Countering the doubts about cohousing lifestyle

Cohousing project architect advocates communal lifestyle in Okanagan

Cohousing is an emerging lifestyle that offers quality of life options not readily accessible from conventional urban sprawl and high density living concepts, says the architect who introduced the concept to North America.

Charles Durrett says the lives that Millennials’ parents and grandparents aspired to, such as living in a single family home, has become less realistic looking forward with the cost of housing and detrimental environmental impact of urban growth.

“I think you are beginning to see a cultural shift in how people want to live their lives. More and more people today are willing to look outside the box on how to make something work that will impact their lives in a positive way,” he said.

Charles Durrett

Durrett first came across the co-housing concept in Denmark, where the community housing model where a group of people live collaboratively in a communal lifestyle, private homes clustered around a share space, was first started.

Each attached or single-family home has traditional amenities but residents share a common activity centre used for neighbourhood meetings and shared meals along with shared landscape and recreation facilities.

In Kelowna, UBC Okanagan civil engineering professor Gord Lovegrove is attempting to start the first co-housing project in the city, both reaching out for perspective cohousing residents and a site in the city to build.

Related: UBCO civil engineer touts cohousing option

Durrett has been involved in the design of more than 50 co-housing projects around the world, including the Lower Mainland here in B.C. He has written two books (Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities and Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, both published by New Society Publishers) on the topic and is often invited to speak to groups looking to initiate a cohousing project and public forums.

Durrett began his cohousing style of living in the San Francisco Bay Area 12 years ago, and is living in his second cohousing experience with his family in the rural California community of Nevada City, the head office location for his architectural firm.

Durrett said he and his wife were ready to start a family a dozen years ago and talked about what they wanted that lifestyle to look like and how to achieve it within the Bay Area, which led them to a cohousing living option.

“We talk a lot about community and neighbourhood living, but that is hard to truly accomplish once you get beyond the rhetorical. We pay lip service to that idea, but it’s not real for very many people,” he said.

“People in a cohousing concept have a living lifestyle that is more conventional, practical, convenient and economical. It’s surprising sometimes to see how cohousing can accommodate reaching your goals in life in ways you are unable to accommodate on your own.”

He feels cohousing answers many people’s personal lifestyle needs, from families to seniors, if they can get past their initial prejudices or misconceptions about communal living.

“My dad didn’t get it at first. He wondered why we wanted to live in a cohousing project, to the point where didn’t want to visit us. But he have to stay with us for 10 days one time, and he ended up being the last person to leave the common house everyday.

“I think people can bring prejudices up front and when they experience what it’s like living in cohousing, they usually find they like it and begin to think about how it could fit their lives.”

Durrett has now completed a cohousing development on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, and he remembers during that project’s formative stages of a mom who told him she had lived in condos for the past seven years and had yet to meet a single neighbour.

“Cohousing is about knowing your neighbours and supporting each other, looking out for each other. On an average day outside of communal activities, I will talk with four or five of my cohousing neighbours in a given day. You get to know people, when their birthdays are, what the name of their dogs are—even the names of their cats.”

Durrett says cohousing differs from condo living in that all residents make group decisions by consensus as opposed to relying on a select number of people sitting on a strata council.

“The other key aspect is cohousing residents embrace the notion of learning to work together. We might have workshops each year about communication and stuff like that, but the very essence behind it is to be very proactive about trying to be good neighbours.

“In a different setting you might meet your neighbours on a random basis, but you are not proactive about being a good neighbour. That is the big difference, you are motivated to be good neighbours.”

And subscribing to being a cohousing neighbour, he says, offers support advantages at both ends of the life cycle, for young families with children and seniors otherwise faced with the option to live alone.

He noted a recent study published by Psychology Today magazine revealed about 40 per cent of seniors in the U.S. live alone. For those without a support system, that impacts both the length and quality of their lives in their elderly years.

“It’s been said from a healthy living perspective, a senior living an isolated life is the equivalent impact of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.”

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