Building an urban village: Retrofit Cohousing

Building an urban village: Retrofit Cohousing
                 by Fred H. Olson  fholson at    Jun 1996

Many people are trying to find ways to build a stronger sense of
community into their lives.  They wish to do this to enrich their lives
and also to reduce some of the negative features of contemporary life.
Crime does not thrive in strong neighborhoods where everyone watches out
for each other.  Block clubs and block parties are efforts to build
community in Minneapolis neighborhoods.

Dozens of groups of people around the U.S. and elsewhere are trying to
build a very strong sense of community amongst the 15-40 households that
they live near to include such things as:

1) Common activities like shared evening meals several nights per week
   (cooking rotated with 40-80% participation)  and, of course, the
   meetings (see 3)
2) Extensive shared use of
    a)  some common indoor space (common kitchen and dining space,
        workshops or anything the group chooses)
    b)  outdoor space (gardens, paths, play structures)
    c)  equipment (lawn mowers, laundry facilities, tools, computers)
3) Group organization that decides how the group will relate and what
   and how they will share.
4) Typically such things as more childcare exchanges, more friendships
   and mutual concern (e.g. "favors" for an ill neighbor) also result.

   One way is for people who desire this will get together and build a
new neighborhood that makes these things easier to do -- typically
houses are built along a pedestrian street that might resemble
Minneapolis' historic Milwaukee Avenue.  When it is built people move
to their new neighborhood.

   There is a name for this; it is called "cohousing" (pronounced
co housing as in cooperative or collaborative housing)
For more information about cohousing see:
THE book:
 _Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves-- 2nd ed._
 Kathryn M. McCamant and Charles R. Durrett and Ellen Hertzman, 1994,
 Ten Speed Press, Post Office Box 7123, Berkeley, CA 94707. $29.95.
 (ISBN# 0-89815-539-8) (the Minneapolis Public Library has a copy)
On the Internet:
The Cohousing Association of the United States (Coho/US)

But new construction is expensive and places to build in urban areas are
few, so some people are trying to find ways to adapt existing blocks of
housing and to change usage patterns to achieve similar results.  We call
this "retrofit cohousing".  The premier example of retrofit cohousing is
in Davis, California and is called N Street Cohousing. Beginning with a
couple of neighbors tearing down fences, N Street has evolved and now
consists of 12 contiguous houses , 35 adults and 18 kids.  From the street
it looks like typical 1955 tract housing, but from the back, a flagstone
path meanders through lush, green garden beds as it passes from house to
house connecting neighbors, friends, and family. Residents eat together,
plan their futures together, work, play, and vacation together.
For more about N Street see the 1995 book by Ken Norwood, AICP and
Kathleen Smith _Rebuilding Community in America_ (ISBN# 0-9641346-2-4)
Or on the Internet: http://
N Street Cohousing

Over time as properties come up for sale, new people who want to
participate in retrofit cohousing would buy them and move to a
selected block.  And of course, some people who already live on the
block may choose to join.  Some groups are oriented primarily toward
developing a community incorporating current residents.   Let me
emphasize that no one who does not choose to participate would be
forced to move or change.  They would simply have neighbors who were
as a group doing planning and something special.

Establishing the first few houses of a retrofit cohousing community is
a major hurdle. It involves forming an initial core group, choosing a
block, and actually buying two or more units on the block.  The core
group must be committed and financially willing and able to invest on
the block.

Some characteristics of that might make a block desirable
for retrofit cohousing include:

1) Blocks with people who would be supportive of the idea in
   neighborhoods that are supportive of such development efforts.
2) Blocks which are likely to have significant turnover of ownership
   due to circumstances such as a high percentage of rental housing or
   the presence of households of older people who are likely to move
   to condos or retirement communities etc in the next few years.
3) Blocks with no or partial alleys which could facilitate development
   of common outdoor space. (Note that "traffic calming" efforts
   can make alleys easier to tolerate in the middle of the community.)
4) Houses with kitchens and living rooms at the rear of the houses to
   facilitate focus on the community common space that may develop.
5) Blocks with a variety of housing - cost, age, size and style maybe
   some multi-unit (2-6 unit) buildings tho mostly single family.
6) Being primarily family housing, blocks with families with children.
7) Near the usual amenities - parks, schools, libraries, bus lines etc.

There are two main differences between retrofit cohousing and new
construction cohousing.
1) Existing structures limit ability to shape community layout,
house orientation etc. optimally.

2) The development timeline is drastically different if the community is
developed incrementally (evolutionally) which seems likely to be the

Another difference is that compared to buying a house with the otherwise
typical criteria, people buying into an established (site chosen)
retrofit cohousing have very limited choices about what house/ what
features it has. Clearly they must be willing to compromise here.

There is ongoing debate whether the success of a cohousing community
is attributable to the physical embodiment of the community or to the
way community members relate and organize themselves.  Some feel such
things as community layout, architecture, density, parking arrangements
etc. etc. are primary  to the success of a cohousing community.
Some argue that the group development is primary, or even solely
responsible.  It seems to me that both contribute and affect the
development of a cohousing community.  In this light I would expect that
a retrofit cohousing community to be less successful in some dimensions.
For example, there may be fewer spontaneous interactions because the
site design does not promote them as much as in a new construction
cohousing community. However, N Street Cohousing Community has
demonstrated that retrofit cohousing community can be successful.

New construction cohousing has some widely recognized negative

1) the high cost of new construction probably has a negative
2) the enormous effort from members required to make it happen

The timeline is clearly stretched out with retrofit cohousing
(evolutionary); it may take a decade to have enough participating
households to afford a dedicated common house for example.  And the
timeline is not likely to be known in advance.  This makes the always
difficult development stage more uncertain and meeting logistics for
off-site members (those not yet moved in) more complicated.  Indeed the
number of offsite members and the length of time they could be in this
status could both be more problematic. And peoples lives don't stand
still while the community develops. Therefore it is likely that the
group will evolve significantly over the development decade.

Despite the many tradeoffs, retrofit cohousing may offer the best
prospects for some of us to develop the community in urban areas
that we dream of.

This page is maintained by Fred H. Olson fholson at
Retrofit Cohousing
The Cohousing Network (extensive national WWW site)
Twin Cities Cohousing Network