Home But Not Alone

Nestled behind a typical suburban strip of car dealerships in Scio Township, at the end of a road that winds between the type of faceless office parks featured in Office Space, is a cluster of condo complexes that, at first glance, look as if they might house those glassy-eyed office workers. Sure, they're a tad more aesthetically unique, but nothing unusual.

But park your car and look around, and you'll see that the reality is very much different.

For starters, the "park your car" sign is the first clue that things are different here. The interior of the complex is dedicated solely to pedestrian walkways, with parking for residents and visitors relegated to the perimeter of the homes.

And what appears to be a big clubhouse/office building at the center of each community is actually a common house -- a welcoming building with a big open kitchen and gathering spots that are used by everyone in the community.

Which is the magic word here -- community. It begins to tell the story of what goes on at these three developments in Scio Township: Sunward, Great Oak and Touchstone are cohousing communities.

Cohousing is a relatively new concept in Michigan, although it's been popular in Europe for decades. Simply put, it's a form of intentional community, where the residents make decisions about the future of their community together and share some meals, chores and activities.

Cohousing runs counter to the isolationist tendencies inherent in most suburban communities, where at the end of the day you drive into your garage, hit the button, close the garage door, and ignore your neighbors. In a co-housing community, most units have no garage, and everything from the orientation of the houses to how you get your mail is designed to facilitate casual interaction among residents.

Nick Meima, the founding member of Sunward Cohousing, the first of the three communities to be built, says cohousing is fundamentally different from most other types of housing.

"What we're asking people to do is first and foremost to commit to being a member of the community," he explains. "Another difference would be our values, vision, and mission statements, which have to do with how we as a community of people relate to one another and the environment. That doesn't exist for a typical condo development."

Units range in size from small efficiency-style apartments to large, spacious three-bedroom homes. Smaller one-bedroom homes are priced around the mid $100,000s while the largest four-bedroom homes land around $329,000, which is in line with prices in surrounding communities. Community fees are relatively low, approximately $300 per month depending on the community. Each has its own kitchen, hookups for washers and dryers, and either an attic or a basement space, and each person organizes their household as they see fit.  A sense of sharing: shared meals, shared spaces, shared "stuff", however, is paramount.

The common house is the soul of each cohousing community. It contains members' individual mailboxes, similar to what you would see in an apartment building. All three of the Scio communities' common houses have a large kitchen, a library-type room for reading, guest rooms, and a kids' space with toys and games. Great Oak and Sunward also have private offices that are rented out to members of the community, allowing residents to work just a short distance from their home.

Another feature of the three communities, which is emblematic of cohousing, is a shared meal program. Residents of each of the three communities can participate in anywhere from two to five shared meals a week, depending on the community. There are also parties, movie nights, classes, and all manner of other gatherings to bring people together.

Residents have a work requirement of a few hours per month per person. Work can include meal prep and cleanup, giving tours of the community to visitors, clearing snow, planting gardens, or watching children during meetings.

Each of the three communities were also designed for the highest possible sustainability at the time they were built, which means Sunward was built to mid 1990s standards while Touchstone is state of the art. However, Meima says, all of the communities maintain an open attitude toward modifying one’s home to be more energy-efficient, and things like adding solar panels to the roof of your home are very easily approved by the community. Try that at your typical condo complex.

It's those kinds of issues and values that are reflected in cohousing bylaws - everyone in the community makes decisions via a consensus of all voting members. This is indirect contrast with
 a condo board, where a few elected representatives steer the community. "It's a council of equals," Meima says, "Everybody in the room has a right to be there, and if you have something to say that is germane, you're expected to offer that – and you're equally expected to listen."

Cohousing as a movement began in Denmark in 1972, and was brought to the United States by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in the early 1980s. Meima read their book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves in the late 1990s and knew, immediately, that it was something he wanted to be involved in. At the beginning of 1994, he began talking with friends and networking to find other people who were interested in the idea, and by May of that year was able to bring in McCamant and Durrett for a workshop on getting the community built.

Resident involvement in the planning of the community is a significant part of the cohousing movement. When outside developers create such neighborhoods (which is rare), the residents work in partnership with them to make sure the community matches their vision.

The core group of 30 people began searching for a site that had the right multi-family zoning as well as their desired attributes -- a natural setting with woods and ponds but without a lot of trees that would need to be clear-cut. The Scio Township site they settled on was a former sand and gravel pit with little vegetation, backing up to farmer's fields and 10 acres of woods.

Explaining to township officials what they were doing was not difficult, Meima said, but explaining it to the banks was another story. Several turned them down until finally, they found one that saw the potential.

"It was really hard initially to find somebody to give us a construction loan," Meima says. "They had never seen this before as an entity -- a group of people doing this on their own. We had no prior experience with this, and we had hired a contractor who was very reputable. The bank realized it was actually a safer loan and far less speculative than what they usually do, but it did take a while since it's an unusual story to tell."

Sunward was completed in 1998 and comprises 40 households. Great Oak --a short hop down the road from Sunward-- was completed in 2003 and grew out of a waiting list of people wanting to join Sunward. Touchstone, the newest community, is currently being completed and grew out of the waiting list for Great Oak. Great Oak has 37 units, and Touchstone will have 42 when it is completed.

Unfortunately, the Touchstone community has been affected by the credit and housing crisis much more than the other two cohousing complexes. While most of the home are complete, more are being rented than was originally planned, and funding for their common house did not materialize as expected. While the community works with the banks an unoccupied three-bedroom unit serves that purpose for now.

A certain amount of maturity in dealing with others is inherent in being a cohousing resident -- but interestingly, more introverts than extroverts choose this living arrangement, Meima says. They tend to be attracted to it because it integrates a certain amount of sociability into daily life -- sociability all of us crave no matter what our personality type, he adds.

"You count on a certain amount of social life to happen on a day-to-day basis living in cohousing," he says. "You have the opportunity to draw a line at the front door of your house -- at same time, you can go out and engage with people when you feel like it."

The three communities have a diverse range of ages, from younger people in their 20s to retirees. Multi-generational living is another important cohousing value. Nancy Stryker moved to Sunward after her daughter went off to college. A single parent, she found living in a large home designed for privacy felt isolating. Seven years later, she says, "I absolutely can't imagine living anywhere else than cohousing. There are so many advantages over being an individual living ‘on an island' by yourself." For example, when she was injured a few years ago, community members brought her meals and helped her with getting groceries. "That wouldn't happen anywhere else, and I would do the same for anyone here," she says.

Children are an important part of the fabric of a cohousing community. Sunward residents make a quilt for each baby born or adopted into the community, and the kids' space in each common house forms tight bonds between children and parents.

George Albercook and his wife moved to Sunward before their son Zander was born 10 years ago, and they have since had a daughter, Maddie. "We joke about being sort of lax parents in cohousing, because you don't know exactly where your kids are at all times, but on the other hand you have a half a dozen people looking out for them at any given time."

Modeling the shared decision-making and community aspects of cohousing to his kids is a way to live out the motto of  "building a better society, one neighborhood at a time," Albercook says. "If we can't sit and talk across a dinner table….. if we can't model it in our own houses, how are we going to solve conflicts peacefully in the world?"

Detroit freelancer Amy Kuras has written about local schools – among a host of other topics – for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to
Metromode. This is her first story for Concentrate.


Nick Meima and his Wife Prepare Lasagna for 30-40 Members of the Community-Ann Arbor

The Common Room at Sunward Cohousing-Ann Arbor

A Sitting Area Overlooks the Children's Playroom-Ann Arbor

Dogs are Welcome to and Seem to Enjoy Themselves-Ann Arbor

The Mail Room with Adjacent Community Message Board(not in picture)- Ann Arbor

The Back View of the Common House with Child Playscape to Boot-Ann Arbor

We Get A Sneak Peak at What's for Dinner on Thursday(or was)-Ann Arbor

The Kitchen is HUGE and it has to be to Accommodate Meals for 40 People-Ann Arbor

All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He doesn't live well with others.

Check out his killa blog and see what else he does. 
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