United We Stand
Cohousing creates neighborhoods built on consensus and cooperation - and lots of patience.
At one of the dinner tables, Carolyn Wallace pauses between bites of strawberry shortcake to summarize a fact of life at the Westwood Cohousing Community here. "A lot of us are Type A personalities, people who care a great deal," she says as board president of the community's homeowners' association. "So we have a lot of intense discussions."
Her fellow cohousers around the table smile with instant recognition: We have met the cohouser and the cohouser is us.
Like others who have moved into dozens of cohousing communities springing up around the world (some 37 in the United States now), Westwood residents are part of a detailed and often exhausting experiment in living together.
Principles of cohousing
Participatory process - residents decide on community's design, including private residences and common areas.
Neighborhood layout - walkways and courtyards are central; cars and garages are relegated to the periphery.
Common facilities - includes a common room for meetings; shared facilities for laundry, exercise, children's play.
Resident management - participants do most maintenance work, help prepare common meals, and meet regularly to develop policies.
Nonhierarchical structure - decisions are made by consensus.
Source: The Cohousing Network
They began by planning a community of 23 architect-designed single-family town houses clustered on 4-1/2 acres.
This is no suburban dream of the self-contained family house. Westwood's 43 participants are committed to creating a supportive, extended family environment that arrives at decisions through consensus. "You have to have a high tolerance for meetings," says Paula Robbins, a medical editor.
Cohousers say they tend to be self-selective, people already predisposed to welcome the interactive climate needed to make the community work even if things move a bit slowly on the details.
"We took months to decide on the colors for the town houses," says Ms. Wallace. In the end, "condo coral" was rejected, and "sage green," "desert sand" and "boulevard beige" won approval.
Where others might find tedium in arriving at decisions this way, most Westwood residents see it as necessary. The pluses, such as close friendships, community spirit, a sense of extended family, and security, outweigh the frustrations, they believe.
Cohousing is the antithesis of subdivision housing, which can feature a lifestyle that emphasizes consumption and provides neighborliness only if a homeowner wants it. The relative smallness of the Westwood town houses, says resident Vance Reese, "demands that we don't be too materialistic." And those who participate in committees and projects become part of the larger "family."
A few who moved into the two-year-old community disliked the demands and living style, and moved out. "A winnowing pro-
cess," say some of the residents.
"I actually didn't want to come here," says Gary Boyer, a tool and die maker. "My wife wanted to come, so we joined. And when we started to know the people, and function here, I grew to love it. I wouldn't trade this for anything."
Ursula Scott has been renting, but will now buy a town house. "My husband died many years ago, and this is sort of not living alone, and yet living alone," she says. "That is one of its strengths, to have the solitude and yet it's easy to be with someone else."
When Jean Reese gave birth earlier this year, "People brought us food for about three weeks straight," she says. "They were wonderful to us." Now, at meetings and gatherings, little Jonathan is passed around to all his adoring "aunts and uncles."
The center of life at Westwood is the two-story Common House, a multipurpose building for meetings and community dining for those who choose to prepare and eat two evening meals a week together. It's situated on a knoll between the two clusters of housing linked by an architect-designed bridge over a small ravine.
The Common House offers a mini-library, two guest rooms, laundry facilities, an exercise room, and mailboxes. In the basement is the control center for Westwood's unique utility and energy system, which was specially designed for the community by engineer Bill Fleming, who is also a resident.
Before a home can be purchased, aspirants are required to attend a social gathering, a business meeting, and accept the major decisions already made by the community. They also must read "Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves" (see sidebar). So far, no one has been turned down when a unit has changed owners.
A one-bedroom town house at Westwood sells for around $105,000, and a three-bedroom unit is $150,000. Both prices are slightly higher than a comparable non-cohousing unit might be nearby.
Westwood got off to a rocky start, as has been the case for a number of cohousing efforts. A group struggled for two years to launch a community, but eventually the effort failed because of disorganization and lack of financial resources.
A second effort succeeded, despite procedural misunderstandings over the roles of residents and the development company that built the community. "It turned into an us-and-them situation," says Ms. Robbins.
Yet, true to the spirit of cohousing, most residents have concluded that "Westwood has turned out very well." High praise goes to the engineering design of the project, which includes a central heating and hot-water system that uses large-scale solar collectors. Utility lines are underground. The houses have radiant heating, high-bandwidth cable systems, ductless cooling systems, energy-efficient lighting and appliances, and acoustical materials in the walls.
Robbins says her average cost last year for hot water and heat was around $21 a month. This is itemized in monthly assessments - similar to a condo fee - that average around $140 each month. To build the Common House, a construction loan pool was formed with funds provided by initial residents and friends.
Cars are parked on the periphery of the two housing clusters, which face gardens or a small lawn with newly planted shade trees.
Residents tend to be middle class, environmentalists, and come from social-activist backgrounds. They join teams that work on aspects of community life: landscape, children's issues, woods and wildlife, architectural review, communications, technical maintenance, etc.
Westwood continues to evolve and grapple with issues that all cohousing communities face, such as defining exactly what a community is, and what to do when some residents don't pull their weight.
"From September through May we had meetings we called 'conversations on community,' " says resident Mary Ellen Brown, chairman of the communications department at Mars Hill College. "People volunteered to get together, to talk, and get things out in the open. And we also had workshops on consensus."
Ellen Frerotte attended one of the meetings and decided it wasn't for her. "I don't like what I consider orchestrated conversations," she says calmly, sitting across from Ms. Brown at a community dinner. "I didn't feel the necessity to be scheduled to have a conversation with my neighbors." The comment is not the start of an argument, but simply an opinion shared among friends with acknowledged differences.
The homeowners association, in order to rouse those members who may have become a little lazy in their obligation to the community, is considering an agreement, or pledge, to be signed as a reminder to get involved. "There's no cohousing SS operating here," says Jim Frerotte, at the dinner table, "but we're evolving, and unequal amounts of contribution are typical at cohousing."
Vance Reese thinks the bottom line is the closeness that develops despite the differences. "One member said that we behave with too much 'sweeping under the rug' of the differences," he says, "and another says we are just keeping a higher goal in mind. Both are probably right. We are available for each other. When a person has been estranged from the community, nearly every time there has been some other person in the community who steps forward and says, 'Hey, what's wrong?' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society