Our article on a unique cohousing venture in the January/February 2014 issue struck a chord with many of our readers. Working closely with three couples, all long-time friends who are at or near retirement, architect Rick Renner and his associate Teresa Telander of Richard Renner Associates of Portland, Maine, designed a handsome structure that combines three individual units with shared common space. It is case study in how thoughtful design can deliver form and function despite a demanding and complex program.
Beyond physical design challenges, our readers found the cohousing concept fascinating. Not all are willing to jump on the shared space bandwagon, but many are ready to applaud the participants in our “All in the ‘Framily’” scenario. (The homeowners had been such good friends that their relationships verged on family — hence they called each other ‘framily.’)
The response and heartwarming sentiments we’ve received about the unordinary project got us thinking more about the relevancy of cohousing in today’s world. What makes a family want to live with another family or a group of families? What are the benefits and maybe the downfalls?
According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, the idea of a “living community” came from Denmark. Architect Jan Gudmand-Hoyer designed a plan in 1964 for 12 houses around a common house and swimming pool. But disapproving neighbors made sure it was never built, causing Gudmand-Hoyer to write “The Missing Link between Utopia and the Dated One-Family House,” a 1968 newspaper article that described the ideas behind the project, which resonated with people in the community. Around the same time, Bodil Graae’s “Children Should Have One Hundred Parents,” motivated a group of Danish families to start a co-housing project now known as Sættedammen, the first modern co-housing community in the world.
Cohousing came to America with the help of Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, architects who met while studying at the Royal Academy of Art and Architecture at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark in 1980. After finishing up their architecture degrees in California in 1983, the couple married and went on a yearlong trip back to Denmark to study its co-housing communities (which by then totaled more than 22). When they returned to the United States, they wrote and self-published Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves and dedicated their careers to building the communities.
The idea spread to other countries, and examples are plentiful in New England, including the 32-unit Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst, Massachusetts, where architect Laura Fitch of Kraus Fitch Architects has lived for 20 years. Fitch, who is secretary of the Cohousing Association of the United States, has also helped in the programming and design of more than 30 co-housing communities in the United States and Canada. She notes that most co-housing communities have more than three units and are much smaller in footprint, with unit size and ecological and economic impact per household an important design factor. At Pioneer Valley, homes are modest in size (600 to1,600 square feet) with approximately 7,000 square feet in a common house on 21 acres. “I hope readers who are intrigued with the notion of retiring with friends or raising children in walkable neighborhoods, will visit www.cohousing.org to see the breadth of cohousing choices: big, small, urban, rural, multi-generational and senior focused,” Fitch says.
While traditional co-housing projects focus on family, community, and children, the “Framily” complex in our January/February issue was designed for aging friends who wanted to grow old together. Renner and Telander struck a balance between the owners’ desire to be together — and apart.
The complex is nestled into the center of a 15-acre salt-marsh meadow (70 percent is still open space) just north of Portland. Built by Wright-Ryan Homes of Portland and with the aid of landscape architect Sarah Witte of Terrence J. DeWan & Associates in Yarmouth, Maine, it consists of a main structure, which includes space for a caregiver, if needed, and a guesthouse for friends and family.
The common space includes a living room, kitchen, laundry, library, art studio, and exercise room. The roof deck of the shared five-car garage includes a vegetable garden and a therapeutic hot tub. Sedum planted on the flat sections of the roof minimizes runoff and helps with insulation, while solar collectors are part of a 25 kilowatt system that generates electricity.
Though financial details of the shared housing arrangement are private, the owners believe it can serve as a model for other co-housing plans. It’s a place where they can have both privacy and enjoy their friends’ company. With the help of Renner and his team, they have an exquisite place to call home.
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Gail Ravgiala is editor of Design New England and a fan of both the region's historic architecture and its growing inventory of modern houses and public buildings.
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