Communities attract folks who yearn for neighbors

'CO-HOUSING' FILLS A NICHE

December 27, 1992|By Audrey Haar | Audrey Haar,Staff Writer

Are we returning to the 1960s, when many people joined communes and ate, played and raised children together?

Or even to the 1930s, when most people still lived in small towns where they knew their neighbors?

Probably not, at least not on a grand scale. But two architects from Berkeley, Calif. -- Charles Durrett and his wife, Kathryn McCamant -- are advocating a lifestyle that's a throwback to an earlier generation. It is a reaction to sterile cookie-cutter developments where neighbors often have nothing to do with one another -- except to share a property line.

The lifestyle is "co-housing." The pair developed the concept after a 13-month tour of 46 communities in Denmark known as "bofoelleskaber," or living communities.

Their 1988 book, "Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves," has become the bible of the groups working to develop similar communities in the United States.

There are two completed co-housing communities on the West Coast and about 100 other groups across the country, including one in Frederick, in planning stages.

In a co-housing development, people live in their own homes, whether single-family or town house, but share a common area or house. They usually eat together and share some other chores, perhaps maintenance and garden work; the arrangements for each co-housing group are different.

Co-housing differs from the communes popular in the 1960s in that residents share a lifestyle rather than an ideology or religion. In addition, co-housing residents maintain their own family living spaces.

A key element is that residents are involved in the development.

"A hundred years ago, and even in medieval environments, people were involved in their housing," Mr. Durrett said. "Now we cut down trees, we build a box and hope it works for somebody."

The development process is the key to the success of a co-housing community, Mr. Durrett said. Working as a group to reach a consensus on the hundreds of issues that come before a group -- from site selection to who takes out the garbage -- is

what ties the group together.

If a developer tried to build a co-housing community with the idea of finding customers after it is built, Mr. Durrett said, he would give such a project a "zero chance of survival."

A co-housing development begins with a group of people who can agree on whatever they decide is important to them. It could be eating dinners together, organizing social events, providing child care, sharing work tools or planting a garden.

In other words, a co-housing community is bound by "a philosophy ofliving," said Karen A. Franck, who co-edited the 1989 book "New Households, New Housing."

What binds the co-housing community is shared dinners and household chores. Billed as ideal for dual-career couples, a co-housing development lets people relax and spend time with their families at the end of the day, and then stroll over to the common house for a group dinner. Those who prefer dining alone can eat in their own homes.

Some co-housing groups require members to prepare the group dinner twice a month, attend monthly meetings and perform community chores. The meetings also serve as a platform to air problems and disagreements before the group.

Ms. Franck says alternative housing -- that is, alternatives to standard single-family, condo and town house developments -- is inevitable because "the demands on women and single mothers living in single detached houses is tremendous."

The fact that "all these groups have formed shows that there is a tremendous desire [for alternatives]," Ms. Franck said.

Ms. Franck noted that it is rare for people to develop their own housing and that many are not used to having to cook and clean for others.

The main reason to move into co-housing is lifestyle, not price. Co-housing developments have not proved to be cheaper than traditional homes, because in building homes for the first time, people can get carried away in customizing it, which, in turn, drives up the price.

But money eventually can be saved by pooling resources by buying food in bulk for group dinners, sharing child care expenses and sharing costs on little-used household items, such as gardening equipment, tools and kitchen gadgets.

"I think people who move into co-housing are getting more for their money in terms of quality of life," said Don Lindemann, editor of CoHousing, a newsletter published in San Rafael, Calif.

One of the problems that will keep co-housing from attaining mass-market appeal is that it isn't something you can produce by yourself, such as a solar home, Mr. Durrett pointed out.

And not many people are prepared to take on the risks of developing a community that requires years of work before moving day.

Successful co-housing groups first learn to develop a decision-making structure, Mr. Lindemann said.

But those who have been interested in something such as co-housing, "are not the kind of people who are going to blindly follow the crowd. You have to find a way to bring people with diverse opinions make decisions together," Mr. Lindemann said.

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