Donella Meadows Archives

Co-Housing–Somewhere Between Neighborhood and Commune

By Donella Meadows

–August 14, 1997–

“So you’re planning a commune,” my friends say.

“No, co-housing,” I reply, and their faces show that I haven’t clarified the matter.  Co-housing is not a household word.  But judging from the interest that arises when I explain it, I predict it will be.

If there were a scale of community “togetherness,” it would go something like this (from least to most “together”):  Neighborhood, subdivision, condominium, co-housing, eco-village, commune.

A neighborhood is made up of separately owned lots and houses built one at a time, not necessarily in the same style.

A subdivision has separate lots and houses designed and built all at once, usually by a developer, usually in a similar style.  It may look more “together” than a neighborhood; socially it may or may not be.

A condominium is built all at once too, houses are individually owned, but land is owned and maintained jointly.  Housing units are often tightly clustered or attached, which says nothing about attachments among the neighbors.

In all these kinds of settlements neighbors might be friends or enemies or not know each others’ names.  You can sell and move out, or buy and move in, without asking anyone else.  These are unintentional communities, centered on the nuclear family.

Co-housing began in Denmark about thirty years ago as a reaction to the loneliness and expense of unintentional communities.  Why should every family buy a lawnmower and every teen-ager have to mow the lawn every Saturday?  Why should 30 mothers all have to come home from work and cook every night?  Why couldn’t we share childcare and meals sometimes, help each other and have fun together more than we do when we think of our homes as isolated little castles?

Danish families joined together and designed new neighborhoods with shared courtyards, shared gardens, play spaces, community kitchens.  They called them “bofaellesskaber,” which means “living communities.”  There are now more than 200 of them in Denmark.  A book published in the U.S. in 1988 called them “co-housing.”  Since then dozens of American co-housing projects have sprung up.

A co-housing community, like a condominium, has privately owned, clustered houses and shared land.  The difference is that the members take a major hand in designing the community, and they design it for sociability.  There is often a “common house” with a kitchen and dining room, meeting room, and maybe a workshop or library or music room.  Ten Stones Co-housing in Charlotte, Vermont, has 13 houses in a circle with the road on the outside.  The middle of the circle is a big shared backyard, featuring laughing children bouncing on a trampoline.

Co-housing is not necessarily about living environmentally, though people attracted to co-housing tend to be into recycling and carpooling and preserving wetlands.  Eco-villages take the environment much more seriously, as they do community, because both require transcending small egotistical needs in order to satisfy larger goals.

Eco-villages orient buildings to the south to make use of solar energy.  Insulation is a higher priority than hot tubs.  The common land bears organic gardens and is permanently protected from development with conservation easements.  Eco-villages wouldn’t think of dumping their sewage without reclaiming its nutrients — they build composting toilets or constructed wetland wastewater treatment systems.  These are communities with a mission: “creating a model [of communal and environmental responsibility] which can be replicated,” says the newsletter of the Ithaca EcoVillage.

Thanks to the 1960s, when you start talking about any kind of intentional community, everyone assumes you mean a commune.  Communes share land, buildings, vehicles, tools, food, sometimes clothing, often income, occasionally spouses, which is the part that attracts the unfailing interest of the press.  Any commune that lasts, however, including religious orders that have lasted for thousands of years, has to learn a remarkable degree of discipline and selflessness.  It’s too bad the word “commune” has come to signify either clueless flower children or peasants herded together by atheist dictators.  The real communes I know anything about are models of practical productivity and deep spirituality.

I’m not sure I’m good enough for a commune.  I’d like to live on the togetherness spectrum somewhere around co-housing or eco-village.  A lot of other people seem to want something like that too.  Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst, Mass., has a waiting list of 20 families.  Ithaca EcoVillage in New York, has finished its first cluster of 30 homes and envisions five more clusters.  Some architects and developers are specializing in helping co-housing groups bring their dreams to reality.

Of course architecture does not make community.  Nothing prevents folks from cooperating in any kind of neighborhood.  Spats can break out in a common kitchen as well as across a backyard fence.  But clustered, shared spaces can save families time and money and save the planet materials and energy at the same time they make it easier to get together.  Seems to me it can only help, in a culture that has swung too far toward individuality and competitiveness, to build our homes in a way that announces, in wood, brick, or stone, to those who live there and those who don’t, “We honor community, and we’re going to try to make it work.”

Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997

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