Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Co-Housing Comes to Anchorage

Our daughter had emailed us a couple of links to co-housing sites near Portland. She's working near Portland and looking for a permanent place and wants to have a close community.

Co-housing is a word coined by Chuck Durrett*, an architect who studied co-housing in Denmark in the mid-80's. Co-housing was his version of the Danish “bofællesskaber.” which his website says "directly translates to “living communities."
Chuck Durrett at podium in Anchorage, slide of Co-housing project

So last week when a friend let us know there was a group in Anchorage looking to create a co-housing development here, we went to their meeting at the museum.   Chuck Durrett spoke at the meeting and showed slides of different co-housing projects he's helped to develop.

Essentially, co-housing enables folks to work together to plan a project for housing that is  more conducive to neighbors getting to know each other doing things together.  The homes are closer together usually, but with greater open spaces on the the property.  There are community buildings for recreation and community dinners.  He said some places eat together once a week, others three or four or five times a week.  But that people don't have to go to the community meals. The legal work is much like a condo association.  Individuals or couples or families generally own their individual homes but the surrounding land and common buildings are owned jointly.  Usually the front of the homes face walkways and common space and many of the places he's helped develop have homes with front porches.
Anchorage Co-Housing Organizers

There seemed to be a move toward recovering the community connections that existed before modern suburbs came to be.  This is also the kind of setting I knew as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Thailand, and which, to a lesser extent, we've had in my neighborhood in Anchorage, especially when Mrs. Nash was still alive.

The museum auditorium was probably 80 or 90% full - maybe 150 people.  And a followup potluck was scheduled for Sunday evening at St. Mary's Episcopal church.  Since that's pretty close, we walked over there to meet folks and see how this was going.

After eating, people were divided into groups which identified factors they'd like to see.  Here's the poster from the group I was in.  But after everyone marked their top three factors and each group shared what they'd come up with, it seemed all the groups had the same notion.

The group is actively looking for 2.5 - 5 acres of land in Anchorage and there's a two day workshop scheduled for February that was just about full by the end of the evening Sunday.

They had a map which had circles with 1/2 mile radius near various commercial areas where they had looked for potential sites with Chuck Durrett while he was still in town.  He'll be back in February for the workshop.  

I was struck by the lack of ethnic diversity in the crowd.  They have generational diversity, but it's a pretty homogenous group so far.  Essentially this is a type of condo group, but where the people get to design the project and the intent is to have more community interaction than most neighborhoods provide.  There is flexibility - like having some rental units and there is turnover when a family has to move out.  So far, the units have held their value well, Durrett said. 

You can learn more about co-housing on line.  The Cohousing website says
"Cohousing communities are old-fashioned neighborhoods created with a little ingenuity. They bring together the value of private homes with the benefits of more sustainable living. That means common facilities and good connections with neighbors. All in all, they stand as innovative answers to today's environmental and social problems. Learn more >"
 Chuck Durrett's company's website says,"
Shared lives are healthy lives - McCamant & Durrett Architects designs intergenerational cohousing communities that create and promote environmentally and socially vibrant sustainable neighborhoods.
Intergenerational cohousing communities respond to the needs of today's households by combining the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living and shared resources."

 And for those interested in the Anchorage here's the local co-housing group's Facebook link.   There were a lot of people.  I'm sure once a site is selected some people will drop out because it's not in their preferred part of town.  And when people have to put money on the table others will leave.  But they had a lot more people than they expected and it's possible that there could be more than one project in Anchorage if there's enough interest. 

*Not only does it say this on his company's website, but they even have the Oxford English dictionary entry that credits him and his partner with the term.


  1. Too often co-housing projects price themselves above the very people who are drawn to them as a way to share costs and community. They can quickly become yet another type of ski village -- perhaps without the gate.

    I wish them all the very best in making it happen.

  2. seems like they might have a hard time coming up with a parcel that size without going outside of town a ways. wonder why there isn't a smaller version, working with existing apartment building/s, or three or four contiguous lots... maybe the model just doesn't work on that small a scale?

  3. Jacob - we'll see, there were discussions of rental units and if it's close to UAA a student room or two. I asked if any co-housing group had worked with Habitat for Humanity to help get a lower income family in. (No one there knew. Doubtful.)

    Anon - All options are open. One example was of using an old house as the common space and building around it. They could incorporate or tear down existing structures, and even check a group of neighbors who might be willing to sell so their land can be united. If anyone in Anchorage knows of possible places go to their FB page and let them know.

  4. A creative, mixed-income project can happen but at the end of the day, the market and regulatory environment conspires in so many ways to suppress habitat innovation. I know, I worked on this for years while working at ON.

    I hope they have expertise in the room with them so that the dreams don't get away from the financing, that's all. Many things are possible if people can inject a mix of communal trust-held philanthropy and personal sweat-equity for internal finishes to add to a residential housing project of this scope.

    Again, I wish them well. I am a strong advocate for this and am still looking for a project in our adopted country that makes financial sense for us.

  5. Expanding sprawl is not a sustainable, long-term solution. Here's an example of creative permie retrofit.



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