A very brief introduction to cohousing

My research into design for positive ecological behavior change has followed a rather circuitous path these last few years. Given my interest in how groups of people behave together, I’ve moved away from object design towards processes that can help to share knowledge and that can create new understandings. That is, my brief flirtation with object design simply brought me back to some topics that I’ve been teaching for years, dialogue, and some interests I had years ago as a developer – collaborative housing (cohousing). Which is where I am today, trying to understand why some communities are able to successfully create cohousing communities, while some many other struggle realize their dreams.

I’ve had to explain to a lot of people what cohousing is, my committee members, my family, my friends. Partly this is due to there being so few examples in Canada, and particularly in Eastern Canada. Below is a short one pager that I’ve used to introduce people to the idea.

Groundswell at Yarrow Ecovillage Image source: Sunray, Wikimedia Commons

A very brief introduction to Cohousing

Collaborative housing (cohousing) is a form of living in community that includes participation in the project’s development and management by a self-organizing group or collective. “Cohousing is as much a new process for developing housing as it is a new housing type” (McCamant & Durrett, 2011). It is both a form and a process of design for cooperation that is most commonly associated with twentieth century Northern European models of housing such as the Danish bofællesskab (i.e. sharing community/cohousing) and Swedish kollectivhus (i.e. collective house) (Vestbro D. , 2000). These models emerged alongside a variety of changing social norms: the increased number of women in the workforce, the decreasing number of children in the home, and the greater need for the informal labor of the home to be shared (McCamant & Durrett, 2011; Vestbro & Horelli, 2012).

One interesting and highly desirable outcome of the design brief that emerges out of these concerns is a “high-functioning neighborhood” (McCamant & Durrett, 2011), where people know and seem to really trust their neighbours (Christian, 2009; McCamant & Durrett, 2011; Meltzer, 2000).

Be it a neighborhood scale development or a single multi-unit residential building, cohousing residents own or rent private dwellings within the larger project, while also sharing a great deal of common property that is designed to be frequently used together (Meltzer, 2005). These common properties can include a common house, with a large kitchen and dining area, a guest suite, extensive gardens, or extensive lands left in their natural state. While often cited as a distinguishing feature of cohousing, common space is becoming rather customary in many North American housing models, as approximately half of Americans live in housing with some shared facilities or space (Jarvis, 2015). However, in most conventional scenarios, common space provides a boundary between private spaces, whereas in cohousing communities common space is central point around which private spaces are anchored (Fromm, 1991). The sense of community that emerges out of cohousing developments is not a happy accident, or left to chance – it is, in many ways, the central aim of the development and management process.

While these developments differ along many variables such as size, design, and ownership models, they share common characteristics. The six essential characteristics include (McCamant & Durrett, 2011):

This last point, a negation, is offered mainly to dispel misconceptions around cohousing, such that they function as a commune or some other forms of intentional community (Jarvis, 2015).

Many resources related to cohousing, particularly in the Canadian context can be found here.


Christian, D. L. (2003). Creating a life together: Practical tools to grow ecovillages and intentional communities. New Society Publishers.

Fromm, D. (2000). American Cohousing: The First Five Years. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 17(2), 94-109.

Jarvis, H. (2015). Towards a deeper understanding of the social architecture of co-housing: evidence from the UK, USA and Australia. Urban Research & Practice , 8 (1), 93–105.

McCamant, K., & Durrett, C. (2011). Creating cohousing: building sustainable communities (Kindle ed.). New Society Publishers.

Meltzer, G. (2000). Sustainable community: Learning from the cohousing model. Journal of Architectural & Planning Research , 17 (2), 110-132.

Vestbro, D. (2000). From collective housing to cohousing-A summary of research. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research , 17 (2), 164–178.

Vestbro, D. U., & Horelli, L. (2012). Design for Gender Equality: The History of Co-Housing Ideas and Realities. Built Environment , 38 (3), 315–335.

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