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.
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