory Process McCamant and Durrett are referring to the process of building the development. By being involved in the design and building stages, people feel they own their neighbourhood as well as their house. This runs counter to the usual practice in Australia where developers build and home owners buy the finished product. This is the second benefit arising from the Danish policy referred to above.


Intentional neighbourhood design means to design a neighbourhood which encourages neighbours to interact with each other and cooperate as much as possible. It is similar to the concept of intentional community, where people live together to achieve a common purpose. However it is a narrower concept applying to cohousing developments. Cohousing developments are a subset of intentional communities.


Extensive common facilities are the most important feature of cohousing. Usually this means a common house with a kitchen where common meals are served. The common facilities also include facilities which would be expensive for one household but are much cheaper when shared; for example a workshop or music room. Other common facilities may include guest rooms, a bike shed or a common vegetable garden. Cohousing developments can also save on phone bills, food bills and so on by buying these items in bulk and splitting the cost.


There are two main benefits of the common facilities. The first is social. The common facilities provide opportunities for the residents to interact and therefore create community. This arises not just from the use of these facilities but from the management of them. The second benefit is economic. If these facilities are provided in common it is not necessary for them to be provided in each individual house. As an example there may be a shared guest room in the common house. This room can be used by visitors to one of the residents. It means that people do not need a spare room for visitors. Therefore they can have one less room in their house-saving on building and maintenance costs, heating bills and freeing land for other uses.


Complete Resident Management refers to the fact that cohousing communities manage their neighbourhood themselves. In concept it is similar to a body corporate in a strata development. However bodies corporate rarely manage the day to day running of the development themselves. These tasks are usually handled by a management company or similar body. The only involvement of the members is usually the annual meeting which is restricted to owners and therefore excludes renters. Even then, not all owners attend the meeting. In cohousing the residents manage the physical aspects of the neighbourhood as well as the social aspects. There is not necessarily a separation between these matters.


Separate income sources is what distinguishes cohousing from other intentional communities. It is also what makes it one of the more conservative type of community. People living in cohousing continue to work in traditional jobs and businesses and manage their own finances. The finances for the group as a whole are managed as a body corporate or a club. This is to be distinguished from income sharing communities where funds are pooled and distributed by the group.


The Gold Coast Cohousing Association described the benefits of cohousing as follows:

  • Mix of residents from rural, suburbanites/inner urban dwellers, old & young, professional & blue collar.
  • Single parents can rely on and trust neighbours to watch their children.
  • Older folk receive much-needed company and a little help around the house.
  • Everyone feels more secure against crime.
  • Car pools can be organised.
  • Positive environmental impact on the community.
  • Imagine not having to worry about the evening meal after a busy day's work, but relax and join in the community meal whenever you like!

There are some other benefits such as security. If you know your neighbours you are less likely to steal from them. In addition, neighbours can watch each others house if somebody is out. If a stranger enters the development neighbours will notice and will watch to see they are not burglars.



What do cohousing developments look like?

Victorian suburbs are dominated by the street. We approach our neighbourhood, usually by car, via the road. The road extends all the way to our house. At the house the road becomes a driveway. Once we are in the driveway we can get out of the car. By the time we do this we are already at home. As a result a huge portion of our suburbs consist of roads and driveways. In addition the road occupies the central position in the neighbourhood. It looks as if the neighbourhood has been designed for cars not people.


[img_assist|nid=33|title=|desc=A drawing of Muir Commons Cohousing in the United States.|link=popup|url=undefined|align=none|width=400|height=356]


Features include:

  1. Common House
  2. Terrace
  3. “tot lot”
  4. Garden
  5. Gathering nodes
  6. Wood and car workshop
  7. Orchard


Cohousing turns suburbia inside out. Car parking is at the edge of the neighbourhood and the centre is open space, a pedestrian walkway or the common house. Cohousing does not have to be this way but when people design their neighbourhoods this is overwhelmingly what they choose.


There are a number of other features which cohousing groups have come up with to improve their neighbourhood. These include post boxes in the common house. This means that people need to come to the common house to collect their mail. When they do this they often meet and interact with neighbours.


Other strategies include placing the kitchen at the front of the house, facing the other houses. People spend a lot of time in the kitchen. If the kitchen faces the public area and all the other kitchens, there will be greater opportunities for people to interact. The kitchen then becomes a semi-private space. There is then a graduation from public space at the front of the house, through semi-private spaces such as the kitchen through to private spaces such as bedrooms. The bedrooms are placed at the back of the house to ensure privacy and because there are no opportunities for social interacting with sleeping people.


[img_assist|nid=35|title=|desc=A drawing showing the hierarchy of spaces from public to private.|link=popup|url=undefined|align=none|width=400|height=109]



1 K McCamant and C Durrett, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves; 2nd edition 1994. (Amazon)