By Pamela Biery
Charles Durrett is busy. He has been designing, teaching and building cohousing communities in the United States since he brought the concept here from Denmark with Kathryn McCamant some three decades ago, but things are different this year. “Instead of working on demonstrating the value of cohousing, our firm is occupied keeping pace with a number of communities under development,” he said.
Durrett is also completing a new book to help others initiate cohousing communities.
Cohousing is just now really hitting its stride in the United States. The US Cohousing Association reports 165 established cohousing communities with another 140 forming.
Cohousing is a planned community consisting of private homes clustered around shared space. While each attached or single family home has traditional amenities, including a private kitchen, there are shared spaces that reflect each community – often with a shared community kitchen, lodge house, gardens and outdoor spaces. The legal structure is typically a homeowner association or housing cooperative. McCamant & Durrett Architects designed the first US cohousing community in Davis, California, completed in 1991.
Affordable living and sustainable housing concerns are major issues confronting every age group in America today. Healthy, educated, proactive adults want to live in a social and environmentally responsible community. They also seek to maintain a quality lifestyle while stretching their dollars further into the future.
I caught up with Durrett and quizzed him on the “hows and whys” of 50-plus cohousing.
Q: What are some of the unique characteristics of 50+ cohousing communities?
Durrett: One word: proactive. These communities are filled with individuals who are choosing to take control of their destinies through planning, not leaving things up to chance. For instance, accommodations are made for shared caregivers to live on site and long-term mobility and access issues are examined. Just the process of thinking things through as a group changes cohousing participants, preparing them with realistic views of their future.
Q: What are some mature adult cohousing benefits?
Durrett: Emotional well-being, saving money through shared services and community and maintaining independence for much longer than is commonly possible. Today, more Americans live alone in their later years, a significant health concern. This is a reflection of our culture and one that we have the power to change. New York University sociology professor Eric Klinenberg notes that social attitudes need to progress so older people can stay connected as they age.
The biggest cohousing benefit for any community is living with kindred and having a number of close friendships. But it cannot be overlooked that cohousing costs are significantly less than other senior facilities and give the longest possible independent lifestyle – good for living a full life and conserving financial resources.
Q: How does cohousing reduce an individual’s carbon footprint?
Durrett: Cohousing takes an individual out of the single-home mindset. Top of mind: better lifestyle, greener lifestyle. Seniors realize that it’s really OK to leave their ranchette and move closer to town, knowing they will be living with people they are comfortable with and that they are creating a home they can easily maintain for the next 20-plus years.
Americans drive some 5 billion miles caring for seniors in their homes (Meals on Wheels, Whistle Stop Nurses, and so on). In our small, semi-rural county in the Sierra foothills, on-demand buses alone have made 60,000 trips in massive, lumbering, polluting vans-buses – usually carrying only one senior at a time – schlepping a couple thousand seniors total over hill and dale to doctor’s appointments, to pick up medicine or to see friends.
In our cohousing community of 21 seniors, I have never seen a single on-demand bus in the driveway. In cohousing it happens organically by caring neighbors: “Can I catch a ride with you?” or “Are you headed to the drug store?”
This alternative is much more fun and inexpensive for all involved, and much less damaging to the environment. Site location that allows for walkable lifestyles is a large factor, as well.
Wolf Creek Lodge, a senior cohousing community with 30 units, built on 1 acre, is within walking distance of downtown Grass Valley, California, population 12,000. Nevada City Cohousing is also a short stroll to the downtown historic district.
Cohousing is a mind shift that is not just greener, it makes a better life.
Q: How would cohousing affect my retirement planning?
Durrett: Cohousing is a proactive, realistic way of addressing issues. It’s an ultra-responsible approach to assessing how to provide for one’s own future. Everyone in the process is dealing with understanding that mortality is real and that aging successfully means examining the whole person benefits – economic, emotional and physical well-being.
Cohousers choose to place themselves in a fun, life-affirming and embracing community. The big thing here is that by living independently longer, money is saved at every juncture, so by taking control, resources can go much further. Turns out that an independent, quality life costs less than facilitated retirement.
Learn more about cohousing
Watch for Charles Durrett’s new book, profiling the successful development of Quimper Village Cohousing in Port Townsend, Washington at www.cohousingco.com/products.
Sign up for Cohousing Co. news and occasional updates, including the new book release, with the working title, “Quimper Village Cohousing: How 40 Seniors Made A New Neighborhood to Suite Their Real Needs.”