Cohousing: Get Your Active Neighboring On

By Anna Soref, Editor, NVL

On a recent visit to Boulder, Colorado, I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with two of my mentors and close friends at their new home. This is the fourth home Helena and Bob have lived in during the past 25 years, and it was a big departure from the large single-family house where they most recently lived. This home is in the Nomad Cohousing Community.

Cohousing. It’s a term that conjures different associations for different people. It might mean hippie living and communes, or perhaps you read about a cool cohousing community in the New York Times or some magazine. Maybe you consider it something that happens in hip Scandinavian countries. I had a sort of jumble of ideas on the subject. Cohousing is definitely still defining itself here in the United States, and I was anxious to get a look.

As Helena toured me around the community situated on an acre of land in a North Boulder neighborhood, we stopped to chat with several neighbors, each enjoying Nomad’s community spaces, which include a garden, courtyard, play area and terrace. One man had his work spread out in front of him at a table in the leafy courtyard area.

The community kitchen and dining room was perhaps the one structure that stood out indicating that Nomad was unique from other duplex developments. The large stand-alone building had an open kitchen and dining area. Helena explained that twice-weekly meals are prepared and shared by community members. She reflected on a recent meal. “A resident named Josh had just returned from a trip to Honduras, and we all listened to his stories about the trip. It’s so wonderful to get together with people so frequently and share and learn from one another.”

For Helena and Bob, whose children are now grown and out of the house, the move to Nomad was a no-brainer. “In our old house I would walk in the front door and there would be this big empty house; I didn’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes in the driveway I’d pass neighbors whom I hadn’t seen in years,” Helena says. Now she gets daily engagement with young children, teens and adults who live at Nomad.

For Bob, a group therapist, anything “group” has his endorsement. He mentioned to me some interactions on a recent afternoon hanging around in the common areas that typify communal-style living: When neighbors stopped by and asked his advice on which type of mountain bike to buy their son for team racing, Bob was able to offer an extra he had and spare them the expense. His next encounter found him in a lively discussion with a resident who is pushing for an initiative to allow “group” homes for seniors, and he agreed to help her out and testify at a coming city council meeting. The afternoon concluded with neighbors stopping by with a bouquet of flowers just picked out in the hills. “Not that these kinds of things happen every moment,” Bob says, “but collectively they define and reflect the health of living in community.”

Helena and Bob’s duplex unit was spacious and a combination of lux and funky. All of the homes at Nomad have a passive solar orientation, are energy efficient and incorporate a wide range of natural, recycled and nontoxic materials. I figured, knowing Boulder real estate prices, that you had to be loaded to live at Nomad. Surprisingly the answer was no. The mixed-income community has four market-rate and seven permanently affordable units through a City of Boulder program. That’s impressive.

Perhaps Nomad’s mission statement best sums up what today’s cohousing movement is truly about:

"Our mission is to build a housing community which fosters both independence and interdependence. To create a community which assures a safe and nurturing environment for all, creates a sense of extended family, utilizes environmentally sound design and materials and allows for the sharing of resources."

What I really appreciated about Nomad was its balance. Residents had their own entire homes but then shared common areas. So if you ever simply didn’t want to socialize, you didn’t have to, and we all have those days. I once visited a kibbutz in Israel, and while you had your own small home, each meal was served in a community kitchen—that would be a big leap for many people.

I love that Helena and Bob still get the daily joy of children, even though their boys are grown. I love that the children and young parents at Nomad get the benefit of two outstanding individuals like Helena and Bob.

There was one thing nagging me, though, in the back of my mind as I considered this somewhat utopian model. “But Helena, what if you can’t stand someone or get into a fight?” I asked. “You work it out,” she said. “You work it out.”