Cohousing: A Tight-Knit, Low-Cost Option for Sustainable Living

Life in an old-fashioned neighborhood with an eco-spin

The savory smell of a home-cooked meal drifts from the common house. The sound of children laughing and playing buzzes through the courtyard. Neighbors sit together and chat on their front lawns, enjoying the crisp night air.

This neighborhood may have an old-fashioned, small-town feel, but it’s not a small town at all. It’s a modern cohousing community located in the urban setting of Denver, Colo.

“We’re a very close-knit community — even though we are in the middle of the big city,” says Michael Hoover, who has lived in Hearthstone cohousing community with his family since it opened nine years ago. The cohousing development includes 33 townhome units and a common house connected by internal walkways and common green areas.

A cohousing community usually consists of private homes with common facilities (a shared kitchen, dining room, outdoor area, etc.) and is planned, owned and managed by the residents. The idea for cohousing originally came from Denmark and spread to the U.S. in the early 1980s, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. These neighborhoods often have a strong sense of community and commitment to sustainable living.

“Cohousing is generally focused on these larger goals: saving energy, preserving land and creating community,” says architect David O’Neil, whose firm, O'Neil Pennoyer Architects, designed the Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm cohousing project in Peterborough, N.H. “People want to be a part of something they believe in. And sharing those goals allows them to come together with like-minded people.”

In today’s rocky climate of economic instability and environmental crisis — and with isolated, large homes dominating many U.S. suburban neighborhoods — these tight-knit, financially savvy, environmentally conscious cohousing communities are catching more people's attention and gaining popularity.

Sustainable from the inside out

Many cohousing communities are sustainable because they are designed to efficiently use the space and are built compactly.

“We’ve got to build smaller," says O’Neil. "We need to focus on economy and simplicity instead of building big architectural icons.”

O'Neil's architectural firm built the Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm cohousing project on 4.5 acres of land, while preserving more than 70 acres of farm land, fields and woodlands. A CSA farm located on the open space provides organic produce, dairy products, meat and eggs for the residents.

“Beside saving open space, families are able to get involved with the farm, which allows their children to be aware of where their food comes from,” he says.

The units at Hearthstone were designed to be narrow and tall to maximize use of the space.

“My unit is 20 feet across and 40 feet long, enough space to park a couple cars," says Hoover. "The houses were built to last a long time and be extremely energy-efficient.”

Each building shares a boiler for hot water and heat, and walls are well-insulated, lowering the use of electricity and gas. Residents also have access to a common house, where they share a commercial kitchen, laundry facilities, a children's playroom, a guest room, a meditation space and more. Instead of each household having its own green lawn, the neighborhood shares a common area of grass, which conserves water.

Many of the residents are also dedicated to following a green lifestyle on their own. They participate in composting and recycling programs and swap their hand-me-downs and kids' toys with neighbors. And, because the community is centrally located, they make an effort to walk or ride their bikes to work and around town.

“The community is designed to be environmentally conscious, and these sustainable principles are demonstrated in how we live every day," Hoover says.

A tight-knit neighborhood

No matter how old you are or what stage of life you're in, cohousing can provide a genuine sense of community and closeness with neighbors.

Young singles can meet and socialize with other single residents. Elderly residents have other neighbors to check on them. Families can swap childcare services, and their kids have other kids to play with.

“With all the kids around, it’s great for my 5-year-old son. He has built-in playmates that live right next door," says Hoover.

Laurie Gibb, a retired teacher who lives in the Hearthstone neighborhood, appreciates being able to spend time with children in the community.

"If I’m standing at my kitchen sink, I can see the children playing in front of my house. I was a teacher for 35 years, so I really relish the fact that we have children here," she says.

She likes that everyone knows each other, and she feels safe knowing she can go to the neighbors if she needs help.

“If someone has a baby, we’ll take food over. If someone’s sick, we all go in and check on them. We’re always looking out for each other.”

The community also hosts neighborhood events at the common house, including birthday parties, holiday gatherings and two shared meals a week prepared by resident cooking teams.

“I would love to see people have a sense of community and caring about each other in neighborhoods all across the country," says Gibb. “I plan on staying in this community forever. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

The challenges: Privacy and group decision-making

Although living close to the neighbors forms a tight-knit community, it can also lead to conflict and privacy issues.

O'Neil's firm designed the Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm cohousing project to combine community with privacy. While the entry porches of the units face each other, all units also focus away from the courtyard onto private, natural landscapes.

However, conflict is bound to arise when living in such close quarters, Gibb says, and open communication is key. She explains the importance of discussing differences and asking for support from people in the community, particularly because decisions in a cohousing community are often made on a consensus basis.

"I like that because we do govern ourselves, there’s a dynamic of learning to solve problems, learning what to do when there’s disagreement, learning how to get on with things for the bettering of the community," Gibb says.

Craig Freshley, a professional meeting facilitator and trainer and resident of Two Echo Cohousing Community in Maine, believes that learning how to combine individual beliefs, personal actions and good group process is imperative to good group decisions. Check out Freshley's 130 tips on how to effectively reach good group decisions.

Cohousing insights from Gaiam Facebook fans

We asked our Gaiam Facebook fans what they thought of cohousing. Check out their comments below:

Marion Morton: Cohousing makes so much sense in that not only are people more prone to help one another, but there would be a greater sense of belonging, and elders and young singles would never starve for human contact.

Nanci Garon: I love the idea of shared housing and community forming. The rotating shared cooking sounds like a great use of resources.

Andrea Mather: I think there are elements of cohousing we all could adopt right in our own neighborhoods. For instance, we share our lawnmower with our neighbors. No need for both households to own one.

Jill Talbot Matthews: This concept is often used in college housing. It can cause a HUGE amount of conflict if the housemates are not carefully chosen!

Alena Marie I think if every resident is like-minded and willing to discuss differences that WILL arise, then it's a great idea.

Spottie O'Keefe: The benefits can greatly outnumber the drawbacks as long as everyone can get along. It takes a certain mindset to live like that. You have to have a whole lot of love, kindness and positivity, and be flexible and willing to work out any issues that come up ... I really believe that we are meant to live in small villages like that. We are social beings and need interaction with others on a daily basis.


Feature photo courtesy of Michael Hoover. Hearthstone cohousing community in North Denver, Colo.

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rebecca in iowa
rebecca in iowa's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 6 days ago. Offline
Joined: 08/19/2010

this sounds GOOD and up my alley. a problem: how to balance diversity with commonality? i want both! too much to ask. i want vegetarianism, and i am a sabbath observant practicing jew. so how to do that in a diverse co housing community? it would have to b big enough to allow for assorted subcultures. impossible? it's like having dog ppl and cat ppl together. how to do it? as thing are i am isolated in iowa and in search of community and change. i live with one human and 4 cats. our habits are at times irregular...for example, late dining, irregular work hours, insomnia. ideas? thots? thanks and b well!

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