With co-housing, home is a community

October 1, 2002


Not everybody wants the white house with the white picket fence.

But the yard work and maintenance that come with traditional home ownership isn’t the only reason for ruling out that particular, and quintessential, American dream.

Some are seeking a sense of community they contend is missing in many of today’s neighborhoods, as the distance widens between neighbors’ front doors in new subdivisions and front porches give way to backyard decks.

Among the alternatives is co-housing where architecture – housing units are configured in close proximity with perimeter parking – and communal space work to encourage interaction.

“Interaction is inspired,” said Amy Nesbitt, who lives in an Ann Arbor co-housing community called Sunward.

The first such development in Michigan, Sunward has 40 units and more than 95 residents.

The co-housing concept originated in Denmark in the ’60s and took root in North America in the ’80s, according Robert W. Marans, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

To date, there are about four other co-housing developments in Michigan.


Interestingly, Nesbitt wasn’t seeking to live in a co-housing community when she decided to relocate to Ann Arbor. Friends were living in a three-bedroom townhouse there and an extra room was available.

“I was very skeptical,” said the 32-year-old booking agent. “And I didn’t come for the interaction.”

Today, she plans to join friends in buying a unit in one of two co-housing developments planned next to Sunward.

“I always had the fantasy of doing a modern industrial condo or an old Victorian house,” said Nesbitt. The benefits of co-housing were enough to change her mind.

“It takes a long time in a traditional housing situation to meet your neighbors. You really have to work at it in regular housing. In co-housing, it’s more happenstance. It’s very spontaneous.”

Other benefits include the convenience of laundry facilities, a gym, a media center and a multi-purpose room in Sunward’s common house.

Group meals are prepared for and by residents four times a week; participation is optional, and every housing unit is equipped with its own full kitchen. But many residents, including Nesbitt, appreciate not having to cook every night and the luxury of more free time.

“It’s awesome for me,” said Nesbitt. “I tool in from work and there’s dinner.”

Adjacent to the common house dining area is a sitting room with fireplace and two-room play area for children with tables for arts and crafts, beds for naps and storage for toys and books.

Even mailboxes are in the common house as a way to bring together neighbors in conversation and camaraderie.

“That’s the key with co-housing – making it easy for people to connect,” said Nick Meima, chief founder of Sunward and president of the Co-housing Development Company, which is currently building Sunward’s two adjacent co-housing communities.

Already under construction is Great Oak, with 37 units ranging in price from $150,000 for a two-bedroom to $350,000 for a four-bedroom.

Construction on Honey Creek, which will have up to 46 units ranging from $97,000 for a one-bedroom to $350,000 for a four-bedroom, is scheduled to begin in 2003.


Sunward was developed jointly by Meima, seven core founders and the rest of the community’s original residents. Resident participation in the planning and building process is often a stated goal of co-housing communities.

Overall development layout also plays a key role in achieving the aims of co-housing.

At Sunward, for instance, some townhouses form parallel rows and face one another, creating what Meima calls a “lane.”

The setup might be best described as a miniature Main Street, and the idea is to reduce physical distance between neighbors.

“The more physical distance there is between people, the less likely it is that people will interact,” said Meima.

Indeed, avoiding one’s neighbors would be hard to do, especially if you’re sitting on the front porch.

However, Sunward residents seem to view lost privacy and a greater sense of community as a fair trade, said Marans, who led a 1999 University of Michigan study of development.

“What they lost in privacy, they gained in this feeling of community,” said Marans.

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