We now have pretty firm unit pricing that we have communicated to members for feedback. As this is happening, we are also working on clarifying the process for unit selection. The Process Team needs to do some small tweaks, but we are looking at having an on-site meeting on August 3rd or 4th (stay tuned for a Doodle poll on specific dates) so that people can get a concrete sense of building placement. We anticipate that we can make final unit selection at the next LLC pot luck and meeting on Friday, August 9. We encourage you to be at the pot luck promptly so that you can make your unit selection.
UD+P has pre-applications out to potential lenders for the project, so that aspect of finance is also moving forward. Katie McCammant, our cohousing consultant, is creating an investor template for private investors. We are awaiting some additional information from the lending institutions and then we will be ready to move forward with the investor package.
As a regular feature in our monthly newsletter and blog posts, we are going to highlight some of the rich experience, talents and skills of our members. Cohousing tends to be a magnet for bringing together people intent on improving the world around them through a variety of ways. Be on the lookout: we’ll have plenty of community voices to share with you in the future. Sarah Conover was the interviewer.
Sarah: I happen to know that you grew up in a large family, so let’s start with that—your very first community and what you learned about community in that context.
Michaele: I grew up in southern California desert in a very rural area, a really small town called Pear Blossom. Nobody's ever heard of it, but it was on the main road at that time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. My parents ran a gas station and right next door was the old motel that had been associated with the gas station. We lived in it—the bedrooms were upstairs, four bedrooms numbered one, two, three, four. So that's where I was raised, and I had ten siblings. We were a big Catholic family.
Highlights of my childhood were a strong sense of community instilled by my father. I have few memories of my mother before my father died because he was a very dominant personality. I think we children learned a lot about caring for each other and that the group always comes first. Others come first before you. That was a big, big part of our teaching. The downside of that was that others came first, right? So, it was definitely two sides of the same coin! I remember having no sense of private property as a child—you are a kind of defacto communist. Everybody shares everything. But the other side of that is a child gained no idea of, or respect for, what it's like to have a treasure, something that can't be taken away from you. I would say that in almost everything in our little family community, the upside and the downside went together.
Sarah: What do you remember from that period that you took forward into life later?
Michaele: I would say that the other huge community influence from my childhood was that I was raised five miles from a Benedictine monastery. Unlike many Catholic families who went to parish churches, I went to this monastery for mass every Sunday. And I think that was a huge influence in terms of, again, another communal model. This monastery influenced a lot of my early formation around what community is and isn't—values and spirituality and all those other things that go along with that influence.
Sarah: Can you say a little bit more about what community is and isn't and what you saw that you took to heart?
Michaele: Well, community isn't perfect.
Sarah: Oh, that might be a good place for us all to start with in terms of expectations in cohousing.
Michaele: Community isn't perfect. It isn't always good at balancing conflicting values. So that can become quite difficult. Especially as a teen where hypocrisy is so huge and your radar for hypocrisy is on all the time—I was very aware of that piece. I remember in eighth grade, those of us who had good grades had the honor of cleaning the convent for the nuns. And I'm dusting things and vacuuming the floors. In those days, the nuns had this beautiful Hifi stereo. I did not have new clothes until I could buy them myself when I had a job. So, the hypocrisy of these people who took vows of poverty and lived in a way that certainly I didn't, and most people I knew didn't, those things got to me. You have communities that have vows or certain commitments and then you sometimes see them not live up to them. Now I have a much kinder disposition about that sort of thing because I know my own hypocrisy. I'm a grown up. So I would say mostly that community is imperfect and that's okay.
Sarah: And from your story, it sounds like what we're really saying is people aren't perfect.
Michaele: Exactly. Well, people are community, right? A collaboration of people. We can keep our expectations; we can have expectations. It's just learning to be kind with ourselves and others when we’re disappointed. I think we're going to have disappointments and we’ll work through them. And hopefully, with as much honesty and integrity as you can, honesty about your experience.
Sarah: You graduated from high school and went on to college?
Michaele: I went to school at Loyola Marymount, which was a Jesuit University.
Sarah: Then I heard that you got involved in the Catholic Worker movement.
Michaele: Yes, the Catholic Worker that was started in the 1930s by Dorothy Day. She converted to Catholicism and was most drawn in by the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. They opened up soup kitchens during the Depression and houses of hospitality. I think I got quite radicalized social-justice wise in that community. The seeds were already there, but, you know, that those were the days of protests and and the occasional arrest and those sorts of things.
Sarah: Where were you living?
Michaele: In Los Angeles. I can't remember why I went to the Worker movement, but I showed up and we got three bucks a week and a place to live and food. Room and board and three bucks a week, which we all spent on beer. It was really pretty fun. The cool thing about being in the Catholic Worker movement was that we got to visit a lot of different Catholic workers and they weren't all the same.
Sarah: What did you do specifically in your job?
Michaele: We ran a soup kitchen. You cooked and served. In the summer it might be 300 meals a day. In the winter it was over 1,000 meals a day and it was every day except for Sunday. Every day we served coffee and bread in the morning and then a meal around noon or one. You got up at six and you were working all day and then after work you were putting up the newspaper or you were organizing a demonstration.
Sarah: So, you were there for two years, and then what was the next community thing you did?
Michale: Then I moved up here. I just needed to get out of LA. And I had a sister who lived here, my sister Mary, who in my growing up family was probably the closest thing to a nurturer I had as my mother was so busy after my father died. Some friends from Catholic Workers moved up here and I wanted to start at another house of hospitality. When I grew up, my parents literally were always taking in waifs. If someone came through the gas station down on their luck, or needed a place, my father welcomed them. Now, once he died, that happened somewhat less, although if my sisters met someone at school who was bounced from foster care to foster care, they were brought into our home. In some ways, starting a hospitality house was in my blood. I did that in Spokane for some years. I got involved at St. Anne’s Church in Spokane, and met my husband, Mark Iverson. Eventually, I went back to school and got my pastoral ministry degree and I became a pastoral minister at that church, one of the roles lay people could have in the church. I worked there for six years.
Sarah: And what was your learning from that?
Michaele: That's a really good question. I love the people, you know. It was very good experience of community but maybe that's not always enough. Community's not everything. After my mother died, I had this visceral experience that nothing could catch me or hold me. I just fell into an abyss. Community wasn’t enough. I shouldn't say it's not enough. It's not everything. It's not going to be everything for you.
Sarah: How did that experience then shape your trajectory?
Michael: I left the church and I got my counseling degree. I had wanted to be a counselor in my twenties, so I became a therapist and loved it. I think I was born for it.
Sarah: Now your kids are gone, did you think you and Mark would just age here in this house?
Michaele: I don't know if we thought about it much! We had been thinking and talking about a retirement cohousing community. So that kind of preceded our encounter with Haystack Heights and then we ran into you at a retreat and had also read about Haystack Heights. It was kind of in the back of our minds. And then it was sort of realizing how nice it would be to not have to create this from ground zero! Especially after being in this project for a year and seeing how much work has been done and continues to be done. We really love the people. We really do.
Sarah: Have you had doubts?
Michaele: Yeah—doubts do come up but I have to say that for us, every time we're working with the Haystack community it feels okay and right. At the end of our last Haystack LLC meeting, Doug, the facilitator, asked, “What feeds your heart in cohousing?” and I said: involvement. Every time I'm more deeply involved it really feeds me. That's the energy that happens and I can recognize it. It can be anything—like gardening (which I don’t usually like), yet I love going there and working with people in our garden. Whatever it is, even if I don't like it, such as anything to do with marketing. But at the Women’s March I was at our booth and it was fine and fun because there are other cohousers there with you. It was really fun. So, anything I do, it's not the specific task, it's being with our community. It makes every task kind of lovely and changes everything. Involvement sustains me.
On the first weekend of June, twenty-two cohousers from Haystack Heights attended the National Cohousing Conference in Portland, Oregon. It was a sold-out event that also offered two pre-conference days (if a very full weekend wasn’t already enough to fill hearts and minds). From the feedback of our group, plenty was gleaned from speakers, workshops and tours of the cohousing communities in Portland.
The theme of this year’s conference was Community For The Health Of It, highlighting cohousing as an antidote to the epidemic of loneliness here in the US and abroad. Helen Jarvis, whose research was one of many bundled into the United Kingdom’s appointment of a Minister of Loneliness in 2018, was the opening speaker. Learning and workshop tracks were available for all stages of cohousing from planning a cohousing to issues relevant to already mature communities.
Many “Haystackers” participated in one or more of the workshops on conflict, power, leadership, and facilitation. Laird Schaub, who has lived in an intentional community for forty-one years and is Executive Secretary of the Foundation for Intentional Community, was a favorite among all. Some of the take-aways from his presentations were: a community needs to have a system to deal with feelings in order to acknowledge and defuse conflict; leaders need support and self-evaluation tools and term limits need to be in place; a community needs to continue to build an evolving shared vision so that later-joiners do not feel like 2nd-class citizens; communities should schedule a retreat away from their home yearly to help one and all recommit to the group’s values. Some Haystackers attended forums on diversity, classism and racism. One takeaway from those forums is that these issues should be transparent, and ongoing discussions should provide a safe space for everyone to be heard.
Our group learned some practical tips such as the use of a web-based subscription service software called “Gather” to organize internal jobs and more; people are quite happy with induction stoves; rainwater collection is a good idea; experiments are in process at some cohousings for work equity for those unable to put in their time; cohousing communities need to have a line-item budget for on-going workshops and speakers to maintain community harmony.
Abbey Roose, on our Construction Interface Team, said that the conference organizers allowed plenty of time for coffee breaks and networking. She says that it was almost impossible not to meet people getting from one session to the next. From meeting so many fabulous and enthusiastic cohousers (and a very full plate of offerings starting at 6am yoga, ten sessions each morning and each afternoon to choose from as well as keynote speeches), she came away with a rosy glow.
Watch Grace Kim’s Ted Talk on Loneliness. Ms. Kim co-chaired the 2019 cohousing conference.
Read the full article, including an interview with Haystack Heights co-founder Mariah McKay, here
By Doug Robnett, Haystack Heights Member and CIT (Construction Interface Team) Member
On Monday members of the CIT Team met with our architect, Charles Durrett; UD & P Development Manager, Leslie Louis; a representative from our contractor, Yost Gallagher; and a variety of engineers in a marathon day. UD&P is pushing hard to move the project along, so lots was accomplished.
This was with our Civil engineer, Scott. Molly Phillips and Abby Roose on the CIT Team were present to take it all in. This is a critical front at this time as we really need to make the outdoor space not just work in terms of ADA accessibility, water mitigation, etc., but it also needs to be a beautiful and a functional living space that connects and transitions with the buildings. Most of the basic structural elements are in place. The details need to be worked out. Now we move forward with making sure we maximize the opportunity the redesign has provided (more green space) to make places where we can play outside, and which emphasize the aesthetics.
Afternoon Meeting #1
We met with Cory who did the original design on the district heating system (a network of insulated pipes from a central or building-by-building location) to provide radiant floor heating. The plan is to price out the units using some form of electric heat (not you parents’ baseboard!) and tasking Cory to design the two systems. One is a revised district heating system that may be more feasible now that the buildings are closer together. The other is to find a place in each building (architect magic) where we could put a boiler. This would allow radiant heat in the floors at least on-grade in B and C units and in each A unit. We will get the delta (which I now know is the difference in price between the electric and boiler systems) and bring it to the community for a decision.
Afternoon Meeting #2 - Sprinkler Designer
Who knew this would be such a thrilling topic? We met with the sprinkler designer. He was really happy that we are talking with him at this point in the design. Lots of money to be saved if we can connect into the domestic water supply instead of running dedicated water lines (that is usually is the default). Chuck is going to have to figure out how to use the Special Theory of Relativity to make space inside the walls larger that the space outside the walls, but he seems up to the challenge. This was a very positive meeting.
Afternoon Meeting #3 - Structural Engineers and Framers
Another thrilling meeting to end the day! Lots of in the sticky details such as type of sheeting and what to do with rafter tails. Leslie is really good at always pushing for ways to do things that don’t compromise quality but push prices down. Probably the most significant change is that they are going to design the B and C units to be able to structurally handle gypsum on the second floors, so if we go to radiant heat we don’t need to redo the engineering. The team was quite impressive in terms of knowledge and commitment to cost discipline.
There will be another meeting next week on the 28th with Leslie, Chuck, Yost Gallagher, and engineers. Timelines are tight and Leslie is pushing hard so stay tuned!
As a regular feature in our monthly newsletter and blog posts, we are going to highlight some of the rich experience, talents and skills of our members. Cohousing tends to be a magnet for bringing together people intent on improving the world around them through a variety of ways, so we’ll have plenty to share with you in the future. In this vein, we happen to have (at least) two experts in the arena of community building who also happen to be married to one another: Bob Stilger and Susan Virnig. Bob is the founder and president of the nonprofit, NewStories, launched in 2000 because it seemed pretty obvious to Bob that we needed new stories about how to live well on this planet. “What do we do when the future we thought was before us disappears?” is a guiding question for his work. Bob’s book, AfterNow: When We Cannot See the Future, Where Do We Begin? published in 2017, is available at www.AfterNow.Today and on Amazon. It is “an invitation to go ahead and create the lives and communities we want - NOW.” We thought starting with Bob, drawing on his many years of community facilitation, would offer us all important insights into successful community cultivation. Sarah Conover was the interviewer.
Sarah: What is your “elevator speech" when you describe your work to someone?
Bob: I help people remember how to listen to each other, to trust one another, and to co-create new possibilities in a rapidly changing world.
Sarah: Do you consider your skills to be that of a community organizer or something different?
Bob: I am a witness, a steward of knowledge, a host of generative conversation and a guy making my way, one step at a time.
Sarah: How would you define “community?”
Bob: Community is a nested system. I am community. We are community. The larger world around us is community. We are distinct and we are inseparable. We are one and we are many.
Sarah: What are your educational degrees vis a vis community building?
Bob: I have a PhD in “Learning and Change in Human Systems” from the California Institute of Integral Stories. My deepest learning, however, has come from literally thousands of conversations with people around our little planet who are discovering how to make a difference that makes a difference.
Sarah: What got you interested in community building and process? What life experiences?
Bob: People got me interested in community building. This sea of difference we call humanity which, at is core, is often the same. When I was ten, I started work for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland and I worked there until I was twenty-five. Science was our focus; community was our ground.
Sarah: Can you give us some examples in which you’ve played this role in the past? Presently?
Bob: I am involved in many things. They range from co-hosting an annual learning journey to Fukushima for Japanese people, to being part of the facilitation team for a global first people’s gathering on climate-forced displacement. I am working in the fire disaster areas of Northern California to pioneer regenerative approaches after disaster. I am in constant dialogue with amazing people everywhere on our planet as we find a way forward in a time of disaster, collapse and possible extinction.
Sarah: Can you give us some specific anecdotes and examples of successful community building from a few of these experiences?
Bob: One of my favorite hidden stories is the story of Onagawa, Japan. A beautiful fishing village of 10,000 people in NE Japan that was totally destroyed in the March 11, 2011 tsunami. They have managed to reframe it as a once in a thousand-year opportunity and come-together to create a new vision for how they will live together, keeping beauty and safety at the center. You can read more about it in Chapter 9 of my book - AfterNow: When We Cannot See the Future, Where Do We Begin?
Sarah: Can you give us some ideas of what frays a community’s strength?
Bob: Lack of listening, lack of trust, a rush to get things done, and putting off the hard conversations for another day. Community takes time. You can spend it building community, or you can spend it dealing with the fallout.
Sarah: What are some of the obstacles communities like ours—a new community—can expect to run into?
Bob: Too much to do and too little time. A shirking away from the obstacles. A loss of a sense of humor. An insistence on certainty when uncertainty and ambiguity are the rules of the day.
Sarah: What are some basic ground rules for a healthy community, and how does a community hold itself to these rules?
Bob: For me it is more about principles and values rather than rules. Principles and values that are returned to when things get rough, as they always will. Values that I invite into the center of any community — be it the temporary community of a workshop or gathering or the long term place-based community — are respect, curiosity and generosity.
Sarah: Can you speak a little about “trust” in maintaining a healthy community? What does that word mean to you in this context?
Bob: Trust is something that grows over time. What’s most important is having enough trust to take the next step, and the next. Trust is not an absolute or a universal, it comes in parts and pieces at first. It is essential in building community, but not monolithic. Within our community it is often most present in different groups who find enough trust there to have a willingness to trust the whole.
Sarah: Can you speak a bit about the human need for “belonging” and how that plays into a community’s vibrancy?
Bob: A sense of “I belong here” is the core of any community. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of Beloved Community which is, at its core, a community of belonging. It is the sense of all of who I am is welcome here.
Sarah: How have you facilitated both trust and belonging in your work with groups?
Bob: I work a lot with people’s stories, inviting vulnerability and intimacy. I avoid ice breakers—the ice is fine, thank you very much — and invite people into the conversations and explorations of what their hearts yearn for.
Sarah: What’s a counter-intuitive aspect of community building that no one would have expected? Can you give an example? For instance, our son told us that if a person moves into a new neighborhood, they will connect to neighbors much more readily if they ask them for a favor because people like to be generous and it opens something between them.
Bob: One of the tribes of Vancouver Island has a core principle in their worldview: “It is unkind not to ask for help.” I guess I don’t really have a sense of what is counter-intuitive. In some ways, I don’t have much perspective here.
Sarah: Is there anything important about community building I didn’t get at with these questions, and if so, what?
Bob: We just need enough — enough clarity, enough trust, enough confusion, enough of a sense of direction. We make the path by walking it, one step at a time. We each need to discover what we will stand for and then find enough courage and clarity to step into the unknown. We need each other. We are not alone.
Check out Bob’s new mini-book on Amazon, FutureSessions: A Pathway to Co-created Action
Beyond Contact-Intergenerational Living in Cohousing Communities
(Penn State Dep't of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education)
A cohousing community combines private homes of different sizes and styles alongside shared facilities - gardens, playgrounds, workshops, gyms, and usually a common house enclosing a large kitchen and dining room that provide ample opportunity for intergenerational mingling.
There is still time before the dinner bell rings but as usual neighbors have started to gather in front of the Common House in anticipation. A few older kids, apparently practicing their "outdoor voices," are racing each other up and down the play structure off to the side of the porch. The younger ones have (wisely) opted out of this relay and are playing among the scattered toys and tricycles on the courtyard in front. Their parents and neighbors loiter and banter on the porch as others stroll by or stop by on their way home from work. One neighbor, as often happens, has his guitar out and is strumming and chatting in between songs. A few others seem to have arrived earlier and have settled comfortably into the lounging chairs happily bantering with each other. Everyone is warming up and catching up before the common meal starts. (Fieldnotes from a cohousing community, 2014)
Unlike most residential developments, cohousing communities are explicitly designed to support and encourage intergenerational living. A typical cohousing community combines private homes of different sizes and styles alongside shared facilities - gardens, playgrounds, workshops, gyms, and usually a common house enclosing a large kitchen and dining room - that provide ample opportunity for intergenerational mingling. Beyond the physical space, these communities often feature busy social rosters that include weekly (or more) community meals, retreats, movie nights, and other social gatherings. This is on top of the constant (and laborious) task of co-managing the community - Home Owners Association (HOA) meetings, committee meetings, "work parties," cleaning groups and so on - that further oblige interaction among residents.
Within these communities, busy young families live alongside older neighbors who become "surrogate grandparents" while their own grown children and other relatives live far away. Especially among the bigger communities (usually no more than 30 to 40 households), there tend to be a wide range of professions, backgrounds, and skills. Neighbors eagerly contribute their skills to the governing and upkeep of their communities and many delight in sharing their expertise and free time helping each other. One finds, in almost every community, generous physical, technological, and social infrastructure - gathering nodes, internal web servers, traditions and social routines - set up to support these neighborly interactions. Residents fondly liken their communities to a kind of "extended family" or "modern day village." There are differences and challenges of course, as in any living arrangement, and there are perhaps more responsibilities and higher expectations, but many, after years of sharing their lives, form deep attachments to their neighbors and to this intensely intergenerational way of life.
Cohousing as Design Concept
The idea behind cohousing comes from Denmark, where, in the 1960s, growing dissatisfaction with single-family housing inspired more collaborative experiments called bofllesskah (living-togetherness).1 In the 1980s, a pair of American architects, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, visited these housing cooperatives and returned to the U.S. to adapted the idea in their first book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (1988). The book came out two years before the term "McMansion" was coined. As American homes and American mortgages inflated across the country, a small number of people looking for something different found both inspiration and guidance in McCamant and Durrett's book. Cohousing communities started popping up across the country beginning with the first one, Muir Commons, in Davis, CA. Today, according to the Cohousing Association of America, there are more than 200 built communities in the US and more than 50 in some stage of construction. Cohousing is also found in other countries including Australia, England, Japan, and of course Denmark where it is estimated that nearly 10% of households live in such communities.
Depending on where it is located, one cohousing community can look very different from the next. There are thriving cohousing developments throughout every state, from urban condominium-like buildings to suburban clusters of townhouses or detached homes, to rural developments with generous open space. Some are retrofitted old buildings, some are simply single-family homes which have torn down their abutting backyard fences, while others are completely new developments designed and built upon previously undeveloped properties.
Whatever the form, most cohousing communities share a few general characteristics: participatory planning, community-oriented design, shared common facilities, resident self-management, nonhierarchical organization, and separate household incomes (McCamant & Durrett, 1994, p. 38). By design and in practice, cohousing communities also share a vigorous commitment to intergenerational living.2 Many feature a variety of household structures - young couples with children, older as well as retired couples, single parent and even single person households. This diverse composition, according to many residents, is what makes possible well-functioning and well-managed cohousing communities. Residents with more free or flexible time contribute to the organizing of events and meetings; younger residents contribute labor; and everyone puts in whatever skills and expertise they have towards the community "brain trust." The mixture and mingling of such age-diverse neighbors - of young and old, working and retired, and those with needs and those with skills - generate vibrant and engaged communities.
It's easy to see the appeal of this housing option. But how does it feel to actually live in cohousing? How does daily life look and feel in such communities? As an anthropologist, I conducted fieldwork on cohousing for nearly three years and visited more than 20 communities on both coasts, including one community in MA that we came to call home. For over a year, my family, with two young children, lived and worked and played (and sometimes argued) alongside our fellow neighbors in our lively intergenerational community. Among the 32 households in our community, there were five of us with young children, many professionals without kids, several single senior residents, and many "surrogate grandparent" households. Our lives in this setting were rich, and busy, and sometimes challenging. It was a little like stepping into a modern day village with its own distinct spatial, social, and cultural configurations.
Cohousing as Intergenerational Contact Zones
Cohousing communities tend to be as diverse and varied as their inhabitants. While each community has its own norms and rules and routines, there is generally some set of spatial features, regular gatherings, and tools and resources that form the core infrastructure of all well-functioning, intergenerational communities. The following section offers some examples of these attributes.
Spaces & Places
Cars are generally left in the parking area near the entrance of the community, next to the common house. Inside the common house, a brightly lit hallway lined with mailboxes and bulletin boards led past a laundry room and a children's art room (currently unoccupied but bore telling signs of recent activity). The hallway opens up to a bright, expansive kitchen and an even larger dining room (currently set up with chairs for an upcoming meeting). A grandmother and a toddler played nearby (and said hello). In one corner of the dining room was a piano and along one wall, a fireplace that looked as if it had just been used. Off to the side of the dining room was a cozy room with a television and bookshelves and inviting couches and chairs - the TV/small meeting room which is remarkably quiet, I'm told, when the glass doors are closed. The common house is large and features a second floor with guest rooms (occupied as usual), a rather sequestered "teen room" (momentarily empty), and the soon-to-be community office space by the balcony windows in the back. Outside the common house was a large brick patio that led to a sand box and the community pool (encircled in locked metal fence to protect young children and animals, I'm told). Elsewhere and dotted throughout the community were shared vegetable gardens, bike sheds, a tool shop (to which neighbors donated their own collections), a potters studio (where an elderly resident sat glazing tiles), and play areas with various play structures (some for younger and some for older kids). Each home had a front as well as more private (and sometimes fenced) backyard. Most homes are not large by design, one resident explained, but there is ample community space to socialize and "store their stuff." They also don't need as much stuff, many claim, as neighbors frequently borrow and share with each other. (Fieldnotes from a community tour, 2011)
I remember the first time I visited a cohousing community. On a warm Sunday afternoon, I arrived at my prescheduled tour of one community in a suburb of California and was immediately taken by the scene of cheerful houses and gardens with friendly neighbors and kids milling about. In the years since that first encounter, I've visited communities of many different sizes and designs but all featured a similar general layout and facilities. The common house in our MA community was generously sized and enclosed a mail room (a daily meeting place for neighbors), a kids playroom (separate but visible through a window from the dining room), a laundry room (plus space for indoor laundry racks), a pair of guestrooms (managed through an online signup sheet), a "library"/pool lounge, a basement with an exercise room and bike storage, and most importantly for a cohousing community, a large kitchen that opened onto several connected dining rooms and lounge areas. As in every other cohousing community, our common house was rarely unoccupied. Even outside formal meal times and events, neighbors used the space for social gatherings, held meetings in the various lounge areas, worked in the dining rooms or library, and popped in and out for one reason or another. On the weekends and at the end of workdays, neighbors converged and lingered around the mailroom and porch and, if the weather was nice, the brick-paved courtyard surrounding the porch. At these times, it was nearly impossible to have a quick visit to the common house and not get embroiled in whatever conversations or activities were taking place. Even outside of shared meals and activities, the common house was the central meeting place for the community.
Like many other cohousing communities, ours also featured gardens, a workshop, and various meeting nodes--a bench here and picnic table there--throughout the rest of the community. It is easy, and often nearly impossible not to, encounter and linger and chat with neighbors out and about. One can imagine how these spaces enliven and intensify the social atmosphere in the community.
Routines and Rituals
On meal days, the community kitchen would be abuzz with activity - often frantic in the hour leading up to the meal. The head cook and two assistant cooks would chat and banter as dishes bubbled in the pots and vegetables roasted in the ovens. Depending on the menu - and the inclination and commitment of the cooks - preparation often started the day before with shopping and precooking. Around 6:00pm - delays and/or undercooked dishes were not uncommon - someone rings the meal bell outside the common house to announce the beginning of the meal. This is more performative than practical as the size of the community means the bell is rarely heard by most of the houses located at a distance from the common house, especially during cooler months when windows are shut. Nonetheless, the children would often jostle each other for a chance at this privilege and those who do hear the ring immediately scurry to the common house if they haven't already. Inside the common house dining room - the Great Room as it's called here--neighbors gather in a circle while the menu is described (although most diners already know this when signed up for the meal) and cooks and assistants are acknowledged. Hosts introduced any visiting family or friends, and other neighbors with important announcements take their turns. This is often the time when neighbors remind each other of upcoming events - both in the community and beyond, when birthdays, anniversaries or other significant family dates are announced, and when teenagers in the community unveil yet another school fundraiser - for track or band or the library--and promise to "come around the tables" later to collect donations. (Not surprisingly, the children of the community are champion fundraisers among their peers at school.) With this quick round of announcements over, everyone scatters to their tables, already set up with "family style" dishes and platters. Each table seats six to eight and there is always a rush to reserve seats at desired tables in the minutes preceding a meal. The dining room hums with chatter as the dishes and platters are passed around. Everyone quickly settles down to eat, and the food goes quickly. There are usually seconds available but popular tables - some accommodating an extra friend or family member - often run short and have to send out "scavengers" who circulate among others tables looking to appropriate leftovers. The whole affair lasts no more than 30 minutes before the kitchen is bustling again with cleanup activities. Diners clear their own plates and help wipe down their tables. Cleared plates and utensils are passed to the dish crew in the kitchen and the dining room is quickly swept and restored to order. (Fieldnotes from common meal, 2013)
Communities are often defined by the routines and rhythms of their social life. For cohousers, eating together - whether casual meals with one or few neighbors, regular potlucks, or more formal "common meals" - is the "glue" that holds the community together. So much more happened at these meals than the mere sharing of food. Many residents remarked that cohousing would not be possible without these routines and rituals around food.
In most cohousing communities there are also a myriad of other regular social gatherings such as retreats, festivals, group activities, holiday celebrations, "work parties," and, always, meetings of one kind or another. Our community in MA also held frequent music concerts that often drew not only community members but also neighbors from further afield together for lively Friday evenings. The occasions made interaction among neighbors easy, sometimes necessary, and almost habitual. After living in cohousing for a period of time, one gets accustomed to, and hopefully more skilled at, interacting and engaging with one's neighbors on a daily basis.
Tools and Resources
It's easy to get cohousers to start talking about all the ways they share with neighbors - sharing resources, ideas, and time. A lot of the sharing appears to be arranged online or over email. Many communities have long-established internal list serves or online portals. Among my neighbors in MA, technology-facilitated sharing was commonplace. All residents had access to an internal database of information and resources as well as various list serves that dished out announcements, requests and general information. Our emails were perpetually abuzz with neighbors making requests for rides or seeking favors or offering (or requesting) news and advice. Many emails circulate daily asking if "someone out there" might have an extra something or another - a stick of butter, a particular kind of spice, a Philips wrench, a cardboard box of a certain dimension for shipping something. Almost always, a follow-up email with a quick "all set" and acknowledgement of the benefactor pops up within hours of the request. Alongside favors arranged online, similar exchanges take place offline just as often. Every resident expects and is expected to participate and partake of this circulation of support.
As expected, communities often feature varied talents and skills. This is something many cohousers like to point out about their community - the "deep pool" of expertise. Many are happy and eager to contribute what they can towards the betterment of their community and their neighbors, and they in turn benefit from whatever expertise their neighbors might have. These resources, facilitated by technology, naturally feed into the cycle of interaction and mutual support among neighbors.
Lessons for Creating and Sustaining Residential Intergenerational Contact Zones
Living in cohousing offers a variety of benefits - material as well as social. Many of these come from its commitment to bringing together residents of different ages. As such, cohousing offers valuable lessons in building as well as sustaining intergenerational living zones.
The involvement of future residents in every stage of the design process is believed to lead to stronger, more cohesive communities. The experience of discussing, debating, negotiating and finally deciding together the features and layout of their future community not only makes for a better, more suitably customized design but also builds relationships and communications skills that will figure critically in community life after move-in.
Generous shared spaces and facilities make possible frequent and easy socialization among neighbors. Importantly, these spaces are intentionally intergenerational. A "common house," for example, typically includes a multipurpose dinning room, a TV room or lounge, a playroom or studio, and various other mixed-use and mixed-age spaces. These spaces both combine and, at times when necessary, serve separately the needs of different age groups (such as locating a playroom off the dinning room). They also, by design and in practice, serve multiple purposes and evolve over time as community members themselves age and change.
Elsewhere in the community, especially in larger, less urban communities, gardens, gathering nodes, and playgrounds abound. The addition of benches and tables, plus their typically central locations, ensure that such play areas and gardens become meeting places for neighbors of all ages. Even the areas between houses - the pedestrian pathways - allow for, and indeed encourage, spontaneous gatherings.
Privacy and choice:
Cohesive community life of course benefits from cozy neighborhood design and cozy neighborly relations. The quality of life in these communities also depends on maintaining privacy and choice (and choice in privacy). Cohousing design often emphasize access to shared spaces as much as to private and secluded spaces. For example, individual homes in larger cohousing communities often feature "private" backyard spaces (fenced or not) alongside more "public" front yards. Many common houses offer quiet or adult-only areas where residents can seek refuge from the bustle (and mess) of community life even outside their private homes. While homes tend to include such community-friendly features such as glassed entry doors (often leading directly into kitchens where, it is assumed, we spend most of our time), as well as patios and "lounge" areas in front of each house, the norm in many communities tend to be well-shaded doors (and windows) and patios that are landscaped or otherwise marked off as extensions of private homes. This (built-in) versatility makes community life much happier (and sometimes quieter) for residents of all ages.
Rituals and routines:
Cohousing design certainly makes more likely and possible spontaneous neighborly engagements but it is the regular, routine social events that predictably strengthen and sustain community life. Almost all cohousing communities make efforts to regularly hold "common meals," potlucks, holiday celebrations, festivals and retreats. These frequent gatherings, often elaborately planned and meticulously managed, help nurture and reinforce the neighborly relationships that underlie all community life. They are also, always, opportunities for residents of all ages to mingle and mix.
Technology and the social:Cohousing communities, thanks to their demographic diversity, often feature enviable technological infrastructure and in-house IT support. Resources such as community-maintained servers and internal websites (for circulating news or signing up for common meals or guestrooms) effectively create virtual community spaces alongside the concrete physical ones. These realms offer additional (and even more convenient and inclusive) opportunities for neighbors to interact. They supplement and bolster real world interactions and even, sometimes, make possible and manageable elaborate systems of sharing and communication (such as reserving popular guestrooms or shared equipment, or signing up for meals and community jobs). For residents of all ages, these parallel environments make for a more expansive community space as well as experience.
Christensen, K. & Levinson, D. (Eds.). (2003). Encyclopedia of community: From the village to the virtual world. New York, NY: Sage.
Durrett, C. (2009). The senior cohousing handbook. Gabriola Islands, BC: New Society Publishers.
Gudmand-Hoyer, J. (1964). The missing link between utopia and the dated one-family house. Information, 26.
McCamant, K. & Durrett, C. (1988). Cohousing: A contemporary approach to housing ourselves. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Lisia Zheng, PhD Candidate
Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley
and Visiting Scholar
Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, Penn State University
1The idea was first introduced in Denmark by a young architect named Jan Gudmand-Hoyer who drew inspiration from his studies of American utopias while a student at Harvard. His article based on his studies, “The Missing Link Between Utopia and the Dated One-Family House” (1964), drew over 100 interested families eager to try out his proposed housing alternative. This was the beginning of cohousing in Denmark. Two decades later, McCamant and Durrett studied these Danish communities and brought the idea (back) to the U.S. (Christensen and Levinson eds., 2003. Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World.)
2While most existing cohousing communities are still intergenerational, there has been increasing interest in adapting cohousing principles to building “senior cohousing.” Durrett himself addresses this market demand in his recent book, The Senior Cohousing Handbook (2009).
Casey Pilgeram, John and Samih Gammal
On the Path to a New Community
Casey Pilgeram couldn’t say where or when she first heard about cohousing, but one night in the car as she drove home, the word popped into her head with a startling clarity. She and her husband, John Gammal, had already decided they would be moving to the Northwest, but had been slow to take action on their decision. Casey was certain she wanted to live nearer to her family in Sandpoint, Idaho, particularly after the recent birth of their son, Sam. Spokane seemed to be the right place, too—close to Sandpoint and family, but with the opportunities of a more urban area. But she and John were reluctant to leave the close community they’d built in Chicago. Casey, 30, had lived there since age 18. For John, a Chicago native, moving meant he would leave friends he’d had since grade school.
What if cohousing was an answer to their concerns about community?
With the idea of cohousing firmly planted in her mind, Casey got home, searched online, and quickly located some communities in Western Washington—not exactly where they hoped to land. When she contacted them, they weren’t accepting new members. With more searching, including exploring listings in a national cohousing directory for Montana, Idaho, and surrounding areas, Casey was surprised to discover another listing for Washington.
Haystack Heights was in Spokane, in the Perry neighborhood—the one neighborhood she and her husband had both felt drawn to on previous visits to Spokane. Not only was Haystack Heights still accepting members, they hadn’t even started building yet. With a few more clicks through the Haystack Heights website, Casey was flooded with relief and a sense of fit. “This is why we haven’t moved yet,” she thought. “We needed to find this place.”
The sense of rightness continued as Casey learned more.
Meeting with Mariah and Jim over the phone, first to learn more and then to begin the membership process, Casey and John were taken aback by all the loving energy that had already been invested in creating the Haystack Heights community. Reading the bios on the members page, Casey imagined what it would be like to live with the people she saw there. “I saw a group of impressive people that I knew I would learn from, just by opening my front door,” she said.
Casey and John were particularly moved by the idea that Sam, their six-month-old son, would have the opportunity to grow up in an intentional community, where practicing compromise, connection, and belonging would be normalized. “We believe that community is key to unlocking our potential as humans,” Casey said of herself and her husband. “We see cohousing as a chance to put our beliefs into practice.”
Within two weeks after finding Haystack Heights online, Casey and John made a down payment on their membership. Casey visited the property for the first time on Thanksgiving weekend 2018. She continues to feel that a life in the Haystack Heights cohousing community is exactly what she wants.
Since August 2018, at the suggestion of Kathryn McCamant, our cohousing consultant, Haystack Heights has begun a partnership with Urban Development and Partners (UD+P) based in Portland, Oregon to oversee and complete our project. They are extremely successful commercial and residential developers with a holistic and hands-on approach that benefits communities, tenants, neighbors and the environment—values shared with the aspirations of cohousing projects.
Unique among many developers, they construct high-quality urban infill based on a long-term vision that supports the character and vitality of their city, its people and its businesses. Their commercial properties are innovative and breathtaking, as are their residential projects. Haystack Heights will be their second cohousing project after PDX Commons, their recently completed senior cohousing in
They are also partnering with the intergenerational Adams Creek Cohousing group starting up in the Columbia Gorge. In fact UD+P seems to be so enthusiastic about the idea of cohousing that they are one of the sponsors of the 2019 National Cohousing Conference to be held in Portland this spring. About twenty Haystack Heights’ cohousers will be attending the conference with a number of them staying in cohousing communities.
We feel remarkably fortunate in this partnership. When UD+P takes on a project, they put their arms around the whole venture from design and financing to construction. Although much of Haystack Heights had been designed by our group before the partnership began, some aspects are presently in the midst of being redesigned and UD+P is working in tandem with Charles Durrett, our architect. Because of UD +P we can also be confident of our financing—this is one of the responsibilities they take on when they agree to work with a project. They will also be closely supervising construction, involved in every detail and insuring that completion be as scheduled.
UD +P’s staff—especially Leslie Louis, Development Manager, and Joren Bass, Senior Development Manager—have come to Spokane over the last seven months to work meeting directly with our community, the general contractor, our landscape architect, city planners and civil engineers. They also meet weekly, and sometimes speak daily, with our cohousing Construction Interface Team (CIT) comprised of Jim Dawson (a founder of Haystack Heights), Doug Robnett (an ex-school administrator and self-taught builder), Molly Phillips (a retired architect) and Abby Roose (the Detail Diva that we are guessing will be a future architect).—with UD +P. Doug Robnett has this to say about working with UD+P:
My professional life had an over-abundance of meetings, so I’m not a big fan. But I actually look forward to the meetings with UD+P. Their team is not just superbly competent, bringing with them the full wrap of necessary skills to pull off large developments such as ours, it’s obvious that they enjoy working together as much as they enjoy the work itself. They make what might otherwise be a rocky ride into a smooth and exciting one with a vision and purpose.
CIT member Molly Phillips, former commercial architect, has this to say about our partnership:
We were very fortunate to be introduced to UD+P as our developers. We have a beautiful, though challenging site, an uncommon ownership structure (like all cohousings) and a very competitive construction market. Joren Bass and Leslie Louis have been very responsive to our concerns and have helped us reconceptualize our design, pricing and schedule. It would have been much more difficult to move forward without their expertise and willingness to take on an unusual and complex project.
Stay tuned for updates on the partnership with UD+P and Haystack Height’s CIT team: we will report monthly on their overall progress as they transform our vision into the reality of a cohousing community.