Written by Charles Durrett
Thirty years ago last month the book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, that introduced cohousing (and the word cohousing) to the US and the English speaking languages arrived at our doorstep in Berkeley California. An 18-wheeler from the printers in Tennessee negotiated our not-so-big residential street and un loaded 3,200 hundred brand new shiny blue, full-color books. Jim, the driver, his wife and trucking partner, and their ten-year-old “home schooled” daughter helped us unload the boxes of twenty books each and put them into our basement. Self-taught, (including Danish and writing), Self-published, self-designed, and now self-distributed. We had loans to payback, so we packaged them out at night after work. Seventy-six copies one night, went into our home-made packaging using scrolls of paper from various cohousing workshops that we had already begun having. Seventy-six copies to be shipped out the next day. Luckily word had already got out. People wanted the book, from Little Rock, Arkansas to Boston to Alaska to the far corners of everywhere.
It took so long to do that first book. Kate and I were introduced to cohousing in the fall of 1980 while attending the University of Copenhagen. Went back in 84/85 to write the manuscript (by hand), and then wrote and wrote, and wrote until it went to the printers in the early spring of 1988. Katie went back to Tennessee that spring to check the printing proofs — that’s how hands on this book was.
Then in August we went a green politics conference in the Sierras and noticed that one speaker after another was from Davis, California. So that following Monday, I jumped into our not-so-new Volvo and tooled the 70 miles to downtown Davis on that hot still August day. Stopped by a half dozen bookstores in that college town, all of them took the book on consignment or through the nation-wide book distributor that we had luckily negotiated to also distribute the books when bookstores called to order it.
I went right over to the Village Homes Community Center and rented that out for a September Public Presentation. Then with flyers on every bulletin board in town, and flyers planted in the books in the various bookstores we started to get some real traction. No one had heard the word “cohousing” yet, so it was an uphill climb.
Then we met a couple, Kevin and Linda Cloud, that were willing to help organize the upcoming public presentation, and to help get the word out locally. We got all of the free calendar listings that we could.
About 80 people showed up. Katie and I took turns presenting, like we always did in those days. At the end of the presentation, the head of Davis City Planning Commission stood up to ask a question, but mostly to make a statement. “The next application for any large-scale multi-family housing project in Davis should include a cohousing community, right,” she said. Of course, we answered, “Yes.”
A developer planning a new 200+ housing project was also in the room and she knew it. This just goes to show that to find the right partners, you need to get the word out there. But that’s a story for another article. We knew that the first community in the U.S. had to work well for this model to catch on. So after some finagling, we got ourselves positioned to be the architects to design the site plan, the common house and the houses with the entire group. That lovely community is Muir Commons and they moved in in the summer of 1991.
Muir Commons received considerable press and we were off to the races in the U.S. It was the first model cohousing project built in North America and it remains a model project today. The availability of a comprehensive discussion, the book, model projects, millions of hours, and the covey of professionals who, with dedication and integrity, and non-profit organizations have impelled cohousing along. Now we have many more. We are well on our way to 200 cohousing communities in North America and well on our way to making cohousing a known option for housing, communities, and neighborhoods, exemplifying how neighbors can relate to each other and cooperate with and support each other in America.
Anyway, at 55 more projects, hopefully model communities and many more by others, the rest is history. But in this case this history of cohousing in North America is just the beginning.
The book has been revised and is now called, Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities, and can be purchased through our website.