Since the first co-housing unit was built in Davis, California, in 1991, the word has spread dramatically within the circles of America's young professionals. Articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, the movement now has it's own magazine, website (www.cohousing.org) and trendy abbreviation (CoHo). The success of co-housing in the US has been so significant that the idea is now being exported to the UK, where devotees who have visited communities abroad are spreading the word through lectures and seminars to an emerging critical mass. So, what exactly is co-housing?
The movement began in Denmark around 25 years ago on a simple premise: a group of people get together and create their own environment - from scratch. They find the land, build their own houses, decide what facilities they want and how to use common areas. Individual houses or apartments are built around a common house, which belongs to everyone, and houses share facilities such as a dining room and playroom. The residents make decisions together and run their community as a collective. There are any number of organised and shared activities, from child-minding to woodwork, and three or more times a week the residents come together for common dinners, which they take turns to cook.
Two Berkeley architects, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett started the co-housing revolution Stateside. They met in Denmark in the mid-Eighties, lived in various co-housing communities. On their return to the US, they wrote a book which advocates cooperative living as an answer to a host of modern problems relating to housing, use of resources and social needs, and coined the phrase "co-housing".
Today, there are about 25 co-housing communities in the US, around five more about to open, 20 others in the planning stages and more than 100 active groups scattered across the country. It is appropriate that co- housing should have taken root first in Berkeley, the scene of many radical living experiments in the Seventies, but you soon find that no-one in the co-housing fraternity will tolerate the use of words such as "alternative" or worse, "commune". "These are people with solid jobs and families," says McCamant firmly. "People who have the American dream and are walking away from it."
When I arrive at the Emeryville co-housing unit in time for one of the thrice-weekly common suppers, most of the residents are sitting drinking wine on the patio in the evening sun. There are 12 apartments in this converted factory. Inside, the design is all open spaces, skylights and blond wood. Dinner (Salad Nicoise, more wine, ice cream) is served in the common house, which also has a well-equipped workshop, laundry room, and kids' playroom.
The atmosphere is very child-friendly. Cars are parked outside the unit and all the houses face onto the common areas, so everyone can see what's going on. An article in the US magazine Mothering, highlighting the advantages of co-housing, produced a surge of interest. Lucy Nelson, a British architect who won a Winston Churchill scholarship to research into co-housing in the UK, and who is now a member of the Cohousing Communities Foundation which provides information, expertise and a focus for co-housing groups in this country, describes the American co-housing movement as "female driven". Women, especially with kids, are the ones who have traditionally fared worst in the isolation of suburbia, especially in the US, where people often live thousands of miles from other family members. Common meals liberate parents from the grind of cooking. It's easy to ask someone to look after a child at short notice, and many parents like the fact that their children socialise with a mix of people early on. "I don't bake cookies, but my neighbour does," says one of the mothers, and gathered around the dinner table are a photographer, a retired magazine publisher, an abalone diver and a computer analyst.
In some ways, co-housing has proved almost too attractive to families. Karl, a member of the first co-housing village in Denmark, built 25 years ago, describes how, at one point, there were 60 children in a development of 27 houses. Life in the Sattedammen community was so much fun for the children, that the development "acted as a magnet for local children. In the end it was chaos."
Children aside, others are attracted to the idea for different reasons. Single people such as Carol, who sits opposite me at dinner, likes the sociability of the lifestyle and the physical security. Joanie, who is in her sixties, regards it as a civilised alternative to sheltered housing. Sharing of resources means communities can afford to have, for example, a swimming pool, sauna, or as in Emeryville, a hot tub. Another big advantage is having a say in the construction of your own home. "It's the closest most people ever get to a custom, architect- designed home," says Carol.
These are all reasons why people in Britain are rapidly turning onto the idea of co-housing.There are at least three groups in the "talking" stages - in Stroud, Devon and Scotland. A fourth in Oxford folded in the early stages. According to Triodes Bank in Bristol, two applications for funding have been approved and there are more in the pipeline.
Jane Hera, who was part of the Oxford group, says: "People are hanging out to find new ways of living together as a contradiction to the present isolation." But she foresees a different set of challenges in Britain: the rarity of building your own home, planning permission, Nimbyism. Colin Campbell, a member of Co-housing 2000 agrees, but adds that the need for affordable housing means it is possible to find some interested and friendly authorities. And the British movement is putting the emphasis on matters such as eco-friendly designs, sustainability and permaculture, as well as trying to ensure that co-housing developments reflect the community around them by including units that are affordable or will be for rent.
The Devon group has formed a partnership with a housing association and are aiming for a community of 30 houses in the next two to five years. In the US, co-housing is a reaction to the endless streets of suburbia. In Britain, Laura Keely of the Devon group sees co-housing as 21st-century re-emergence of village life. "We used to do things locally instead of networking at long distance," she says. "And we used to have a common house. It was called the village hall."