April 20, 2016
by Jacob Allderdice
Cohabitat in Quebec City, by Tergos with Mainguy Verge Architectes, groups apartments and townhomes around a communal courtyard. A building with shared dining, childcare, and other amenities completes the quadrangle.
TEXT Jacob Allderdice
Architecture has a positive effect on society—or so architects would like to think. But often, in focusing on the Vitruvian ideals of firmness, commodity and delight, the social realm is left aside.
Some designers are putting architecture’s social potential front and centre through a little-known housing type: cohousing. Russell Mawby, former director of housing for Ottawa and founder of the Canadian Cohousing Network, has gone so far as to ask, “Can cohousing save the world?”
In its essence, cohousing creates a form of shared property ownership among a small group of individuals and families. The single element that distinguishes cohousing from other forms of multi-unit residential buildings, or developments like cottage communities, is the presence of a physical Commons. The Commons is a significantly scaled building where meals are prepared in joint, tools and equipment are stored for borrowing, guestrooms are available for rent, and classes and social events are scheduled. To paraphrase Mawby, “Why pay for 30 lawnmowers, when a single one, shared among 30 families, can clip grass more efficiently?”
The courtyard includes outdoor eating, play and gardening areas.
Beyond the Commons, cohousing is planned in ways that emphasize opportunities to make contact with fellow inhabitants—from containing communal gardens to including housing for multi-generational families. A 1967 article by Danish writer Bodil Graae, entitled “Children Should Have One Hundred Parents,” is often cited as a spark for the movement. Many of us will find Graae’s concept familiar: current U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton brought it to the fore in the 1990s, when her book title invoked the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
In Denmark, where it originated (and where today it is a common form of development), cohousing is called bofællesskab—literally, “living community.” American architects Chuck Durrett and Kathryn McCamant are credited with introducing the typology to North America in the 1980s. Their Muir Commons, in Davis, California (1991), is considered the continent’s first cohousing community. Since then, the duo has completed
30 North American cohousing projects, including three in Canada: one in Calgary, Alberta, and others in Victoria and Langley, BC.
Durrett is a prolific author, and he tours the continent giving workshops and presentations that have been influential in many of this country’s cohousing projects. One such project is in its infancy in St Philip’s, Newfoundland—a former outport an hour’s drive from St. John’s. There, Wendy Reid Fairhurst, an interior designer who speaks of her interest in “human-centred design,” has gathered a small group of young families who are seeking ways to live more sustainably and in closer community, with an emphasis on affordability. She hopes to bring Durrett to speak to her group this summer. Her group has identified a hundred-acre farm that may be available for sale nearby. The town wishes to encourage agricultural development, so it may accept a cluster of homes—that leaves the majority of the land open for farming—as a preferable form of development to the typical suburban sprawl that most developers (and town councillors) know all too well.
A sheltered, open-air stairway provides access to the individual housing units.
Interest in cohousing is growing from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia. But where are the Canadian architects with expertise in the group facilitation, consensus building, and other skills that designing cohousing requires? Arguably, ignorance of the cohousing model should be as egregious an admission for an architect as not knowing what a condominium or an apartment building is. However, with only 12 complete projects registered in the Canadian Cohousing Network’s directory, the movement has slipped under the radar of many. Elsewhere, the Fellowship for Intentional Community includes “ecovillages” and other forms of collaborative living arrangements, and lists 55 established communities in Canada. These numbers are very small, any way you look at them.
The fact is that the difficulties faced by groups trying to raise money to share dwellings are of several orders of magnitude higher than those of people pooling resources to purchase a lawnmower. While Canadian banks and mortgage lenders recognize co-ops, condominiums and apartment buildings, they have a hard time grappling with collaborative housing. What happens when a member decides to sell and move away? What happens if a member defaults on a loan?
Cohousing proponents have answers to these questions, but legal statutes make it harder in some parts of the country than in others to build co-owned dwellings. Most cohousing developments are in British Columbia and Alberta, but not, as one might assume, because the folks on the left coast are better at sharing. Instead, as Russell Mawby explains, “BC and Alberta regulate cohousing under the Strata titles act, which is more flexible about the legal definition of shared space.” Elsewhere in Canada, cohousing is governed by condominium law, which, according to Mawby, forces the separation of units and thus complicates the development of cohousing. Quebec is the exception, as it allows for co-property rights.
Site plan of Cohabitat in Quebec City.
The Fellowship for Intentional Communities lists 20 projects in Quebec. One of them is Quebec City’s Cohabitat, which bills itself as Quebec’s “first cohousing community.” Completed in 2013, it was honoured in Quebec City’s urban and architectural awards program, and nominated for the OAQ’s provincial architectural prizes. The scheme consists of 42 units in five buildings, four of them new construction. Designed by Tergos Architecture et Construction Écologique with Mainguy Verge Architectes, the project achieved a LEED Platinum rating and, according to Tergos architect Bruno Verge, cost a mere $127 per square foot to build.
The Cohabitat project benefitted from seed funding from the CMHC to help with the soft costs of getting the development underway, a model Fairhurst hopes to emulate in her Newfoundland proposal. What makes the Cohabitat project stand out among many other affordable developments is its emphasis on multi-generational living, its attention to “healthy” design principles, and its strong sense of style. As in all cohousing projects, the people who live in it were the developers, and worked directly with the architects.
Bordering a river, the Pacific Gardens Cohousing development in Nanaimo includes a mix of two and three-storey volumes to accommodate the sloping site.
Architects attending the RAIC Festival of Architecture in June will have the opportunity to see another excellent example of cohousing in Nanaimo’s Pacific Gardens Cohousing, completed in 2009. The complex was designed by architect Jolyon Brown, MRAIC, with Ian Niamath, MRAIC, as architect of record. The development includes 25 townhouse-style units opening off a fully conditioned central spine, with a 8,000-square-foot common house integrated into the complex. “We built at the edge of a former four-and-a-half-acre farm with apple trees and good soil, which gave us the name, Pacific Gardens,” says Brown. “It also gave the owners wonderful land for gardening, of course.” The project’s geothermal and rooftop solar units earned it an energy conservation award from the city of Nanaimo, which has also awarded its overall design.
Kitchens from the variously sized units overlook an internal street with a saw-tooth skylight roof above and glazed garage doors at the ends
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.
A mix of bold colours and variations in detailing break up the building’s mass.
The fact is, many people in modern society live in lonely isolation. How many of us today, with our economic nomadism, our commodified lifestyles, and our alienation from power, could be said to be lacking connections to others? In a society structured around private property, cohousing is a radical response: a return to village-like communities with shared resources. It’s a model with exciting possibilities—both for architects and for society at large—that deserves serious consideration.
Jacob Allderdice is an architect, educator and writer who currently lives in Toronto.