Rethinking Cohousing: Addressing Overlooked Benefits
West Wind Harbour Cohousing Awarded BUILT GREEN® Certification
Cohousing—what is it, and why have we been hearing about it? For residents of the beautiful, coastal community of West Wind Harbour Cohousing in Sooke, it means home: with the reduced maintenance and shared expenses of conventional strata housing, alongside unconventional supports.
Cohousing developments are typically designed and developed by residents, so first and foremost, we know it comes with an innate sense of community. The term “cohousing” was coined in 1960s Denmark, by an architect and friends considering better housing options, which could ease the burden of day-to-day living. Simply, it means self-managed, collaborative housing that includes private and shared space—although, what sets cohousing apart is the greater opportunity to connect and support one another.
Shared meals are a regular event that enable residents to distribute their daily workload, as well as connect with neighbours. Some groups may choose a weekly shared meal, or even daily—depending on their needs. Especially for young families, who may be short on time, the option to have more nights off from cooking can be a huge benefit.
For those who feel the alienation of modern housing, where many may not know even their closest neighbours, cohousing combines autonomy—compact, self-contained private dwellings—with community: fostered in spacious areas of shared amenities. Some cohousing developments have a special focus (e.g. for seniors) but most are intergenerational, with a mix of family types and ages—and building forms mirror those in larger society: single family, townhouses, duplexes and apartments.
While there is no set blueprint, cohousing developments typically range from 20 to 30 homes, and always include a common kitchen and dining room—beyond that, features depend on residents’ desires and budget. For BUILT GREEN® Gold certified West Wind Harbour Cohousing in Sooke, BC, the amenities list is impressive—partially because of the projects’ foundations and partially because of the group of forward-thinkers behind it: both the residents and their consultants: Cohousing Development Consulting Inc (CDC), a full-service consulting firm providing development management services and specializing in environmentally and socially sustainable projects.
West Wind began when a retired couple realized they no longer wanted to care for their large home and acreage, and could see the benefits of living in a community with shared resources.
The owners were willing to postpone final land payment until re-zoning, enabling the community to move forward without residents coughing up the total price. The next big cost-saver was that they could repurpose the existing house as a common facility—thus, avoiding the cost and environmental impact of demolition, while providing more common space than is typically feasible in newly built cohousing projects. It adds about 3,000 square feet, which includes three guest rooms, office, library, art room, a dining room for private family dinners, and patio areas for gatherings around the fire.
Early on, the team committed to being as environmentally conscious as budget would allow. It paid off: West Wind Harbour Cohousing was awarded BUILT GREEN® Gold certification—meaning they reached impressive energy performance, alongside implementing green building options across the seven categories of Built Green Canada’s holistic sustainable building programs, which, beyond energy, address water and waste management, air quality, efficient, ethically-sourced, durable materials—and more.
Cohousing neighbourhoods tend to offer environmentally sensitive design, with a pedestrian orientation, and have documented lower vehicle use than conventional neighbourhoods. And so, the West Wind team made strategic choices to enact long-term sustainability: not to use natural gas; to implement solar-ready design; to allocate 20 per cent of parking for electric-vehicle ready, alongside limited parking to discourage vehicle usage; meanwhile, they also landscaped with native and drought-tolerant plants and utilized water-efficient irrigation.
They could hardly have done all this in a more picturesque setting; the newly constructed building is sited to maximize coastal waterscape: of Pacific Ocean and Olympic Mountains. Further common areas include a large kitchen and dining area for shared meals, a lounge, workshop, exercise room, and plenty of storage space for bicycles and personal equipment. The 34-strata, titled residential homes share access to Sooke Harbour via a waterfront dock—alongside shared gardens, patios, a spectacular rooftop deck, and 7,000 square feet of indoor common space.
This sort of housing is typically priced around market-value, yet homes are often of higher quality and offer superior amenities. Residents typically act as developer, so at the forefront, they save the money of hiring a developer, savings which they can then use on green building features—reducing long-term utility costs.
Ronaye Matthew, the primary CDC consultant, says that the BUILT GREEN® Checklist has provided a valuable tool for groups that want to create a more environmentally sustainable project; it’s easy to use, and supports professionals to identify desired green features early in the design process, while entailed energy modelling helps identify the most effective way to develop an efficient project.
And, according to Matthew, “An aspect not often considered when looking at affordability is cost of living. Because of the social structure and easy access to shared resources, cohousing provides opportunities for reducing living costs that are not available in conventional neighbourhoods. The homes can be smaller without negatively impacting lifestyle, and the shared spaces reduce consumption. As a result, cohousing contributes to the affordable housing continuum.”
And so, while this market, in and of itself, doesn’t tend to generate below-market priced homes, this model makes the developments less costly to maintain and operate. And, of the cohousing projects that CDC has managed, four have included homes 20-25 per cent below market value, with covenants registered on titles to restrict resale value over time. This has only been possible in developments where local municipal governments have partnered with the cohousing group to contribute to this diversity.
For projects designed specifically for people who want to age in place in an interdependent, supportive community, this model fosters a healthy lifestyle for active seniors, enabling them to age in connection with co-residents, with the possibility of assistance, shared meals, and recreational activities. These are provided by the residents, and when outside help is required, the costs of hiring someone can be shared, thereby reducing the expense per household.
Beyond this, studies have shown that cohousing decreases isolation in seniors, positively impacts inhabitants’ quality of life, and promotes improved physical and mental health.
So, does this type of development take longer to create than a conventional one? It doesn’t have to. That said, the group of residents should engage a qualified, experienced professional to support them, as the process can get bumpy. It’s usually initiated through a few burning souls, who bring together friends and associates with an interest in the concept. Often, they meet for several months, explore completed communities and decide whether developing their own community is something they have the fortitude to take on. Very few resident groups manage to complete a cohousing project on their own, but a qualified professional can identify requirements and supports to bring the project to fruition.
“To start, decision making in cohousing is typically non-hierarchical and by consensus, so the professional involved needs to know how to facilitate an efficient process,” says Matthew. “In our experience, if members are provided with the information they need, and understand the decision-making timeframes to support financial viability, they work hard to ensure these are met.” From inception to completion, CDC works with a group to establish feasibility, build resident membership, set up legal and financial systems, secure the financing, find and purchase a site, and engage the professionals needed for design and construction.
Ronaye goes on to say that interest in cohousing has increased over the years, and the main industry shift she’s noticed is the interest in senior-focused cohousing, like West Wind. “When I started working with groups in 1996, there were only two completed cohousing communities in Canada. The Canadian Cohousing Network (CCN) website currently lists twenty completed communities and twenty seven more in various stages of development, while there are additional communities that aren’t members of CCN.”
Ronaye Matthew and her team have managed the development of eleven of the completed cohousing communities in Canada. She says that one of the main priorities, for all groups with whom she’s worked, has been to develop an environmentally sustainable project. Groups always want to do more than what is financially feasible, so she helps set priorities—aiding in the creation of nurturing communities with social, environmental, and economic viability.