Musings: The Social Side of Cohousing

People often ask me what I consider to be the biggest difference between American cohousing and Danish cohousing. As an architect, I think people are usually asking about architectural features. But there’s more to it than that. When I show Danish visitors American exercise rooms, they always wonder what the stationary bikes are. “You mean you pedal but you don’t go anywhere?”

There are a few physical differences, but what I think of most is how much more proactively the Danes work to assure that the community functions from a social point of view. I guess that’s the point – if you can make the social side work, then it’s easier to accomplish your other aspirations as well.

So, for example, in the Danish cohousing community that Katie and I lived in for six months, dinner was available seven nights a week in the common house, and each person cooks one night a month and assists another night a month. There is one cook and one assistant each night.

The System

They pair up people to cook together based on those who don’t normally talk to each other very often and where relationships could be built or stitched together better.

Each person notes which nights that month that they can cook and which nights that they can assist. Then the cooking committee balances the calendar and distributes it to everyone. But most importantly, they pair up people to cook together based on those who don’t normally talk to each other very often and where relationships could be built or stitched together better. Cooking with another person really forges a bond — while it seems that cooking with one's spouse does little for that relationship.

Another example is that one a night a month there isn’t a common dinner in the common house. Instead, dinner is in seven different private homes with three or four households participating in each – it sometimes gets cozy. Of course, venues rotate. The cooking committee choreographs who is dining where, based on the residents who don’t talk to each other very often, or where it might benefit the entire community to build relationships. The thought is, once you have dinner in Susan’s house and have experienced the graciousness of her dining table and her meal, you give Susan the benefit of the doubt even more than you did before. Now, when Susan over-prunes the hedges or hogs the washer, you don’t get annoyed at her anywhere near as much as before. You kid her about it and she gets the message. You share humor instead of tension.

Another detail that they were thorough about is new resident orientation. Where we lived in Denmark, potential new buyers were asked to come to two common meetings, two common dinners and two common workdays before they could make an offer. That way they had a good idea about the subculture that they were buying into. That community could ask a lot because they are so much in demand. They’re in demand because they are such a high-functioning community (dinner seven nights a week and lots of other common house activities). There are plenty of suburbs, so the low-functioning cohousing communities there just look like regular condos, and those cohousing communities are not very much in demand.

Cross-Cultural Lessons

Anytime you make a shift from one culture to another, it’s always a good idea to try to understand the new culture. Americans have always has trouble with this. “Why would anyone do anything different than my way?” When you visit an obviously different culture like Japan’s, it’s much more apparent, but when the culture looks just like yours, it’s not. We take living in a village for granted, even though almost none of us have done it before except for that time we visited southern France for two weeks. And then only as a voyeur – “Oh, how quaint!”

Orientation along the way helps cohousing to be successful long term. If cohousing was a slightly different subculture from the norm, then it wouldn’t really be worth doing. Whether before or after development, it’s always a good idea to share, one-on-one with someone from the membership committee who has been there a long time, just what ground has been covered, what agreements have been made, and just where we are as a community (a subculture, if you will) and where the project aspires to be. When someone is considering buying into the community, have a one-on-one over coffee to go through all the documents that delineate how the community got to be where it is, and why. In our case, we leave behind the Site Planning Design Criteria, Common House Program, Private House Program, Design Closure, Prioritization, and Design Development workshops data.

For example, we had a new resident move into our community who liked to crank up his heat and open the windows. The heat was paid in common, but everyone felt uncomfortable about mentioning it to him. We all wanted to come off as pretty tolerant, but had we brought up our energy savings values before he moved in, it wouldn’t appear personal or inhospitable. That’s just one of a hundred examples why it pays to talk before problems arise.

In the sleepy little town of San Luis Obispo, home to California Polytechnic University, the majority of all of the thefts are reported in early fall, and the majority of them are committed by new students from big cities. “Hmmm…I love that chair on that front porch. It so happens I need a chair; I’ll just have it. I like that plant, that bike, etc.” The Week of Welcome (W.O.W.) is engineered to orient the kids to the fact that, “You’re in a small town now. You’ll see that person again. Don’t steal from them.” Most Cal Poly kids come from big cities and are used to much more anonymity. That is, they are from a different culture. This is just an example of proactively helping people succeed, as opposed to setting them (and the community) up for failure.

Americans seem more interested in conflict resolution We very much leave it to chance and happenstance; wait for someone to step on someone else’s toes then scurry about trying to remedy the situation. If we could find a gadget to fix it, all the better.

I’m looking forward to when we know that the secret to making it work environmentally, is by making it work socially.

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