Offering Community and Connection in the Age of Separation

Cohousing may be one the best, if currently overlooked, ways to build a sustainable future.

Charles Durrett offers a product designed to address some of the biggest problems we face in America.  With the tireless zeal of a much-younger man, the 63-year old Nevada City, California architect is always on the move, selling a concept called “cohousing” to audiences across the United States. Durrett describes his product as “the best of both worlds.” “With cohousing,” he says, “you can have as much privacy as you want and as much community as you want, and it has a lot of other advantages as well.” 

Nevada City cohousing
Nevada City cohousing. There are now more than 150 cohousing communities scattered across the American landscape, primarily in the western states. Photo courtesy of McCamant Durrett Architects.

There are now more than 150 cohousing communities scattered across the American landscape, primarily in the western states. Durrett has been a designer of 50 of them. He hopes to see the idea spread, regardless of who designs the communities. When he started promoting the idea, there were none. He and his former wife, Katie McCamant, met in the early 1980s at the University of Copenhagen, where they were both architectural students interested in environmentally friendly design. On his walk from the train station to the university, Durrett discovered a community where “there was life between the buildings, people coming and going from a house where no one lived, but it seemed everyone lived.”  

After spending time in the community, Durrett and McCamant were hooked — impressed by the joy and sense of social connection they witnessed and the energy savings residents told them about. The idea was slow to catch on in Denmark initially, but after a TV documentary explored the subject, the number of cohousing communities mushroomed. Now the country of five million people boasts 500 such communities. Durrett returned to the United States determined to help spread the cohousing concept (he and Katie coined the term), which the Danes had developed in 1972. 

The concept is simple: groups of people come together to design their own community, which includes private dwellings (single homes, apartment complexes and townhouses), small yet self-sufficient, with their own kitchens. But a large “common house” serves the entire community. Meals are offered there to everyone several nights a week. The common house has its own kitchen, and often, various meeting rooms, recreation or exercise rooms, children’s playrooms and other amenities including games and books, and guest rooms for visitors. 

Members of the community are expected to cook at least once a month, serve on a major committee and share everyday maintenance chores. Cars are kept outside the main living area, allowing for safe open space for children. Decisions are made wherever possible by consensus. Residents can spend as much time with others in the common spaces as they choose, always with the nearby option of privacy in their own homes. Residents tend to cook vegetarian or low-meat meals using as much locally grown food as possible.

***

Back in the US, Durrett and McCamant started promoting cohousing with lectures and a handbook.  Together with friends, they planned a cohousing community in Emeryville, California, near their home in Berkeley. They moved into it in 1992. But by then, another California city, its plan developed together with McCamant and Durrett, was already boasting a functional cohousing community. It was easier and quicker to get permits and loans for the project in Davis, a city known for its commitment to sustainability (and its Danish-like propensity for bicycling!), and Muir Commons Cohousing opened there in 1991.

I am currently producing a film on cohousing, featuring Durrett and four communities in the Sacramento area. With National Emmy-winning photographer Doug Stanley, of “America’s Deadliest Catch” fame, I visited Muir Commons recently. Two of the original residents, Jane McKendry and Laurie Friedman, showed us around. Old photos of Muir Commons under construction show a place devoid of greenery, but after 28 years the homes are almost invisible behind the lush canopy of trees, shrubs and flowers that offers welcome shade and saves on air conditioning in Davis’ steamy summer climate, where temperatures sometimes hit 110 degrees. Lines of bicycles, the Davis staple, can be seen throughout the community. McKendry  and Friedman showed us the orchard, which provides fruit for the entire community, and the small but robust garden plot. And with her husband, Ray, McKendry played a mean folk guitar for us; many residents, she said, have similar skills that they share freely with others.

Muir Commons
Set up in 1991, Muir Commons Cohousing in Davis California is America’s first cohousing community. The property boasts an orchard that provides fruit for the entire community and a small but robust garden plot. Photo by Laurie Friedman.

The early Muir Commons rang with the voices of children, but there are fewer of them now because most of the original residents, happy with their living arrangements, have stayed put and are nearing retirement or older. Their kids have moved on. A lovely, tree-shaded children’s playground on the property sat empty while we were there. But new families will be coming, McKendry said. In keeping with Davis’ environmentalism, Laurie showed us the shed filled with bicycles, and the parking lot outside the community; its parking spaces include electric charging stations. The common house and many homes were adorned with solar panels.  Architect Durrett says co-housing residents choose these environmentally friendly features and build with sustainably sourced wood and natural building products despite somewhat higher costs.

***

From Muir Commons, we moved on to Nevada City’s Coho community, where Durrett and McCamant now live. Set on the edge of an impossibly charming Gold Rush town, it’s a beautiful village of pastel individual homes, a modern airy common house, and even a shared swimming pool. Flowers are everywhere. At Coho, many of co-housing’s benefits were clear. An array of solar panels heats all the homes and common space and produces a surplus of electricity for the power company, PG&E, keeping electricity bills low and sometimes even resulting in rebates. Residents share a strong environmental ethic and were willing to spend more to heat and cool with solar. Children played happily in the pool, on the walkways and on the terrace of the common house. Several residents provided testimonials to the value of living there.

Stuart and Margaret Matthews told us there were numerous friendly neighbors to help look out for their two small children. Nancy Newman described the sense of support older residents received, especially at the passing of a spouse. Ingrid Holman, a single mother originally from Germany, mentioned the help she received in raising her 13-year old son, Christophe, who obliged us by masterfully playing “Pirates of the Caribbean” on the piano, and gushed eloquently about living in cohousing and having many friends so close by.

Interestingly, Holman first learned of cohousing ten years earlier when she picked up Robert Zeuner, an elderly man who was hitchhiking in the next-door town of Grass Valley. She offered to take him home and he told her he lived in the Nevada City cohousing community. She knew nothing about it but was intrigued — it seemed like something she might find in her native Europe — and Robert offered to show her around. Holman was hooked and found a rental in the community not long after. She’s been there ever since and is now buying her own place. Robert, meanwhile, lives right across from her, with his partner Bruce. They’ve become fast friends.

Like most cohousing communities, Coho boasts an attractive garden of vegetables and flowers, this one on the site of an abandoned hydraulic gold mine. Tony Finnerty, one of the gardeners, told us that the entire area was a maze of tall manzanita bushes and rocky ground when the community was built 15 years ago.  The first soil and compost had to be brought in. Signs in the garden let residents know when crops are ready and they are free to pick what they need. Children love to pick the strawberries and are learning about healthy eating. James Graham, another resident, showed us the common workshop out by the parking lot, where he often crafts furniture. 

With such facilities, residents don’t need to own all their own tools, another cost-saving advantage of cohousing.  It’s also an environmental benefit — cohousing residents consume less than typical communities because everything is shared. Many residents told me they appreciated the chance to “downsize” that comes with such sharing. Moreover, the sense of community and joys of friendship reduce the need for consumer entertainment and expensive playthings.

***

Stanley and I visited with Chuck Durrett in his downtown Nevada City office, on the second floor of an old building dating to the 1860s. The office is small and filled with blueprints, artists’ conceptions of co-housing communities and the three-dimensional models Durrett loves. Durrett grew up in the nearby gold mining town of Downieville, a picture postcard village that attracts tourists as lamps do moths. He loved the feeling of growing up in a village where everyone knew everyone else, he says, and he’s found it again in cohousing. He bemoans the fact that when counterculture hippies discovered the Nevada City area in the late 1960s, they built their homes scattered all through the nearby woods. He remembers a Native American friend criticizing that pattern of settlement. “You white people build all over hell and back,” the friend told Durrett. “You have no concept of the village.”

Wolf Creek Lodge
Wolf Creek Lodge senior cohousing in Grass Valley, California. Senior cohousing is the fastest rising segment of the cohousing population in the US. Photo courtesy of McCamant Durrett Architects.

Cohousing offers a different model, much more sustainable than the counterculture’s, where people had to drive to get anywhere. Density of settlement and easy accessibility to friends means cohousing residents drive much less than typical Americans.  They also use far fewer resources, especially energy and water.  And because they are not scattered throughout the tinderbox forest, Coho’s residents are much safer from wildfires, a new normal in the age of climate change, than most rural dwellers are.

But Durrett is clear: the biggest benefit of cohousing is that it offers community in an age of separation, when much of America suffers from loneliness and subsequent depression, often dangerously staved with opioids. This is particularly true for seniors, the fastest rising segment of the cohousing population in the US. Many senior cohousing communities are now being built. We visited one such community, Wolf Creek Lodge in neighboring Grass Valley, California. Like many cohousing villages, it has about 60 residents, but all are getting along in years. 

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When we were there, two couples were competing against each other in a lively game of petanque, a French sport much like bocce ball. Their neighbors sat on the steps of the common house, cheering them on. Durrett says seniors encourage each other to be active; in such communities it’s easy to find a partner to go walking with. It keeps everybody younger and healthier, and regular social contact with other residents provides an antidote for the chronic loneliness that a recent study showed 40 percent of senior Americans suffering from. Wolf Creek Lodge is an apartment-style complex with two wings radiating in a V from the common house. Every home has a porch where residents can look out at the neighbors, whom they all know well, and shout out, “Hey, do you want to go for a walk?”

Jacque Bromm showed us her beautiful apartment (more like a condo since she owns it) filled with memorabilia from frequent travel. She says she once had a 3,000 square foot home but likes her small quarters here far more. “We don’t need those big houses,” she says. Books about John Muir and the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains lay on her coffee table. Bromm loves the sense of community at Wolf Creek, but also the opportunity to travel knowing that neighbors will watch her home. Her friend, Casey Travis, a painter, uses her equally lovely apartment as a studio as well as a home. She says she gets lots of support for her artwork from other residents, who have many special talents of their own to share with each other.

Wolf Creek residents are also giving back to the town of Grass Valley, helping its parks’ department construct a trail down to and along the nearby burbling creek. We walked down 200 steep steps to the creek with Bob Branstrom, a resident and project leader. Eventually, switchbacks and pavement will make the trail accessible to all of the seniors in the community, even those in wheelchairs.

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At the end of our trip, we went with Charles Durrett to Fair Oaks, a Sacramento suburb, where a new community of townhouses is being built. We visited with a young couple, Andrew May and Rachel Yamada, who are excited about moving in (with daughter, Freya, and Rachel’s mother), to the home they were watching being built. It’s one of many cohousing communities now under construction, but Durrett wants there to be a lot more, and as soon as possible. He is deeply interested in ways to make cohousing more affordable for the poor and to increase diversity of all kinds. One new community, in Durham, North Carolina, will be the first built for LGBTQ residents. Many cohousing residents are activists with a liberal bent, but after a visit to new project in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Durrett says conservatives are taken with the idea as well.  

Durrett’s not Pollyannaish, however. Cohousing isn’t for everyone. You have to be willing to work with others, compromise, and, especially, listen to each other, sometimes during long meetings. That was the hardest part for Durrett to get used to, having grown up like the rest of us in an individualistic culture where if you don’t like something you just walk away. “I’ve come to realize that other people have some good ideas too,” he says with a smile. Some people never adapt to the consensus approach and drop out, but the attrition rate is dramatically less than that of other American communities. The great majority of residents stay on, happily. Creating a cohousing community can be tough in other ways.  Groups looking to establish a community may quarrel over what land to purchase and some, especially in areas where the idea is new, may wait a long time for city permits and bank loans. 

But the trend is distinctly positive and establishing the communities is getting easier. Charles Durrett and Katie McCamant saw the future in Denmark in 1980. Cohousing’s offer of community as well as privacy, has proven immensely popular and offers a way out of the lonely, unsustainable housing patterns that have for too long been the norm in American life

For his most recent book, Durrett asked well-known environmentalist and climate activist, Bill McKibben, to write the foreword, given cohousing’s obvious ecological benefits. McKibben gladly agreed but sent Durrett a surprising note. “You know, Chuck,” he wrote, “what really excites me about cohousing is not the energy you save, but the energy you create. Every time I walk into a cohousing community, I see people talking about the issues of the day and solving problems.”

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