Some international co-housing ideas

Denmark is credited with the creation of the modern cohousing movement in the 1960s. Since then it’s grown in fits and starts.

In England, the Housing Learning and Improvement Network offers a ‘knowledge hub’ for professionals involved in the intersection of housing with care for older people. The organization (sorry: organisation) has produced  a  number of studies, the most recent of which is called Growing Older Together: An Overview of Collaborative Forms of Housing for Older People. It notes:

…collaborative housing for older people can take many and varied forms and, as we have seen, new approaches and models are emerging all the time. When taken together these forms of housing have considerable scope and they have the potential to be developed on a much larger scale.  Secondly, all forms of collaborative housing have a shared and distinctive quality. Collaborative housing is essentially about older people being able to have continuing influence and control over their housing and how they live – as their circumstances inevitably change even as they become more frail and vulnerable. It is about ‘growing older together’.

In Barcelona, a city I love even though my wallet was stolen during my only visit, Beco Housing has launched what it calls a “platform or meeting point for people interested in collaborative housing and a suitable professional team to make it happen.”

Is co-housing elitist?

A dark-side perspective from the environmental ezine, Grist: I’m not sure what to do with this other than to acknowledge it.

Current and aspiring cohousers wax idealistic about the day-to-day benefits of living in such a community, from the practical, like sharing cooking and childcare duties, to the more intangible, like being part of a subculture where generosity is expected and encouraged.

…But despite the progressive inclinations of its enthusiasts, cohousing traditionally attracts a mostly white, educated, upper-income crowd — those with the means to buy a new, market-rate house (generally in the $200,000 to $500,000 range, depending on local real estate prices) and the time and energy to invest in a laborious planning process (Susan Stafford, a resident of Seattle’s Jackson Place Cohousing community, describes it as “fairly horrible”), plus monthly meetings and commitments to shared responsibilities once the community is up and running.

Nothing’s perfect. On he other hand, Grist’s headline for this article paints a more optimistic picture: “Cohousing: The secret to sustainable urban living?

Bringing co-housing into the zone

This blows my mind: the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a number of other groups collaborated to launch a study of cohousing in 1993!

The report, “Planning Cohousing,” was eventually published in 1997.

Despite being 20 years old, it continues to have some good advice, including this:

Cohousing may offer a desirable addition to neighbourhoods, but this may not be readily apparent to everyone. Cohousing groups can only benefit from applying the principle of collaboration to their external dealings with municipal planners, neighbours and city councillors.

Anecdotally, I hear that zoning by-laws often continue to put (probably unintended) barriers before co-housing developments. No doubt early consultation can overcome many of them.

Co-housing and “End of Life” Issues

Email correspondence with a young woman named Rebekah Churchyard, a “gerontological social worker” by trade, raises a question about the degree of advance planning we should give at the start in preparing for the end.

Some of the challenging questions she poses include:

  • What happens if a member of the community begins to develop some form of cognitive impairment, such as dementia? How far can the community accommodate? What is the point at which the safety of both the individual and the community requires a different response?
  • If the community has had use of a member’s property, such as furnishings, what will happen to this property when a member leaves or dies?
  •  How does the community evolve to take in new members over time? This is less about the financial or contractual arrangements, and more about the deeper social impacts.

Rebekah’s point, with all of these, is to suggest that clarifying assumptions and expectations in some form of clear, written, “social contract,” should be negotiated right from the start, well ahead of the time it’s needed.

We had given some minor thought to this already. For example, we assume we may need to review our wills with co-housing in mind, and it will be important for all of us to have conversations with our families about our plans.

But a clearer and more detailed form of contracting than we had contemplated may well be advisable. After all, we’ve made the assumption that the best time to move into a co-housing arrangement is long before there is any necessity to do so. By the same token, we should also anticipate and prepare for the stages that come later.

Maybe it should be called co-eating

The thing that surprises me most about the traditional cohousing developments I’ve read about (by “traditional,” I mean those that are based on a neighbourhood rather than a home) is how rarely people actually eat together.

It seems to be unusual for people in a cohousing development to take meals together more than once a week. Some plan community meals no more than once or twice a month.

To me, planning, preparing and sharing meals together is one of the big draws of a co-housing community. I love cooking — but not every day. I love cooking — but not for only two. I even like clean-up — but it’s more fun to do it with others.

And the act of eating together is in itself a powerful tool of community building.

I presume anyone who wants quiet time, or just isn’t feeling sociable in the moment, would always have the option of fixing a plate and taking it off to their room. And they should be able to do so with no one thinking unkindly about it.

But in our co-housing model, the assumption is tilted toward sharing at least the evening meal as a norm.


We’re going to start compiling some of our favourite recipes here (where they’re easier to find).

Co-housing and social capital

In 2010, a master of architecture student (now Instructor) at Ryerson University wrote a thesis called Architectural development of urban social capital : cohousing in downtown Toronto. In it, Robert Coelho asked the following research question:

Can the built environment facilitate or influence the development of social capital in an urban environment?

Social capital is defined, briefly, as:

…the ‘glue’ which binds people together in a neighbourhood and encourages them to cooperate with each other.

Coelho’s fascinating question is whether architecture can actually design for the creation of social capital — in other words, design neighbourhoods that are more trusting, more collaborative.

Spoiler alert: Yes, they can.

For example:

If parking is provided, typical cohousing design normally separates the parking area from the development so that residents can not park their cars and walk a few steps to their home or even worse and typical in suburbia, drive directly into their garages and never have to walk into their front door. The idea of the separation is to force the use of the pedestrian pathways regularly by the residents creating a greater opportunity for interaction and networking.

Coelho finds that cohousing principles are more conducive to creating social capital than condominium or co-operative housing. But the cost of land makes it difficult to build cohousing in its traditional “horizontal” form within an urban center such as Toronto. Coelho identifies six design objectives which, he argues, can be applied more economically in a “vertical” cohousing form more suitable for cities.

The objectives are described in detail on pages 40-42 of his thesis. Briefly, they include:

  1. Create individual identity for each of the residents of the development
  2. Design for social integration to also create a group identity
  3. Promote a sense of security
  4. Emphasize individual and group privacy
  5. Provide physical connectivity to facilitate the development of personal connections
  6. Some commonality in ideologies, political views, and shared experiences may help to promote social connectivity.

In pages 50 through 77, well worth a read for anyone interested in this subject, Coelho uses these objectives in an actual urban design process.

Toronto Co-housing Communities

For all the buzz about co-housing, precious little of it seems to be going on, especially in Toronto. B.C. looks like the current capital of co-housing. According to a 2015 news article, “B.C. has 23 communities forming or already established co-housing neighbourhoods.

In fact Margaret Critchlow, frequently cited as a pioneer in these areas, forsook Toronto for Sooke, B.C. (see what I did there?).

Also on the West Coast, an American start-up called Open Door has a rather grandiose vision of how coliving can  reshape civilization and save the planet. Our goals are more modest.

In Ontario there are various developments in smaller centers, like Bracebridge, Minden or Barrie, outside the GTHA. But here in the city (excluding special-purpose developments like assisted living homes) we’ve so far discovered only three (or maybe four) — and only one of them actually exists.

  • Beverley House is closest to the model we’re proposing, in which a number of people share a single home. They describe themselves as “a group of people who view living in a community as something more than just being room-mates. We are looking for people – families or individuals who share our vision of co-creating a sustainable community home together.”
  • Canopy Cohousing bills itself as “Toronto’s first cohousing community,” but it isn’t — yet. The members are aiming to create a neighbourhood in the classic cohousing mode, with  separate residences sharing some common facilities. “We have been meeting as a whole group and in committees since April 2009.  …Our plan is to build or renovate about 2 dozen units, where each family will have its own home (including kitchen, and everything you would expect in a house).  We will also build a common house with a shared kitchen, dining room, and other facilities.  We plan to share meals on a regular basis.” Full marks for persistence, but it’s a little sobering to consider that seven years on, Canopy is still in the planning stages.
  • Similarly, the Toronto Baba Yaga Intentional Community announced its plans with much fanfare in 2013 but has not yet managed to establish a residence. So it’s a tough road.
  • People come and go at Delicious Earth, a vegan and spiritually-centred communal living house near Dufferin Grove.

Whole Village, in Caledon, north west of Toronto, offers a more rural version of the cohousing concept, along with a seasonal B&B.

There’s also an innovative cohousing community in Ottawa, Terra Firma, unusual for the way it re-purposed  existing structures.

Terra Firma cohousing, Ottawa
Streetview of the Terra Firma cohousing community near Ottawa’s Rideau Canal.

It began with  two, 1920s row houses of three units each. Later, the two original row houses were joined together by a new addition, providing a seventh unit plus common space. (Thanks to Robert Coelho’s master’s thesis for the photo and description.)

Are there others? If you know of another Toronto co-housing community, please add it in a comment.


Is there a “magic number” for cohousing?

Co-housing sits within a range of housing options: at one end, the single family home, offering complete independence; at the other end, one supposes, a dormitory style residence with no private space.

Most co-housing sits much closer to the single family dwelling model. It comprises a number of free-standing living units, smaller than the average single family home but still fully self-contained. These are gathered into a campus with some common facilities.

Our proposal takes the community dimension further. It is based on a single home containing six units, housing six to ten people, plus common areas. Although each unit offers private living space, we like the idea of the greater intimacy of a shared home. We assume, for example, that most meals will be prepared by members of the community  and taken in common.

Six to ten people feels manageable to us. On the one hand, it’s enough to ensure some diversity; on the other, it’s small enough to avoid any ‘institutional’ feeling.

Gary Morrison, of the LiveWell community, offers a caution in a recent email exchange:

“From a cohousing perspective,” he says, “the number of households involved needs to be higher than about 18-20 to ensure a good mix of people. Lower than that leads to very tightly knit arrangements which develop their own dynamics.  For example when a family moves out it is a real shock/loss to the community – like family.  Or if two people do not get along then it is too small to avoid each other….creating tension for everyone.  Having over 20 families gives everyone enough space to breathe, and there are always households moving in/out each year so it becomes more “normal”.  On this topic, having more than 35-40 homes leads to decisions slowing and nothing happening.  So 20-35 is about the magic number of homes for cohousing.”

It’s an important perspective from someone with experience, so not to be dismissed lightly. Even so, I’m not fully persuaded. Opting in to a more intentional community may indeed mean we’ll have to work harder at building and maintaining harmony in relationships, and in welcoming new friends or grieving the loss of old ones. From our perspective, that’s not a drawback — it’s part of the attraction.

What do others think?


Is it Cohousing or Co-housing? Or Coliving? Or…?

The terms are confusing and fluid.

Cohousing and co-housing (often used interchangeably) are most often used to mean a group of small homes within a neighbourhood where they share some common grounds and facilities, and occasionally gather for meals or other activities.

One developer has suggested that this model, which originated in Denmark, should be known as cohousing (no hyphen); but co-housing with a hyphen should refer instead to shared ownership of a single home, with some services included.

We’re not sure there’s any authority behind that suggestion, but we have adopted this convention for this blog. When we say “cohousing,” we mean a neighbourhood. When we say “co-housing,” we mean a shared home.

There are other terms.

Coliving (or co-living) developments have gained some currency and buzz over the past couple years. People referring to coliving developments usually mean housing that’s targeted to young, mobile, “digital nomads,” social entrepreneurial types, coping with limited assets, high housing costs and  a desire for community.

We’re not that young.

The venerable Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation adds “congregant houses” to the lexicon. They mean almost exactly what we do — “multi-unit buildings in which individuals or families have their own private bedroom or living quarters but share other facilities” — but in their terms, congregant houses are for people who need a variety of support services.

We’re not that old.

There are still other terms that have relevance — shared housing, co-ownership — but none is precise.

Shared housing, according to the National Shared Housing Resource Center, is when “a homeowner offers accommodation to a homesharer in exchange for an agreed level of support in the form of financial exchange, assistance with household tasks, or both.”

Co-ownership has its proponents and its detractors — especially when (mis)used as a form of estate planning, which seems to be the most common application. There’s also an Airbnb-like start-up that aims to help people co-own vacation properties as a kind of do-it-yourself time share.

Collective housing is sometimes used to describe shared living arrangements, but some parts of the construction industry use collective housing to mean condos or apartment buildings.

Pending a better suggestion, we’ll keep talking about our shared home idea as co-housing, and other models as cohousing, and hope that people who are interested will work with us on figuring out what it all means.

The Cohousing Option

“Speak to anyone who lives in cohousing and you will find a variety of reasons for their choice. Some hope to place a smaller footprint on the earth. Some hope to experience comfort and companionship in their old age, or a multi-generational table to share a meal at. Some seek affordability. Common to all, however, is the deep-seated memory of a “village”: a desire for community, for a stronger connection to fellow inhabitants of this shared planet.”

— Jacob Allderdice, “The Cohousing Option,” in Canadian Architect, April 20, 2016

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