What is Cohousing?
by Louise Clarke – May 1st, 2012
I’m quite sure that I can’t do as good a job as the material on the Canadian Co-Housing Network web site, so if you have already read that material, I’m sorry, and if you haven’t, please go there and enjoy the read, then come back for my take.
What I am going to do to-day is to tell you what I understand co-housing to be and what it is not in five key respects: basic concept, intention, composition, development and ownership.
Basic concept: Co-housing is a form of housing that is NOT new and flaky, but has been around since 1964 in Denmark. The architect who was the lead innovator wrote a paper about it: “The missing link between Utopia and the dated 1-family house”. It combines having your own, complete private space with many amenities in shared common spaces; in short, a different way of having your cake and eating it. Since 1991 in North America, almost 300 co-housing projects have been completed or are in various stages of development. As one of our members puts it: the thing I like most about co-housing is that it will take me half an hour to pick up my mail because I can stop to talk to my neighbours. The key disadvantage is that it might take me 30 minutes to pick up my mail because I stop to talk with my neighbours.
Intention: To me, this is key. The intent is NOT to remain isolated in our single-family homes or even in relatively impersonal condos, but instead to engage willingly and joyfully—most of the time—with others. Perhaps think of it as, “it takes a village” … to look after each other in the sense of collectively creating an environment that is safe, mutually supportive, stimulating, and that facilitates creative citizenship. This does not mean that we have to all really, really like each other, but rather that we deal with each other civilly and with mutual respect.
Composition: Many co-housing projects are multi-generational; we have opted to make ours for older people without children at home, the first such co-housing project in Canada. This is NOT because we don’t like children. It because we want to age-in-place rather than have to go to an institutional-type environment any sooner than absolutely necessary and that requires some specialized design features. Some examples that we have incorporated into the design of Wolf Willow are wider corridors and doors than normal to accommodate wheelchairs, reinforcing in bathroom walls for grab bars, etc. Please note that this does not mean that we will be doing intensive care for each other except voluntarily and for a very limited period of time.
Development: We are developing the project ourselves through a numbered company because we are NOT willing to trade having to make some tough decisions for a take-it-or-leave-it offering from an arm’s length developer.with some financing from ourselves and the balance from Conexus Credit Union. Together we have hired the professionals we have needed: first and foremost our specialist co-housing project manager, the architects and other building consultants and our contractor, Ledcor. Over the 3 years of development we have had to make some tough decisions for example balancing our environmental sustainability goals with affordability concerns. And in fact, we have made almost all of our decisions by consensus.
Ownership and management: When construction is complete Wolf Willow will be under the Condominium Act, not the Co-operatives Act. Nevertheless, we will, I’m sure, continue to act in a non-hierarchical way with as much consensus decision-making as possible in the formal management of the project. Again we retain primary responsibility for management and maintenance but will be hiring people to do what work volunteers are not willing and able to do.
It has been and continues to be a great adventure and we hope that you will seriously consider coming along for the ride. In the interests of honesty in advertising I will conclude with the following line popular among co-housing members: it’s the longest-running, most expensive personal growth workshop you will ever sign up for, but you get a house thrown in as a bonus. And, I would add, a wonderful community of people.