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Urban Planning + Architecture

BC Celebrates a Quarter-Century of Cohousing

WindSong, completed in Langley in 1996, has paved the way for followers across the province.

Elizabeth Rosenau 30 Jul

Elizabeth Rosenau is a retired pharmacist living in Maple Ridge. She loves being part of Compass Cohousing, where she is learning about consensus-building while getting to know her future neighbours.

As you drive along 96th Avenue in the Township of Langley, you notice a row of hardy Sequoia trees. They tower over the adjacent buildings, providing shade and obscuring the front of WindSong Cohousing Community, reaching between 60 and 100 feet tall.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, when residents first moved in, there were no other cohousing communities in Canada. The trees were only 10 feet tall. They’ve grown in tandem with the community — the first of its kind in Canada.

WindSong is or has been home to many of the leading figures in Canadian cohousing, such as Alan Carpenter, a longtime board member of the Canadian Cohousing Network, and Howard Staples, a cohousing consultant. Many of these leaders still live at the community, and others have moved into the 18 communities that now exist in B.C., and across the country.

As a relatively recent convert to cohousing — I’m part of the Compass Cohousing project in Langley, which is one of 26 cohousing projects currently forming or in development in Canada — I wanted to understand more about the history of the movement here. I was also curious to see what a retrospective look at a quarter-century of lived experience in cohousing would uncover. Had it been worth it? Would its earliest proponents do it again?

The Jystrup Savværk Cohousing Community, located in Jystrup, Denmark, was built in the early 1980s, and features an indoor ‘street’ area. Photos by seier+seier, Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

Miriam Evers and Howard Staples were in their mid-30s when they came across Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing, a book published in 1989 by architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant that described bofællesskaber, or “living communities,” as they then existed in Denmark.

Bofælleskaber was developed in the 1960s by a Danish architect named Jan Gudmand-Høyer who wanted to build housing that addressed emerging realities, such as mothers working outside of the home and more single-person households. The goal was to embrace people’s needs, creating communities that were convenient, fun, practical, interesting, sustainable and affordable to live in. Early cohousing visionaries saw them as an antidote to the ills of the industrial age, where “man the worker” dominated. They wanted a greater sense of community than what was available in the apartment complexes and suburban subdivisions of the day.

In the fall of 1970, 27 families moved into Sættedammen, the world’s first cohousing community, located near Copenhagen. By the end of the decade, another 11 projects had been completed in Denmark. In 1981, the Danish Ministry of Housing enacted legislation creating favourable financing options for cohousing, creating a development boom.

Today, about 50,000 Danes, or around one per cent of the population, live in cohousing. Government support was pivotal in increasing the diversity of residents and allowing low-income residents to become part of the mix.

Cohousing has also become popular in the Netherlands, which is home to approximately 300 projects, the majority of which are for seniors only. There are more than 160 cohousing communities in the United States, largely multigenerational. Cohousing communities exist in many other European countries, such as Sweden, France, Germany and Italy. They can also be found in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

Durrett and McCamant, who coined “cohousing” as a term better suited to North America, began promoting the concept from their office in California.

When Evers and Staples read the book in 1990, they instantly knew they wanted to spearhead the development of a cohousing community in B.C.

In December 1990, they placed an ad in an alternative magazine called Common Ground. They used the words “intentional community” — more often applied to communes — since the term cohousing was still so obscure. They placed newspaper ads and radio spots and rented booths at Granville Island and the PNE and kept in touch with prospective members via telephone trees and letter mail. They named the group WindSong — their first consensus-based decision.

The group came into being at a time when government support for co-op housing was on the wane in Canada, and the “back to the land” movement of the 1960s, which led to the development of communes in places like Lund, Quadra Island and Nelson, had mostly dissipated.

Cohousing groups in Canada, including WindSong, use the legal structure of a strata corporation — meaning that units can be bought and sold much like any other condo or townhome would be, and any increase in the value of a unit accrues to the owner rather than the group as a whole. While residents place emphasis on community, and share skills and resources, most members have regular jobs and own their private living units.

In time, WindSong acquired a 5.8-acre property in Langley with one home on it, bordered by a salmon-bearing creek to the east and a townhouse development to the west. After a year-long struggle with the federal Environment Ministry about where the stream setback should go, the cohousers developed a site plan that would incorporate housing on one-third of the property.

Aerial views show WindSong’s 5.8-acre property before and after construction. Photos courtesy of Miriam Evers.

Architect Durrett’s plans included a glass-covered atrium that would allow WindSong to make the best community-friendly use of the narrow strip of land they planned to develop. The plan also included underground parking to make the site more pedestrian-friendly. These choices were elegant, but costly. Evers and Staples had begun working with builder and developer Bill Hancock to bring the plans to life.

Meanwhile, two more would-be cohousers were actively trying to recruit members to their cohousing projects. Alan Carpenter and his wife, Tricia, were hosting cohousing info sessions and meetings at their large, custom-built house in Surrey.

When the Carpenters approached Bill Hancock to see if he would work with them to build a development in South Surrey, though, Hancock levelled with them. WindSong had a better chance of getting built and if it didn’t get built, none of the other cohousing projects would get built either. Hancock advised the Carpenters to join WindSong or give up the dream.

So the groups converged. And the project was completed on July 19, 1996. It had 34 units ranging in size from 740 square feet (one bedroom plus den) to 1,840 square feet (four bedroom).

Alan Carpenter still gets emotional when he remembers walking into the empty atrium on that first day. After a lifetime of looking for one, he had finally found his forever home. The Carpenters were the parents of teenagers when they first moved to WindSong at the age of 48. Now 73, they have grandchildren living at WindSong and they marvel at what wonderful childhoods their grandkids experience as part of the tight-knit, multigenerational community.

Five days after the Carpenters first arrived, Evers and Staples moved into WindSong with their children, one-year-old Ben and five-year-old Lani. The couple often shared child care with other community members, and they shared pets, too. Camping trips always involved extra kids, and conflict was resolved more easily because the parents were right there to assist with it.

WindSong’s residents transformed an expanse of lawn into a productive garden. Photos courtesy of Miriam Evers.

To help me understand the impact of the cohousing community on their parcel of land, Miriam Evers brought out photo albums. One picture shows an expanse of green lawn, which sat behind the original house. That space is now rife with gardens, blueberry bushes, fruit trees, a gazebo, a well-appointed garden shed, composting bins, playground equipment and, on a nice day, herds of children. Chicken wire around the fruit trees discourages beaver activity. Native trees have been planted along the margins of Yorkson Creek in an effort to improve its habitat value for salmon.

The atrium, originally a tan brown, was painted using five vibrant Fort Langley heritage colours. Photos courtesy of Miriam Evers.

Another picture showed the atrium walls in their original brown colour. The builder and architect chose brown because they didn’t think the group could settle on a colour scheme in a reasonable amount of time. After a (lengthy — they were not wrong!) period of research and consensus-building, the group chose five vibrant Fort Langley heritage colours. The actual painting was completed in a surprisingly short period of time, with Cam Dore, a more recent addition to WindSong, on a tall ladder at the peak of the atrium, Howard and Alan on scaffolding, and teams who were learning painting skills below.

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Residents share a communal meal in the WindSong atrium. Photo courtesy of Vesanto Melina and Cam Dore.

When WindSong residents first moved in, there was no central kitchen or dining room furniture. There was, however, a workshop which was used by residents to build the kitchen. The dining room was put to immediate use even without a kitchen, however, with numerous potlucks served amidst mismatched residents’ furniture.

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WindSong’s tire berm, meant to dampen road noise and add beauty, became a bit of a misadventure. Photo courtesy of Miriam Evers.

Everyone agreed that the worst do-it-yourself idea the community ever had was building a berm out of used tires in an effort to add beauty and dampen road noise along 96th Avenue. Pounding dirt into tires using sledgehammers was much harder than people imagined, and the project stretched out over six years. To add insult to injury, they could never get much of anything to grow in the tires, let alone cascade over them.

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Vancouver Cohousing, like WindSong, features community-building common areas. Photo courtesy of Vesanto Melina and Cam Dore.
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Vancouver Cohousing residents work in their rooftop garden. Photo courtesy of Vesanto Melina and Cam Dore.

While some of WindSong’s early residents did end up moving, they often ended up moving to other cohousing projects.

Vesanto Melina and Cam Dore, who moved into WindSong in its earlier days, loved living there but dreamed of living in a cohousing community in Vancouver. About 20 attempts to build a cohousing project in the city had been started, but none succeeded until Melina and Dore became founding members of a new group about 10 years ago.

For our interview at Vancouver Cohousing, which is now five years old, I sat with Melina and Dore at a table outside their front door in a semi-covered outdoor courtyard that also functions as a pedestrian street, similar to the atrium at WindSong. Benches and planters brimming with flowers line the courtyard and a hummingbird visited fuchsias as we spoke.

Neighbours stopped by to exchange a few words, and at one point a toddler took a seat at the table and was served fresh raspberries by Melina. (He left as quietly as he had arrived, and I was given to understand that this silent raspberry exchange was a regular occurrence.)

Despite their smaller lot size, Vancouver Cohousing has planted 43 fruit trees and built rooftop gardens and greenhouses, often with repurposed, donated wood. These gardens provide an abundance of squash, greens, tomatoes and much more. Their raspberry canes, brought from WindSong along with rhubarb, are loaded with fruit.

Vancouver Cohousing succeeded because the group managed to tie up a deep city lot in an excellent location with an option on the lot right beside it. In time, they also managed to acquire a third lot adjacent to the first two.

These three amalgamated single-family lots now support 31 housing units. Melina and Dore purchased a three-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom unit for $606,625, or $578 a square foot, a price comparable to other condos being developed in the city at the time.

“Acting as the developers allowed us to take the typical developer profit and turn that into 6,000 square feet of common space,” Dore says.

A DIY panorama of WindSong in its early days. Photo courtesy of Howard Staples.

After his early successes with cohousing, Staples now spends some of his time consulting for new cohousing groups such as ours. Today, he says, municipalities in B.C. are much more on board with cohousing projects, in part because science has shown us that loneliness and isolation are important determinants of health. Staples, who has been consulting for my group, advises would-be cohousers to start engaging with municipal politicians and staff as early as possible in their development processes.

“Development is a political process,” he says. “It’s just all around better if you engage the politicians in a positive way.”

While cohousing has managed to avoid the financial pitfalls co-op housing has faced over the last three decades — in short, cash crunches due to the end of government support — it does face its own challenges.

Namely, the cost of developable land is very high, especially in the Lower Mainland, and competing with developers to tie up land presents a huge challenge for newly forming groups. This means that cohousing isn’t necessarily the best way to build affordable housing — and, subsequently, cohousing residents tend to be middle-class and less diverse than cohousing groups would like. This has led to a perception that cohousing is mostly for white, middle-class, white-collar people.

Some cohousing projects, like Village Hearth Cohousing in North Carolina, which was built for LGBTQ+ seniors, and New Ground Cohousing in London, England, which was created to accommodate women over 50, address diversity goals by building projects directed at specifically underserved groups.

Jamaica Plain Cohousing, completed in Boston in 2006, strove to “create a diverse mix of people from all classes, races, cultures, sexual orientations, as well as traditional and non-traditional families.” They created an internal affordability system to assist low and moderate-income homeowners, going above and beyond the 10 per cent affordable units mandated by the city, and they made each unit accessible for visitors who use wheelchairs.

In Canada, cohousing projects often offer a range of unit sizes to increase the diversity of family types and build infrastructure that ensures accessibility for disabled residents.

But there’s a long way to go. Public investment from senior levels of government could help projects develop new ownership structures, ensure even better accessibility for disabled residents and increase resident diversity. If that happened, the trajectory of cohousing in Canada would mirror that of other countries, like the U.S., which have seen projects become more accessible and diverse.

For current WindSong residents, the pandemic really threw into relief the extent to which community is an integral part of their cohousing lives.

Even though he loves WindSong, Staples did fleetingly consider moving when the pandemic struck. So much of what he appreciates about his home is casual conversations over dinner or when crossing paths at the mailbox, or in the atrium. WindSong via Zoom just didn’t feel like WindSong for a while.

But he’s over that now. And for the other five people I interviewed, the thought of moving out of cohousing has never crossed their minds.  [Tyee]

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