Cohousing: The Architecture of Community

Having originated in Denmark in the 1960’s, cohousing is certainly not a new concept. It is, however, one of the least prevalent forms of housing in North America, with approximately 160 cohousing communities across the entire United States, and only 11 in all of Canada. While it may not be common here, there are arguably some great benefits to the cohousing scheme because it attempts to address several modern day issues; issues such as social isolation, density of living, lack of community, and safe neighbourhoods for children. As people begin to want to live more sensibly, this type of housing is beginning to see more interest, from an economical, sustainable, and social perspective. Cohousing has benefits for urban planning, potential to create affordable housing, and could provide unique architectural opportunities that could work to enhance social interaction, even in a technologically isolated society.

The goal behind cohousing is to essentially create ‘community’, not in terms of a physical collection of homes, but as a social collection of individuals. The aim is a supportive social environment for like-minded homeowners to work together, live in close proximity, support each other in a variety of ways, and to simply enjoy each other’s company. However, the challenge is refraining from falling into the typical, and arguably banal, schemes that have been developed to date. There have been very few successful co-housing developments that hold their own creative and innovative identity. Most schemes seem to be a collection of ‘check-mark’ elements that seem logical, but have little personality and ingenuity. As a result, the community suffers from it, and the appeal for more communities like it diminishes. As a firm with extensive experience in multifamily housing design in Calgary and abroad, MoDA would like to find a way to push the boundaries of what cohousing architecture can become, and how it can not only improve the lives of its members, but the city fabric as a whole.

Before moving further, it must also be expressed that the method of how current co-housing communities comes about, and how they are maintained are important elements to consider when attempting to better the outcomes. Typically, the process of designing a cohousing community is highly participatory, meaning the owners of the space have direct influence on the basic design of their homes and facilities. This provides opportunity for the members to begin to shape how they want their community to function, and where the members begin to interact and build relationships. To further support the members, the architect should develop a scheme that responds to the idea of social living: there needs to be a sense of privacy for the individual owners, but also enough level of exposure and shared space to promote accidental, genuine, and purposeful interaction between the members. In modern culture, much of our days are spent on social media, connecting through devices and electronics, while opportunities for real interaction begin to decline with the dissolution of public spaces. Living privately is most certainly a desirable thing, but having easier opportunity to remove oneself from isolation (digital or physical) is how co-housing attempts to combat this symptom of modern society. For instance, shared facilities are a common element that are provided in order to give opportunity for members to gather for events, dinners, or activities, allowing them to live together outside of their private residencies, enhancing real interaction and promoting relationships beyond what is acquirable in a typical neighbourhood.

Yet with these shared spaces comes a form of management. In cohousing, the members manage themselves, with no hierarchical structure to suggest a form of superiority. Roles are given out to each member to ensure the cohousing runs smoothly and efficiently, and that all of the members are heard and supported with equal weight. Following these guidelines, the housing members not only live in close proximity, but also can rely on each other for the function of their community. As a result they begin to form those meaningful and supportive relationships that have been lost in todays’ technologically oriented, and socially isolated society.

Beyond the community relations themselves, co-housing begins to also address architectural issues such as density, sustainability, and affordable housing. Potentially beneficial for urban planning, these communities can become a combination of ‘public’ and private’ spaces, allowing for density to increase without necessarily cutting back on access to public spaces. Cohousing communities also often develop a high regard for sustainable living, which has the potential to bring about unique considerations and solutions within the architecture, whether they be passive of active techniques. All the while, cohousing holds the potential to become a form of affordable housing, with numerous options to finance depending on the clients.

The question now becomes: in what ways can the architecture directly contribute to member relationship building, while simultaneously addressing issues of public and private space, sustainable strategies, and the need to address each individual member, while also being unified as a singular cohesive complex.


West Coast Residence | Tofino, British Columbia |

Given the natural awe and beauty of the site, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Wickaninnish Island, our generative formal strategy was informed by both the immediate and extant contexts of the West Coast. Being amidst an old-growth rain forest the site is covered in Redwood Cedars, to which our client asked for the design to ‘tread as lightly as possible’ on the landscape, removing as few trees as possible. As such our strategy was to have the architecture ‘weave’ its way through the forest, following the natural topography and rocky outcrops.


In addition, we were also inspired by the area’s rich Nautical History, in particular the technologies associated with ship building. We were fascinated by the extreme rationality of a ship’s design and in particular the ‘blurring/confluence’ with respect to a ship’s tectonics and materiality.


It is this condition (ie.blurring/confluence) that became the vehicle by which we questioned traditional notions of space, which often evoke a sense of boundary, containment, and program. We have been conditioned to understand space as that which has boundaries making a clear distinction between that which is interior from that which is exterior, as well as that which is contained by floor, roof or wall. What happens if architecture were to up-end all this? This is precisely what we explored in the design of the West Coast Residence.


With this project we were very interested in exploring the spatial implications of blurring instances of floor, roof and wall in an attempt to remove any preconceived understanding of where ‘space’ began and ended. Our desire was to have space(s) be in a constant state of flux and flow into each other, removing the need to contain or bound with traditional elements such as walls, doors, etc. The end result is a tectonic, material and spatial clarity not typically associated with the single family home. Perhaps, by adopting blurring/confluence as a formal strategy, new typologies for single family dwellings could emerge that allow for built form to be less ‘monumental’ and more fluvial or responsive to their environments.

Image 01_ShipwreckImage 02_Bifuricated Circulation

Image 03_Program Diagram

Image 04_Structure Diagram

Image 05_Blurring/Confluence Diagram

Image 06_Blurring/Confluence Diagram

Image 07_Blurring/Confluence Diagram

Image 08_Perspective

Image 09_Perspective

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Bragg Creek Residence | Bragg Creek, Alberta |


Place-making…does place define form, or does form give context to place? Given the awe and beauty of Bragg Creek AB, we explored the notion of Deterritorialization/Reterritorialization as a strategy to foster a dialogue between the architecture and the landscape, in some instances taming it, while in others letting it run wild. The project allocates the more Private aspects of dwelling (ie. Sleeping, Study) in a bar at the top of the slope facilitating generous views of the Mountains. The Public bar of the residence (ie. Kitchen, Dining and Living) tumbles further down the slope towards the water, in some instances allowing the natural landscape to physically carve its way thru the building (as seen flowing under the main entry and Living Room).


Both the Private and Public bars of the residence are connected/animated by both movement and nature. The Transitional space(s) of the residence (ie. Stairs, etc.) form the loci of the building facilitating movement between the private and public spaces of the house, as well as framing a garden and reflecting pool. This ‘tamed’ landscape is constantly navigated as one moves from various spaces within the residence, becoming a wayfinding device or beacon. As such, nature and architecture work in a reciprocating fashion…informing each others moves and gesture.






Framing the Landscape…here the landscape is Deterritorialized by the insertion of ‘structural’ fins which forcibly contain and domesticate both view and the way(s) in which one understands the landscape. The ‘fins’ double as both structural elements of the dwelling, as well as dictate the distribution of program and views out to the exterior.







The Landscape in this project becomes a co-author of sorts, both dictating the massing of the dwelling, as well as conversing with the architecture via its willful intrusion into and in some cases thru the building. The building literally ‘falls’ down the slope towards the Bow River following the natural contours of the site in an effort to disturb as little of the site as possible. The Landscape becomes Reterritorialized as its proximity nears or encroaches into the interior courtyards of the House. The natural flora, gradually mix then become supplanted by groomed and manicured gardens. Then in one grand gesture, the landscape actually flows under the entry portion of the house.


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