Cohousing: Creating Close-Knit, Sustainable Communities

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Photo Courtesy New Society Publishers
"Creating Cohousing" is an in-depth exploration of cohousing communities, a unique type of housing designed for more sustainable lifestyles.

The following is an excerpt from Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett  (New Society Publishers, 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 30: Cohousing and Community.

Cohousing communities succeed at being sustainable because they achieve sustainability in several facets: environmental, social, and economic. Their architecture often includes green buildings, renewable energy systems, water conservation measures, sustainably harvested wood, and non- or low-toxic materials. But just as important as the use of sustainable materials are the social aspects of cohousing: the placement of cohousing communities within existing neighborhoods, the sharing of resources, and the positive group education around sustainability. This type of development brings social benefits — being close to friends and neighbors — as well as reduced consumption, all of which make cohousing a more sustainable lifestyle. As such, cohousing is a regional, national, and international model for sustainable community development at large.

Cohousing residents are at the forefront of the green revolution. They include plans for optimizing energy efficiency when designing their communities (solar panels, rainwater capture, ventilation systems that reduce dependence on air conditioning). On a day-to-day basis they share cars and laundry facilities, champion recycling, and create a community-wide composting effort. The collaborative nature of both designing and living in cohousing facilitates a continual educational process around environmental awareness and green living. A cohousing community is the very definition of a sustainable neighborhood.

Cohousing as a Model for Efficient Sustainable Development

Institutionally, cohousing addresses development issues such as community building, proximity to services, energy conservation, and environmental stewardship, as well as key neighborhood design elements that include pedestrian-friendly, senior-friendly, and earth-friendly development. Cohousing communities include appropriately scaled houses in safe, car-free, walkable neighborhoods. Many cohousing sites are close to downtown and public transportation with easy access to services and are built on infill sites with greater density than their suburban counterparts.

Many cohousing communities have reintegrated work and housing by providing on-site office space and inserting work spaces and housing into livable city centers. FrogSong Cohousing in Cotati, California, for example, includes a row of commercial spaces that offer some basic amenities to the residents and augment the existing services near the site. Other cohousing communities have set aside space for residents to work within the common facilities. Such shared work space provides an alternative to commuting to an office and a social environment that is missing for individuals who telecommute or who work alone at home.

At an average size of 15 to 35 units, cohousing developments are relatively small. However, by addressing larger urban and regional design issues, cohousing provides models for better development practices in which residents benefit from the opportunities available in their immediate vicinity. In all of these ways, cohousing communities contribute to mixed-use, mixed-income, and intergenerational communities that are more similar to traditional villages — and a dramatic change from typical suburban communities. In doing so, cohousing design builds on and exceeds many of the principles of contemporary neighborhood design such as transit-oriented development (TOD), smart growth, and traditional neighborhood development (TND), and far exceed the standards for the US Green Building Council’s LEED for Neighborhood Development.

Sustainable Design Elements

In general, many cohousing projects include groundbreaking approaches to energy efficiency and resource conservation within an affordable budget. The results are notable. Research has shown that, depending on the design, residents of a cohousing community use 50 to 75 percent less energy for heating and cooling than they did in their previous homes (for a family of three). Cohousing residences are about 60 percent the average size of a new house in the United States. Cohousing neighborhoods, on average, occupy less than half as much land as the average new subdivision for the same number of households, and 75 percent less land as the same individuals did before moving into cohousing. Cohousers also drive about 60 percent less than their suburban counterparts. These cost-saving and environment-saving strategies are directly transferred to the cohousing residents, as well as their larger communities and regions.

In the context of normal construction practices, cohousing communities are more sustainable than “traditional” housing. The following are typical features in cohousing building design:

• Infill development or sites near public transit and services
• Sustainably harvested lumber and flooring materials
• Advanced framing techniques (about 25 percent less wood than typical framing per sq. ft.)
• Tight building envelopes
• Passive heating
• Passive cooling
• Radiant floor heating systems
• High R-value blown-in cellulose insulation
• Renewable energy systems
• Low-water- and low-energy-use appliances
• Fly ash in concrete (more durable, requires less concrete)
• Pervious paving to increase water absorption
• Low-toxic and low-volatile organic compounds (VOC) adhesives, sealants, and paints
• Waste stream management
• Permaculture landscape principles
• High-grade erosion control
• Low-energy use fixtures
• Greywater recycling (drip system)
• Cool roofs

And more ….

These design elements speak to a larger issue beyond the choice of materials and their use. By choosing an infill site, a group is not adding to sprawl. By choosing smaller individual homes, together they can afford community-sized amenities like renewable energy systems. Even more importantly, this long-range approach engenders a sense of long-term viability. Cohousing is the essence of sustainability.

Social Advantages

While energy and resource conservation is critical, so is replenishing the social capital that individuals rely on to thrive. The ability of neighbors to meet and cooperate is a necessary ingredient for creating livable communities.

Cohousing is for people who not only want to live with environmental awareness, but who value a community of others for friendship and support. And a strong support system offers its own sustainability. Cohousing is a healthy living environment for seniors who might otherwise be secluded in large, private homes. Cohousing is for children who might not otherwise have playmates in their immediate neighborhood, and for mothers and fathers who can share childcare, parenting advice, and the companionship of other adults. One resident of Nevada City Cohousing with five children talks about how he previously planned two to four playdates a weekend, schlepping his kids to and fro. In the two years since he moved into cohousing, he hasn’t needed to plan a single playdate. Another neighbor describes how her family used less than a tank of gas getting their kids’ social needs met over a summer season. The children mostly played on site, or carpooled to sports and other activities. Residents of senior cohousing talk of savings of over $1,000 per month, compared to their previous living situations, through lower energy bills, less driving, more on-site activities, not having to own a second vehicle, and more.

Similarly, cohousing can bring life to an entire neighborhood, especially one in need of activity and services. A cohousing community adds to the social fabric of an area, helping to make it safer, more livable, and more enjoyable. How many parents do you know who still let their children–four-, five-, and six-year-olds–walk to a friend’s house alone? How many seniors do you know who would feel safe leaving their house after dark? Yet cohousing communities in towns and even inner-city neighborhoods provide the proximity and the security — “the eyes on the street” and the “knowing each other” — that give residents a great sense of safety and security in their homes and immediate living environment.