Loneliness is said to have an enormous negative impact on our health. "We know clearly that sitting, smoking and obesity are linked to chronic disease," says Dr. Amy Sullivan, PsyD. "But I think of loneliness as another risk factor for chronic health conditions." Even for those without family—a spouse, partner or children, there are ways that they can gain meaningful, daily contact through their housing options.
Communes and kibbutzes emerged decades ago to offer variations on the idea of supportive or shared collaborative living. Yet another form arose in 1964 when Danish architect Jan Gudmand-Hoyer joined with friends to develop a design for 12 houses around a common house and swimming pool. Neighbors didn’t like the idea and stopped the project from being built. Around the same time, Bodil Graae, Danish writer penned an article, "Children Should Have One Hundred Parents," to motivate Danish families, and the first modern cohousing community emerged, though the term wasn’t coined until later.
The idea was that individuals or families would own their own houses or apartments or rent but live together in a community. There would be shared spaces where they could gather indoors or outside to cook, eat or garden as much or as little as they desired. Members also would divide some expenses for the common areas and make decisions together. Some of these cohousing communities might take the concept a step further. Residents would come together because of their shared values such as sustainability or social justice.
The first U.S. co-housing communities date back to 1988, after architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, then of Berkeley, Calif., returned to this country from Denmark where they had studied and seen several European versions. They get credit for coining the term and wrote the first book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves," which subsequently became the "bible" of the movement. The first such community was Muir Commons in Davis, Calif., in 1991, which consisted of 27 houses, plus a common house with shared facilities.
Altogether, there are now more than 165 communities with 148 completed and 17 in the building stage throughout the country; another 140 are in the works. McCamant & Durrett Architects, now based in Nevada City, Calif., designed more than 50 of the co-housing communities.
Through the years much has been learned about best practices and what makes the concept work well. "Cohousing neighborhoods across North America vary greatly in location and density from urban condominiums to large properties in rural locations, but they all share the concept of private homes with shared facilities, and a desire to create a collaborative neighborhood where neighbors really know each other and strive to work together for the benefit of all," says McCamant, who now operates her own firm, CoHousing Solutions, which offers development consulting services for groups and developers wanting to create collaborative communities.
Karin Hoskin, Executive Director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, whose goal is to educate and advocate for the concept, moved with husband Nick 15 years ago to the Wild Sage Cohousing community in Boulder, Colo., which has 34 townhouse units and a 5,000-square-foot common house on 1 ½ acres, making it among the denser versions. The group organizes Sunday evening dinners with one resident acting as "head" chef and two others assisting. But other cohousing communities may partake of more meals together. At Wild Sage, members also meet monthly to discuss their needs, says Hoskin. Legally, the community is organized as an HOA.
For Hoskin, it has proved to be a positive living arrangement. "We love that everybody knows their neighbors and reminds me of how I grew up," she says. "It has really reflected the concept of it takes a village to raise a child." And for her and her fellow residents, they have the advantage of being near 15 other small subdivisions, including a senior cohousing community called Silver Sage Village, which is becoming another trend as boomers age. These communities often have a nurse on call or staff visiting to help navigate aging challenges.
Three years ago, Diana Sullivan, a commercial real estate broker, moved to another co-housing community in Nashville’s downtown neighborhood of Germantown after she had helped research what it would take to get a cohousing community off the ground. Her goal was also a place to live where camaraderie would be a major emphasis. "I was divorced and community minded and was seeking more connection," she says.
The Germantown Commons features 25 stacked condos and a 2,600-square-foot common house on 9/10 of an acre. The residents originally decided to share meals two to three times a week but is now down to one. "The number fluctuates and may increase come spring," she says. The age range of from 2 to 80 also reflects the wide spectrum at many locations. And though some units at Germantown have gone on the market in recent times, there often has been a wait list for the reasons Sullivan has found so appealing. "There’s always someone to call on or talk to, so you never feel isolated, why I think those who live in cohousing have been shown to live healthier, happier and longer," she says.
Besides being good for the owners, these cohousing communities have been shown to be good for the environment since most emphasize pared energy use and alternative energy such as solar panels.
For individuals and families to find the best fit or learn how to start one, there’s a growing compendium of information. First stop should be the Cohousing Association of the United States website, which keeps a directory of locations, lists resources and hosts an annual conference, www.cohousing.org. For seniors, the Sage Cohousing International, www.sagecohoadvocates.org, site is the right starting point. And besides their first book, Durrett and McCamant have authored Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities and Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, which help answer many key questions and provide case studies to learn from.