Sustainability: Co-Housing Goes Urban

Not quite a commune and more than a traditional village, “cohousing” or “intentional communities” aim to provide both the autonomy of a private home with the security of a close-knit community. Cohousing residents want to know their neighbors well.

Cohousing developments have traditionally been located outside the city limits. Homes are usually clustered around an outdoor space with a shared Common House. The Common House is a place for residents to celebrate birthdays, eat meals, house guests, watch movies and even build furniture in a shared workshop. However, with increasing awareness about the costs of sprawl both to our environment and to our psyches, many families are beginning to abandon the image of the idyllic village in the countryside and are beginning to search for cheap, vacant land in the city. Across the country, like- minded individuals are looking to aging neighborhoods for remaining urban lots and existing housing stock to refurbish and reconnect.

In Spokane, a group of families is starting to do just that. They are planning an urban cohousing community. “Its time for people to start thinking about simplifying their lives, not only for saving money, but for conserving precious resources and just using less. We like the idea of living close to friends, stores, school, and not having to drive as much,” says Lupito Flores, member of the Spokane Urban Cohousing group. The group is currently negotiating with property owners to develop a cohousing model for Spokane.

There are close to 200 cohousing communities registered with the Cohousing Association of the United States, from Detroit, Michigan to Davis, California. Washington State has 23 registered communities. While cohousing is gaining in popularity here, it orginated in Denmark back in the 1960s. Danish architect, Jan Gudmand-Hoyer was instrumental to the initial movement, publishing in 1968 an essay titled, “The Missing Link between Utopia and the Dated One-Family House.” Skraplanet and Saettedamen, the first two Danish cohousing models, were developed and designed by Gudmand-Hoyer.

In recognizing that the nuclear family and the subdivision was a major drain on society and individuals, and that families desired more quality time with their children, the Danes were ahead of their time. With more parents working outside of the house and single-parenting on the rise, Danish society began to place a high social value on children having lots of different mentors and role models that were a regular part of their daily lives.

Grace Kim, co-founder of the Seattle architectural collaborative, Schemata Workshop, recently received a grant to study cohousing communities in Denmark. Kim with her husband and co-founder, Mike Mariano spent two months visiting and living in cohousing communities. “The idea of community living is not new to themour first experience of shared living is often the college dormitory,” says Kim, “…at one community at 3 PM, the elderly residents had tea and cookies with the kids, even if mom could not be thereand regularly, a retired school teacher baked bread for the community children.”

Kim recently toured OTM around two well-known urban cohousing communities in Seattle, Jackson Place and Puget Ridge. Both began with the vision of one to three families desiring a cohesive network of neighbors located in an accessible, urban location.

Jackson Place, International District. Located near the Interstate 5 and 90 corridors, Jackson Place is definitely urban. Traffic noise is heard and downtown Seattle is visible from many of the units. Multiple stores, restaurants and parks are just a short walk away.

Jackson Place was designed by prominent west coast architect, Michael Pyatok, known for his design of community-oriented architecture. It consists of 27 residential units. It is the less insular of the two cohousing models. Units face their neighborhood with main entrances coming in directly from the sidewalk, while back doors open to a landscaped shared courtyard.

The planning for Jackson Place started during the late 1990s. “Three families were interested in living downtown and could not settle on a site…they found some city- owned property in the International District that had sat empty for about 30 years,” says Kathy Sellars, resident and outreach coordinator for Jackson Place.

The acre and a half site had been active with drug dealing and prostitution for years. The City of Seattle initially planned on building a bus barn and warehouses on the site, but the neighborhood wanted to see more home ownership. The cohousing proposal came to the city at the right time. The city could avoid a fight with the neighborhood and bring in increased taxable land.

With banks wary to fund such a unique proposal, they required 30 percent cash down from each of the potential buyers. “Some had homes that they pre-sold in order to invest while others borrowed from retirement accounts or against their home equity. Some even helped finance each other,” says Sellars. “When you joined, you paid a $5,000 membership and the down-payment.”

The Common House with its shared spaces, was the most unusual part of the proposal. Built on the north corner of the site, it houses a professional kitchen, dining hall, childrens play area, media room, office and laundry facility. Today, most Jackson Place residents share four to five meals a week in the Common House. The price is $3 for a meal. Meal planning teams consist of two cooks, two in charge of cleanup and one shopper, duties rotate among residents. “Food is ordered through local markets or Azure Standard [a bulk organic foods company out of Oregon],” says Sellars. “We try to meet dietary restrictions as best as possible and vegetarian options and late plates. Typically 30 to 35 participate in a meal.”

Sellars, a native of South Africa, is clearly proud of the community of which she is a part. “It has tended to appeal to families with little family connections in town…those who wanted close and trusted neighbors.”

Puget Ridge, West Seattle. Slightly elevated from its surrounding neighborhood, Puget Ridge Cohousing was the first urban cohousing development in the United States. The feel is more suburban than Jackson Place, but the location is still within walking distance of shops, businesses and public transportation. An on-site water retention pond collects stormwater and provides a wildlife refuge for migratory birds and tree frogs, and densely planted trees create a quiet, park-like setting. The cedar-sided duplexes and triplexes sit on 2.4 acres and face each other in a village-like atmosphere. The 23 units range in size from 1,000 to 2,000 square feet.

Ed Fischburg has lived at Puget Ridge for the last 12 years. He made the move from Chicago to Seattle in order to be closer to his grandchildren, who also live there. “I coach Little League baseball, and see myself as a sort of mentor to the communitys children and younger families,” says Fischburg. “Young families with children are the lifeblood of the community.”

Fischburgs son, Paul, an architect, moved to Seattle for the sole purpose of pursuing his dream of urban cohousing. In the late 1980s, Paul began by making presentations to area environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, and after a number of years he had 40 committed families. That number dropped to 22 once a downpayment was required.

In the center of the site, sits Puget Ridges Common House. It is 4,000 square feet with a cathedral ceilings and exposed wood beams. Here, residents share meals, host art openings and talent shows, while less formal gatherings are held in the lower level recreation room filled with pool tables, ping pong and a little kids play area. There is also a shared laundry area, workshop and guest room. An adjacent outdoor flagstone patio at the upper level and lower level play-yard and basketball court carry community events outside as well.

Despite its unconventionality, demand for units at Puget Ridge remains high. “We have never gone to a realtorcurrent residents have the right of first refusal,” says Fischburg. “Somebody always has a friend or brother that is interested. There usually ends up being three to four potential buyers.”

Fischburg, however is quick to note that cohousing is not for everybody. “There is a lot of responsibility. Everyone has to be on a committee. Most meet once a week. Residents are also obligated to be on a chore teamthey put in a three hour weekend every seven weeks.”

For those that are willing to put in the time and energy toward a cohousing community, the payback and support to families and children can be immense. “The kids play together really well. Older kids show the way. This is a great place for kids to grow- up. Theyre supported, there is a lot of love,” says Fischburg. “Cohousing is more than just a houseyou are buying a way of life.”

For more information on cohousing please visit the following websites:

Reading Material: ing-resources.aspx

Jackson Place:

Puget Ridge:

Temescal Creek, Oakland, CA:

British Columbia: and

For more information on Spokanes Urban Cohousing Group email

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