“Bofaellesskaber?” An Interview with the Pioneer Couple of American Cohousing

David Wann, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

I interviewed Charles (Chuck) Durrett and Kathryn (Katie) McCamant at a recent national cohousing conference in Boulder, Colorado. These two architects, who imported the Danish idea of bofaellesskaber, or living together, have launched a minimovement among Americans, Canadians, and others who want to help create healthier, friendlier, and more beautiful neighborhoods. Here’s what Chuck and Kate had to say about the movement’s origins, benefits, and potentials. —D. L. W.

David Wann: What were your earliest, in-person impressions of cohousing as practiced in Denmark since 1972?

Chuck Durrett: In 1980, when Kate and I went to architectural school in Denmark for a year, the cohousing neighborhoods we visited were part of our overall study of that country’s architecture. But across the board, whenever we walked into one of Denmark’s several hundred cohousing communities, there was such a life there—unlike most suburban or multifamily developments—such a joy and sense of interaction, that we began to comment, “This is unique. This is working.” It made other housing seem more like warehousing. The original Danish term for cohousing, bofaellesskaber, means “living together,” or “living community.” In other words, you have living communities, and then you have, what, dead communities? That is the way it seemed.

When we came back to the United States, got married, and began to think about how to raise a family, we kept asking ourselves, “Why wouldn’t we want to live in a place that feels more like a small town, more like a community? Where neighbors know each other and agree, to some extent, when they move in to cooperate with each other, or at least to give cooperation the benefit of the doubt?” It just made sense.

Wann: What specifically were the Danish residents in living communities doing that seemed unique?

Durett: I lived near a cohousing community in Denmark, right next to a living community. As I walked by every day to catch the train, I noticed that people were standing between the buildings talking to each other, you know, holding a basket of laundry, and what we would normally think would be a quick salutation often grew into a fifteen-minute conversation: “What are you doing this afternoon? I’m thinking about going to the ballgame,” or “I’m thinking about going to an orchard to pick fruit, do you want to come?”

There were picnic tables between the houses where neighbors sat. Some would stand and chat for a minute; others would be there for longer, talking, laughing, sometimes eating, engaged. People were coming and going.

What struck me in particular was how these households related to each other in what seemed to be a healthy fashion. And then, of course, there was this common building that didn’t look like anybody lived in, but people spent a lot of time there. The lights were on late at night and you could look through the windows and see people talking over a cup of coffee, or playing music together, or sewing together. I could see that these people were doing things in the common building that made sense for them to do in common—things that are more fun, more entertaining, often more economical, more practical to do together.

Then, of course, they also had their own houses, which we also saw people sitting in, reading the newspaper or whatever—it felt like when you walked into a cohousing community, people had a choice between as much community as they wanted or as much privacy as they wanted. And in other housing projects, you could see that people had as much privacy as they wanted, or as much privacy as they wanted—in other words, no choice. And that’s one of the things that has made cohousing translate well into this country. Americans like to have lots of choices.

Kathryn McCamant: It was very evident how advanced the Danes are in the art of housing themselves, with lots of clustered housing based on sociological research about what people need. What we saw there seemed very applicable to the American lifestyle, especially the idea of balance between privacy and community. Privacy is very important, but in America, we’ve come to an extreme point on it, losing community along the way. Sure, you can get in a car and drive to find community, but that gets really old after awhile. The idea of spontaneously finding community just walking out your door, running into neighbors, and being able to go to a movie with them, or sitting down with them and talking about what a tough day you had at work—that’s hard to find these days. People interested in cohousing are trying to find a balance between privacy and community again. Without losing their sense of autonomy, they want to come home to something bigger than an empty house.

Wann: What are some of the other dysfunctional elements of American culture that cohousing can help fix?

Durrett: Just like in Denmark, the demographics in America changed drastically after World War II, especially in the early 1960s, when women started working outside the home. More frequently, families were having fewer children, working longer hours. ¬There’s quite an array of demographic changes that began to alienate people, or at least isolate them.

A great number of people in the United States consume to feel satisfied, at some basic level: “Maybe if I just get another sports car … ” or “Maybe if I just go on another vacation or buy something else, I’ll be happy.” Cohousing reduces the need to consume, both physically and psychologically. Physically, we don’t need a lawnmower for each house when much of our lawn is a common lawn. Each household doesn’t need its own washer and dryer when there’s a laundry room in the common house. Houses can be slightly smaller, and therefore have less stuff in them, when a guest room is available in the common house for everyone’s use. After all, guests don’t all arrive at the same time. At Doyle Street Cohousing, we’ve shared many of the things Americans would typically spend a lot of money on, from cars to magazines to gourmet kitchen equipment.

In cohousing, it begins to become clear that there’s nothing quite like relationships to satisfy basic human needs for identity, belonging, and even accountability. In this regard, cohousing can be psychologically grounding. You feel like, “Now I’m part of a society that makes sense.” If you look at the typical choices, you’re an individual in a 2.3-person household and you are part of a national culture that spends years of its life watching television. You wonder, “What am I really a part of?” You may join clubs and interest groups to help feel a sense of identity, but those people aren’t necessarily there for you day in and day out like cohousing neighbors are. In a world where the extended family tends to be spread all over the country, there’s nothing like having neighbors that you can ask about children’s earaches and other daily dilemmas that you would traditionally look to your family for.

Wann: What were your greatest motivations for getting cohousing started?

Durrett: When we came back from our first trip to Denmark, we were very interested in the values this kind of housing could offer, for ourselves as well as others. I grew up in a small town—so small that I couldn’t get Kate interested in moving back there. So I had to figure out how to get small-town relationships in an urban environment. We always intended to write a book about our observations, and when we became serious about creating a village we would live in, we got busy and wrote it— Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves —partly to see if there were others as interested in it as we were.

McCamant: After our second self-funded thirteen-month trip to Denmark in 1984-85, we visited about 185 cohousing projects and studied forty-six cohousing projects in depth. We really believed, “Okay, now we know how to go about this.” We came back with 5,000 slides and we were ready to write our cohousing book.

Durrett: We originally meant to stay six months, but it turned out to be a much more complex issue than it looked like on the surface, so we stayed and learned as much as we could, especially about cooperation and the balance between privacy and community. We wanted to bring the idea back in its widest context and let people make conscious choices about how to implement it. After thirteen months, we said to ourselves, “Okay, we have this figured out from the design to the development, to the financial scenarios, to the group process.”

In our book, we discuss how the physical aspects of a neighborhood enhance and reinforce the social aspects. If you believe, like I do, that our second priority as a species (after procreation, which we seem to have mastered) is to build a viable, healthy society, then we have to consciously format a world that allows that to happen. Along the way, maybe we will figure out how to make it as much fun as fulfilling our first responsibilities.

Wann: How specifically do well-designed physical features help create community?

McCamant: The relationship between community building and community buildings is a subject a person could devote a whole lifetime of study to. We strongly believe in the participatory-design process, in which members of a community decide together what their priorities are and what sort of space they’ll live in. It’s important that residents feel a sense of ownership in the design of their neighborhood, and it’s also important that certain principles are carefully considered, because after the honeymoon of building and moving in is over, good design is what will sustain a neighborhood’s sense of community.

If you look around at existing neighborhoods that are not cohousing, you see that we’ve actually designed community right out of our lives. There are very specific reasons why people don’t run into each other and therefore don’t relate. There are no large porches; instead you have large barriers in the form of garage doors. And there’s no place in the typical neighborhood where people can gather and get to know each other.

Cohousing, on the other hand, is designed to make it easy for busy people to transition from the privacy of their own homes into the common areas, where they can interact with their neighbors. The kitchen is typically in the front of the home—you can look out and see your kids in the play area; you can see who’s coming and going¬ to pick up their mail or recycle their glass containers; you can holler at a passing neighbor who has a recipe you want.

The area right in front of the house is still your private realm, but it’s directly adjacent to the common area, so it’s a semiprivate space, which the Danes refer to as the soft edge. In many ways it’s analogous to the old-fashioned front porch. By sitting in this space instead of in the back of your house or on a private balcony, you indicate that you’re open to visit. People will stop and join you for coffee or just chat there in front of the house.

Another link from the private realm to the community realm is what we refer to as gathering nodes. Often as simple as a picnic table that five to eight houses share, it might be next to the children’s sandbox. From there you can look up the walkway or street to the common terrace directly in front of the common house, where it’s typical to see people lingering with glasses of wine on a late afternoon before they go up for dinner. On Saturday mornings, somebody brings out coffee and somebody else brings over something from the bakery. By having transition spaces, you create choices. The idea is to make it easy to flow from your kitchen to the common kitchen without giving it a lot of thought.

Durrett: The fundamental responsibility of the architecture is to keep people relating to each other. There’s nothing like a common house as a place to meet in neutral territory and discuss issues of the day, like the school district, the city council or national politics, or child rearing. You can have the kind of great discussions in the common house that are sometimes difficult to have in someone’s private house. It’s hard to tell somebody you think they’re full of it at their house, and you’d be a pretty bad host to do it in your house, so in the common house, you have incredibly genuine conversations that are much deeper, partially because you have this physical venue that is so unique. In our common house, we explore the subtleties of any issue at the ecological level, at the gender level, at the political level, the social-justice level. It makes for a very rich experience, much less of a sound-bite or a bumper-sticker level in which a person says, “I’ve got my opinion and that’s all there is to it.” In cohousing, significant strains of conversations go on for years.

McCamant: But a common house has to feel comfortable and inviting, or people won’t use it.

Durrett: That’s right. Take the common house kitchen, for example. I would say the key factor in the overall success of a kitchen design is its social success. If you’re working in a back room somewhere helping with a common meal, you end up feeling like the slave for the day. But if the kitchen is designed to be open, you can see people come and go. They see you too, and you’re the center of attention, you’re the hero for the day. People come in and say, “How’s it going? Hey, this smells great.” It’s a subtle thing, but it makes you look forward to cooking dinner.

We’ve observed that how you design the spaces between buildings is also a key factor in creating community. In cohousing, which is typically clustered housing, the distance between front doors is typically twenty-five to thirty feet, while the average American house is running about 100 to 110 feet—no wonder Americans feel so estranged at a basic level. When people join the cohousing process, they are used to the 110-feet distance, but after they start to know and get more comfortable with each other, they start to believe that there’s something in it for them. The trust level begins to build, and the closer distances feel right. When you come out of your house on a Monday morning, you can relate to the mood of your neighbor and you can ask your neighbor if he got the report done that’s due today, or if his mother is feeling better after chemotherapy. That is how you stitch a society together.

The design of private spaces is also very important, because if cohousing residents really, really like their homes, they will also be more comfortable outside their homes, interacting with their neighbors. We help groups become communities, and our customers always want their houses to be as energy efficient as possible, with natural lighting, good sound insulation, an open, spacious feeling. The fact they’ve had a say in their homes’ design makes them feel integrated with their physical surroundings, which in turn helps them feel comfortable socially.

Wann: Is it easier for people in cohousing to get know each other because they are working on things together, things that they have in common?

Durrett: The process of designing and operating a cohousing community does give neighbors lots to talk about. Rather than being a stranger to your next-door neighbor, you’re the person who planted a tree with them last weekend and worked on the budget with them last month at the annual budget meeting.

When people ask me what my community has in common as an organizing principle, I can’t tell them it’s spiritual, because we have people of various beliefs. It’s not political, because we have Democrats, Republicans, and others. We have Asians in the community, Caucasians, African Americans,¬ so it is not really cultural. But the great thing is, when you have diversity, you learn about others. When you begin to see a face with these points of view, you begin to respect these people as people. What our common denominator comes down to is cooperation. We believe that to the extent that it makes each life better—easier, more fun, more economical—we’ll always give cooperation the benefit of the doubt first. You begin to hear everyone’s point of view, and that’s the first step in building a healthy society.

Wann: Does cohousing teach people to be better citizens in the larger community?

Durrett: Without a doubt. In the process of putting a cohousing community together, you learn how local decisions are made. Out there in the big, bad world, developers, bankers, and bureaucrats are deciding, “We’ll make the boulevard this wide, we’ll put another 200 houses where the oak grove is now.” What impresses me about cohousers is that after their cohousing projects are built, they often become active in their city council and school districts. A couple residents in our community ran for school board, got elected, and are making a big difference for our kids.

Cohousers are not intimidated by decision making. They’re used to working with people, they’re used to ferreting out the issues, and they’re typically much more aware of the issues, because they sit around the common house and ask things like, “What about that new bridge that’s going in? Doesn’t it block a driver’s panoramic view of the city?”

Cohousers often have very positive, creative solutions, because they’re used to forging consensus. Instead of shouting about what they don’t want, they come up with great suggestions about what they do want—suggestions that are in everybody’s best interest. So nationwide, cohousers are becoming city council representatives and planning commissioners, and making very positive changes.

Dave: What about kids? Does cohousing make them better students and better citizens?

McCamant: We hear stories all the time about teachers seeing a difference between cohousing students and their peers. For one thing, whenever a dispute comes up, the cohousing kids are always on the front line of problem solvers because they’ve been exposed to it. They know how to get along with other kids of all ages because that’s what they do in their own neighborhoods.

One of my favorite stories is that when we moved into cohousing, our daughter, Jessie, was one and there was a twelve-year old in the community who treated Jessie like a younger sister. Now, years later, what Michele gave to Jessie as a child, Jessie passes on to the two-year-olds in our community. That’s a really powerful thing to see.

Durrett: Jessie is a good example of another benefit of cohousing. She’s an only child, but in effect, she has eight cousins, because the kids in the neighborhood are so close. Instead of feeling like we had to have a second child to keep Jessie company—a typical reason to have more than one child—we knew that she’d find all the companionship she needed right in the community.

Wann: Can you speculate on the future of cohousing?

McCamant: The future of cohousing seems very bright, because it meets many of the needs that are not currently being met. The first cohousing residents were real pioneers, people who’d never even seen a cohousing community. They set off on a journey believing in an idea without ever sitting in a common house. Now, increasing numbers of people can visit a friend in cohousing and see firsthand how it works. For every resident of cohousing, there are hundreds more who are interested and intrigued. We’ve observed that every time a cohousing community is built in an area, it tends to spawn other communities nearby. The truth is, cohousing is now an American housing option—no book or seminar on American housing would be complete without mentioning it.

We’re actively working with other professionals to refine a streamlined model for developing communities. The exchange of ideas on what’s worked and what hasn’t, on how to make the development process smoother next time, is tremendously exciting. There’s a level of refinement we couldn’t have dreamt of a decade ago. In areas like sustainable building practices, creative use of existing buildings, and resident participation in location selection and design, cohousing will continue to be a model, and we’re excited to be part of this growing movement.

Durrett: The key challenge for Americans will be to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We Americans are hell-bent on making things efficient to the point of gutting the original intention; spaghetti sauce from a jar will never compete with homemade. But with the streamlined approach, we are figuring out how to keep the good and move past the stuff that just takes more time and more money with very little value added. (And when it comes to unnecessary acrimony, even value lost.) The communities today are taking a quarter of the people-hours to create as the early projects did with better value, more sustainable design, and with more time for just being friends.