Cohousing is called an antidote to modern isolation

Communities designed to require interaction


SEATTLE - When Michelle Grandy needed some last-minute greens to balance a dinner, she didn't head to the grocery store. Instead, she went next door and borrowed broccoli from her neighbor, who wasn't home at the time.

The part-time midwife moved into the Songaia Cohousing community near Bothell, Wash., with her husband and 3-year-old daughter when it opened in November.

Since then, the benefits have been endless, said Grandy.

"It's not just a cup of sugar," she said. "It's a lifestyle. It's a way of living in which you truly know your neighbors."

A decade ago there was only one cohousing community in the United States. Now Songaia is one of eight in Western Washington alone, with another eight on the way, including one scheduled to open in Redmond in 2003 and two more in Seattle.

More than 150 communities are in the planning or construction stage in the United States and Canada, according to the Cohousing Network, a nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colo. Fifty-four are already operating.

Fast pace of life

"It makes sense," said Neshama Abraham Paiss, spokeswoman for the network.

"The faster you lead your life and the more isolated you are because you're sitting at your computer all day, the more you would seek a community to counteract that isolation."

Cohousing, which originated in Denmark in the late 1960s, is usually a community of individually owned homes clustered together to promote interaction.

The focal point of the community is generally a common house where meals are eaten several times a week. Residents are expected to participate in decision-making and to contribute to maintenance of the property.

At Songaia, 13 duplex-style, two- to three-bedroom homes painted in cheerful hues of green, blue, red and yellow are the core of the 10-acre community. (The name roughly means "song of the living Earth.")

Rows of organic vegetable crops gently slope up to the cluster of homes. The rest of the land is filled with 60-foot-tall cedars and Douglas firs, a meadow and a retention pond.

Spaghetti and community

Although attending the five weekly meals in the common house is optional, nearly all of the residents - 25 adults and 13 children, ages 2 to 65 - turned out this week for a dinner of spaghetti with pesto made from last year's crop of basil.

Residents take turns acting as lead cook, second cook or dishwasher, and members of a food committee buy the ingredients with a fund into which residents pay.

At the counter in the industrial-size kitchen, the residents - some in suits and button-down shirts, others in jeans or leather - heaped steaming pasta onto their plates and carried them into the dining room, which is filled with round and rectangular tables.

Children were running underfoot and climbing in and out of a window turned makeshift patio door, while adults sat in plastic chairs and talked about their day.

On one wall was affixed the banner, "It takes a whole village to raise a healthy child."

The privacy factor

Karly Lubach, the night's lead cook, lived in shared housing before moving to Songaia. The sculptor and painter prefers cohousing because of the balance between community and privacy.

"Getting my own kitchen was a big thing," she said.

But because every decision requires a consensus among residents, it can take three weeks to make mundane decisions such as what type of flooring should go into the children's play area.

Residents finally agreed to carpet the room.

"A lot of times the discussion comes back full circle," said Scott Babcock, a software programmer for Bellevue-based Attachmate. "But by going through that process, we've come to an understanding as to why things are the way they are."

Beginning the process

A few miles south, another group is in the beginning stages of creating a cohousing community. Kirkland-based Rose Hill Cohousing, formerly known as Equinox Cohousing, announced last month that it will buy more than 9 acres of wooded land in Redmond for $1.65 million.

Katherine Fugitt and John Dietz, two of the group's three founding members, decided to start the community because of the relative anonymity they've experienced in their leafy Kirkland neighborhood.

"You go into your garage, get in your car and go to work. Then you drive back into your garage and close the door," said Dietz, who is a software development manager for Primus Knowledge Systems in Seattle.

"We've lived here eight years and we don't know our neighbors."

Because of the way cohousing communities are designed, with parking on the periphery and the houses built facing each other and linked by sidewalks, residents will inevitably interact and get to know one another, said Fugitt, who is on a hiatus from earning her doctorate in education at the University of Washington.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.