NICK MEIMA WAS FEELING INCREASINGLY isolated. “I had a growing sense that as I was working on my house, my yard, my driveway, that I was building a glass wall around my house.” The developer and CEO of a large retirement community in Ann Arbor, Mich., Meima found himself one day in the library of the University of Michigan's school of architecture. That's where he saw the book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, by Kathryn McCamant, Charles Durrett, and Ellen Hertzman (2nd ed., Ten Speed Press, 1994).
It detailed a concept imported from Denmark—a type of community whose residents choose to be neighbors even before land is purchased. Cohousing communities are designed to foster social interaction rather than isolation. Units are smaller than average, with a large commons building serving as an extension of the homes.
“After reading the book, I had a feeling of relief that there were others who felt like I did and had created a viable solution,” Meima says.
So Meima started talking. In 1994, he gathered a group of like-minded people, and with two partners who were also professional builders, the group in 1996 bought 10 acres of land outside Ann Arbor. They began building, and in 1998, four years after Meima's visit to the architecture school library, he and 88 others moved into the Sunward Cohousing community.
The project also took Meima and his partners into the cohousing business. Their Cohousing Development Co. is now building its third community in the Ann Arbor area. A small niche market, with kinship ties to sustainable housing and New Urbanism, a cohousing community is an intentional community—committed to diversity, environmental sustainability, and keeping members from disappearing behind that glass wall of isolation.
There are some 80 cohousing communities operating in the United States, with another 10 in advanced stages of development, according to Chris ScottHanson, a cohousing consultant. They tend to be small, ranging from nine to 44 households. And they're built wherever a large enough pool of like-minded people exists—as urban infill, within a master planned community, or, like Sunward, as a stand-alone in a semi-rural area.
Builders and developers such as Meima say it is possible to make money from these unorthodox projects. Cohousing has its advantages for builders: The communities come with a group of highly motivated, highly committed buyers. The downside? A group of highly motivated, highly committed buyers.
Projects achieve consistent 75 percent to 80 percent pre-sales before breaking ground, according to Neshama Abraham, a cohousing consultant. That preselling substantially reduces the risk for a builder/developer, says Don Tucker, president of Eco Housing Corp. in Bethesda, Md., which co-developed two urban communities in the Washington area. One, Takoma Village, was built on vacant land that for years had defied neighborhood approval for development.
What won over those skittish neighbors to Takoma Village was meeting the cohousing community's members, Tucker says. Having those highly committed buyers at your side “allows you to put a face on who's going to live there. They're active advocates at community meetings. You can't talk about ‘those people' when they're right there in the meeting.”
Those highly motivated buyers will also do all they can to sell the project. “We had a marketing budget of $20,000,” says Patty Lautner, a founding member of Jamaica Plain, a just-completed community in Boston. “We spent $5,000.”