Cohousing looks at practical questions
When Kerrin OBrien first heard of cohousing, she instantly
felt intrigued. She knew she would like this kind of lifestyle.
As a student at MSU, shed lived in the Bower House Co-op, where
residents share food preparation and cleaning duties (A better
option to the fraternity system). The 35-year-old professional
environmentalist and her family look forward to leaving their house
on a busy street and moving to a greener space called Meadowood Cohousing
Community. The construction starts this fall for a cluster of 80 condominium
townhouses near Aurelius and Cavanaugh roads in southeast Lansing. Theyll
serve as an alternative to the suburban sprawl of single-family house
developments to the anonymity and self-sufficiency so many of
us have grown used to.
Literally not knowing ones neighbor, literally being alone,
literally having to make an appointment with my best friend three weeks
ahead of time struck me as absurd, said Nick Meima, a partner
in the Cohousing Development Co.
In cohousing communities of which there are about 50 in the United
States residents collaborate to plan a pedestrian-friendly, neighborly
community. If you need to borrow a cup of milk you wont ever get
turned down, as might happen in condo developments. One of the great
inspirations of the cohousing idea was the Austrian architect Hundertwasser,
who integrated flowers and trees into the architecture of his buildings
(roof top gardens, vine-decked walls, green courtyards). Developers
of cohousing use environmentally friendly material. Water pipes are
not in the basement, but rather running through the ceiling, making
homes prepared for the day when solar panels become standardized.
Nick Meima, partner in the Cohousing Development Co., which is building
an 80-unit townhouse community in southeast Lansing, its second
in the state. Meima is pictured at Sunward, the cohousing community
his company opened in Ann Arbor in 1998.
will be Cohousing Developments second community in Michigan. Meima,
50, helped found Sunward in Ann Arbor four years ago. The neo-colonial
Sunward townhouses, covered in clapboard-like siding in yellow, pale
gray or blue with white trim, are clustered along sidewalk paths, which
lead to common areas. Each house has a small front yard and porch that
promotes easy visiting. Native prairie flowers have been
planted, allowing residents to avoid the strange ritual of daily mowing.
The little gardens attract butterflies and birds. In the evening raccoons,
opossums and skunks explore the habitat.
The idea of cohousing residential communities were first brought to
the United States by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, a Californian
couple who studied innovative condo buildings in Denmark. They worked
to find an architectural answer to the dramatically growing number of
single-household apartments. To expect that households should
be self-sufficient and without community support is not only unrealistic,
but absurd, McCamant and Durrett, the authors of Cohousing,
Although the name and concept might remind readers of the commune,
which was popular in the 1960s and 70s, cohousing doesnt
share much in common with experimental communities from the hippie era.
In a commune, says Meima who went to college in the 70s,
youre sharing income, ownership and belief system, and often
times theres an industry. Cohousing is much more like a close-knit
neighborhood village. Everybody owns their own house, has their own
job and their own values.
While in the 1970s entire communes disintegrated during heated arguments
about individualism and collective responsibility about Marx, Lenin,
and Cesar Chavez, cohousing focuses more on the practical questions
of life, Meima believes. Residents questions can be as trivial
as I need a fondue pot, who has one? Living in a close-knit
neighborhood apparently has some advantages. If somebody wants
to get a ride to the airport, if somebody would like to learn bridge,
or if somebody wants to support a certain politician for election, no
While the residents may not be hippies, they are typically more liberal.
They probably wouldnt listen to Rush Limbaugh, says
Meima. Most residents are environmentally aware and love good food,
nature and kids. They are people who dont care much for programs
like Neighborhood Watch when they think about better living conditions
and friendlier communities. Neighborhood Watch is premised on the idea
that observing your neighbor is the most effective deterrent to residential
crime. In cohousing the emphasis is not on control or suspicion; enjoying
the company of your neighbors is an act in and of itself, which has
the side effect of creating a safe environment.
When parents get stuck in traffic on their way back home from work,
their kids can call anyone in the community to visit for a snack or
dinner. It reduces anxiety when parents know they can rely on
their neighbors, says OBrien. About four times a week roughly
45 of Sunwards 93 residents meet in the community building for
dinner. Inside, members pick up their mail and newspapers and can watch
television, eat dinner, do laundry and use exercise machines or woodworking
tools. Theres also a guest bedroom for occasional visitors. The
association requires adult members to work about four hours a month
on projects that benefit the whole, such as shoveling snow, doing yard
work, serving on committees, cooking the group meals or cleaning up
afterward. One group of residents organize childrens activities
to give parents free time.
Lisa Wickman is a mother of two, teacher of technology, and lover of
nature. She has been interested in cohousing for seven years and couldnt
wait to join when she found out about Meadowood. She looks forward to
community meals and having more social opportunities where kids are
welcome. Jace (12) and Gage (6) are anxious to have the run of
a 10-acre homestead, she said. Meadowood Cohousing offers 22 acres
in total, but will be split into two different projects. Cynthia Donovan,
an agricultural economics professor at MSU who used to work in Africa,
expects cohousing to be a refuge. She enjoys cooking for a crowd, sitting
around a big table and working on the worlds problems, and dropping
in on friends for a cup of tea.
The one-, two- and three-bedroom units are 750 to 1,600 square feet
and sell for $150,000 to nearly $300,000. Hence living in a cohousing
community is not entirely inexpensive. To counter this, Cohousings
think tank has developed a resolution for families who have
trouble buying in immediately. There are residents who have accumulated
some assets and whove put some of this into a pool, says
Meima. Families can borrow the missing money from the pool in the form
of a second mortgage. Community members are supporting each other.
The Lansing Meadowood project is located near Crego Park, Potter Park
and the River Trail. Cars are not allowed beyond the parking lot near
the entrance, and residents use pushcarts to carry groceries to their
homes, which is about the equivalent of half a city block.
In some respects cohousing seems like the reinvention of turn-of-the-century
Farmhands and their families often lived in houses clustered around
the main farmhouse.
These large households provided both children and adults a diverse intergenerational
network of relationships. Meima remembers reading Hillary Clintons
book It Takes a Village, whose title was based on an African
proverb about raising children. Whereas he thought Clinton didnt
know enough about this lifestyle (because she hasnt experienced
it), in cohousing the adults actually do know the children,
and the kids know the adults.
What happens if people in this happy community get into an argument?
Or as potential Meadowood resident, Douglas Black, who is an energy
efficiency consultant, put it: What if I end up in this big happy
family and the great guy Joe next door is transferred to Tucumcari,
and his unit gets sold to
the neighbor from hell.
To prevent such experiences, cohousing communities have created specific
rules, beginning with the premise that one doesnt operate
from a position of non-negotiable negativity, explains Meima.
That means that youre not going to take the position of
saying Im not going to talk about it. If things
really get tough, the option of a mediation committee also exists. Such
an extreme situation almost never occurs, he said. With less than a
5 percent turnover rate per year (according to Meima most condominium
developments have a turnover of 25 percent), cohousing seems to produce
fairly stable neighborhood relationships.
And if human relations turn out to get a bit touchy, then one can always
escape into the wildlife behind the scene. Only up to 25 percent of
the cohousing property will be used for housing, parking or roadways.
The rest will be maintained without herbicides or pesticides
as fields, yards and community gardens. Both in Sunward (Ann
Arbor) and Meadowood (Lansing) deer were spotted who seemed to take
the idea of cohousing for granted.