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Vancouver embraces its first ‘co-housing’ project Add to ...

‘I don’t want to grow old alone inside a box,” Lorne Mallin said.

The 66-year-old Vancouver-based journalist is one of a growing number of Canadians who have opted to join a movement called co-housing.

While the idea of privately owned homes with extensive common areas and close-knit community living has historical precedents, its present incarnation began in mid-century Denmark. The concept, which also involves residents managing and maintaining their own co-housing communities, was imported to North America by California-based architect Charles Durrett in the mid-80s.

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And now Mr. Durrett, who has already designed similar projects in a number of Greater Vancouver Regional District suburbs, is one step closer to building the city of Vancouver’s first venture into co-housing. With recent rezoning approval for multifamily dwellings on a site at East 33rd near Victoria Drive, 31 people will now see their dream of co-operative living realized by 2014.

The group of Vancouverites who will form the city’s first official co-housing community celebrated the approval last month with a party featuring, “champagne and 10 different kinds of ice cream,” relates Mr. Mallin.

His own journey to co-housing began when he first learned about it in the mid-90’s. From time to time, he explains, he would google “B.C. Co-Housing” and last June something popped up: the very same project at 33rd and Victoria known simply as “Vancouver Co-housing.”

“I contacted the group that day,” says Mr. Mallin, “and became a member after a few weeks.”

Mr. Mallin currently lives in a rental apartment, and has also owned condos and a single-family home. But ultimately he says, “I prefer to live in community.” As a single 66-year-old, he explains, the multigenerational aspect of co-housing living holds great appeal. He relates a story he heard at a co-housing meeting from a woman who lives in a similar project in Langley called Windsong. While she is unable to spend much time with her grandchildren living in another province, she is greeted every day by her neighbour’s five-year-old boy who “knocks on her door each morning to give her a hug.”

There are also financial advantages to co-housing, ranging from bulk buying of organic vegetables to pooling resources to install energy-saving green technology. Having less personal square footage and more common areas also reduces the price. While the approximately $550-per-square-foot purchasing cost is not much less than normal market housing, one needs less living space.

While Mr. Mallin was initially thinking of buying a one-bedroom unit in the Vancouver project, he realizes now “a studio is all I need.” With less capital expenditure, he says, “I’ll have more capital left to enjoy life.”

For 29-year-old Ericka Stephens-Rennie and her young family, who are also buying into the Vancouver project, co-housing offers many advantages.

“If this were normal market housing,” explains the civil servant on maternity leave to raise her 10-week-old son, “we would likely need a three-bedroom-plus-den. But here we can manage with a two-bedroom – even with children and home offices.” Features like common office space, child-care centres, and guest rooms “save you 100 square feet of space you don’t have to buy,” she says, and makes co-housing the young family’s best option for entering Vancouver’s challenging real estate market.

“No matter what size unit you buy, you gain access to more than 3,500 square feet of additional amenity space in the common house – spaces like a children’s play room, a workshop and bike repair space located in the parking garage, as well as common gardens and kitchens,” she explains.

Working co-operatively with fellow co-housers, Ms. Stephens-Rennie and her husband designed a two-bedroom-plus-den unit that, despite being less than 1,000 square feet, meets their needs.

While each home will have its own kitchen and dining area too, she notes that, “as busy young professionals with a growing family, we love the idea that we could come home from work and choose to have someone else cook us dinner in the common house or to prepare and eat our own meal at our own home.”

For the young couple, who first heard about the project on CBC Radio after moving to the West Coast from Ottawa, the idea of intergenerational community is also key. “We’re excited about having neighbours of all ages,” Ms. Stephens-Rennie said. “That was our experience of growing up in small towns in Ontario – a real sense of neighbourhood. And a sense of freedom that your children can roam around safely – and within earshot.”

While the group of 31 people is already close, and came up with the design for the East 33rd site working co-operatively with Charles Durrett through a series of workshops, he says, “Architecture’s responsibility is to maintain a sense of community after the honeymoon has worn off.”

The key, explains the architect who has designed more than 50 co-housing projects in North America, is creating a site plan that “embraces the user and makes it easy to feel a sense of community – so you can look out the window and see someone you know.”

“Centripetal design brings people together,” he relates, citing the simple yet elegant plan for East 33rd – essentially two three-level buildings bisected by a central courtyard, “as opposed to centrifugal design that pushes people apart.”

Employing a contemporary aesthetic with a palette of concrete, natural wood and coloured vertical siding, the project is designed to sit a half-storey down on the street level, minimizing the buildings massing and building height to passersby.

The main entrance is between the two symmetrical buildings facing East 33rd and comprising 27 units, and leads to a shared courtyard with a common house at the end. Referencing the recent Vancouver Foundation report that pointed out many Vancouverites don’t trust their neighbours, and complain of feeling isolated, Mr. Durrett admits there are many factors that make this city a sometimes alienating place. But he maintains that “architecture can definitely play a role in changing that dynamic.”

As an architect, Mr. Durrett says he finds the process of designing co-housing much more rewarding than traditional market housing.

Compared to the usual routine of “dealing with bankers, developers and bureaucrats,” he says, designing co-housing is more of an “anthropological experience.” It’s one that entails “designing with a group of people, understanding their values and aspirations and building a sustainable long-term community.”

Meanwhile, says Ms. Stephens-Rennie, “We anticipate seeking construction financing during the development permit phase so that we are able to build as soon as we have a permit.” And most importantly, “we are still looking for members who are interested in being residents of Vancouver’s first co-housing community.”

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