For the past seventy-five years, residential architecture has prioritized the individual private space of the single-family home. Outside, the car has dominated the transportation landscape, diminishing the possibility for people to interact with each other and to establish a sense of community and connection with others. The cohousing paradigm attempts to make changes to this dynamic, and it’s coming to Houston.
Cohousing is a form of communal living that organizes private residences and shared public spaces together into a larger residential arrangement. Examples of cohousing have been realized throughout the United States since the early 1990s. Now Cohousing Houston (CH), a newly formed local group, is laying the groundwork to be the first cohousing project in Texas.
In May, the group finalized the purchase of a 1.5-acre lot in the East End, a neighborhood chosen for its proximity to transit, green spaces, and downtown, as well as its affordability and residential scale. Here, the group anticipates building approximately thirty homes that appropriately fit into the surrounding context; CH intends to participate in the community through volunteering, supporting local schools, and offering its communal spaces to neighborhood organizations and groups for their use. Real estate developer David Kelley financed the purchase and will retain a small portion of the lot upon which he plans to build a coliving shared housing space (coliving is a living arrangement where individuals have private bedrooms and share common spaces within a building).
The conceptual goal of CH is to make space that facilitates community for its inhabitants. The constructive goal is to build a set of townhouses and apartments that share a common house and common courtyard; it’s not a gated community and the shared spaces are not merely a “suite of amenities.” As CH member and experienced cohouser Kelli Soika explains, “In cohousing, your day-to-day life is set up for relationship convenience.”
CH has engaged a team to design the physical space as well as consultants to help establish the parameters of the community. Kathleen English at English and Associates in Houston and Bryan Bowen at Caddis in Boulder, Colorado, who has designed several cohousing communities including those shown in the accompanying images, are working together on this effort. CH is also in consultation with Katie McCamant, president of Cohousing Solutions, who is one of the founders of cohousing in the United States.
Community By Design
Architect and CH member Kathleen English notes that traditional single-family houses—and especially townhomes—are built in a way that isolates people from those who live nearby. Cohousing attempts to remove these barriers to promote casual visiting and easygoing encounters among neighbors.
One of the major changes from traditional housing that English and Bowen are planning is the relocation of parking. Instead of having garages beneath townhomes, as is often seen in Houston, a collective carport will be placed on one side of the property. Upon arrival, cohousing neighbors will walk from the carport through the common courtyard to their homes. Many cohousing groups provide sturdy, shared carts so that neighbors can easily move groceries and purchases from their car to their home. Along the walk, neighbors have the chance to say hello, or they may stop and chat, or just wave. They might see their children or their neighbors’ children on the playground, or friends starting the grill. The courtyard provides an opportunity for the serendipitous hello.
When the garage is removed from a townhome, the residence’s ground floor becomes more useful and accessible; people can live on the ground floor and access the outdoors without using stairs. English is considering plans for front and back porches or patios to create a casual environment for neighbors to spend time together outdoors. She’s also thinking about kitchens that overlook the shared courtyard, as this placement supports more possibilities for neighbors to see each other and interact, or for parents to keep an eye on their children. Ultimately, the goal is for ground floor living rooms to connect to outdoor living areas and for these outdoor living areas to connect to shared community spaces.
CH’s project includes a common house, which would be shared by everyone in the group and at times available for the larger community to rent or reserve. Many common houses have a commercial kitchen, dining capacity to seat all residents at a weekly meal, a workout room, an appliance and/or tool library, a playroom, a teen room, a meditation room, and guest rooms. At times, the dining room would also be used for film screenings, house concerts, yoga classes, and other group activities. CH is currently planning for a common house of approximately 4,000 SF.
English cites architect Shelly Pottorf’s studio, her Prairie View A&M students’ explorations of pocket neighborhoods, and her award-winning work in Independence Heights as a tremendous influence on her interest in and understanding of communal living. “With [her work in] Independence Heights, Shelly was exploring how to take the existing fabric of a neighborhood and heal it so it supports a thriving community. We [English and her husband Steve Stelzer] joined cohousing coming straight out of that studio experience.” Ross Chapin’s Pocket Neighborhoods also provided a visual guide and description about how this kind of building creates community.
As one might expect with a group interested in community, a concern for sustainability is important. Individual residences are planned to be smaller than typical Houston homes—600 SF for a studio and nearly 2,000 SF for a four-bedroom unit—with the understanding that the shared common house and courtyard are living spaces for all residents. The community is also looking at how to introduce ample amounts of natural light in the homes and incorporate solar and/or geothermal energy sources.
Mary Goldsby will be designing the landscape for CH and will bring her considerable experience with mission-driven landscapes to the shared courtyard. This space is anticipated to be approximately thirty or forty feet wide by 100’ long or more. The group is working to finalize elements in the courtyard such as vegetable and herb gardens, a shaded dining area, and a pool.
Group decisions are made utilizing a facilitated discussion process known as consensus, a process that involves a lot of listening, discussion, and time. The goal is to reach agreement about what is best for the group as a whole. Soika cites the four P’s of cohousing as items that often go through consensus: parenting, pets, parking, and participation. Cohousing mediator Karen Gimnig has been engaged to help the group learn the process.
The group has created two limited liability companies (LLCs): one for the land and one for its development. Kelley, the project’s real estate developer, is the sole owner of the land LLC, which has purchased the land that will be bought by the development LLC when sufficient funds have been raised. Monthly public meetings at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month function as info sessions and are free of charge. Anyone can join and learn about cohousing. For people interested in getting involved and taking a closer look at this option for themselves, households are asked to become an Explorer and to pay a nonrefundable $250 fee. To be part of decision-making process, households sign documents to become part of the development LLC and contribute at least $2,000. This also serves as the start of a down payment for a future unit. The earlier that households buy in, the larger the discount they are offered when they purchase their unit. Currently twelve households have bought in and have raised over $100,000. There will be additional calls for funding this month and in the fall. Each funding call establishes a payment plan for members to achieve a 20% down payment equivalent of the best estimated price of their unit. Residences range in price from $270,000 to $770,000.
Cohousing Houston has set up several teams to address the various components of communal living while simultaneously working via consensus to come to decisions on design. While the group is still very much in the midst of their design process, it has plans to break ground in summer 2021 and for homes to be ready in 2022.
To learn more about this project, visit cohousinghouston.com.
Victoria (Torie) Ludwin is a writer and editor living in Houston. She has previously written for Cite on natural swimming pools, playground design, the Whole Foods at the Galleria, Park(ing) Day, the I-45 expansion, trees, urban highway reclamation, and more.