How long does it take someone in cohousing to walk 30 metres from their car to their front door on a Friday evening? Forty-five minutes and two beers or cups of tea, depending on which neighbours we run into on the way from the parkade, through the common house, to the courtyard and walkway surrounded by our homes.
Prairie Sky is Alberta’s first cohousing community, now 11 years old. It lies 3.5 km from downtown Calgary on a half-acre that formerly held a single-family home. We are 18 households—singles, couples, families—each of which owns an apartment or condo in one of the three buildings on the land, as well as a share in the 3,200 ft2 common house and the grounds. The grounds include a landscaped courtyard, a community garden, a playground and a multipurpose area. The common house has a large dining room for shared meals, meetings, house concerts, dances, games nights and private parties, plus a kitchen, lounge, laundry room, playroom, rec room, studio, quiet room, guest room, workshop and other useful facilities.
Prairie Sky was dreamed, planned, financed and designed by people who wanted to live in a community that would foster both commitment to the common good and respect for the individual. It would be something like a chosen extended family, based in trust that the benefits of intentional community would outweigh everyday irritations. Even condos with shared facilities don’t offer the assurance of true community that Prairie Sky does, with our consensus decision-making about everything from what appliances were initially installed in our homes to how the space in the common house is used. During the development process we hired professionals for many purposes, but future residents were always in control. As we struggled through that process, I wondered how it would feel to be living in cohousing. Now I know, and I think the value of our intentional community has lived up to everyone’s hopes.
Rarely does anyone have to pay for a taxi; we just send an email to the community and someone volunteers a ride. We look after each other’s pets, plants and homes while our neighbours are away. I’ll carpool to church events with neighbours who go to the same church and to exercise classes with other neighbours. Sports equipment is easy to borrow. I used Hazel’s skis and boots for two years before I bought my own. Rick sent out an email one evening saying he needed a daypack and the next morning found three on his doorstep. Not everyone lends their car or offers space in their home, and there is no expectation that they do so, but many do.
Another benefit of this community is security. Prairie Sky’s biggest dog, Toven, knew us all and barked only at strangers. Holly once noticed from her balcony two men in thecourtyard. “Can I help you?” she called down. One man said to the other, “See? I told you.” He was a police officer showing his colleague a community designed so a stranger couldn’t walk in unnoticed.
Another aspect of our security is the help readily at hand in case of emergency. One cold winter night, a pipe ruptured in his basement while Darien, age 13, was home alone. He called neighbour Ray, who was there in five minutes to help out. Holger and his family were on vacation when a heavy rainstorm flooded their basement window well, but they came back to a dry home because Prairie Sky neighbours attended to it. Duff and Mich had something similar happen when they were on vacation. As Duff recalls, “Someone phoned to tell us our basement was wet, but it was being looked after. We were grateful to be able to carry on with our plans instead of having to rush home.”
Before we’d even bought the property, planning had contributed substantially to Prairie Sky’s success. Future residents gathered for hostel weekends, canoeing trips, potlucks and meetings. We took care to develop a consensus-seeking process that heard every voice and considered the good of the whole. This procedure contributes significantly to reinforcing our commitment to both the common good and respect for the individual. We agreed on four defining values: community, respect, sustainability and affordability.
Prairie Sky was dreamed, planned and built by people who want to live in a community that fosters commitment to the common good.
Our physical planning was grounded in the work of Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, architects who co-authored North America’s “cohousing bible,” Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (1988). They studied architecture in Denmark, where cohousing communities started in the early 1970s and proliferated rapidly.
Once we decided on our property in 2001, we brought Durrett and his colleague Greg Ramsey in to help us develop a design that fit the property. My husband, Bernie, and I were among the seven households that were equity members when we bought the land; the design workshop convinced another four. It took another year and a half to recruit the rest of the 18 households we were building for. Completing our community a few months before the May 2003 move-in date was cause for considerable celebration.
The physical design principles focus on facilitating interaction. A good-sized common house ensures opportunities for shared activities. All the homes face a central courtyard and walkway, and the kids enjoy running to each other’s houses in their socks. Unlike neighbours who may not see each other at all through the winter months, we see ours coming and going. Encounters in the common house hallway are common: two who stop to chat there soon become three, four or a small crowd. Our outdoor spaces are designed to encourage gatherings: tables and chairs in the courtyard, playground space, a community garden.
Affordability sometimes took a back seat to other values during construction, so our homes, which range between 750 ft2 and 1,500 ft2, were valued at the middle of the market. We didn’t compromise our conviction that we needed a sizable common house in the interest of community. We ensured excellent soundproofing in the interest of respect and privacy. We bought triple-glazed windows to save energy. The decision to buy inner-city land reduced emissions from commuting but increased initial costs.
Higher than anticipated initial costs meant some who’d hoped to buy in couldn’t. Still, some equity members with less money negotiated loans from others who had more, and those loans have been repaid. When newly widowed Joan came from Vancouver to see if she wanted us for cohousing neighbours, she told us she dreaded dealing with banks. She recalls, “At lunch, two people disappeared into the kitchen and came back to offer me a bridging loan. I was so touched.”
But affordability came after we moved in. Bernie charted our utility rates over the early years and found they were a third to a half of Calgary’s “normal” households. Our water use is low, with dual-flush toilets, water-saving showerheads and narrow bathtubs. Good insulation and efficient heating systems save on gas. We share a single Internet account, split up by our resident geeks among the 18 households, who must trust each other to pay their share and not gobble up all the bandwidth.
A lot of the affordability lined up with our interest in sustainability. We need less “stuff” because we share things such as ladders, hoses, power tools, lawnmowers and a car. Our gardeners are keen on organics and permaculture, so we have composting and controlled watering. We share recycling and composting tips. Ann instituted the practice of calculating who recorded the fewest dryer loads compared to washer loads in the common laundry room and announces the winner at our AGM. Joan always wins, but I’m encouraged to compete even though I begrudge the extra time it takes to hang clothes instead of tossing them in the dryer. Our collective interest in planet-friendly practices isn’t always about saving money, however. We pay a premium for windpowered electricity and we are considering solar panels.
The social life and economic advantages of Prairie Sky combine in many ways. Our Social Team organizes games nights, movie nights and sometimes events such as curling and bowling. The weekly common meals cost $4 ($2 for children), and potlucks cost whatever you contribute. Shared labour such as our “work bees” for landscaping saves money and provides camaraderie. With Bernie donating his expertise as landscape designer and many of us working weekends the first summer, we saved about $50,000 for the early work on the courtyard, walkway and planters. Will commented on the difference between the end of a day spent working in his former home’s yard and the end of a day spent with 20 people working on the landscape at Prairie Sky: “I used to think about everything I hadn’t finished; now I can relax with friends to share beers and snacks and celebrate our accomplishments.”
Another benefit of our close-to-home social activities—besides that there’s no need to worry about drinking and driving—is that it suits both introverts and “mixed” couples. Not long after we moved in, Rick told me, “I never used to make social commitments because I didn’t know if I’d feel like going when the time came. Now, when something’s happening, I can just go, or not.” (He usually goes.) If Bernie and I are at a house concert or a games night and one of us wants to party on while the other would rather go home early, there’s no issue. Extroverts are more likely to stay late; introverts, to stay for awhile and then go home to read a book.
Of course, not everything is perfect. We’d welcome more diversity, especially in ages. It’s a sign of success that 13 of the 18 original households are still with us 11 years later, but it means that the children we once had are 11 years older, so the children of new people who join us tend to be older as well. We lack significant diversity in social classes and cultures, but several of us have experience working with a broad spectrum of the public as occupational therapists, teachers or nurses, and one of our core teams is “Community Care,” so we have some resources to deal with the challenges more diversity would present.
The consensus process is essential to our collective well-being, but it can delay projects that some are eager to accomplish. Differing priorities can mean that someone isn’t ready to start work on a project when someone else wants to. Liam, one of our teens, reminded me that the teens’ longed-for tree-house took a year for design, costing and agreement and still wasn’t finished before the next winter set in.
Sharing the responsibility for keeping up the common house and grounds can cause friction. We each have our own standards of cleanliness and different takes on whether our shared decisions about living here are “rules” or “guidelines.” Living in close community can also mean personality clashes. Before he moved in, Jonathan wondered, “What if there’s somebody I don’t like?” We knew everyone wouldn’t like everyone else, but our central value of respect helps to smooth inevitable frictions. Potential conflicts that aren’t averted by our consensus process may be addressed with input from the Community Care team when the conflict is between two individuals or families. Gatherings of all members to address an issue of more general concern are designed to hear each person’s voice. Hearing each other’s perspectives and feelings expressed with both honesty and respect goes a long way to reduce friction.
The really big challenge for cohousing communities is how hard it is to get them started. For Prairie Sky it was eight years between the time four couples first dreamed the dream and actual move-in. The eight friends had lived in subsidized housing with children of similar ages and agreed that when they could afford their own homes it would be wonderful to live close together. They found the cohousing concept attractive. However, it takes time to find a critical mass of people who are committed enough to put substantial amounts of time and money into the project. The overriding problem was the concept’s unfamiliarly in Alberta, and potential buyers’ skepticism could only be overcome if they knew and trusted someone who was informed and enthusiastic. Over the years, life intervened in ways that meant many of those who were valuable contributors in early stages were not among those who eventually moved in.
Finding a suitable site was a challenge, as the tucked-away neighbourhoods we were accustomed to were not zoned for multi-family housing. To keep our purchase prices from rising out of reach, Lynn Hannley, one of our development consultants (Communitas in Edmonton), suggested we invest our RRSPs in private mortgage bonds issued by the project. Unfamiliarity with cohousing made banks skittish about providing construction financing; two attempts to borrow fell through, and the deal we finally reached required a 35 per cent down payment, which had us scrambling to borrow from friends and families.
Mortgages on our individual cohousing homes were also difficult to get; even many of us who already had mortgages couldn’t get new ones from the same banks. For the most part, the “big banks” were not interested and still aren’t. First Calgary Financial has been more helpful, though not always without reluctance and hassles. Still, nobody has had to give up on a Prairie Sky purchase for lack of a mortgage.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that banks are unwilling to take what they perceive as a risk, but it was surprising that the City of Calgary, in principle enthusiastic about creating community and denser inner-city building, was so slow with permits that we faced delays and consequent “fiscal cliffs.” Most serious was the lack of an occupancy permit after a by-the-book fire inspector decided a month before move-in day to assess our units by single-family-home rules, which would have required massive reconstruction. Fortunately the City also produced a saviour in planner David Price, who provided an interpretation for fire inspectors that allowed our strata title project to be considered equivalent to condominiums.
The two years between land purchase and move-in were very demanding. Buying the land meant the clock started ticking for repaying interest on the loan. Decisions had to be made about design and construction and financing and how to work together effectively. Someone in a lead role would wear down and someone else would step into that role. “It was like replacing the lead goose in a flock to give it a break,” Mich said.
That has become a favourite metaphor for our community, extended with a nod to “the rest of the flockhonking encouragement from behind.” The year after move-in was also stressful, as we worked on the common house and the landscaping as well as on our own new homes. Shared work and upgrading continued afterward, as it would with any home, but the pressure was off and the good times took over.
We are often asked how difficult it is to sell one of our places. The turnover rate has been less than one a year, and most homes have sold very quickly, though one took about six months. The sale is up to the owner, but we residents have a very large network of acquaintances who have been to our homes or to some of the many events held in our common house, and to them the cohousing concept is now attractive rather than strange. Buyers need to be approved by the community. The process is designed to ensure that they understand how the community works and that they intend to play an active part in it. Nobody has been turned down or later deemed a misfit. They buy a share in Prairie Sky, which is refunded when they leave.
People who are drawn to the community-building focus of cohousing tend to be drawn also to environmental responsibility.
Our hope was not only to live our own satisfying lives in a strong community but also to be change agents, to see other cohousing developments grow in Alberta, break trail for them and make the concept more familiar and the dream more accessible. Various estimates suggest that between half to three-quarters of groups who start cohousing projects fail, giving up in frustration with costs rising beyond their means and regulations that work against designs meant to create strong and environmentally responsible communities.
A recent example in Alberta is Corvus Commons, a group that in their fourth year was set to buy land in Black Diamond but was defeated by the town’s land use bylaw. They wrote in a letter to the town council announcing the end of their attempt that “the land use bylaw does not encourage modest dwellings and compact, efficient use of land [or] promote the conservation of greenspace and the natural landscape… To the contrary, [it favours] sprawling consumption of land and the unnecessary destruction of natural features.”
Representatives of many groups have visited Prairie Sky, but it was most of a decade before Dragonfly Cohousing, also planning cohousing in Calgary’s inner city, began to look promising. Board members of the Canadian Cohousing Network (CCN) suggest that the turning point marking probable success is acquiring land, which “grounds the energy.” It also indicates significant financial commitment in the group. Still, having land did not mean smooth sailing for us, nor for Urban Green Cohousing, which faces a lengthy rezoning for their inner-city site in Edmonton, and especially not for Dragonfly. Dragonfly seemed well launched in 2013, with their inner city site purchased and 33 of their planned 36 homes spoken for, but they struggled to deal with steeply rising construction costs, inadequate advice from consultants and costly delays by City regulators. In March members agreed unanimously to sell their land and instead purchase an existing building or a new phase of a real estate project. They still intend to include a common house concept, multi-use spaces and recreational facilities for families and others in the community, but the change of plan comes with unavoidable financial loss for members and a frustrating delay until they can move into something like the community they dream of.
People who are drawn to the community-building focus of cohousing tend to be drawn also to environmentally responsible living. Why should it be so difficult for folks who want to take care of each other and the planet to do that in Alberta? Zaak Robichaud of Dragonfly says environmental concerns were a priority for them but they found no support from local or provincial government for research or grants that would help them build accordingly. He says the City treated them as though they were building for profit, despite the Municipal Development Plan’s assertion that the city wants to “promote innovative housing types, such as co-housing.” Dragonfly’s experience has been no better than Prairie Sky’s in terms of the official incomprehension and delays that cost our not-for-profit organizations many thousands of dollars. Dragonfly came to see its environmental aims, once possible, as a luxury.
Robichaud, Della Dennis of Urban Green, Valerie McIntyre of the Canadian Cohousing Network and Lynn Hannley of Communitas have suggestions for how governments could support cohousing developments. The federal government could ensure that Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation provides mortgage insurance so purchasers can get high-ratio mortgages without major hassles. It could also bring back incentive programs for green buildings. The provincial government could provide grants for cohousing projects that support the community-focused, sustainable housing so
badly needed to counter urban sprawl and energy-sucking mansions. Municipal governments could ease the rezoning process that is often required in urban settings. (Prairie Sky settled for land that had already been rezoned for 18 units rather than face the long and risky attempt to get the 24 units we wanted.) Municipal governments could also employ an innovation facilitator to help with the various permit hurdles instead of leaving cohousers to negotiate with bureaucracy every step of the way. Even better, they could actively sponsor cohousing awareness to help with marketing and lend credibility to cohousing projects.
As CCN’s McIntyre says, “Creating a cohousing community requires a major investment of time and money. Fortunately, the people who want it are often visionaries who are willing to accept all the challenges.” Having survived those challenges, we know that facing them together added to our community’s strength. One of our members who struggled with an illness credits the community with helping her and her husband through a tough time. Another says she and her partner could not have pulled off their big wedding without the help of many community members. And I had invaluable input on this article from most of the community.
We hope others in Alberta will someday have the same positive experiences Prairie Sky enjoys and that changes in federal, provincial and municipal government approaches will spare them the negative ones.
Susan Stratton is a resident of Prairie Sky Cohousing, and an activist with the Raging Grannies and Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice.