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Time May Be Right for Co-Housing

Life styles have changed, but new residential communities often fail to meet basic human needs. Often lacking are such things as strong neighborhood ties, a sense of security that lets us feel comfortable when our children roam the neighborhood and interaction with a variety of people of different ages and backgrounds.

Now along come Bay Area architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant touting a Danish idea they’ve named “co-housing.” The sudden popularity of their lectures and book on the subject is testimony to the fact that Americans are ready for a housing alternative.

Up and down the West Coast and throughout the United States, groups are rallying around the inspiration supplied by the Berkeley-based husband-and-wife team. In two or three years, the first co-housing communities in the United States should be finished, including several in Los Angeles.

San Diego Session

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This Saturday, McCamant will introduce co-housing to San Diegans in a session at San Diego State University. She should find a receptive group in a city where poorly planned megatracts have gobbled up some of our once-pristine mesas, and where such housing innovators as Ted Smith, creator of small buildings in which economic living units share a kitchen, are viewed with skepticism.

The interest in co-housing in the country reflects a trend that has gained momentum through the latter half of the ‘80s.

In Seaside, Fla, a small town laid out by architects Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andreas Duany, there has been an enthusiastic response to a revival of 19th-Century basics: wide porches, white picket fences and narrow streets more amenable to pedestrians than autos.

The houses of Seaside are done in a vernacular clapboard style that makes the new development seem homey, with houses clustered around small-scale essential buildings such as a post office and general store.

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“They work on an urban scale. We’re talking about a residential scale,” McCamant said. “But we’re both addressing a similar loss. We hear it from people all the time. There used to be a sense of towns and communities, a more intimate scale of families and people. In the last 50 years, we’ve lost some of that. There’s a basic human need that was being met. It’s not addressed as well now. We’re trying to find a way to address it in modern ways.”

Young parents with children seem to make up a large part of the audience for the co-housing message, and it’s not hard to see why.

Family Questions

The cost of living today, especially for housing, has driven women back to work. That often leaves children in limbo. Where do they spend their days? How does a family organize a steady supply of quality meals when both parents arrive home from work too tired to cook? And wouldn’t it be great if there was some convenient place to drop a toddler while husband and wife took in a movie or just spent a couple of peaceful hours together?

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During a research trip to Denmark in 1985, Durrett and McCamant discovered some solutions. There, groups of from half a dozen to more than 30 families were organizing and building communities from scratch, with some fresh ideas. Houses in these projects are often smaller because a “common house” at the heart of the neighborhood contains essential services such as washing machines, guest rooms, recreation facilities and a kitchen where resident adults take turns cooking meals for the whole group.

Children grow up in a closely knit “extended family"--the whole neighborhood. Often, there are day care centers on the site. So youngsters are well cared for.

A typical co-housing development begins not with a developer but with a group of people. They may meet through newspaper ads or word of mouth; once a few families are involved, the planning of a new community begins. What draws these people together usually has more to do with a simple search for a more practical life style than any kind of radical political manifesto. And usually, co-housing people are a part of mainstream society holding traditional jobs; they aren’t fringe dwellers.

Unlike the typical development process, where a homeowner arrives in a neighborhood after the important planning and design work has been accomplished under the guidance of the developer, the families in a co-housing community outline their basic plans before an architect is even on the scene. Demand for Durrett and McCamant’s help in getting the process started is much in demand, both on the West Coast and in other states.

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At first blush, co-housing communities may seem nothing more than mutations of the American condo community clustered around a pool and clubhouse (co-housing’s “common house”). But the important difference is that co-housing communities are self-governed by residents who are together because they want to be, not ruled by homeowners’ associations set up before many families arrived.

Although any family considering co-housing as an option might well wonder whether a home in such a setting is a sound investment, the evidence, at least from Denmark, suggests that these homes increase in value as fast as any others. In fact, once the idea caught on in Denmark, values often outpaced those in conventional neighborhoods.

Many of the Danish co-housing communities (more than 100 now exist) are in suburbs. But McCamant doesn’t feel there are economic or geographic restrictions on the idea.

“You can build co-housing at any density,” she said. “In fact, it’s one of the few ways to make high-rises livable. On the other hand, you can build single-family homes on 44 acres out in suburbia. But, in a downtown, 1 acre can be plenty.”

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It is simply a matter of desires and budgets, she said.

Perhaps most forbidding is the thought of taking such a new concept to a bank for financing.

“Banks are as conservative as you get,” McCamant said. “It was no different in Denmark. The idea was not supported by the government or the banks initially. But there are a lot of good reasons why banks will take a serious look. For one thing, the units are presold.”

For the moment, the authors are too busy doing co-housing consulting to embark on their own co-housing venture, McCamant said.

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Her talk is at 1 p.m. in the Hardy Memorial Tower building, Room 140. Cost is $5. A workshop will follow her slide lecture. Perhaps the seeds of new and better San Diego neighborhoods will be planted, including our first flyer in the world of co-housing.


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