R.I.P. Jan Gudmand-Høyer, a visionary in cohousing

Jan Gudmand-Høyer 1936–2017

Jan Gudmand-Høyer 1936–2017

The man who started cohousing in Denmark, and therefore the man who started cohousing, died Monday, March 6, 2017, at 81 years old. In 1964 Jan gathered together friends and acquaintances to talk about housing. He asked them to imagine a lifestyle and a place that did not yet exist, a place that could suit the needs of ordinary citizens, an intentional place that was different from what mom and pop, or grandma and grandpa had created for themselves. “What really makes sense for people in late twentieth century, western industrialized societies?” was his query. He recognized that different generations have different needs. Mothers were working outside of the home, families had fewer children, and folks were living longer. He wanted to figure out what would make it easier for them to actually express their values of living lighter on the planet while championing gender equality and increasing civic participation. He wanted to know what would make our lives more practical and more healthy. He wanted to create a way of life that made more sense. As they discussed it, notions of balancing privacy and community, private ownership and sharing, became recurring themes. He started with nothing but the intent to be truly responsive to real concerns, not perceived ones. Devoid of preconception on purpose, not wanting to rely on the rear view mirror, Jan spurred a self-development movement that spread throughout Europe, and then the world.

Jan and Charles Durrett walk through Skraplanet, one of the first cohousing communities built by Jan in Denmark.

Jan and Charles Durrett walk through Skraplanet, one of the first cohousing communities built by Jan in Denmark.

Jan was the quintessential communitarian, always seeking but always turning what he learned into practice. For example, as soon as read about Sardinia and their heightened and measurable demonstration of community, he went there to learn from them. Over the course of a month, he studied in great detail, of culture and nuance, of place and benches and chairs. When it came to healthy human interaction, no detail was too small. With great fun, in 2001 Katie and Jessie and I sailed the Mediterranean with him, his wife, Angels, and his son Yakai. As we entered each tiny port in Greece, Italy, or Turkey, it was fun to see Katie and Jan compete to be the first to exclaim, “Now this is community.” There we witnessed moms, dads, and grandparents on the wharf, playing dominos, breaking bread, and children running all around. Instruments came out at dusk, then dancing and singing.

Jan Gudmand-Høyer and Angels together designed well over forty cohousing communities, each one being the model for the next one, each one being better than the last. It was to the point, that the last time I visited him, he only wanted to discuss his latest, although many were stellar.

We loved Jan dearly. Jan was our greatest inspiration and mentor. He was truly the most humanistic person I’ve ever had the honor to know. He never lost faith in the human potential to build a healthy society one neighborhood at a time. We already miss you dearly, Jan.

MDA featured on the Greenpreneur Show Feb 2017

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. 

East Lake Commons, Architecture by McCamant & Durrett Architects

East Lake Commons, Architecture by McCamant & Durrett Architects

Starting A Cohousing Movement

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.

Quimper Village Senior Cohousing Community is successful, in part because the group proactively reached out to their community, sharing the book and the wisdom that came from them reading it. They will share their experience at the Aging Better Together conference in Salt Lake City, May 20-21. Their session is not to be missed! http://cohousing.org/2016aging

Quimper Village Senior Cohousing Community is successful, in part because the group proactively reached out to their community, sharing the book and the wisdom that came from them reading it. They will share their experience at the Aging Better Together conference in Salt Lake City, May 20-21. Their session is not to be missed! http://cohousing.org/2016aging

  • 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.

Thanks,