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Group Housing and Co-housing styles

I said in my Ignite talk on Group Housing that a primary motivator for us was to build a village to raise our kids in.  There are lots of different styles of villages you can build in a modern city.  Before we found our house, we explored several alternatives.  We also were aware of several others which we didn’t consider for practical reasons.

The style we have is a single large house with with lots of people living in it.  Amazingly, this almost 7,000 square foot house is officially zoned as a single family dwelling.  I really like the single family who lived here before us, but I have a hard time envisioning how they used all the space.  This is the densest, most communal style of housing.  We effectively all share a single kitchen.  There is a second kitchen in the house, but  it gets used maybe once a month.  Whether or not you share a kitchen is a critical differentiator in the level of intimacy of a household. People need to eat every day, and so people are always going through the kitchen.  Sharing a kitchen means we’re always seeing each other and interacting.  If we had our own food storage / preparation areas, then we could and likely would spend far less time interacting with each other.

We also considered buildings which in many ways look and act like a single large house, but where each family unit has their own dedicated space, including a small kitchen.  This style allows for much more isolation and privacy within the house.  Not having to interact in order to eat means that you can spend much less time with the other people in your house.  I was originally a proponent of this style.  Partly because I think it makes for a more liquid ownership structure — if you can sell somebody what’s more like a condo unit in a fairly intimate condo building, the transfer is likely going to be much easier.  Now I’m glad I did not get my way because I love the intimacy of our household.  I know of groups who have purchased entire apartment buildings together, with some units dedicated as common areas.  This is an easy way to re-purpose an existing structure towards a co-housing  purpose.  A benefit of this strategy is that it’s easier to find people who will want to join, because of the reduced intimacy.

Going further in this direction there are a variety of ways to build sets of independent, nearby houses which are optimized for use as a community.  The website cohousing.org offers a bunch of pointers to communities of this kind, which are surprisingly common.  Houses with a common walk-way in the middle and a group meeting area with an industrial kitchen for example.  This style marries many of the advantages of owning your own house (privacy) with some of the advantages of living in a close-knit community.  This style works well for professional land developers, because it requires buying a large chunk of land and building lots of houses.  Some of our early plans explored a small-scale option of this kind, which again I’m glad we didn’t do because I don’t think as a group we would have survived the design and construction process.

At the far end of the spectrum there’s the option of literally just buying existing single-family homes near each other.  My previous house was within a few blocks of a great many of my friends.  This is a traditional neighborhood, but done right if you’re actually good friends with your neighbors.  I also know a group of folks who bought a set of houses which are literally adjacent to each other, making it much more like the planned communities above.

When considering the options here, the basic trade-off I see is between intimacy and privacy.  It’s tempting to say that more privacy increases re-sale value, but I think it’s more accurate to say that more privacy makes the investment more liquid.  Intimacy brings all sorts of social benefits, and one of the largest determinants of intimacy is the extent to which you share a kitchen.

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