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Alcohol & Other Drugs

Everyone Has a Little Architect in Them

Co-founder talks about life in Vancouver’s first cohousing community

Ericka Stephens-Rennie

Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (4), pp. 26-28

It's 5:30 on a Monday evening and I'm playing Lego-Hot Wheels with my kids at home, building tiny, four-wheeled vehicles and using the Hot Wheels launchers to see how far and f ast we can make the Lego cars go, and whether they survive the trip. It's a game my five-year-old invented, and while he gently coaches me and his two-year-old brother on how to construct our vehicles for maximum speed and total destruction, he tells us stories about his day.

While his hands are occupied, I'm focused on him and his brother. He tells me about the book at circle time, who he played with at recess, why his socks got wet and a play he's imagined and that he is recruiting his classmates to act in. My littlest one happily interjects with his own comments and questions, in between finding all the Lego pieces that are now spread across the living room floor. It's good to reconnect at the end of our day, and I'm aware that I'm privileged to have these focused family hours because of where I live. Mondays are common meal nights in our cohousing community: a team of three people will cook for about 40 community members, including us. When it's not our turn to cook, all we have to do is show up.

Regular common meals are one of the rhythms of life in a cohousing community. A cohousing community is a type of housing that is financed and designed by the first residents who live there, and that sets aside a large amount of space as common amenity area, which we call our common house. Cohousing neighbours live together following a few guiding principles that create a common lifestyle. In our cohousing community, we make certain decisions by consensus, we take part in cooking and cleaning up after common meals once every five weeks, and we do some committee work to support the work of our strata and community.

Before we were residents, the founding members of the community formed a development company together. To pay for the project, we pooled the money that would become our down payments and used it to purchase the land, and to pay various tradespeople. We worked with an architect to determine everything about the buildings and open space. We made choices about what rooms would be included in our 6000-square-foot common house. We also had the architect design each of the 31 private homes. At the moment of closing on our future homes, our investments in the development company became our down payment.

One of our architects, Charles Durrett, used to say, "Everyone has a little architect in them." Turns out, when you empower people to make design choices about their living space, they have really clear ideas about living space. For instance, most of our twobedroom homes have just one bathroom— rather than the conventional two-bedroom, two-bathroom layout.

When given the choice between more living space, more storage or an extra bathroom, most people chose the living space. And when you live in a community with 31 private homes and a common house, there are plenty of other bathrooms in an emergency. When there’s a line-up for the bathroom in our house, the kids choose to knock on a friend's door, or the door of a nearby neighbour. Sometimes such trips to the bathroom result in our kids bringing home a baked treat, a friend or a dinner invitation—and the kids are almost always gone longer than it takes to pee. We call this "being cohoused"—when you're waylaid by helpful neighbours or entertaining conversations—and it happens a lot around here.

Our design, like most cohousing communities, maximizes human interaction with simple tweaks to what you might see in a standard multifamily housing complex. Instead of facing away from each other, our front doors open onto a common courtyard. Kitchen windows overlook common areas, frequently with the sink at the window—most of us want to be interrupted when we're doing dishes! As our mail delivery person says, "This place looks like it was designed by real humans."

Indeed.

Our common house is an extension of our private homes. My private home has two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, living room and dining room. I could never afford a huge kids' play room, a big shared office, a craft room, multiple guest rooms or a wood workshop—but I have access to all this in our common house, in addition to a big kitchen, dining room and multipurpose room.

I work from home, frequently in the shared office space in the common house. My husband and I do weekly yoga and fitness classes with neighbours in the multipurpose room. When we host birthday or Christmas parties, we do it in the common house, where we don't have the space limits of our 850-square-foot, open-concept home. Our kids play in the common house playroom, which is outfitted with mattresses, pillows, a swing and hanging rings. They spend time there on rainy days, in the early morning and right before and after dinner.

We can share parenting and child care with neighbours. As a result, my husband and I have more date nights, more opportunities for quiet time together and more time for ourselves.

In the current Vancouver real-estate market, if we were to buy on our own, all we could ever afford is a twobedroom condo. That housing option would have given us privacy, but we wouldn’t have been able to afford much else. Living in a cohousing community, on the other hand, allows us to choose how much privacy we want and how much public life we want. And each member of our family gets to make this choice for themselves. My husband, an introvert, frequently chooses to use the back stairs or attend only small-group gatherings. I often choose larger gatherings and go places where I am more likely to meet people.

Of course, there is sometimes conflict among neighbours, as there always is when people live together. We host an annual community workshop on conflict resolution to build a shared framework of how to resolve conflict. The common house also facilitates regular positive interactions with most neighbours, and I find the frequency of these interactions makes it hard to stay in conflict with any one individual for long. That isn't to say that all my neighbours are my best friends. On the contrary, many of them are simply neighbours—people I'm friendly with, from whom I'd borrow a cup of sugar or whose dog I'd walk in a pinch.

We are aware that this kind of "neighbour-intensive" housing is not for everyone. We stumbled upon the idea of cohousing while endlessly searching for two- and three-bedroom condos that were centrally located and in our price range. While we didn't find one of those condos, we did stumble on an article about Quayside Cohousing1 in North Vancouver and became curious about the idea of this kind of collaborative housing (a general term that includes a range of intentional communities). We'd lived in cooperative housing, a form of lower-cost, community-oriented rental housing, in Ottawa and Vancouver. We'd even considered collective houses before—where more than one family resides under one roof—but we found that to be too much community and not enough private space. Could cohousing be the answer?

For us—six years and a few hiccups later, the efforts of more than 40 adults and our success building a 31-unit, multi-million-dollar housing project—the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

 
About the author

Ericka is a co-founder, community member and resident of Vancouver's first cohousing community. She’s a policy analyst passionate about trying new things and finding innovative solutions for complex problems. A Jane-of-all-trades, she prides herself on learning something new everywhere she goes. Ericka is a wife and a mama to two little humans in Vancouver, BC

Footnotes:
  1. Cohousing Development Consulting. (n.d.) Quayside Village. https://www.cohousingconsulting.ca/proj%20Qv.html.

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