Cohousing: Living large in small houses

Sabin Green cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

Photo by Steve Hambuchen.

Today’s article on cohousing communities was contributed by Alyse Nelson of Sightline Institute. We hope you enjoy the article and the two galleries that follow!

Cohousing: Living large in small houses

The small house movement has grown dramatically as the housing crisis and economic recession has hit the United States. There are many reasons small home dwellers have selected less square footage: some hope to save money on housing; others are trying to “live green” in a smaller space; some are trading living space for a neighborhood they love; and others want to live closer to family or friends.

Jay Shafer, a co-owner of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, told the BBC: “People are thinking more about what really is a luxury now. Is it a 30-year mortgage, or is it just living simply and having the time to do more of what you want? And I think a lot of people are starting to really change their idea of the American Dream.”

But the question remains: Does living in less space mean giving up on a larger life? A small home can save you cash but if you don’t have room for your hobbies – playing a musical instrument, baking cookies for your child’s classmates, creating furniture with your tools – the monetary savings might not seem worth it. This may mean small houses appeal to only a minority of the population.

There is a solution that allows many individuals and families to choose small houses while living a larger life – the “cohousing” model, where smaller individual homes are coupled with shared community spaces. These spaces might include a shared kitchen, laundry facilities, tool shop, studio space, gardens, and bicycle and kayak storage. Lina Menard, a small-house dweller and blogger, writes: “People who lived in a tiny house community would have access to all these things, but they wouldn’t have to own all these things themselves.”

Ruth's Garden Cottages cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

Large shared garden at Ruth’s Garden Cottages cohousing community. Photo by Mike O’Brien.

Cohousing is a unique type of housing style – it’s a community where “residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods,” according to The Cohousing Association of the United States. Like condominium or apartment communities, residents share access to common facilities. But the sharing doesn’t end there – cohousing communities typically feature a common house with shared kitchen and dining areas. The residents also take a more active role in shaping their community, typically including dinners together a few nights a week, work parties to maintain their property, and resident meetings to make group decisions.

Small home communities are starting to become a reality in Portland, Oregon. Eli Spevak, owner of Orange Splot LLC, has developed several innovative housing projects in Portland. “My goal is to keep modeling new ways of providing affordable, community-oriented houses,” Spevak told The Oregonian. Taking advantage of Portland’s accessory dwelling unit regulations, several interesting developments have combined elements of small-home living with community – creating intentional, small-home developments.

Ruth’s Garden Cottages

Ruth's Garden Cottages cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

Two tiny cottages were built to the side of the existing small house, allowing the front garden to be preserved. Photo by Mike O’Brien.

Ruth’s Garden Cottages sits in a neighborhood in Northeast Portland. The project blends into the existing single-family neighborhood. Spevak took an existing 50-foot by 100-foot lot and added two small accessory structures to the side of an existing 800 ft2 (74.3 m2) home. The home has an attic bedroom and a full kitchen on the main floor that is shared among the site’s residents. There is also a courtyard, covered bicycle parking, and a 50-foot front yard garden.

Ruth's Garden Cottages cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

Natural light permeates the cottage in this view up to the sleeping loft. Photo by Mike O’Brien.

The cottages may be less than 200 ft2 (18.6 m2), but they provide the necessities for residents – including a shower, micro-kitchen, sleeping loft, and a well-proportioned front porch.

Ruth's Garden Cottages cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

The main house contains a full kitchen for all the residents to use, but each cottage has a small kitchen area for quick snacks. Photo by Mike O’Brien.

Small living in a community means that the site’s residents get to share some special amenities. At the Ruth’s Garden Cottages, that includes covered bicycle storage, a rainwater harvesting system, a courtyard, and an outdoor fireplace.

Ruth's Garden Cottages cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

Front porches and a common courtyard provide outdoor living “rooms” at Ruth’s Garden Cottages. Photo by Mike O’Brien.

Sabin Green

Sabin Green, another Portland development by Orange Splot LLC, features four homes built on a 75’ by 100’ lot. The lot had a single-family home and detached garage. The single-family home remains but the detached garage was converted into a 576 ft2 (53.5 m2) cottage. A second home and a 530 ft2 (49.2 m2) accessory dwelling were built as well, both designed by Communitecture. The four homes face onto a central courtyard, but they also have access to shared gardens, a community room with space for visitors, and a bike storage shed. The sharing doesn’t stop with physical improvements: residents also use just one Internet service, share a newspaper subscription, and meet for weekly dinners.

Sabin Green cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

Sabin Green from the street. The original house is on the right. Photo by Eli Spevak.

The project is home to a diverse group, including a young couple, retirees, a single woman, and a small family. Residents Laura Ford and Josh Devine paid just under $150,000 for their 530 ft2 (49.2 m2) home. They downsized from a 700 ft2 apartment, but see the loss of square footage as worth the cost. “If you live by yourself, you might not be able to afford the brick plaza, the teahouse, the gardens,” Devine told The Oregonian.

Sabin Green cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

The back deck of one Sabin Green home has a view of the common courtyard and shared teahouse. The new accessory dwelling unit is at the back. Photo by Steve Hambuchen.

Sabin Green cohousing community by Communitecture and Orange Spot LLC

The existing garage was converted into a separate residence. Photo by Eli Spevak.

Small home communities like Ruth’s Garden Cottages and Sabin Green make a lot of sense. When you share the tool shed and tools, the kayaks and bicycles, the art and music studio, and the laundry room, houses can be smaller without much sacrifice. When residents come together to share these facilities, they grow close relationships while they save cash.

Economic and demographic trends are leading many of us to reevaluate what we want in a home. More and more folks are looking for homes within walking distance of jobs, stores, and transit—and have proven willing to trade square footage for a vibrant neighborhood. Small homes are a great solution for many individuals and small home communities will appeal to even more people.

Alyse Nelson is an urban planner for a small town in Kitsap County, Washington. She is a Writing Fellow for Sightline Institute. This article was adapted from Living Large in Small Houses, an article she wrote for Sightline Institute.

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Gallery: Ruth’s Garden Cottages

Gallery: Sabin Green

Photographs by Steve Hambuchen, Mike O’Brien and Eli Spevak, courtesy of Orange Splot LLC.

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