Sunward, Great Oak and Touchstone
On May 21st, 2017, Marc, Kris, Barb and Lori went on a tour of the three cohousing communities in Ann Arbor. Robin, Paul and Genevieve were very helpful, answering all of our questions and showing us the common house and individual units in all three places. Robin, who has lived in Touchstone for a number of years, was our official guide. Paul is one of the original Sunward members, and Genevieve has recently moved to Sunward from Touchstone, having previously lived at Nyland cohousing in Boulder Colorado.
Sunward was completed in 1998, on 20 acres of land right at the edge of the city, with 40 units, 95 people, and a 7500 sqft common house. The property was already zoned multi-residential, so they avoided all the rezoning hassles; they were fortunate that the property was incorrectly listed by the realtor as industrial mall when it was zoned multi-residential; they felt they would have been competing with developers if it had been correctly listed. The land was, in fact, right next to an area of industrial malls, and surrounded on the other sides by farmland and woods. They reserved 10 acres as untouched woods, and put the homes and other amenities (storage, parking, gardens, playing fields) on the other 10 acres.
By the time Sunward was completed, there was an extensive waiting list, which inspired a couple of members to form a development company, buy the adjoining land and develop the next two communities in conjunction with the new residents. Great Oak was built in 2003, on 7 acres, with 37 units. Touchstone followed in 2005, on 6 acres; there are currently 34 units, although they are debating adding either 8 or 12 more units in order to spread the costs of the common facilities over a larger group.
They were quite affected by the housing crisis. A number of homes weren’t sold, and the developers put them on the market as rental units instead. The common house wasn’t built until last year; instead they were absorbed for many years into the Great Oak community, given space for meetings and access to the common house there.
The communities look quite similar, and are very close physically, especially Great Oak and Touchstone, which are right up against each other. Apparently Sunward is stick-built and the others are modular, but they have a very similar style. The pedestrian walkways are narrow in Sunward, wider in Great Oak and wider still in Touchstone – apparently an increasing demand by the fire department for easier access.
The larger walkways at Touchstone allow for more amenities like benches and basketball hoops, but also present a landscaping challenge – they have planters on wheels that can be moved out of the roadway (though I have to wonder who would drag the planters out of the way when the firetrucks are roaring in). All of the parking for all three communities is at the periphery, and no vehicles are allowed into the area where the houses are – there are carts available for carrying things.
The residents are also quite tight-knit – not just with their own group, but across all three. Everyone there seemed to legitimately know and have a relationship with everyone else there – quite remarkable, given over 100 households, many of which are families with kids.
It was interesting to get Genevieve’s perspective on the differences between the cohousing communities she has lived in. She felt that Nyland was too big – even though it turns out that the number of houses at Nyland is only two more than Sunward’s. However, Nyland was very spread out, on 43 acres, with very large, completely detached houses, and I definitely agreed that it didn’t have the same feeling of community. But that seems likely to be more a function of design and interpersonal dynamics than number of houses.
I was, in fact, quite surprised at how tight-knit all of the Ann Arbor communities felt, given that they were all at or above the maximum recommended number of houses. It may well be helped by the fact that these houses are semi-detached row houses, clustered close together, all within easy reach of the common house. The front porch layouts are such that people can actually talk to their neighbours or the people strolling by. And the generally lovely landscaping presumably encourages people to use those front porches.
Each household was in charge of landscaping their “front yard”; this resulted in some beautiful, elaborate gardens, some well-maintained lawns, and some rather wild and out of control yards. It was interesting that the unkempt yards were far more prevalent at Sunward than at Touchstone, where everything seemed incredibly well-groomed. Some difference in personalities, ages, or peer-pressure?
Regardless, I suspect that we want to take this out of the individual household’s hands, and have a landscaping committee that is in charge of all of the grounds, including directly in front of the residences. This will probably be partly our own labour, but partly hired out. And I would think that anyone who wants to go nuts in front of their front windows should be free to do so. But aging seniors are far more likely to end up with those wild and untamed looks, and not everyone will want to deal with landscaping. We should leave it to those who enjoy it, or pay someone to do it.
Another difference Genevieve mentioned was that in Nyland a fair number of people were renting out a portion of their large houses to families while continuing to live there. This did have the effect of significantly increasing the actual number of households living there. Genevieve also told us that she was one of those renters, and that renters were treated very differently than owners at Nyland, and not made to feel like fully participating members of the group.
She was also a renter at Touchstone and Sunward, and said the experience was completely different – everyone was seen as equal partners here. Renters don’t vote on financial decisions, but otherwise are full participants. It was an interesting distinction, and one that we should keep in mind if we do decide to include rental units. Having all residents fully engaged in making the system work seems critical to success.
Robin made the point that membership recruitment, of owners or renters, was crucial to the success of the community. You need to make sure that everyone moving in understands and embraces the cohousing concept, and is a good fit with the other residents. Prospects are encouraged to go on tours, attend dinners, attend meetings (which is crucial to grasping the good and bad aspects of consensus decision-making), stay in the guest room, help out on work days, read over the community documents.
She and the other people on the membership committee work hard to educate prospective residents. Paul said that this is why a vision statement is essential, that it should be established early in the process, and that it needs to encompass those concepts that will bring in the people who will fit in best with the group. Being serious about this with renters as well makes sense, and ideally the community, and not just an individual landlord, gets involved with vetting renters. And having rental units, either until such time as a buyer is found or as a permanent feature, allows people to try before they buy.
Everyone here is expected to do 4-10 hours of work per month, and can choose what work they want to contribute. If it rains and you’re on watering duty, you luck out; if snowfall is especially heavy, you do more work. If the group has trouble getting volunteers for a particular job (snow shovelling, for instance) they hire outside workers, rather than force reluctant individuals to take on that role. Snowbirds still contribute from abroad, doing things like email management.
You don’t cook common dinners unless you want to cook, and common meal preparation and cleanup is considered part of the the general work system. This approach seemed like an interesting contrast to Yulupa, where they were struggling with compliance on chores and a lack of interest in volunteering to cook common meals, and I wonder how work assignments were chosen there.
At one point Great Oak shared meals 5 nights a week, which they believe is the most of any cohousing group in the States. That has decreased a bit since then, but they still have a number of meals each week. The other two run less often; at Sunward it is only 1 or maybe 2 a week. Recently the three communities have started a system of cross-community meals, where anyone from any of the three projects can sign up for a meal at any of the others.
On average, the number at a common dinner is around 30 or 40, with a limit of around 65, just in case everyone signs up at once – since there are 111 households total. Still, given the high frequency of meals, they are fairly well-attended, and are definitely seen as a huge feature of cohousing – Robin says she now often signs up for two meals on the same night, eats one on site, and takes the other as leftovers for another day. They did say that we should think very seriously about our meal routine – once something is established, it is hard to change.
Decision-making in general is certainly one of the major challenges in cohousing, especially with such large groups. It takes many meetings, many hours of discussion, and even then sometimes no conclusion is reached. Touchstone is currently discussing building more houses on site. They have a choice of building 8 homes and leaving some greenspace, or building 12 homes instead. They couldn’t agree. They tried role-playing, taking each other’s perspectives, all the tricks in the facilitator’s book, and still they couldn’t agree. So they aren’t doing either for now.
Sunward has just shifted from full consensus to a ⅔ majority (based on the votes of everyone who shows up to the general meeting, or their proxy votes), because they found it very frustrating that one or two individuals would show up at the final meeting, after extensive committee work and long discussions, and vote against everyone else. (Paul was somewhat uncertain about whether the majority was of households or of adult members.)
They were able to change the voting procedure because their charter allowed for that option (you would think that would need consensus, but apparently they had a work-around). The person who was doing a lot of the blocking has since moved out, and the residents are happy with the new system. The other two communities still use consensus, and all of them have an annual consensus training course. They recommend a book by Tim Hartnett on consensus:
Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making:The CODM Model for Facilitating Groups to Widespread Agreement
Committees all have a charter and a budget (some at $50, others at $500); they can make certain decisions and spend up to their budget without general consultation, and beyond that it goes to the general meeting.
We did a walking tour of all three communities. The Sunward common house had a pretty standard industrial kitchen – two ovens, sterilizer, big centre butcher block, lots of storage, high ceilings with lots of light, ceiling fan, open to the main room, but with only a single induction cooktop, which seemed minimal, but they assured us was lots. The main room also had nice high ceilings and lots of windows, but had a very school/cafeteria feel – orange and yellow walls, shiny red concrete floor.
The tables were OK – sturdy wood, on wheels, which is convenient, but again just felt so cafeteria. I would rather avoid that fate, and without small children, we should be able to come up with nicer but still flexible and functional solutions. The main floor had a nice fireplace/sitting room and a mailbox/bulletin board area. All of these communities are multi-generational, with a real focus on children, and it showed in the large and well-equipped play rooms, as well as the outdoor play areas, climbing equipment, playing fields, etc. Downstairs, there was a large games room with lots to appeal to adults, but again painted in primary colours with a concrete floor.
The TV room was better, with couches and carpeting, and there was a nice big workshop, exercise room, craft room and laundry room. The guest room, though, was rather dismal, with a red concrete floor, two basic single beds shoved against the wall, and an institutional bathroom outside the door. The Sunward common house was two storey, and they discovered that the downstairs rooms were not as well used, and that the whole serendipity thing – running into people and striking up a conversation – didn’t work for those rooms. The later two communities put everything on a single floor.
The home we toured in Sunward is for sale for $289,000. It was four bedrooms, with a big open concept two storey living room. Many people convert some of that space into a loft. All of the multi-storey homes has at least one bedroom and a bathroom on the ground floor; the front steps could easily be replaced with a ramp for accessibility.
sThis unit was one of the few that backed onto the garage area, rather than greenspace. Most of them did have privacy out their back windows. Many had also fenced in their backyards, but otherwise you did share the backyard space with your immediate neighbours.
The woods between Sunward and Great Oak were a nice feature, with lots of walking trails. The architect had done a great job of utilizing the natural features of the site (an old gravel pit) by building some houses above the main ground level and building the ones opposite into the slope, which allowed less blockage of views and sunlight, and meant that the front doors of all of the complex was accessible from level ground.
All of them had lots of outdoor features like gardens, trellised seating areas, picnic benches, outdoor common house patios with BBQs, as well as decorative elements and kid play spaces. Sunward had only a few garages and carports, with most people parking in an open lot; the later two had added more garages. You could choose to buy a garage or not, separate from the cost of your home.
The other two common houses had similar features as Sunward’s, but on a single floor. The main room still had a rather institutional, cafeteria style feel. At Great Oak they had opted for gas cooktops. The music/yoga room had a nice hardwood floor and dramatic decorations. The fireplace room seemed more elegant, but the guest room was another depressing place with an institutional bathroom outside. The exercise room was smaller, but this group had chosen to add a hot tub outside.
The common houses were kept locked, and so were most of the nicer rooms within the common houses, in order to keep the kids out. Apparently they had also had some trouble with neighbourhood kids and random strangers using the common houses. Dinners were held around 6pm and the common houses were locked and closed up between 10 and 11pm; we vowed that even if we got old, we weren’t ever going to be that old.
Great Oak had a huge woodworking shop that they shared with Touchstone. You had to trek through the woods or down the road to get from Sunward to Great Oak, but the other two developments were pretty closely connected. Touchstone, unlike the others, had some smaller stacked apartments. You could get either a downstairs unit with basement, or an upstairs unit with attic. Basement and attic could be finished or unfinished.
Upstairs and downstairs units shared a front porch, with the front door for the upstairs apartment opening directly onto a straight, wide interior stairway. This makes sense given that this stairway was lined up with the ones that went up and down to the attic and basement, and is different than our thought about a single enclosed staircase that accessed all of the upstairs apartments via connected balconies.
This might, in fact, be a more weather-friendly access option. Balconies (or doors to nowhere) were options on the back (private) sides. These apartments were in the same buildings as larger two storey homes, but we could easily go with a 4 up – 4 down configuration where the building exteriors would look pretty much like the ones in Touchstone.
Robin showed us her upstairs apartment, with her really nice finished attic bedroom and ensuite. Not really practical for seniors. But the main floor of the apartment, with kitchen, living area, 2 bedrooms and a bath, was quite adequate living space, and you could give up the attic if you had mobility issues. Though of course getting up the stairs to the main floor is the first challenge, which could be solved with a lift chair. Her apartment was also nicely finished with hardwood floors, skylights, nice kitchen.
Robin has a great view out of her windows, but is quite unhappy about the fact that the farmer who owns the land is trying to build a housing development there. The cohousing communities put a lot of time and effort into going to council meetings and arguing against development in the area (which did strike me as rather ironic).
On one side they are now looking at a new University of Michigan campus, still being built, which has led to traffic and construction detour hassles, and they are concerned about losing their dark skies, but it turns out that the township has little power over what the University does. The development on the nearby farmer’s fields does look like it will move forward, and seems especially likely given the housing demand created by the new campus. The idyllic setting that they have enjoyed for the last 20 years is now being encroached upon by the expanding city.
The Touchstone common house was smaller than the others. It was also less garishly painted, with a gleaming stainless steel kitchen. The rooms were nicely finished, and the guest room and bathroom were a bit more welcoming. The dining room was still pretty much a cafeteria, though it looked better without the orange walls.
There seemed to be no question that these cohousing communities had, indeed, built real communities. The common houses were full, all three of them, with kids playing, adults working or relaxing, people doing things together or on their own, but making good use of this shared space. Great Oak had a work day while we were there, followed by a well-attended and boisterous ice cream social. People were out gardening, working in the woodworking shop, walking their dogs. Everyone we met was friendly, happy to engage and answer questions, including the guy who randomly invited us in to see his house.
While the common houses were clearly successful in terms of valuable features that were well-used and appreciated by the community, their aesthetics were less than ideal. I attributed some of that to being multi-generational, with the added wear and tear and chaos that kids bring. But the institutional primary paint colours and the dreary guest rooms could have been avoided.
Marc was hoping for some insights into how to modify cohousing designs for cold weather snowy climates. I’m not sure we achieved that, as we were surprised by the lack of garages, and the interlocking brick walkways.