Remedy for loneliness
Текст: Dinar Khayrutdinov | 2019-01-29 | Фото: | 636
All sorts of modern gadgets, social media and messengers have significantly increased our communication possibilities but at the same time they have brought us shortage of face to face communication, which is especially obvious when you look at certain social groups such as senior citizens. Quite a lot of people today miss the simple warmth of human contact, the feeling of togetherness, of belonging to a community of people who share common values. One of the popular solutions to the problem of loneliness and alienation is a type of a residential community called cohousing. The idea of cohousing originated in the 1960s in Denmark but later gained a lot of momentum outside that country as well. The main feature of cohousing is creating residential spaces that encourage active interaction between the tenants - for instance, by having specifically engineered spaces where this interaction would be possible. We had a talk about the advantages and specific aspects of cohousing with one of the most well-known experts in this field, architect and co-founder of Schemata Workshop (Seattle, WA USA) Grace Kim.

— Grace, in Russia the idea of cohousing is virtually unknown. Could you please tell us what the main point of cohousing is and what key elements distinguish it from other architectural and housing projects? Is it some special planning of a residential building, or the fact that people live together and constantly communicate with each other and help each other?

Co-housing is an intentionally created neighborhood where people know each other and look after each other. In terms of its physical form it can be a variety of different things: it can be a group of single family homes, it can be a multi-storey apartment building, it can be a number of duplexes or whatever else. So the physical form is not the most important thing here. I think that the most important thing about co-housing is the intention of the people that live there to live collaboratively. I think with that comes a lot of mutual support in everyday life, whether it’s sharing meals or helping each other watch after children, or borrowing somebody’s car or a power tool or a kitchen appliance. Cohousing usually means that you always have people you can rely on in a difficult situation, or people you can celebrate an important event in your life with.

Isolation has a lot of negative effects on people. And it’s not just a US problem, or a Japanese problem, or a Russian problem, or a problem of any country. This is a global problem: today a lot of people all over the world seem to be struggling with loneliness and isolation. Cohousing provides a possible solution to this problem, which means that it can have a positive impact on the psychological and physical condition of people.

© Mike Hipple Photography

— Who are the people who decide to live in cohousing communities? Can people create communities based on their interests, such as cohousing communities for creative people (like artists or musicians), or for environmental activists, or does cohousing unite completely different residents?

In Denmark, where we were visiting a lot of different co-housing communities, we’d go to some community where there would be a lot of people of medical professions, for instance. Or there were communities with just teachers living in them, or something else like that. In the US there are very few cohousing communities like that and I’d say that usually these communities are founded on common values rather than on people’s occupation. It’s generally not a specific focus on art or technology but rather on living a more sustainable life, having a smaller footprint, using less resources and so on. And these values are manifested in different ways — in some communities it’s on a very superficial level and in some it’s very significant. This is evident in the way they organize their life, share things, interact with each other, set up programs and so on.

© William Wright Photography

© William Wright Photography

Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing

— In our country we used to have the so-called communal flats (flats where 3-6 families lived together and shared a kitchen and a bathroom), and people today don’t have many pleasant memories of that, to put it mildly. Do you think that a cohousing project can be done in any country of the world, because to live in such a community people probably need to have a specific mindset? Because even in countries of the West the way of life is more individualist and privacy-oriented.

I think that co-housing only works when you have choice. Communal flats of the Soviet type is not cohousing at all, because people only lived together out of necessity. Whether the government forced them to do that or they did that because they couldn’t afford any other home, it wasn’t their conscious choice. This happens in the US, too: for instance, when immigrants come over and they don’t have money to buy or rent a home, they might stay together in a small flat provided by their employer or a sponsor. But usually it’s a temporary situation and it’s not by choice. And co-housing works because people have a choice, and this intentional choice to live together is what makes it succeed as a model.

I’m originally from South Korea, and my family moved to the US when I was three. And we had an opportunity to buy a home so we never had that situation where we lived together with other people. So when I told my mother about this idea of cohousing, she was very surprised: “Why would anyone want to live with a bunch of other people that you don’t know?” So, to her it was not an attractive solution at all, because she came to the US to seek out the American dream -  where everyone has their own house, with a large yard and a garage. But in America people who have grown up with that dream often realize that the price to pay for that dream is isolation and alienation. And when they understand that, they start looking for other choices. You can’t tell low-income people, “Hey, you should live in cohousing.” When people have a goal of buying their own house, and you’re telling them that their goal should be something else, that obviously doesn’t work, they won’t listen to you. But after they have achieved that goal and lived in their own house for some time, they might want to try something else.

— But there were also certain ideas behind the creation of Soviet communal flats — a family that lived there would usually have their own private room, and that there would also be some shared space where all the resident families would interact and discuss the issues concerning their household. But this idea deteriorated over time, and all we got were constantly arguing neighbors, people backing down from doing their chores, people stealing food from each other, these flats often becoming a shelter for antisocial people, etc. What are the mechanisms of cohousing in that regard: is there a way of avoiding this sort of deterioration? Are there any rules that cohousing communities generally have? Rules regarding household issues, cleaning, shared spaces? Or regarding the use of shared infrastructure?

One thing that needs to be said is that everyone in cohousing has their private space. So, each family has their own home or apartment, and no one can come into it without invitation and take their things, because that would be breaking in and stealing. This is quite different from a communal flat where, even if people have their own rooms, they still have only one refrigerator, one bathroom and so on. So, there is still privacy in cohousing, you always have your private space.

© William Wright Photography

© William Wright Photography


As for the common spaces, then of course there are certain rules and policies that are usually written and signed as an agreement, although they can also be in the form of a simple verbal agreement. For instance, the community I live in has a strict pet policy: your pet cannot be walking around the property freely, the owner has to have their pet on a leash, and if there is a mess they have to clean up. It’s a written thing, and everyone knows about it. But, of course, if my neighbor’s dog comes to my front door and makes a mess there, I will simply knock on their door and politely tell them about that and kindly ask them to clean up after their pet. These things happen, and nobody is going to make a big deal of – that’s just part of life. They didn’t intentionally do anything to harm me.  

I think that people in co-housing usually think about what’s good for the entire community (again because this is their personal choice). But if something inappropriate happens (for instance, if someone took a thing from the common house and did not return it), the other members of the community will come up to them and say: «Listen, this is not a good way to behave in this community. Tell us what’s going on. How can we help you? Do you need money? Or help in some other way?» So, people will start talking to this person and will try to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it. The community is always happy to help, and they will try to provide everyone with what they need. And when you’re surrounded by this sort of culture, you see a bowl of cookies in the common house and you will not take the entire bowl, you’ll just take one or two cookies. There is an attitude of generosity and giving.

— What are the main reasons that make your customers approach you and create cohousing communities? Is that ordinary human loneliness or maybe a desire for new experience, wanting to change your lifestyle or the need for the feeling of togetherness, of communality? Or is it the financial conditions, the possibility of saving money on something?

I think the financial reasons are the least important thing here. Of course, finances are generally very important to people, but the reason why people want to come together is mostly the spirit of community. Now a lot of our clients are senior citizens who are looking for a place to spend the last third of their lives. But also we have young families who think about how they can have more time to spend with their children. And besides, for both of these categories of people cohousing is the way to find more time, because the domestic chores that come with daily life can be distributed among more people, and as a result you have more free time.

Of course young people still tend to show up less in cohousing, in large part because they can’t afford buying homes, but there are quite a lot of ones who are interested in the rent model. Term-wise it’s usually rent for 5 to 7 years. In the US there is a certain prejudice against renting because there is a sense that if you’re only renting then you’re not committed, not serious enough about your future. But for cohousing it’s not true, I think, here people are committed just by the mere fact that they’re choosing cohousing. They have already chosen it as an intentional way to live collaboratively.

© Schemata Workshop

© Schemata Workshop

— And is cohousing usually cheaper than owning a house or an apartment?  

If you look at the cost of one square foot of a house in co-housing, it will be similar to the cost of a square foot in a normal house in the same neighborhood. But when you look at the total cost, then it depends. Very often it’s higher because in cohousing you not only buy (and pay for) your own house but also your share of the common house which is the place where all the shared activities go on, and where all the residents can meet and interact with each other. On the other hand, you can always use this common house to organize a dinner party for twenty to thirty people once or twice a year, or you can have your relatives stay there for several days when they visit you. This means that your personal, private house doesn’t need to have a guest room or a big formal dining room. Which is why people who live in cohousing tend to build smaller houses than they would buy themselves, and they can save up on that.

And of course you need to look at the everyday expenses, too – here is where the economic benefits of cohousing are the most evident. For instance, people living in cohousing communities tend to spend much less on food, especially if there’s a regular meal program. People also buy less houseware or similar things, I think, because there’s always the option of borrowing stuff from someone in the community: power tools, appliances, even clothes. Families with children in such communities often share toys, clothes, which get passed on from child to child as older ones grow up, other things.

Another important thing in terms of expenses is that since you have everyone in your community living close to you, you can reduce the number of car trips. This is not a requirement but usually when people live in cohousing, their use of cars goes down and sometimes people would even sell their vehicles. There are often fewer cars in the entire community, because you can always borrow one from your neighbors, and they normally don’t say no.

Also in US people who live in their own homes often pay for various services like housekeeping or a handyman service, or solving computer problems and so on. While in cohousing they can just ask someone in the community for help. These are small things, but they make everyday life much easier.

— How is a cohousing project usually created? Can you describe the main stages of how a community is developed?

Creation of a cohousing community is not a linear process, and it doesn’t necessarily end with all of the original members moving in. A cohousing community is a living organism. And, as with any living organism or any group of people, there are four phases it goes through, which are often called Tuckman’s stages of group development, after researcher Bruce Tuckman who introduced them. The first stage is called ‘forming’, or ‘the honeymoon stage’, when people are only getting to know each other, and everyone is happy and excited to live together. Then comes ‘storming’, when the first conflicts happen, people’s differences start to arise. The following stage is ‘norming’, when things settle out, there is more decision-making and there are more shared practices, and things get more organized. And the fourth phase is the ‘performing stage’ where things are sort of humming along nicely, and the group finally starts to function properly. But it would be wonderful if it were just the same 4-6 families moving in at the same time and passing through these stages. But when someone new comes along, or someone leaves, or some new thing happens, you start over again with stage one. The entire cycle repeats itself, and this happens time and time again.

Meanwhile there is a lengthy development stage. In comparison, this is pretty simple: a group of potential residents come together, they decide what their shared values are and what their project is going to be. Then they try to find the land for the project and if they do it soon, they hire their architect and their developer and other people who help them to make all the important decisions regarding the construction and development. Then the design stage happens, with getting all the required permits and documents. All the while, more people and families keep joining the project as potential members of the community. So, it’s a neverending process.

Speaking of preparing to live in a cohousing community, it’s important to have some examples. We usually recommend our customers to talk to someone who has already had experience of living in a community, and to take some steps to prepare themselves. But this preparation basically consists of things that would help people to prepare themselves to any situation involving working in a group. So what we usually recommend is training in conflict resolution, decision-making, communication styles, facilitation, power dynamics and generally all sorts of things that help you recognize the impact of what you are saying and how other people perceive that and what you can do to achieve consensus, to find compromises in difficult situations. And those are great skills regardless of whether you live in cohousing, or work in a corporation, or teach at school, or in any sort of a group or a team.

© Schemata Workshop

© Schemata Workshop

— What is the end goal of cohousing? To encourage people living there to have as many interactions as possible? Or to be more socially active? How is it possible to influence the interaction between the residents of a house or a community with architectural solutions?

I think that the most successful cohousing communities are ones where people have a greater number of regular interactions. And you’re right, there are architectural solutions that facilitate these interactions. For instance, you can organize the space in such a way that the residents will have to visit the common house more frequently: for example, you can make it so that the only possible exit to the street is through that house, and the number of daily interactions will probably increase. We also can’t underestimate the importance of such seemingly small things as where the mailbox is going to be, or where the residents are going to park their cars, or the proximity of their personal houses to the common house and so on. And people can be different too, of course — some people are more introverted and require more private space and some are more extroverted so they feel comfortable with having other people around them all the time. Some people enjoy the noise, some like the quiet, so all of those things influence how the physical design of the neighborhood is laid out. There are other important factors, too, such as how much land you have at your disposal in general. It’s one thing if it’s a large plot of land in a suburban area with land area to spread out horizontally. And a very different situation is when you have a small piece of land with vertical development, in an urban situation, for example. Even where your windows face is quite important. If your kitchen faces the public area or the common space of the community, you will always see who is coming and going and know what’s going on.

— How big is the business potential of cohousing in your opinion? Do you think it’s going to grow and expand or will it stay as some sort of a niche industry?

For the last twenty or thirty years in the US this business has grown quite incrementally. Now we have a 165 or so built communities in the US. That’s not a lot compared to the leading country of the world in cohousing — Denmark, which has over 500 of such communities, especially if you consider that Denmark’s population is 50 times less people than in the USA! New forming communities appear every year,  in the past decade there has been a slow uptick in the number of communities getting built. But I have no doubt that this industry will grow, because there are so many different people who are looking at cohousing solutions, so that’s a clear business opportunity. In Asia and the US there are corporations and municipalities that are looking for investment opportunities in cohousing, and they want to scale up the industry. But there is another serious problem. The reality is such that the rate at which we’re building these communities is not fast enough for the demand that exists. A lot of people don’t have the time or the ability to wait at least 3 years, and more often it’s 5 to 7 years, to move into a cohousing community: their children are growing, they need to solve their housing problem as fast as they can and so on.

So potentially it’s a very large market, and quite an attractive one for investors: if a developer builds 30 homes, and it’s cohousing, then people will be ready to buy these homes as soon as the construction is finished. Both for the companies and the banks this is much better than speculative project when it’s “let’s just build something, and then maybe in a year we can sell them all”. The difficult part is finding the developers that will be ready to engage themselves in the community-building part of it and not just architectural solutions and construction. Most developers don’t really think about these issues, and yet it’s this part that makes cohousing different from other real estate projects.

Cohousing communities don’t necessarily have to be created from scratch. It can also be created in existing buildings. I know cases when 3 or 4 families joined together and said: “We are going to take down the fences between our houses and then we are going to build some extra facilities and recruit friends and family and other people to join.” In some cases even office buildings were converted for a cohousing community to live in them. There are not too many examples of this, but this is also an option.

© Schemata Workshop

© Schemata Workshop


— As far as I know, the residents of your community often have meals together. Does that mean that there is some sort of a duty schedule for the kitchen and food? And how do you come to a consensus regarding food? Because some people might like eating French fries, but some people can’t eat it due to health issues, and so on. It’s hard to imagine how one can please all the residents at once.

There are a lot of different ways to organize this, and everything depends on the community. For example, here is how we do it in our community: Every adult in our community is required to cook. We have a new team of cooks every few months, consisting of three people per team. One of them is the lead cook, who makes up a menu, buys the groceries (and pays for the entire dinner) and does the main cooking work. The other two people help them with some of the cooking, set the table and clean up after the meal. With this sort of a system, if the person who is the lead cook can afford to spend a bit more than average and serve, say fish or steak, they can do that. Or, if they just want to spend their money on baked potatoes, they are free to do that as well. We have such meals three times a week, and the participation is mandatory. But we also feel that we need to respect everyone’s tastes and preferences. For instance, we have a couple of people who can’t eat nuts due to health issues. So we decided we all are not going to have any nuts at these community dinners. If people want to eat them, they can do it at any other time. Besides, we have vegans, vegetarians and also people who eat all sorts of meat. And our approach to that is as follows: we prepare the obligatory vegan «base» of the meal, and then each resident is free to add whatever they want to eat. So, for example, if the base meal is vegan soup and salad, then additionally there will be a separate bowl of protein (the protein may be eggs or tofu not just meat) that people can add to their plate. And this system has worked great for us so far. We have lived in this community for two and a half years, and in all that time we had maybe two meals that I didn’t particularly like.

© Mike Hipple Photography

© Schemata Workshop

© Schemata Workshop

— How does living in cohousing communities influence the minds of people, their attitude to live, to the world, to their neighbors?

From my personal experience I can say that when you live in a community you see the humanity of other people living with you. And that makes you empowered to make changes in your own life and the world around you. There is a very kind woman that lives in our community, but she is also quite an introverted and doesn’t like to organize parties. But I remember that after the presidential election in 2016 she was so frustrated with the results that when she learned that a big women’s march is going to be organized in Washington, D.C., she said at dinner one night: “I really want to organize a dinner after the march.” And the moment she said it, immediately three or four people said: “Oh, that’s a good idea, I’ll make chili”, or “I’ll make cornbread”, or “I’ll make cookies”. So, within five minutes we organized this dinner. If she had thought of that living in her own home, she would have never done it. And I feel like that people in my community have attended more political rallies and marches in the last two years than they have in their entire lives before that. And it’s all because if one person says: «I’m going to such and such rally, or I want to support such and such cause», then other people can see how easily they can follow the example.

People also tend to unite around social issues, like helping homeless people or working towards social equity. I think that in this regard my community is sort of a microcosm of what I see nationally. These days people are generally more likely to be socially and environmentally conscious, to vote, to be more compassionate. And I think it translates to our kids, too. Our children are generally more compassionate and humane, and they also often know how to resolve conflicts and behave themselves in a decent manner because of their experience of living in cohousing.

Besides that, we all have the enjoyment of regular company and we can always turn to each other for help. Even very independent people that aren’t typically ready to accept help from others also eventually recognize this amazing gift. For example, when all your neighbors know your child very well, you feel more comfortable asking them to stay and look after the child when you’re busy or want to go out in the evening. Those things are small but they are very impactful in terms of building the connections between people.

© William Wright Photography

© William Wright Photography

The Rooftop Farm at Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing

— How do you see the development of cohousing in the future? Is it the way to build a new society, a more socially oriented one? Or do you think it’s going to be a rather limited, niche way of social interaction? And also could you please share your plans for the future with us.

I am very optimistic about the role that cohousing will play in society. There is a project that I’ve recently read an article about in Toronto, Canada. It’s a large waterfront area re-development project, and the ones involved are several new, incubator businesses with a large tech component. And they are looking at cohousing and similar organizing principles as a way to start the community there. This means that young entrepreneurs recognize the energy around building such a community, the intention behind that, and see its advantages. But also they recognize that having a group of people that are committed to the neighborhood is a seed that will help this development to grow. I think that’s a fascinating project, and I’m curious to see how it evolves.

And there are other great examples: major corporations are becoming interested in that both in Europe and Asia. So, cohousing definitely has a future. On the whole isn’t having more people connected to each other in cities, countries, around the globe a great thing? It’s too easy in this technology-driven time to become isolated. But cohousing brings people together and helps to build a more democratic society.

Speaking of our plans for the future, we are currently working with three co-housing communities now in our local area, in the states of Washington and Oregon. I am always looking for architects who want to learn how to do cohousing. We are even trying to figure out a way to train them, because so far there are too few qualified professionals who work in this field. In the US there are probably about a hundred architects that have done one cohousing project and have vowed not to do another one because it was too difficult or too complicated, or because not enough money was made. And there are probably only 5 or 6 architects that have done more than one such project and are willing to do more. Of course, that’s not enough. So I want to develop some sort of a training program for such architects. And if someone from another country, like Russia, wants to hire me as a consultant and work with their local architect, I will be more than happy to do that because I want local architects around the world to be capable of doing that, so that they can build more cohousing in the future.



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