Cohousing has been described as offering the best parts of dorm life, after college.
If you’re up for a walk or a movie, you’ll probably be able to find someone to go with you. There will be quick chats as you grab your mail. Shared meals and conversation.
Unlike the dorm, though, you’ll have a full living space for times when solitude suits you.
A growing number of Americans are seeing the appeal.
There are more than 300 cohousing projects in the country right now, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. Washington has the second-highest number of projects behind California. They’re mostly clustered on the western side of the state, though Spokane’s first cohousing project opened in 2021.
Some communities began decades ago; others are newer or forming. These communities are urban, suburban, and rural. Some cater to seniors, and others are multigenerational. Their common thread is intentional community—essentially, creating a village.
These in-person, real-life social networks are beneficial in so many ways, for those who are open to the concept, says Grace Kim (’93 Arch.).
“Loneliness is a result of our built environment,” Kim said in a 2017 TED talk. “Isolation is an epidemic, and cohousing is an antidote.”
She and her partner in business and life, Mike Mariano (’93 Arch.), have been cohousing evangelists for more than 20 years. Their Seattle-based architectural studio, Schemata Workshop Inc., has consulted with dozens of cohousing groups around the world, and designed numerous cohousing projects in Washington and Oregon—including their own.
Kim and Mariano live in Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing in Seattle and their firm, Schemata Workshop, occupies the street-level commercial space in the same building. Nine residences share a courtyard, rooftop garden, laundry facilities, and the Common House, with its large kitchen and communal dining room.
People who live there eat together three times a week, with cooking and cleanup duties rotating among the residents. Some degree of communal dining is common to the cohousing model, and Kim asserts that it’s the determining factor in how much “communitas,” or spirit of community, exists in a cohousing project.
Shared decision-making is also a defining aspect of cohousing. It begins as a project takes shape, with regular discussions about vision and values. Conflict resolution is a facet of that and, as with any ongoing relationship, will be necessary from time to time. Because residents are there by choice, however, there’s usually plenty of motivation to work things out.
“The social connection is pretty strong,” Kim says. “People get a lot of support living in the community, whether it’s borrowing a car, picking up kids, and for the kids, there are easy playdates.”
Mariano adds, “We’re not best friends with everyone in the building, but it’s this kind of little village where you know everyone.”
Kim and Mariano first learned about the concept as WSU students, when a visiting professor from Denmark described that country’s thriving cohousing culture.
What a great way to live, they thought. The couple kept that thought percolating as they moved to Chicago and established their architecture careers.
They returned to Seattle in 1999 and founded Schemata Workshop a few years later. With a small piece of property on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Kim and Mariano finally had the chance to put their ideas into action.
Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing began with monthly information sessions for potential residents in 2010 and opened in 2016. So far, none of the original residents have left.
People contact them at least once a week to talk about how to get a cohousing community off the ground.
The short answer: “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Kim says.
The ingredients include a plot of land, a group of people who want to live together and value social interaction, an architect who can corral and channel all those people’s hopes and dreams, and a developer who understands how to make it a reality. All of this means cohousing is typically no less expensive than single-family or traditional multifamily housing.
But price isn’t the promise of cohousing; it’s people.
Says Kim, “You need to be motivated by having a strong social network and building social capital.
“It’s that feeling of knowing someone has your back.”
Learn more about cohousing from Grace Kim’s TED Talk video and articles