cohousing color

Brooks Nelson, head of Gainesville Cohousing, stands on the spot of land that will eventually become the community’s common house. Photo by Erica Sterling

Collective living is coming to Gainesville

Consider the average American suburb: a network of roads flanked by individual, self-contained houses. Each property has strict boundaries, often delineated by hedges or a fence.

The set-up has become a kind of joke in pop culture, mocked in everything from the movie “Edward Scissorhands” to the TV show “Weeds.” More importantly, America’s suburban neighborhoods candidly reflect the way we live: isolated, separate, confined.

But a growing number of people are challenging the intensely private structure of the American suburbs with collaborative living neighborhoods called cohousing communities.

And in 2015, Brooks Nelson, a Gainesville chemist, and others of the group Gainesville Cohousing will break ground on the first of these communal neighborhoods to be found south of Atlanta. The group has chosen a site in northwest Gainesville.

Cohousing communities are a type of collaborative housing centered around social interaction and sustainability. The communities typically consist of small houses surrounding an open area and a common house with facilities such as guest quarters and laundry rooms. The arrangement is designed to promote social interaction, with shared resources like day care and tools. And much like co-op businesses, members collectively decide how the community is run.

“It’s the perfect mixture of individual homelife and the cooperative nature of the old village life we had back in more primitive times,” Nelson said.

Cohousing has its roots in Denmark in the late 1960s. With the rise of feminism, neighborhoods designed to support households with both adults working began to form. Members of the community pitched in to ensure every resident would have access to necessities like day care and hot meals. In this way, raising children became a shared effort.

The idea spread across Europe and North America with more multigenerational, forward-thinking communities coming together over time. While each development varied in shape, size and structure, they all shared a common emphasis on fellowship and sustainability.

The U.S. has seen a slow but steady rise in its number of cohousing communities since then. Currently, there are over 130 in North America, according to the Cohousing Associatio of the United States website.

“It surprises me that it’s taken this long,” Nelson said. “The concept of cohousing is so grounded in where society should be that it surprises me these communities aren’t everywhere.”

Raines Cohen, regional organizer of the group Cohousing California, said people are often put off by the challenging real estate market and the difficulties involved in securing a site and partnering with a good developer.

Cohen is also a cohousing coach who works with his wife, Betsy Morris, to guide people through the steps necessary to start a cohousing community. The couple operate mostly out of the San Francisco Bay area but have dealt closely with communities all over the country that have had varying degrees of success.

“Trying to come together at the same time with the place, people, money and vision is challenging,” Cohen said. “It’s a lot of puzzle pieces that need to snap into place.”

Despite these difficulties, more than 100 cohousing communities are in development around the country, Cohen said. There is now an expanding network of likeminded people who want to see these kinds of neighborhoods succeed and know how to make it happen.

Cohen has made it his job to make these visions a reality, connecting interested people with each other and giving them access to the right resources. Cohen said Florida is a choice state for cohousing to thrive, despite never having one.

“We’re eagerly awaiting one in Florida to get going,” Cohen said. “There have been a number of plans but none that have been built so far.”

Nelson was involved in the last attempt about eight years ago. Having been interested in cohousing since college, Nelson joined the former Gainesville Cohousing group and went to meetings for about 18 months, until the plans fell apart.

Nelson said the experience was frustrating and that he was burned out on the concept for awhile. When he and his wife decided two years ago to try again, he acted as head of the group, making sure not to repeat the past mistakes.

His first course of action as leader was to change the voting system. Instead of requiring 100 percent agreement, a motion could pass if it got two-thirds of the vote. In the past, Nelson said, reaching absolute agreement had stalled planning for months at a time. He also restricted participation in decisions and events to members, who paid a nonrefundable fee for their status. Nelson said the money is pooled to later fund construction.

“Before, we went months without any money on the table from members,” Nelson said. “If you don’t have any skin in the game, then you have very little incentive to get anywhere.”

With the new rules in place, Nelson said he also worked with fellow Gainesville Cohousing members and experts around the city to make cohousing in Gainesville a reality. They have enlisted UF’s Center for Resource Efficient Communities and the Sustainable Design Group to figure out how to make the community sustainable.

They also brought on Andrew Kaplan, head of the firm Andrew Kaplan Architect, to help design and develop the community. He said he had been looking for something like the proposed community since he first read about Swedish cohousing in the ‘70s. Kaplan said he brought his wife along to the interview to see what it was about.

“We both fell in love with the idea and liked the people,” Kaplan said. “We decided we wanted to live there too.”

Kaplan became involved in design, financial affairs, contracting, approvals and more. The community will have 24 houses priced from $125,000 to $250,000, and each will range from 800 to 1,600 square feet.

Kaplan said he structured the community to encourage social interaction, with a vast grassy area and the common house in the center. The philosophy holds true down to the smallest details. For example, the kitchens will be built facing the center of the community, Nelson said. As well, rather than each property having its own, everyone will share parking space, a pool and a garden. The common house will contain a shared playroom, laundry room, kitchen, workshop, meditation room and mailroom.

Kaplan has also designed the community to be as sustainable as possible, given the budget from the relatively cheap house prices.

“We’re not a rich group,” Kaplan said. “We’re still deciding what we can and can’t do with our sustainability program.”

The smaller house sizes will save on energy, and the shared resources will reduce individual consumption, Kaplan said. In addition, there will be solar panels; stormwater retention that can be used for gardening or landscaping; and the facilities will be made using green building techniques.

The communal nature also helps promote a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Members of Berkeley Cohousing in California, where Cohen and his wife live, work together to maintain strict recycling procedures, and in this way only produce two bins of trash per week from its 14 households.

“Cohousing tends to start green and get greener,” said Cohen, who also trained with Al Gore as part of the Climate Reality Project.

As of right now, 13 of the 24 lots are filled, Nelson said, and the group is gaining members at a rate of around one lot every two months. The majority of the lots are held by older people, since they tend to have more time and resources.

But the group is looking to add more young families to the ranks and is considering renting out some of the houses to make it more affordable for them. The space is ideal for family life, Nelson said.

“We want to have children,” he said. “My feeling is that this will be an extended family, with everyone watching out for each other.”

And Kaplan seconded that, pointing out that families in America are often spread across the country.

“This is a chance for children to have older people around even if they’re not their grandparents,” he said, “and for older folks to have some children around.”

Cohen and his wife have been at their cohousing community in Berkeley for 11 years, and they’re still considered the new kids on the block, he said. No one has moved from their community in over a decade.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Cohen said.