The Social Dimension of Housing

SCOTT DONOVAN – Customarily housing is viewed as a commodity and as a means of expressing social status. However, new models are developing, which correspond more nearly to our current social experience. Cohousing and coDwelling respond to our two complementary needs for both company and privacy. They are gaining purchase today, because single people have overtaken families as the most populous housing type. 

Cohousing and coDwelling are housing models which acknowledge us as social beings who thrive in conditions that nurture human connection. The layout of our current neighbourhoods limits opportunities for interaction. The social dimension of housing has its roots in the pattern of the traditional village; which is shaped by the community’s need for ritual, exchanging resources, and communing. Not incidentally, cohousing and coDwelling are also sustainable, resilient, and economic. 

CoHousing is a village-based model of community living founded in Denmark in 1969. Its core is process is participatory, democratic, and consensus-based. Before decisions are taken, a group must learn to communicate effectively and build trust. The physical housing is built only after a group has coalesced into a functional, decision-making unit, and has collectively done the ground work of selecting a site, developing a design, finalizing legal and financing issues, and obtaining municipal approvals. It’s a lengthy journey but worthwhile, as shown by the high degree of satisfaction most cohousing communities enjoy. 

A typical CoHousing community consists of a cluster of homes joined by a pedestrian path. Parking is kept to the periphery, reserving space for personal contact between the homes. The common house stands in the middle, and usually contains a workshop, laundry, kid’s play space, meeting room, spare bedrooms for guests, and the community kitchen and dining room. Home ownership is on the condo model. Homes are private, while the common spaces are designed for encounters that promote social interaction. 

CoDwelling is CoHousing in miniature. It utilizes already existing single family homes. Goals are increased social interaction and the sharing of resources. Two or three friends renovate a house, each claiming a bedroom, bath and sitting-room for themselves. All can access a centrally located kitchen and dining/living space. This way houses in neighbourhoods zoned exclusively for single families may be adapted to something more amenable to a changing demographic: singles. Census figures in Canada and the US show that since 2006 more people live alone than in families. Those going solo may not prefer to live alone; they just don’t have many choices. CoDwelling allows seniors to age in place or remain in the neighbourhood of their choice. 

Both CoHousing and CoDwelling seek to bring people together in support and to connect. The relationships so established and the sharing of resources and has both practical and emotional benefits. Support through a companion or group can matter during illness, for child care, or for a drive downtown. Sharing meals with one another and taking part in the lives of people, for whom we care enough to share our living space, enriches our existence. Housing has a social dimension, supporting the development of friendships, deepening connections, and aiding us in day-to-day living. 

Cohousing and CoDwelling encourage sustainability. Cohousing communities typically seek out sites with short commutes to centres of employment, erect buildings that exceed the minimum standards for energy efficiency, often grow their own food and, in general, are comprised of people who are conscious of their ecological footprint. 

CoDwelling enables us to live with less. Existing houses in need of renewal are reused. Although the bulk of the renovation is within the existing box, substantial energy savings can be achieved by increasing thermal performance: thickened exterior walls to accommodate more insulation, triple-glazed window replacement, photo-voltaic panels on the roof, and a variety of means to improve the airtightness of the exterior envelope. 

Community-oriented housing offers a model of resiliency. Together we stand stronger. We are more readily adaptable to change when-we act in community. Groups offer a broad base of ideas and skills to draw upon. Risks are distributed across a wider net. Rewards are kept local. Cooperative work promotes our adaptive abilities and prepares us for changing circumstances. 

Choice in the form of housing today is limited. Most new housing does not reflect the diverse ways we inhabit space. It is not built to the densities required to achieve sustainability in our cities. In the coming years we are facing a population, an environment and an economy that will be differing substantially from the models built since WWII. Market housing, including neighbourhood zoning, is based on old formulas. The resulting buildings are expensive to operate and leave a large carbon footprint. Builders and developers create neighbourhoods stemming from romanticized visions and obsolete stereotypes of family. We need to grasp existing opportunities which reflect the new reality of households and the future needs of people. We need to build new communities that embrace social connection and encourage the sharing of resources. 

Cohousing and CoDwelling are options at each end of the spectrum of socially-oriented housing. Cohousing takes the large and ambitious view and imagines a harmonious collective of homes with a whole community committed to participatory democracy. Codwelling is simple and more immediate, requiring two or three people who use the resources at hand. Both ask us to consider not just the what of housing, but the who, while seizing the opportunity to build sustainably. 

Sharing resources, living in relationship, and making decisions based on consensus constitute the social dimension of housing. The key lies in being open to possibilities and unwrapping ourselves from the isolationist model we’ve been accustomed to. A reconsideration of social space and how we dwell is an important step in that direction.

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