Have Conscience, Will Build: A Developer Reflects on Cohousing

Jim Leach, Wonderland Hill Development Company, Boulder, Colorado

If cohousers resemble the European frontier folk who settled America, it’s not difficult to picture developer Jim Leach in a buckskin coat. In a variety of ways, he’s in the vanguard, leading the movement to resettle America. In addition to being the developer of Silver Sage Village, an experiment in elder cohousing, Jim and his wife, Brownie, will also live there. DLW

Like a flame draws a moth, cohousing attracts a certain type of house builder. I’m afraid I am one of those types, as are many of my friends and associates. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we think we are going to save the world, our country, or at least our hometown from environmental and social degradation through the quality of the housing we create. This challenge keeps a lot of us going in an industry that is full of political adversity and economic risk.

Back in 1989, my friend Ed Trunk, a fellow home builder and a founding member of the Nyland Cohousing community, approached me with the idea that I might be interested in helping Colorado’s first cohousing community develop their project. He thought cohousing and I might be a nice fit together because I had, with partners, developed several planned communities in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, my company laid claim to having developed the first planned community in the city and probably in the state of Colorado that had common areas and a homeowners’ association (HOA). We had also done some innovative solar- and energy-efficient housing in the late 1970s and early 1980s and had collaborated with the Department of Energy to the tune of $250,000 in solar grants. All of this played well with the members of the cohousing community that later became the Nyland community.

By the time I met them, the future Nyland community consisted of more than twenty members, mostly proactive, relatively highly educated, and talented individuals whose heads of household ranged in age from their late twenties to mid-seventies. They had plenty of variety and talent in the group, including architects, at least one builder, and a number of educators, therapists, artisans, business owners, and even retired military people. They had taken the leap and gathered enough resources to option a forty-two-acre former farm in eastern Boulder County on land once farmed by the Nylands, a family with Danish roots—very appropriate, since the roots of American cohousing are also in Denmark.

When Ed described the concept of cohousing, which includes a strong commitment to green building and living sustainably, I was intrigued. I immediately went out and bought Kathryn McCamant’s and Charles Durrett’s book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, and speed-read it. This idea seemed like a breakthrough in developing a market for a more environmentally progressive housing. I was eager to work with the cohousing group to create a method to develop their community. Maybe they could become a model for other similar communities. It was clear to me that cohousing was very much resident driven: it is basically a group of people who want to design and build their own neighborhood and do a better job of it than conventional builders are doing.

As a custom builder, I’ve observed that just designing and building one’s own house is a monumental endeavor that few people have the energy to even attempt. Of those that do, many are tortured for years by the process. The decision making alone is enough to break up a good marriage. Trying to do this for a whole neighborhood of homes seemed like an overwhelming task for a diverse group of households, and the Nyland group was just coming to that realization after optioning their land. They had decided to seek outside professional help. After I began working with them, I had a realization of the potential power of community to change the way Americans live, moving us in a more sustainable direction.

Modern housing for the majority of the America population really traces its roots to the early-production models of suburban housing created by the Levitt brothers and other builders right after World War II. It was a natural evolution of the mass-production mind-set that brought our country so much success in winning the war and creating the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s. What some call the American Dream was just beginning to blossom. But like most success stories, too much of a good thing creates problems—in this case, long commutes, traffic issues, and the “collision” of automobiles with neighborhoods. It’s hard to get to know your neighbor when you’re inside a car or she’s disappearing into her garage with the door closing behind her like a drawbridge.

Solutions began to emerge in the 1970s and the 1980s—planned developments and planned communities where open space and common facilities were incorporated into neighborhoods to alleviate the negative impact of the automobile. In the past ten years, new urbanism has emerged as a strong force in attempting to make our developments more livable. Greater social interaction and community is encouraged in front of the houses in an attractive environment that’s not designed purely to accommodate automobiles.

But when cohousing came along in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was like adding a whole new dimension. Now, instead of just designing housing that offered a more attractive and resource-efficient product, we could codesign neighborhoods with the very people who were going to live there. These future residents could help decide where the kids’ playground should go and what kind of building materials should be used. They could tap into the synergies that inevitably arise when many creative minds focus on a single project. They could make a commitment to live a more sustainable, satisfying lifestyle together and could share not only common facilities but also their experiences, talents, and aspirations.

The Nyland community, like other groups we’ve worked with since, included several strong-willed interest groups. Among them were avid environmentalists with extensive knowledge about green building who wanted their future community to be a model for sustainable living. There were also individuals with great knowledge and interest in building the social aspects of the community. They spoke passionately about concepts such as raising children in a nurturing environment. For many, the affordability of their future homes was foremost, so they needed to participate in a program that delivered high quality at prices near the conventional market.

What resulted from this mix of needs, knowledge, and commitment was a very pragmatic approach to creating a resource-efficient neighborhood. Nyland was deemed by Public Service Company of Colorado to be the most energy-efficient new development built in the state the year it was completed and it was the subject of many magazine and newspaper articles. We included a host of green-building techniques in the project, ranging from lumber-conserving framing techniques and the use of manufactured wood structural components to water-conservation techniques in both homes and landscape. Grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Office of Energy Conservation funded the testing of indoor air quality in the homes, both when the homes were first completed and several months after the homes were occupied.

The tests determined that the Nyland homes had significantly lower levels of indoor air pollutants than a group of comparable new homes built at the same time. Some of the contributing factors were innovative low-cost fresh-air ventilating systems, paints that emitted fewer fumes, and carpeting made from recycled materials. However, one of the most important differences was that the Nyland homes in the study didn’t have attached garages, while the standard homes experienced significant pollution from automobiles and the chemicals associated with them.

In the tests made after occupancy, the most significant Nyland indoor air pollutants were generated from furnishings, household cleaners, and other substances brought into the homes by the occupants. One conclusion that can be drawn from the EPA tests is that lifestyle choices, such as the kind of household chemicals a person chooses and whether the car is parked in an attached garage, are likely to be as important as the way the house is built. The cohousing community process influences these lifestyle choices because households learn from each other and adopt behaviors that become part of their mission and their community culture.

Nyland also implemented an aggressive recycling program, as well as transportation programs that resulted in one-third fewer vehicle trips in and out of the neighborhood than comparable developments, as tested by the City of Lafayette. These various efforts resulted in an exemplary sustainable neighborhood of quality homes that were built for just 5 percent above the typical production home-building budget.

Nyland was ahead of its time: many of the green-building techniques used there ten years ago have since been incorporated in good, quality production housing throughout the Denver area because they make good common sense. However, it takes something like a group of future neighbors working through a functional community process to successfully challenge and change the paradigm.

The community process provides the energy that drives the change. However, it helps to have knowledgeable and experienced professionals who are willing to put in the extra effort it takes to push the envelope. In the Nyland project, these building professionals ranged from the primary designer, Matt Worswick, who brought practical green-building experience, to the trades people who had to take extra care and sometimes learn new, innovative techniques.

I have a slide that I’ve used many times in speaking about our green-building experience at Nyland. It’s a picture of one of the first homes under construction with most of the rough framing complete. The carpentry crew is standing around listening to a group of designers and engineers explaining a method of eliminating unnecessary framing lumber—Optimum Value Engineering, or OVE. The leader of the framing crew is standing, holding his bowed head between his two hands as if he just felt a big headache coming on.

Still, the community’s commitment to green building energized the professionals, and in a way, made them part of the community. It was evident that everyone working on the job felt the underlying vision of the group.

Wonderland Hill has now served as the developer in eighteen cohousing projects, and one of the things we learned early on is the importance of good community process. Most cohousing groups practice consensus, in which a decision requires unanimous consent. Typically, it’s regarded as inappropriate to block consensus for reasons other than the good of the group as a whole.

For a group of twenty or more often diverse-thinking Americans, consensus decision making can be a very time-consuming process. Group members must reach a high level of understanding and trust in each other and must be reasonably aligned and clear about their common vision for their community. This requires continuous team building and group process work that many Americans are not familiar with. That’s why we at Wonderland decided to establish a professional community-building and group-process function within our company. Their job is to help the groups become stronger communities with better group process. From our standpoint as at-risk developers, this is important both for project management and marketing. New prospective members want to join a well-functioning community and are turned off by poor group process.

In fact, group process is probably the greatest single challenge in cohousing developments. The process needs to be managed carefully but can’t be overly controlled by either professionals or individual community leaders. Lessons learned by Steven Covey, Jim Collins, and others in the creation of high performance and high creativity in business management are valuable in the cohousing process. As in business, we have found the Myers-Briggs personality profiles helpful in building understanding and respect among group members. A mature cohousing community, like a well-functioning business, takes on a life of its own and becomes like a living organism that transcends the individuals within it. People can leave or enter the group and it goes on in a flowing, organic way, moving toward the fulfillment of its vision.

We at Wonderland also believe that it is important to have a viable financial partnership between the community and the professionals, with both sharing the risk and success of the project. When inevitable disappointments arise in the development process, members and professionals who have financial risk in the project are more likely to pull together to resolve issues than to abandon the project.

The first cohousing communities developed in the United States faced special challenges due to the unique nature of the concept. There was this nagging perception that cohousing communities were communes. I can’t count the number of headlines for newspaper articles that included the words “communes of the 1990s.” Another misperception that affected the financing of early projects was that American homebuyers would not accept homes that didn’t have attached garages, or at least parking very near the house. The Nyland community debunked this myth when their first homes were chosen. The homes with the highest location premiums (perceived to be ideal locations) were also farthest from the parking lots. The home site with the highest premium of all was more than 100 yards from parking, but it had the best view of the mountains to the west, and was chosen first. So much for conventional suburban expectations.

Then there was the issue of common facilities adding to the price of the homes. These unfamiliar factors made it hard to get a construction loan at Nyland. But when we pointed out to the banks that more than 70 percent of the homes were presold, they began to warm up to the concept. It was important to make cohousing seem familiar to the lenders. We structured homeownership as it is in a normal, planned residential development, where individual households own homes and common areas are held in a homeowners’ association with covenants and bylaws. We also pointed to successful developments that our company and other home builders had done, with fairly extensive common facilities, such as pools and clubhouses and community greens. Our aim was to show that cohousing was not that much different—the buyers were just choosing slightly different common facilities.

Since Nyland, we have had very few problems obtaining construction financing for cohousing projects. Local smaller banks seem to love them because they are mostly presold to a group of potential future loyal bank customers. However, having an experienced cohousing developer backing the financing has been important. The construction lender’s greatest and most legitimate fears revolve around dealing with a group that is relatively inexperienced in real estate development and that might fall apart during the process.

Housing value is another challenge that cohousing struggles with. Not only do the cost of common facilities and sustainable design add to the price of cohousing homes, but the cohousing process is inherently less efficient than production-built housing, since the involvement of future residents can slow the project down. More professional time and talent are required to manage it effectively. A common question that comes up among professionals first looking at the cohousing process is: why can’t it be done without so much resident involvement in the development process?

The Mainstreaming of Cohousing

Some larger production builders, such as my friend Perry Bigelow in Chicago, are experimenting with cohousing-style design without the cohousing process. By eliminating the community involvement in the design and construction process of the homes, Bigelow will be able to offer significantly lower prices for cohousing homes than we’ve seen in the recent past. What they will lose is the community building that grows out of the experience of participating with your future neighbors in decisions about the design and construction of your homes.

Obviously, there’s value in a sense of community, but the homebuyer market often overlooks that value. We are a society that’s used to having our purchases fully assembled and ready to work without much effort on our part. Not very many Americans—even the so-called cultural creatives—are able to understand the value they will get from cohousing and are willing to pay the price for it. There is a need to document with credible research what existing communities are doing that adds significant value for their members. (I suspect this book may help identify some of these values.)

To have broader appeal, cohousing will have to offer better understanding earlier on of the expectations that the group will have on the individual both financially and in terms of personal time and energy. A better understanding of the vision of the community and how will it be implemented is also important, along with a clear understanding of the benefits that vision offers. Clearly, some people are able to see the final product even in the early stages of a cohousing project, but can we expect the typical homebuyer to be that visionary?

One way to create a stronger emotional appeal for cohousing is to tailor it to special segments of the population, such as seniors. This will result in less diversity but more easily defined satisfaction. In Denmark, they have been successfully creating seniors-only cohousing for the past twenty years. We are just beginning to work on similar communities in the United States. From a few early meetings with interested seniors, we have identified some interesting departures from the typical intergenerational communities we have been working with. Seniors place a high priority on a supportive physical and social environment that they can live in for the rest of their lives. They also place a higher emphasis on luxury and the aesthetic qualities of the homes and common areas. Wellness is a strong interest with a desire for common exercise space, lap pools, and therapy rooms, and even possible living units for wellness practitioners who would become part of the community.

Likewise, communities that offer a special environment for families with children, such as special schooling opportunities, play groups, and coparenting to free up parent time, will have a stronger appeal to young families. By locating senior communities next to communities that emphasize the needs of families and children, the intergenerational advantages of cohousing may be captured, while providing a stronger emotional appeal to both seniors and families.

Another unique quality that cohousing has is its ability to integrate households of diverse economic means. This attribute could play an important part in cohousing’s future and has already been demonstrated well in several communities in Colorado and California, such as the Nomad and Wild Sage Cohousing communities in Boulder. Boulder has an aggressive permanently affordable-housing program that is promoted by inclusionary zoning and financial assistance from the city. (Inclusionary zoning refers to the affordable-housing requirements that local governments place on new residential developments, requiring a minimum percentage of the homes in the development to be affordable to low- and moderate-income buyers or renters.) Nomad and Wild Sage have more than 60 and 40 percent respectively of their housing units in the city’s permanently affordable program, and Wild Sage has four units that are being built for Habitat for Humanity buyers. Home prices within these communities range from well below $100,000 to more than $400,000. Integrating households with that much economic diversity is not easy, but it is a challenge that is being met in cohousing. Diverse households are discovering the synergy that is generated through community and helping each other in ways that go beyond just providing decent housing for all. Habitat’s slogan, “It’s not a hand out, It’s a hand up.” is taking on a whole new dimension in these progressive cohousing communities.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Joining a cohousing community has been described as the longest and most expensive personal growth workshop you can attend. While it’s a major challenge for a community to organize itself effectively enough to get through the development process, for most groups, learning how to live together after moving in is even harder.

Yet after nearly two decades of cohousing experimentation, several observations keep coming up. There’s a very tangible dynamic that occurs when people cooperate to build their community and reach an understanding of how they will live together. They become an extended family of sorts, and they develop ways of loving, respecting, and having patience with each other. If cohousing is, at its core, about building a better world, one neighborhood at a time, then the world has already been improved by sixty or seventy neighborhoods, and many more are on the way. That’s a start.

Related pages:
Creating Cohousing