Take a typical suburban development and turn it inside-out. Remove the streets from the middle of the houses and place them around the perimeter of the neighborhood. Get rid of the three-car garages. Relegate the cars to understated, minimal parking areas on the outskirts of the development.
Make the housing units smaller and more energy efficient, with the front doors opening onto the kitchens, where people like to congregate. Offer a variety of home sizes, styles and prices. Turn the front yards into a large common area criss-crossed by foot and bike paths. Add a common house with a large shared dining and cooking area, guest rooms, a meeting room, a laundry, a playroom for the kids, a fireplace, a piano and a terrace.
Throw in a community garden and a shared playground and you've got the physical structure of a typical cohousing community, much like the one you'll find currently under construction at the corner of Columbia and Corona streets in the Patty-Jewett neighborhood just north of downtown Colorado Springs.
A germ of an idea shared by a handful of dreamers some five years ago, Colorado Springs Cohousing Community, at the 4.7-acre former site of abandoned greenhouses, is coming to fruition this summer. The completed community will include 34 individual units ranging in size from 868 to over 2,000 square feet.
The common house, owned jointly by all the investors, a large Craftsman-style building with dark turquoise siding and fine natural wood details, is closest to being finished now and is surrounded by a number of duplexes and fourplexes in various stages of construction.
The physical community, dubbed Casa Verde Commons by the developer, Boulder-based Wonderland Hill Development Company, reflects the shared values of the group -- energy-efficient dwellings designed around a family-friendly, automobile-free common area, near public transportation lines and immediately accessible to a public foot and bike trail.
One couple, says community member Tim Burke, have said that they plan to sell one of their two cars and buy two bikes when they move into the cohousing community later this year.
So far, 21 units have been sold, to a diverse range of families, singles, retirees and couples who have participated in every aspect of the planning process along with architects, engineers, a developer and other experts in the field. The 13 remaining units are available to anyone who can obtain financing and who demonstrates a commitment to the community and the concept.
The heart and soul of cohousing are not the buildings, but the people and the ideals that bring them together. Together, they are committed to the concept of overcoming social isolation in a world where neighbors don't know each other; living an ecologically sound life with shared resources in a world where open spaces and natural resources are quickly being depleted; and finding a community that balances the need for privacy with the need to belong.
"We're looking for people who are interested in the community, not just the buildings," said Burke, a CSCC member who has been instrumental in the development of cohousing in the Springs. "Ideally, we hope [potential buyers] will ask, 'What's the social commitment?'"
Burke is quick to point out that the potential benefits far outweigh the physical, financial and social costs of living in cohousing.
"There aren't onerous participation requirements," he said. "Basically, everyone pitches in to care for the common areas and there's an option to cook and share meals a couple times a week."
And there are community meetings -- many, many meetings where attendance is not necessarily required but is strongly recommended to create a full sense of participation. In cohousing, there's not a management company like one might find in a condominium development. The members of the community manage finances, planning, marketing and maintenance themselves by consensus, a formal process of decision making.
Burke, a 49-year-old professional who works in public relations for the City of Colorado Springs, says taking a position of leadership and guiding the agenda of meetings came naturally for him with the cohousing project, but not so for others. "What a surprise," he said, shaking his head. "Not everyone thinks as linearly as me."
Learning to organize and manage a meeting, to set goals and to produce results by consensus, Burke says, are important skills that can be acquired by learning the process within a cohousing community.
A single guy whose mother, brothers and nieces live some 2,000 miles away, Burke says the chance to share meals and to be a surrogate "uncle" to some of the kids who will live in the community were strong drawing points for him.
"A key question to ask if you're interested in exploring cohousing is 'Do you feel isolated?'" Burke agrees with many cohousing advocates that a growing sense of social isolation has created an increasing demand for new types of housing that promote connectedness and community.
And that doesn't mean that everyone has to believe the same things or that people have to forfeit privacy to be a vital part of the community.
"We have Roman Catholics in our group and we have energy healers," he laughs. "It's not a wild or weird idea; it's a traditional neighborhood. It's basically a place where you have neighborly neighbors."
Born in Denmark
Cohousing was born some 20 years ago in Denmark when working people there concluded that available housing options didn't match the needs of their modern lives.
The first cohousing development was built in 1972 in Copenhagen by a group of 27 families who wanted a stronger sense of a shared community life than they found in typical suburban subdivisions or apartment complexes. The idea was to know your neighbors, to have your own private home while living among a close-knit group of committed community members, and to actively participate in the planning process.
Since the '70s, cohousing has become a widely available housing option in Denmark and has caught on in the United States, largely due to the work of architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who studied the movement in Denmark and co-authored the book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves.
In Colorado, there are currently nine active cohousing communities. Across North America, 175 communities are either completed or are in some stage of development.
"Traditional forms of housing no longer address the needs of many people," McCamant and Durrett wrote in the book's introduction. "Dramatic demographic and economic changes are taking place in our society and most of us feel the effect of these trends in our lives. Things that people once took for granted -- family, community, a sense of belonging -- must now be actively sought out."
Sixty-seven percent of American housing stock, the authors point out, are single-family detached homes, designed "for a nuclear family consisting of a breadwinning father, a homemaking mother and two to four children."
But today, they continue, less than one-fourth of the U.S. population falls into families that fit that definition. Single people compose a growing number of American households and will increase as the population of baby boomers ages. Single-parent households with children are also common, placing a heavy burden on individuals to provide upkeep on the house, adequate income, child-care, meals and quality time with little extended family support.
The nation and its families have grown increasingly mobile, leaving grandparents far away from their grandchildren and adult children far away from their parents and siblings, making it difficult if not impossible to share an occasional meal or a helping hand.
Cohousing, its supporters argue, can help to mend the tattered fabric of community and family life where individualism has run amok and the notion of privacy has come to mean extreme isolation from even our closest neighbors.
Key to the projects are design elements that promote human interaction. The Colorado Springs Cohousing Community hired McCamant to help them develop their original site plan, once they obtained the Columbia Street land and permission from the city to build.
"We made a conscious decision to put all the mailboxes in the common house so that at least once a day people would drop in to see what was going on," said Burke.
"When we decided to put in a kids' romp room in the common house, we had to discuss whether we wanted the area to have a door or be open, or whether it would have glass windows so that parents could watch their kids from the dining area, but the noise would be lessened. We decided on the glass windows."
McCamant explored the neighborhood, a residential area made up of a dense mix of 1920s Victorian cottages, 1930s bungalows and other small-to-medium size houses, and emphasized to the group the need to blend in tastefully and respectfully with the surrounding area. The group and their architect, as a result, decided to incorporate a variety of architectural styles and building materials that would mimic the existing community.
At one point, the neighborhood association hoped to turn the abandoned greenhouse site into a city park, but funding was not forthcoming. As a concession to the surrounding neighborhood and that wish, CSCC is dedicating a small portion of the land they now own, on the north end of the property, as a public park.
With guidance from McCamant, Boulder architect Matt Worswick (who lives in a cohousing community), and the developer, Wonderland Hill Development Company, the group made decisions on everything from insulation materials to porch placement, all with their shared ideals and mission at the forefront -- to tread lightly on their chosen piece of Earth and to promote community interaction.
"Every time we made a decision, the cost went up," Burke conceded. In the beginning, offering lower-priced units was a priority, but energy efficiency and a commitment to renewable building materials and high quality construction eventually won out.The units are priced at $161,000 to $311,000 depending on size and features. That investment includes co-ownership of the common house, workshop, playground and the land.
"We could have bought land out in the country and built all yurts," he said, "but that turned out not to be the group's desire. Instead, we opted to build in the last, best piece of urban infill in Colorado Springs and we opted for green building."
So far the builders have utilized recycled content in the siding, carpets, insulation and outdoor decking, have used less wood than usual in the framing, and have recycled more than 530 cubic yards of building materials.
The buildings have been placed to maximize the use of solar energy, and E-star rated appliances have been purchased. Air sealing packages, wet-blown cellulose insulation, energy-efficient windows, heating systems and fans will eventually save the residents an estimated $13,592 per year in natural gas costs and $2,060 per year in electricity.
The community has garnered a 5-Star Energy Rating, based on the Built-Green checklist, a rating attained by only one-tenth of 1 percent of Colorado homes.
The houses, even the largest ones, are built as duplexes or four-plexes to minimize the building area and leave more of the 4.7 acres open for gardens and common areas -- an intention shared by most cohousing communities.
Heartwood, a cohousing community in Durango, for example, is clustering its homes and common house on an existing 10-acre meadow in order to completely preserve the 240 acres of surrounding forest owned by the community.
Of all ages
A common theme in cohousing is celebration of a multigenerational community. Like many of its sister communities, CSCC boasts a wide age range, from 6 months to 70 years. Included in the mix are one mother and daughter who have purchased separate units and share membership in the community.
Genevieve and Bonnie Poucel are both French teachers in Colorado Springs public schools who hope to incorporate French class into their living experience at Casa Verde Commons. Genevieve and her partner, Bardia, a business consultant from Iran, also plan to introduce the group to Persian cooking.
Bonnie Poucel, a single mother, raised Genevieve and her brother in a number of communal settings and says the idea has always made sense to her.
"I had always been interested in the concept and had done some communal living when my kids were small, in Europe and here," she said. "But this is different. Those communities were transitional. Everyone lived in the same house, recreating their family dysfunction, ending up yelling and fighting. This is grown-up communal living with clear guidelines."
Minus the baggage of the old-style commune with its lack of privacy and informal structure, Bonnie Poucel believes the benefits to children are much the same.
"You can't beat raising kids in a true community," she said. "They have an opportunity to see adults resolve conflict, doing things, working together."
Both mother and daughter, who work with teenagers, believe the benefit to children of having a large number of adult influences in their daily lives is invaluable.
Genevieve Poucel says the idea appealed to her after living in an apartment setting in the southwest section of the city where neighbors rarely, if ever, got to know each other.
"There, you pulled into the garage when you got home from work and went directly inside," she said. "We lived in an apartment complex where basically everyone was the same age. We were young professionals of similar income level and we never interacted.
"I thought, 'We're missing something here -- something big.'"
Bonnie Poucel has been actively involved in all the planning stages of CSCC and has hosted the group at her family's mountain cabin on retreat weekends.
She values the "creativity and expertise" she finds in the group, pointing out one couple who know a lot about birds and roses, and another who are experts at bees and honey. Everyone brings something to the table.
"I like to garden, but I feel incompetent," she said. "I want someone who knows to tell me which is the weed and then to put me to work."
Genevieve Poucel appreciates the community process of conflict resolution, noting that most neighbors in single-family housing neighborhoods don't feel free to talk when there are problems in the community.
"I don't think we'll all be best friends," she said, "but I like that we've agreed to work things out when there's a problem. I like that we can be open and not afraid of one another."
Both agree that the social aspect of cohousing agrees with them.
"I like the feeling when there's a big group together, like a large family or neighborhood gathering," says Bonnie. "But I don't want to have to arrange it, to make it happen. Here we'll have the feeling but it will occur naturally with a little effort on everyone's part."
Like their soon-to-be neighbor, Tim Burke, the Poucels look forward to moving in to their new homes. The first units are expected to be certified for occupancy this fall and everyone should be moved in by next March, according to Burke. The common house is expected to be completed by Labor Day.
Burke shares a story a fellow cohousing enthusiast told him about coming home from work on a typical day.
"He told me it should take 20 minutes to get from your car, or from parking your bike, to get to your front door. There will be people to stop and talk to along the way, mail to check in the common house. Maybe a cup of tea with a friend.
"I look forward to that."
For more information about the Colorado Springs Cohousing Community or Casa Verde Commons, visit www.colospringscohousing.com or call 471-6611.
CSCC will hold an open house on Sunday, July 14, from 1 to 3 p.m., at the construction trailer at 531 East Columbia Street. A short video presentation will explain cohousing and the community.
For more information on cohousing in North America and across Colorado, see www.cohousing.org.
On Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 5:30 p.m., CSCC will sponsor a book signing and slide show event with author David Wann at the Chinook Bookshop, 210 N. Tejon St. Wann will discuss and sign the new paperback edition of his book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic.
Cohousing in Colorado
Despite our state's nasty building habits in general -- sprawl, sprawl, as far as the eye can see -- Colorado has more active cohousing communities than all other states besides Massachusetts, California and Washington.
Here's a list of who's co-housing -- and how they're doing it -- in our fair state:
Colorado Springs Cohousing Community, 34 connected units on 4.7 acres in the city center, currently under construction with 13 available units. Contact:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 719/471-6611.
Greyrock Commons, three miles northwest of "Old Town" Fort Collins, a half-mile from the Cache La Poudre River. Completed in 1997, Greyrock has 30 units on 16 acres with 10 acres dedicated to open space. Unique features include a chicken house, a passive solar workshop/garage and an irrigation pump house for irrigating the community garden with traditional ditches. See
Harmony Village, Golden, is a 27-unit cohousing community with Santa Festyle clustered dwellings on 5.8 acres. Forty-seven adults and 15 children make up the community, which is "dedicated to sustainable living." Planning began in 1992 and the community was completed in 1997. See
Hearthstone, a northwest Denver community completed in 2002, is located between 36th and 37th streets on the southwest corner of the old Elitch Gardens site, with 33 units on 1.6 acres. A few units are still available. See
Heartwood Cohousing of Durango is a rural development of townhouses, located on a central 10-acre meadow, surrounded by 240 acres of undisturbed pine forest. Completed in 2001. See
Highline Crossing in Littleton is along the Highline Canal, 12 miles southwest of downtown Denver, one mile from the south corridor light rail. Holiday celebrations, including Mardi Gras, take place in the common house where meals are shared three times per week. Completed in 1997. See
Nomad Cohousing in Boulder has 11 units on 1 acre in an urban setting. Completed in 1997. Contact Arthur Okner at 303/442-3038 or see
Nyland Cohousing in Lafayette is a semi-rural development of 42 units on 43 acres of land. Completed in 1993, it is the oldest cohousing community in the state. Call 303/554-9424.
River Rock Commons of Fort Collins, completed in 2000, emphasizes affordability and offers a wide range of prices. Some members rent rooms in larger units to students or single folks looking for an affordable place to live in community. Thirty-four units are set on 3.4 acres on the Poudre River. See
Wild Sage Cohousing of Boulder is a community that has just secured 1.5 acres of land between Broadway and 28th Street, above Yarmouth, in Boulder. The community will be a dense neighborhood of 34 attached units with a common house, walkways and possibly a greenhouse and herb garden. The surrounding neighborhood, the Holiday Drive-In Neighborhood, will include some permanently affordable housing developed by the City of Boulder with bike trails, a two-acre park and easy access to public transportation. See