On January 6th, 2016 I visited two cohousing communities in the Boulder, Colorado area. Boulder has a population of 100k with a surrounding area population of another 100k in a sprawling mass of satellite towns. Because Boulder is essentially a city built by hippies, a huge amount of land surrounding the city was designated as open space, and the suburban area is clustered beyond that. The first place we visited, Nyland, was outside of Boulder on what had been a 43 acre farm, and was surrounded by open space.
It had a big, wide open feel, and a spectacular view of the mountains. It is rural in that sense, but is fairly close to both Boulder (15 minutes) and the satellite town of Lafayette (10 minutes). The property would normally have been turned into a development of million dollar homes, but it happened to be right beside the water treatment plant, so wasn’t seen as desirable. And it turned out the the farmer had been part of a hippie commune in his youth, and was thrilled by the cohousing model, and happily let them option the land for as long as it took to get approval. This was in 1989, and was one of the first cohousing communities in the States.
The founders agreed on a few standard designs, but chose not to make them mobility-friendly for cost reasons, which has subsequently forced almost all of the original members to leave and move elsewhere. Bob and Colette are some of the few remaining original members, and they chose to make their place mobility-friendly from the beginning. Almost all of the new members are 20 somethings with kids – the community went from 4 kids to 40. The community is unusually large, with 42 houses and 100 adult members.
They rarely all get together to make decisions; instead committees make the final decision. They do all gather at the common house for parties. Common dinners are attended by smaller groups, partly because they have split into meatless and meaty options, on Mondays and Thursdays respectively. The houses are two storey, and seemed fairly large, with a full dining area, large kitchen and multiple rooms downstairs and presumably a few bedrooms upstairs. I believe there are full basements; some of these are now being rented out.
The common house is large and expansive, with a glass-enclosed kids room, huge dining area, industrial kitchen, smaller seating areas, guest room, meeting room, yoga room and mailbox area. The common house was at the entrance to the complex, near the parking lot, and a long walk from a number of the units.
Bob was very positive about the possibilities for building cohousing in a rural location, but said that it would involve recruiting from a market that really wanted that particular lifestyle. He suggested that if we wanted to use the farm property, we should buy a lakefront lot and incorporate that into the property to maximize the rural appeal. When the site for Nyland was chosen, that eliminated about half of the original group who couldn’t imagine being that far outside of town, but they found others who wanted that to fill the gap. He felt we could attract people to any desirable location, but that it might be new people, not our original group, if we didn’t all have the same vision. But he felt that figuring out what location worked for your particular vision and pursuing that choice was very important.
He also said that orienting it to snowbirds would reduce some of the issues with being way out in nowhere – if the assumption from the beginning was that we would only be there for 8 or 9 months, we wouldn’t have to deal with the long cold winter isolation, darkness, and lack of activities. He is involved with a group who have bought land on the coast of Baja an hour south of Cabo, with the intention of building a snowbird cohousing community that would attract people from other, northern cohousing groups, as timeshares, owners, or renters. We could look for (or get involved in) something like that.
Bob thought that cohousing, particularly senior cohousing, would be easier to manage in Canada than in the US, because we are more similar to Denmark in our social system, health care, and general attitude towards societal support. Senior cohousing really only works with the addition of support from outside agencies. Co-care is great, but becomes problematic when there is too much need. In a normal neighborhood you generally never know that your neighbour is lonely or sick or needs help.
In cohousing you can’t help but know, and that burden can be overwhelming and depressing. Some people have moved out because of it. The ideal situation, says Bob, is to be the first person to die, because you will get tons of support. As everyone ages and has more issues, that gets less and less true. And the concern would be whether young seniors would want to move into a place filled with lots of old, fading members. It is important that there are other resources that can be tapped to reduce that strain, and our social system makes that easier than in the States.
He also said that some rural communities have started to sell lots, rather than shared ownership, which allows for more individual home choice, and may be easier for municipalities to accept. However he felt that municipalities would also be more receptive to a senior community, as they were all desperate to find solutions to the seniors problem. My second interview, Arthur at Silver Sage, made the same point.
Nyland was built all at once, with a full commitment of owners. Finding a site, and requiring people to come up with real amounts of money, is when you discover who is really interested. They had a developer who has since gone on to build all the other cohousing communities in Boulder, including Nomad, Wild Sage, Silver Sage and the one under development, Washington. The city has bent over backwards to accommodate and has donated much of the land. This is partly because the developer agreed to include affordable housing units, which leads to the odd situation where the same house can cost $150k or 800k. But Boulder is a strange and unique place in many ways.
From there I went to see Arthur Okner at Silver Sage. His 1100 sq ft apartment was beautiful and well set up for flow. You entered the front door into a living area, with a small dining table past that, and a small but gorgeous kitchen beyond that, with a back door and patio from the kitchen, leading to the pedestrian walkway. Opening off the kitchen was a door to an office, which then circled back to the front through a walkthrough bathroom with large shower on one side and toilet and sink on the other, then through to a closet and the bedroom and back out through a door to the living room right by the front door. Very cosy, efficient, mobility friendly, but also attractive. This was the first small house I have seen in cohousing. He paid 400k for it.
His was a ground floor unit; there is an elevator in the common house to the upstairs units, as well as staircases at both ends and in the middle and a wide walkway past the upstairs units above the pedestrian walkway. There are 12 apartments, two sets of three up and three down with the common house in the middle, and also 2 duplexes across the walkway, for a total of 16 homes, with the large and well-equipped wood shop and garden equipment shed in between and across from the common house, so everyone is at most 3 houses away from the common house.
In front of the common house is a large courtyard with outdoor seating areas and raised bed gardens. The site is long and skinny, but fairly compact, on 1 acre of land, and right across the street from Wild Sage, a multi-generational group. However, Arthur complained that it isn’t set up very well to interact with the neighbours – because he is at one end, he has no idea what the people at the far end of the row are doing.
I also visited one of the duplexes, which was significantly larger and more wide open – tall ceilings, big kitchen, etc. Not sure if it was one or two storey. There are parking garages and spaces behind the duplexes, but there is also street parking outside the front doors of the apartments, so Arthur says that adds to the isolation, because he parks by his front door and never sees anyone. And for whatever reason, Silver Sage and Wild Sage don’t mingle. The Danish model doesn’t seem to apply here – perhaps, as Bob suggested, due to societal differences? Arthur also told me he used to live at Nomad (a multigenerational cohousing complex in Boulder), but found that he was alone all day long, as everyone else was at work.
He was far more skeptical than Bob about making a rural community work. Most fail, he claims. He also feels that a senior community would be especially difficult to do in a rural area, given the need for proximity to health care, activities and other social networks. Cohousing is incestuous, he says, and is like a closed system – it needs oxygen to survive, and that comes from outside contact. Too much interaction, too much conflict, and things get unpleasant.
Arthur thought we should talk to the people at Abingdon VA, which is a senior community in a rural location, an early model. There is also a group in Manzanita that he thought we should check out. Many decisions are affected by taking advantage of affordable housing grants, but these are very worthwhile and can really help get a community off the ground. He recommends going with a senior-targeted plan, but not restricting age limits.
Silver Sage took three years to build, but things are easier now with developers, consultants, architects who specialize in cohousing. They had a huge issue with building problems. Their developer hired subcontractors who did poor work – the entire fire suppression system started leaking and had to be replaced at huge cost. The developer had insurance, but the insurance company was not reputable, and it took many painful years of court battles to get things straightened out. So his advice is to hire an experienced builder and make sure that he is legally tied to his subcontractors and that his insurance company is reputable.
He recommended that we come up with a mission statement and a vision. This helps weed out the people who are interested but aren’t a good fit. Even things as basic as non-smoking, or pet policies – if someone disagrees vehemently with the policies (or presumably the number of rules) they will and should walk away.
One of their teams (committees) is the community enhancement team. Their job is to deal with conflict, wherever and however it arises in the community. They hold workshops and help resolve issues, working with individuals or other teams that need to move things forward. There is also a care committee that deals with aging in place issues.
It is important to have some meetings that are not about decision making and conflict, but just sharing meetings – where you all talk about yourselves and not the issues.
He, like Bob, believed that municipalities would be receptive to a senior cohousing development as a solution to the boomer problem, and said it would be best to do a presentation to the council, with slides and information, (based on the books and workshops by Chuck Durrett), and tell them it is based on a proven Danish model.
They have definitely run into aging situations, and it has gone fairly well – when he had a stroke a year ago, people walked his dog, cleaned out his fridge, and looked after him when he got back from the hospital. One person with Parkinsons had to leave, but another is still there, with their spouse, and the help of the group. One person with dementia has been able to live at home for far longer than would have been possible on her own.
They have only been there for 9 years, so haven’t really run into long term issues, but feel it is important to try to attract younger seniors. I asked about hiring someone to cook meals in the common house, wondering if that idea had ever come up, but apparently not, and Arthur said it would just be easier to hire a caterer to bring food in, rather than hire staff.
Arthur said we should talk to Bryan Bowen, a local cohousing architect. We should definitely go to the conference in May, and we can call or email him with questions anytime.
I then did a tour with another resident (Wahhab) who moved here with his wife Kay 2½ years ago and lives in a duplex. Wahhab said that he is glad to be there; he is an introvert, and would probably only know 1 or 2 people in Boulder if they had just retired to a house there, but here they have all the interaction they want. He said he is still getting adjusted, and that the biggest adjustment was not taking on too many responsibilities – he did that in the beginning, but has learned to scale back.
The exterior of the houses are maintained by the community, so redoing all the roofs or repainting all the houses is done all together, and paid for by the fees. They just had solar panels installed on all of the houses, and got a great deal because the contractor could do all of the houses in one go, in one location. One of the members has set up a cable system in the basement of the common house, and offers service to all who want it for much less than the local cable companies (it looked like our machine room, with all the telephone punch-down boxes and lots of wire).
He showed me the woodworking shop, with all of the many power tools, mostly donated by members from their previous homes. Then he took me through the common house, which was amazing. It’s 5000 sq ft, over three floors, including a full finished basement. It doesn’t seem that large on the outside, but it was full of useful areas. The door from the pedestrian walkway is left open all day, and someone is designated to come around at night and lock it and shut off the lights. The door to the street is kept locked at all times.
There is a large kitchen, with a big central island; every drawer is marked with its contents. There is a gas stove, but most of the common dinners are done as potlucks (twice a week), so the stove is rarely used, but the island and kitchen supplies are pulled out. There is a dining area and a seating area right next to it, with comfy couches and a fireplace. The couch is new; the common house committee has a budget each year, and decides how the money should be spent. There is an entertainment room with television, bookshelves, and lots of comfy chairs; room for about 12 people at once, which is fine for the current group of about 24 – some people don’t really socialize, and some can’t really get out of their homes anymore.
The main floor also has a crafts room, which has lots of art supplies, which are purchased individually, though everyone is happy to let you use their sewing machines and other equipment. There is a small meditation room. Upstairs has been rented out to a number of artists for studio space, there is also an office that is rented out to a member. At the elevator, there was a bulletin board and mailboxes and cubbys for each member, and they also have a website with information and schedules.
There is only one guest suite, and it was occupied so we couldn’t tour it. The bathroom for the guest suite is outside in the hallway, and Wahhab says the guest suite was terrible – he and Kay spent a week or two there when they were deciding whether to buy in, and as soon as Kay took charge of the common house committee she made it a priority to fix it up, but the exterior bathroom couldn’t be helped. There were supposed to be two suites but only one got built, and now the other room is used for the studio rental – the income from all these rentals comes in very handy.
Downstairs is an exercise room, quite large, with machines and space for yoga mats that are stored in a corner. There is a fancy set of exercise equipment which needs training to use, one of the members offers free instruction. There are also classes, with a fee for various programs.
There was a mechanical room that we couldn’t get into, and a storage area, which was essentially like an apartment lock-up but without walls or cages – just tape marks on the floor delineating your place, and a map showing space allocation. It seemed to work just fine, and was a necessity for all those people who had downsized.
I would have expected a large outdoor deck area upstairs outside the common house, but it seemed rather small (but with a great view). The downstairs courtyard is significantly larger. The walkways in front of the of the upstairs apartments was quite broad, but treacherous with snow; members do a bit of shovelling themselves, but hire people to do most of that; only a narrow path was cleared – is that a problem with wide balconies?
Both communities were fully occupied, and seem to be quite functional. Nyland has become an affordable option for families that can’t begin to afford to buy a house in stratospherically priced Boulder. It has become very large and very kid-centric as a result, but is a thriving community. The houses were large, on purpose, and the common house was also unnecessarily big, because it was pretty much the first of its kind.
The unusually large size of the community and the full-size houses are not what I would want (though the view was amazing). Silver Sage seems to be a workable place for people to grow old together, though Bob from Nyland believed that there were issues with the amount of co-care that people were willing to offer. The homes and common house were beautiful, welcoming, and seemed like places that would be great to live in, though the skinny, long lot apparently reduced interaction. And it is surrounded by other houses and the city, with busy streets, traffic, etc.