Purchasing a home in the midst of a pandemic wasn’t in the plans for Jodey Lynn Sharman and Roger Gagne, but when the rare opportunity of buying a townhouse in Prairie Sky, Calgary’s only co-housing co-operative, came up, they decided to take the plunge. The couple hesitated to place an offer on the unit at it’s initial list price of $499,000. But when it was still for sale after 100 days on the market, they moved, and their offer of $432,500 for the 1,200 square-foot unit was accepted.
They could have bought a bigger home in the suburbs for the same money, but the couple wasn’t just interested in buying a home – they were buying into a lifestyle.
Located on Edmonton Trail in the northwestern community of Winston Heights, Prairie Sky is based on the co-housing model that originated in Denmark in the 1960. At heart, co-housing is an intentional effort to build community. This model was popularized in North America in the 1980s by American architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant. “I don’t know any housing out there that is more cognizantly attempting to set neighbours up to be good neighbours,” says Mr. Durrett, who helped develop Prairie Sky in the early 2000s.
Co-housing communities are the product of resident-led initiatives, as groups usually come together many years before there’s even a building to inhabit – and it is this process what roots the community and strengthens the ties among neighbours. “Residents have told me that the community was built in the design process, not brick by brick but decision by decision,” Mr. Durrett says.
Designed to maximize connections among neighbours, the 18 units of Prairie Sky surround a cozy courtyard whose lush greenery seals off the traffic noise from the adjacent road. Framed by a vegetable garden, the main entrance leads to a narrow pathway lined with trees and planters that double as seating spaces. Meandering through the courtyard, the pathway takes residents to a playground, an outdoor fire pit and their units.
The enclosed layout is intentional. Public and semi-private spaces help increase the number of chance encounters among residents. “Design is important, no doubt, at making everybody comfortable and happy when they’re there,” Mr. Durrett says. “But the reason that they’re there usually has to do with other excuses to get together.” And most of those occasions have to do with sharing.
In co-housing, “there’s a lot of sharing that goes on,” Kathleen Ryan says. She’s lived at Prairie Sky for the 17 years it’s existed. “If you need to borrow something, you send an e-mail. If you need a ride to the airport, you just send an e-mail.”
And this sense of community is precisely what Mr. Gagne and Ms. Sharman were looking for.
“It’s that commitment to supporting each other, it’s the sense of neighbourhood,” Ms. Sharman says. “…Everybody’s involved in what helps the whole community.”
The couple and Ms. Sharman’s teenage son moved into Prairie Sky on Oct. 30. Their townhouse is a three-bedroom, three-bathroom unit, with a flex space in the basement and an open concept kitchen and living room, as well as a spacious balcony overlooking the courtyard from the second floor. “There’s trees growing up around the balcony, so it just feels like it’s a treehouse,” Ms. Sharman says.
And while the home is relatively small, it’s supported by an array of amenities that, if contained in a single-family home, would raise the price considerably. Residents of Prairie Sky share a heated underground parkade with ample bike storage, a fully equipped workshop, an exercise room, a guest room, shared office space, and the most important component of any co-housing community: the common house.
Strategically located adjacent to the courtyard and visible from most units, the common house is where, prepandemic, neighbours would get together to prepare and enjoy weekly dinners, plan community projects and just get to know each other. Contained in the same building where most shared amenities are, including the parkade, residents have to walk through it and see others to get to their vehicles or to pick up their mail. (Special measures are being taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Additionally, all residents are active in the management and operation of the community. “There has to be a group that brings tasks or projects or changes to the community,” Ms. Sharman explains. “So I’ve been on the committee to look into air purifiers for the common house; the committee to look at the exercise room and what equipment we need. Landscape is the committee I’m on right now.”
But the amount of sharing and hands-on work required can take some getting used to, and Ms. Sharman says she is still adjusting. According to Mr. Durrett: “We’re just so not used to communities now that it’s kind of foreign to us. But it’s not foreign when you’ve been living it.”
Ms. Sharman agrees. “For people who were here from the beginning, or have been here for a long time, the contact with community is like breathing,” she says.
While many activities have been affected by the pandemic, the couple learned the true value of living in a co-housing community five days after moving in. Early in November, Mr. Gagne tested positive for COVID-19 and the family had to quarantine for two weeks. “People just started saying, ‘What do you need?’ ‘What can we bring you?’” Ms. Sharman recalls.
And that wasn’t all, Mr. Gagne says. “One of my neighbours went to the bank for me to try to deliver a deposit. There was another neighbour who went to my old condo building to pick up a shelving unit that I hadn’t been able to move out.”
Although the value of a townhouse at Prairie Sky includes many intangibles, purchasing a home is still a financial investment, so thinking about the future was top of mind for the couple. “I think by the time that we might want to sell, [co-housing] will be something that is coveted,” Ms. Sharman says. According to the Canadian Cohousing Network, 160 communities have been created since 1991, and there’s more than 100 in development, including another in Calgary, Mosaic Village.
But Ms. Ryan says turnover at Prairie Sky is very low. In 17 years, “we still have 12 of the original owners, out of 18,” she says. “I’m not planning to leave until I have to.”