Every cohousing community is unique. Of utmost importance is a sharing, sustainable community where neighbors own their property and spend time together from a front porch, a community meeting or a potluck dinner at the common house. It is a place created for close relationships in a community or neighborhood where everyone can know each other and share with one another. Environmental and energy conservation are often key concerns.
According to Rod Collman, President of sdg Architecture in Dunedin, Florida, keeping a community small allows the opportunity for everyone to know each other. It can be rural or urban, multi-generational or seniors only. The type of architecture could be single-family homes or multi-family, multi-story buildings. How do we start a cohousing community?
Karen Gimnig, Associate Director of Cohousing Association of the United States, suggests a more affordable type of building to make it easier to buy into an urban community.
Single-Family vs. Multi-Family Architecture
“In Berlin and other cities in Europe, mixed-use retail residential is more a way of life,” said Karen. “I think that our culture is moving in that direction. But such developments in our cities tend to be expensive with larger units. When cohousing groups form that want to build single family homes, they often give up on affordability in order to get it built. $400,000 for a home is pretty typical. We can build smaller.”
The spirit of sharing can offer cost-saving architectural possibilities. As in the example above, advantages can be found by sharing walls or building multi-story. Whether small single-family units or multi-family units, designing for shared laundry and kitchen facilities could be shared or located in the common house, further opening space in a small home.
“Modern trends lean toward sustainability and greater density,” said Karen. “You can build ten 4000 square foot houses or forty 1000 square foot houses instead. The model cohousing community has about 30 units, so developers don’t get the economy of scale of more typical residential developments. The answer can be in building several (perhaps eight) nearby communities under the same permit. Some communities have changed their ordinances to suit cohousing,” said Karen.
Planning and Building the Community
“The biggest barriers are zoning and density issues,” said Rod Collman. “The only options we currently have for cohousing are properties zoned for multi-family. If you have large acreage zoned residential/agricultural or residential rezoned to multi-family to create cohousing, it could accommodate a modest common house, two automobiles per unit (generally a requirement) and 4 or 5 units per acre. Connecting walls and stacking can offer greater density resulting in more units in the same space. The first thing a cohousing group must do is establish a relationship with their jurisdiction’s planning staff to identify obstacles and encourage ideas to create solutions.”
Collman sees exciting potential in the many areas seeing urban redevelopment in Pinellas County, the most densely populated county in Florida. “This example of an urban building in a downtown setting might feature 15 small units, a mix of 6 studio, six one-bedroom and three two-bedroom on 3 levels (parking plus three stories), said Collman. “The third floor eliminates the three studio units for an open area with outdoor seating, dining and cooking. This area could remain enclosed for a common room for the use of all residents. The rooftop could be potentially accessible and available for solar power or a community garden, offering sustainability in energy and shared food resources.”
“This example of urban living is sought after by many aging baby boomers and millennials alike. Small cities like Dunedin and Safety Harbor, and larger cities like St. Petersburg could make ideal sites for this kind of cohousing due to downtown revitalization and availability of restaurants, entertainment, museums and galleries.
“If anyone could sell it, St. Petersburg could sell it,” said Collman.
Once you have a core group of people who want to start a community, how do you market the project? How does a developer know if building a cohousing project is going to be successful?
Architect Katie McCamant leads Cohousing Solutions and cowrote the cohousing “bible” Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities, with Architect Chuck Durrett, introducing the housing model to the U.S.in 1994. It is the “must-have” book for cohousers, or anyone interested in more people-friendly neighborhoods.
“If you want to start a new community, your first step is to form a group of would-be cohousers,” stated McCamant on the Cohousing Solutions website. “It can seem daunting at first when it’s just you and a few friends who’re interested, but most successful cohousing projects begin with just a few burning souls and motivation!” Her community building checklist is paraphrased below.
Group Formation - Find your founding core group of neighbors and begin planning.
Project Feasibility - Site qualities, cost to build homes, other risks: will a property work for your group?
Site Search & Acquisition – Research feasibility and negotiate the purchase terms.
Building Your Development Budget and Setting up your Homeowners Association (HOA) - Research competitive mortgages, management documents, policies, and budgets from other cohousing project HOA’s and engage with a cohousing professional. Raise investment from your member base and others.
Finding Your Professional Team - A successful long-term partnership will require finding a development partner who understands your business model to arrive at an appropriate sharing of risk. Engage with a cohousing professional to guide you through the entire process.
Design Programming - Your architect should be receptive to the needs of the group when designing the neighborhood and its homes and should fully understand the uses of common houses.
Marketing - What kind of group is desired? Who are they, where are they, where will the community be built? Begin by utilizing your core group’s social media to connect with others. A marketing professional and /or a cohousing professional may be the most efficient way to build a marketing program to find potential group members.
“Don’t market the buildings. Sell the relationships,” said Karen Gimnig. “The longer people live in cohousing the more collaborative they become. 40 or 50 people in a close, collaborative community have a great life and if we could arrive at that model, these projects would sell out faster than we could build them. In my wildest dreams, 10% of our population could be living in cohousing communities. I think for most people who have lived ten years or more in a cohousing community, it has changed them in more ways than they could have imagined – in a really good way.”