Michael Thomas, host of the Greenpreneur Show, sat down with Katie and Chuck in early February to talk cohousing. The Greenpreneur Show is a progressive radio show, based in Chicago, with a focus on environment and sustainability in the modern day.
CRITERIA DEFINING SENIOR COHOUSING CERTIFICATION
Preamble: Americans are fast and furious with the English language, especially when it comes to Real Estate. The business plaza without the plaza, the industrial park without the park for example.
There are already lovely communities that call themselves cohousing that are in fact very cohousing inspired, cohousing-like, and are lovely places for sure—but are not cohousing.
Criteria that Define Cohousing:
1. Co-developed, co-designed, and co-organized with the group. First and foremost the future residents are an integral part of creating the future community.
2. A private home but also extensive common facilities that supplement and facilitate the daily living. Common facilities are perceived as an extension of each resident’s house and supplement each home. There must be practical excuses to bring people together – otherwise they are just “back at the house.” Common meals at least once a week. There is no more timeless means of sustaining community than breaking bread together.
3. Designed to facilitate aging in place with good acoustics and ample lighting for all ages; ergonomic details; Universal Design principles (but stairs are OK); and Co-care, mutual support systems, and interdependence during illness or convalescence through community, and cooperation.
4. Designed to facilitate naturally-oriented community interactions over time. Not auto-oriented, but every electric wheelchair, Segway or other personal vehicle necessary to keep the site auto-free except on rare occasions.
5. Completely resident managed. The residents – who are the owners of their own homes – in a cohousing community have the privilege and responsibility of determining how they will organize themselves and the work (and play) of managing their own lives and homes.
6. No hierarchy in decision-making. Cohousing is about cooperation rather than type of ownership. And, as it turns out, cooperation transcends ownership type.
7. No shared economy. Unlike that of the commune or sometimes a co-op structure, cohousing community members do not share personal income.
Being clear about nomenclature and certifying senior cohousing is as much about consumer protection as anything. Selling seniors “lake front” property without a lake is just not the right thing to do. Likewise, selling cohousing without the co (co-designed for example) means just selling real estate, without the value added by the co.
We’ve already seen the marketplace try to sell “new and improved” senior housing, labeled as cohousing but without the co. In these facilities, rooms to fit the needs of the community are too small. Rooms that fit the prejudices of the developer are too big. The common houses in these facilities get less than 100 people-hours of use per week, instead of 400 people hours in a genuine, high functioning senior cohousing common house. And the wrong-sized and ill designed rooms did not save money. They just diminished the use and therefore the community.
Unfortunately the temptation to build senior housing without the co is based on the misconception that co-designing will slow the process down, but it actually speeds it up. When we co-developed/co-designed Cotati Cohousing in less than 3 years, Cotati outpaced the other three brand new projects surrounding it. Those three neighboring projects took 5, 5, and 7 years to develop. They took longer to get through city approvals because they hadn’t involved the future residents. For senior cohousing to continue to be faster to build and higher functioning than other senior housing alternatives, what is and isn’t senior cohousing must be clearly defined and actively defended. We’ve already seen too much real estate labeled “Business Plaza” with no plaza, or “Industrial Park” with no park. Marketers are cavalier when it comes to real estate nomenclature, but S.A.G.E. will work hard to preserve the integrity of senior cohousing.
Others have suggested many additional criteria around universal design and some defined level of spirituality and accessibility. We find that future residents define these very well themselves. In fact, they do so much better than we ever could. We wouldn’t want to tie their hands, especially in regard to costs and personal choices. In the end, all of the discussion about facilitating co-care and mutual support will be worked out by the future residents themselves. See senior cohousing communities Oakcreek Cohousing in Stillwater, OK; Quimper Village in Port Townsend, WA; Mountain View Cohousing in Mountain View, CA; Wolf Creek Lodge in Grass Valley, CA; and Silver Sage in Boulder, CO as great examples and models.
Our ultimate goal with this certification is consumer protection and what better way to make sure we do this right than go to the consumer. Pat Darlington, and David and Pat Hundhausen of Oakcreek senior cohousing and Port Townsend senior cohousing (resp.) co-authored this certification program. It is through individuals like these cohousers and the dedication of SAGE that senior cohousing will become readily accepted as a successful model for seniors in the U.S. and around the Globe.
Thanks for adhering to these criteria when naming your project “Senior Cohousing”.
Please contact us at SAGE Cohousing for your certification. (www.sagecohousingadvocates.org)
Elements that emphasize the social aspects of community are of highest priority. Without these elements a cohousing community will be little more than a traditional residential development. In fact, the success of a cohousing community depends upon the “common” realm — the places where residents come together for socializing, creating, or just saying hello. These everyday acts are what keep residents connected. When buildings are scattered across a landscape, the Common House gets very little use and the sense of community is diluted.
Every cohousing community needs a central node or plaza that offers people opportunities for seeing or being seen. Like an old town square, it provides space for larger gatherings and enables people to come together, designed with active edges that encourage people to congregate, sit, observe, and interact.
The Common House is the heart of the community, so its design is very important to facilitating social interaction and the workings of the community. Because the Common House is the physical and the communal anchor of the community we take its planning and very seriously. It is the link between home and neighborhood. Acoustics, lighting, accessibility, presence of other common areas (a kid’s room and yoga room, for instance) are all considerations of great importance when designing a Common House. This is why having an experienced architect and/or acoustical engineer, experts who have successfully created common areas that are welcoming and not institutional, is very important. The difference between a well-programmed, well-designed Common House and one that is not done with adequate feedback from the group can be a difference of hundreds if not thousands of people hours.
Breaking bread together is timeless. In a high-functioning cohousing, residents talk of common meals as the highlight of their cohousing experience. Without the presence of a Common House, a community will struggle to fully experience the positive effects of having each other around. If there’s no Common House, where’s the cohousing community?
For more on good Common House design, read Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities.
I buy boxes of books for every project.
One for the banker (so it can sit on his/her coffee table until the spouse asks, “Why wouldn’t you finance this?”), to the next-door neighbor, to the planners, to the fire department – to everyone who needs to know about the cohousing project. The investment of giving books away for free is infinitesimal compared to the savings. To get the affordability that we need, we seem to always need major dis-compensations – half of the parking, twice the height limit or whatever, and many of them. The books helps all of the partners realize the why, and equally important, the why wouldn’t we? We can make it in an experiment or whatever method people need to see the benefit and therefore justify the exception.
When we were serious about getting cohousing started in San Francisco, I personally visited each bookstore (there were about 30 at the time). It took a weekend. I took a couple copies of the book and had a couple of newspaper articles in my hand to show that cohousing was getting press. Thousands of books sold in the San Francisco area immediately.
Once we got the books in the bookstore in San Francisco, we circled back to remind them to keep them in stock, see if they needed more and most importantly to insert flyers in them regarding upcoming presentations. We built a relationship with them. This is targeted grassroots organizing, but nothing fancy. I’m certain that that bookstore weekend, and a couple of model projects, has led to almost two dozen communities being built in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- If you are forming a cohousing community, here’s how we’d go about getting the books, Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities and Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, distributed in your town so that you can more readily and more likely get a cohousing project built there:
- Go to local bookstores with the books in hand and copies of a news story about cohousing – there are plenty of stories out there, pick the juiciest.
- Ask for the manager. Either way, introduce yourself and tell them about your exciting new cohousing community. Next, give them the book and a copy of the cohousing news, for their consideration. In a couple days, follow-up to make sure the manager has the book.
- If you speak with the manager right away, ask them to order from your regional distributor, such as Ingram (http://www.ingramcontent.com/) or the regional distributor.
- If they don’t want to order the book from the distributor, offer them a couple of books on consignment. If it doesn’t move, you will come back and pick them up.
- If they are still reluctant, give them the attached letter, written by an art gallery owner about her experience carrying a few copies of Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities by McCamant & Durrett. Read it first – it’s pretty inspirational. Give them a few days to look it over and check in again.
- Libraries are also good places for the book. Walk up to your local librarian(s) and ask if they carry the book. Tell them about any cohousing-related events or other information about your group. If they don’t already, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to bring it in.
Soon after you get books in the stores, return with flyers and/or postcards about cohousing events and your group. Something that says, “Getting Old, Wanna Talk?” might be just the slogan to start your senior cohousing project. Of course, you would use a different slogan for an intergenerational cohousing project. Insert them into the shiny new cohousing books you see on the shelves so that everyone who thumbs through the book sees what’s going on.
Over the years, one thing has become clear to us at McCamant & Durrett Architects: Cohousing is so much more than a sound bite. Halfway decent grassroots organizing always is. When a wife (or the husband) has the book on the coffee table and the husband (or wife) flips through it over weeks and months, the book starts to seep in. Especially when some life experience happens, like lack of childcare so someone can run to the grocer or the absence of a neighbor to confide in. And then when a friend comes to the house and starts flipping through the book, well that seals the deal; “We’re going to look into this.”
This will get a movement started.