Illustration by Anna Taganova
According to the Co-Housing Association of the United States, the benefits of co-housing include stronger community bonds, healthier lives, greener development through higher density and resource sharing, and the ability to have a direct impact on the community. Whether the residents are young or old, remote employees or in-person, co-housing could help add connectivity to our lives in the 2020s and beyond.
Co-housing emerged in the 1970s in Denmark, consisting of private homes with a shared common house used for meal prep, events, or as a venue for collective decision-making. It was there that American architect Charles Durrett realised the potential of this type of housing. During his 13 months studying at the University of Copenhagen, Durrett visited or lived in around 180 different co-housing communities, learning what made them Danish success stories and wondering how he might bring that kind of housing back home to the US.
Fast forward a few decades and Durrett has been instrumental in defining what exactly co-housing is as well as designing, building and consulting on numerous developments. He estimates that there are now around 200 communities that describe themselves as co-housing around the US, with perhaps 150 that truly embody the full vision of the concept. Durrett says he’s heard co-housing described as an experiment in living, but the truth in fact is the opposite. “Single-family homes spread across the landscape is the experiment. Time will tell which one works, but I think it’ll be community-focused housing.”
There are six critical pillars that define a modern co-housing project. Design should be participatory, drawing input from the residents, with a neighbourhood-like community emphasis. Common spaces should be provided to allow for things like cooking and gathering. There should be no requirement for a shared economy, and critically, the community should be self-managed and non-hierarchical.
While these are the bedrocks of a co-housing development, projects can take on a range of appearances and configurations. “Some are more rural than others. Some have farms attached, and then there are very urban ones in multistorey buildings,” says co-housing developer and consultant Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Hill Development Company. “You see different sizes, as well. The smallest one we developed was 11 units and the largest was 48 units, and there are some larger than that.”
The 30-to-40-unit range is the sweet spot, which Leach says typically allows for construction economies of scale while still staying compact enough to allow residents to know one another.
The co-housing model is not without its challenges. Michaela Bygrave MRICS, is the managing director of Pointe Michel, a development consultancy focusing on community-led and affordable housing. Bygrave says that one of the biggest challenges facing co-housing is awareness. “Co-housing tends to be very middle class in the UK,” she says, largely because the field is still a niche that doesn’t benefit from enough discussion or education. “I think the knowledge penetration rate within certain communities, like working class people or ethnic minorities, and especially when those two categories overlap, doesn’t help them become aware of co-housing.”
Co-housing projects typically require access to capital as well, which can make it harder for socioeconomically diverse groups to enjoy its benefits. Bygrave is quick to point to solutions that could help solve these issues. For one thing, increasing education and visibility of co-housing as a concept could help more diverse groups get involved. Part of this, she says, could come from existing co-housing residents who gain deep expertise through the process of building their own co-housing communities.
People that have “lived it” could help by hosting educational workshops or even sharing funding between their established co-housing groups and new ones. But Bygrave says that the broader community-led housing field has a responsibility as well. “You don’t stumble across information about co-housing unless there’s a scheme that has been done in your area. Everyone working in the sector should be an evangelist for co-housing.”
One potential solution comes from Housing 21, a not-for-profit provider of retirement living and extra care in the UK. The organisation is currently working on a 25-unit co-housing development in the Lozells area of Birmingham. Housing 21 will rent its units out instead of offering them for sale, increasing the pool of potential residents to people not in a position to buy a property. Lucy Hales, head of co-housing, says Housing21 is also considering several ways to organise management of the community, particularly around the area of instituting co-housing-style governance that works within the rental housing context.
Housing 21’s development is showing promising progress already. Working with the charitable organisation Legacy West Midlands, Hales says that Housing 21 is already speaking with local community members. “We’re engaging with women from the Bangladeshi community in the Lozells area,” she says. “So far we’ve talked to that group of older women about the design of the co-housing property.” She has already received valuable input from these prospective future residents, such as interest in a skills-building programme and an organised vegetable sale making use of a planned garden.
There are also ways for non-co-housing developers to implement some of the strengths of the co-housing model. For example, co-living (which involves shared spaces within a home, such as such as kitchens and living rooms) providers struggling with tough reviews and bad press could institute some element of democratic decision-making and community involvement. “I think the problem with co-living is it is almost forced on people who just want a cheap place to live,” Bygrave says. Developing a more ambitious plan for community growth, using the spaces that co-living already typically includes, could increase the perceived value and retention rate of co-living communities around the world.
Back to Durrett, one of the field’s original evangelists, who says there are plenty of lessons other property professionals can learn from co-housing. The sticking point is finding a way to build those crucial components of self-management into the plan. “In traditional multifamily now, residents end up getting imposed on by managers, because someone has to manage the place,” he says.
Instituting self-management principles may not be easy, but as Durrett is quick to point out, the benefits are clear. “The majority of people who move into high-functioning co-housing don't move out. There's a lot that goes into making these communities, but it's very doable.”