A Do-It-Yourself Extended Family


CHARLES DURRETT loved the sense of community he'd experienced growing up in rural northern California and wanted to find it in an urban setting. His wife, Kathryn McCamant, found that her parents, who live in Denver, ``are not much help for baby-sitting.'' This husband-and-wife design and consulting firm in Berkeley, Calif., thinking about starting a family, wanted to find a housing option that would provide the social benefits of an extended family but also would allow them to be independent. They couldn't find it in the United States. But they did find it in Denmark.

The team calls it ``cohousing'': groups of people coming together to design a new community around their needs. They own their homes while benefiting from shared resources. The idea is snowballing in Scandinavia, especially Denmark. The couple's new book, ``Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves'' (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif., $19.95), explores what they found visiting 50 cohousing communities in Denmark.

The concept is starting to catch on here. The book came out in September, and already 15 cohousing groups have formed in California, Colorado, and Washington. Inquiries are coming in from around the country.

``I think cohousing hits at the gut with what a lot of Americans are struggling with,'' Ms. McCamant by phone from her home in Berkeley. ``For most of us, the extended family is no longer a reality. So we need to find that supportive network outside the family.'' The soaring cost of housing, lengthening life spans, the desperate need for quality in child care, and a yearning for community are forging a new American dream, the authors say.

In Denmark, where the first communities began in the '70s, the authors found that this idea struck a chord for many kinds of people from all income levels.

``They were young families struggling with how to raise kids and hold down two jobs,'' McCamant recalls, ``singles of all ages who want a more supportive environment without the tangles of a family, and older couples whose kids have left home and are looking ahead.'' It's a valuable option particularly for single mothers, she says.

Typically, a co-houser owns his own house, yard, and a percentage of the common areas - rather like condominiums, although there's more freedom to make changes. The communities are usually new, built a short distance outside a small city or town, although some groups have refurbished old factories in cities.

In the Trudeslund community of 100 just north of Copenhagen, the 33 dwellings are clustered along two pedestrian streets, cars are parked at the edges, and woods are left standing.

A key element in these communities is a common house that serves as dining hall as well as for other social purposes. At Trudeslund, most residents eat three to four dinners a week, signing up two days ahead and paying $1 to $1.50 a meal. Each adult is responsible for cooking dinner once a month. Two adults and one child take care of planning, shopping, preparing, and cleaning up each night. Afternoon tea, served in the common house, provides a meeting place. Also in the common house are a workshop, a darkroom, a television room, a freezer, a guest room.

Residents design developments around their own needs. Trudeslund built a music room for the community's teen-agers to jam in peace, a cooperative store run on the honor system, and a laundry.

Child care is an important element of cohousing. The residents of Trudeslund formed their own after-school program and sent preschoolers to existing child care in the neighborhood. The responsibility for staffing the after-school program rotated among the parents, and other residents were expected to help out five days a year.

Social interaction - and privacy - are built in: front patios face walkways, but bedrooms face more private back yards.

``We never found anyone who complained about lack of privacy,'' says McCamant. ``In fact, very often - particularly in the early projects - people said they were overprotective of their privacy.''

Early projects took as long as eight years to build. Banks had to be convinced that the project would fly, zoning restrictions had to be overcome. Sometimes entire groups would split up over design questions.

``You've got to be willing to work with other people,'' says McCamant. ``You have to believe that there's something to be gained in a community and worth the compromises to get it.''

McCAMANT and Durrett's firm works with interested groups and is putting together a development team with financial and real estate expertise for groups in their area.

Can cohousing work in the US? Communes and ``intentional communities'' have been around for centuries in this country, but no cohousing community has been constructed here yet. Denmark is a homogenous culture with a socialist government. Can American families, whose ``dream'' is their own house on a private plot, go for this?

Grady Clay, former editor of Landscape Architecture magazine and a writer on urban affairs, says that the social reasons for starting cohousing in the US are ``compelling,'' but that ``most Americans have an ingrained, deep-seated hankering for ultimate privacy.'' Training in how to share, he says, will be needed. ``But self-selection is going to work - people who are attracted will flock.''

Robert Bresnahan, who's involved in a cohousing group in Seattle, agrees. ``Everybody doesn't have to live in it - only people who are interested. I think there's a huge segment who would want to. I'm amazed at the interest that's been shown, the type of people interested covers the political spectrum.''

For some Seattle cohousing groups, affordability is a big question, says Paul Fishberg, founder of the Seattle Cohousing Group. Cohousing may be doable for upper-income households, and for those qualifying for subsidized housing grants, but the middle class can be squeezed. ``[The authors] talk about doing it because it's `affordable.' It's not clear at this point. It's not necessarily cheaper than market-rate housing out there. But the reason is really a life style decision.''

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