Design Phase Participation's Impact on Senior Cohousing Satisfaction

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Queena Stone
Senior Design and Construction Project Manager, City of Seattle

Shared living is by no means a recent phenomenon. Since the dawn of civilization, communal living has been practiced across different cultures for various reasons.

Indeed, the idea of living in a close-knit community, pooling resources, and unlocking various benefits is as old as humanity itself. We are, after all, social animals—and communal living is part of our shared history. The modern concept of shared living first emerged in Denmark in the late 1960s. Bodil Graae's 1967 newspaper article – "Children Should Have One Hundred Parents" – popularised a new movement that saw the emergence of co-living communities that combined private living spaces with communal facilities. This exploration of shared living is by no means exhaustive. Yet our beliefs about it have never been more certain. I believe it could become increasingly attractive to the many people who struggle to find affordable housing. It could be an antidote to social isolation and loneliness and offer new ways of supporting healthy aging. And that it could inspire people to share more and consume less – to live sustainably and within the planet's means.

As more people move to urban areas in search of better lives, our cities will grow like never before. The urban population is predicted to increase from 3.9 billion today to nearly 7 billion by 2050, which means our cities are projected to almost double. Yet, with space becoming scarcer and the cost of housing rising, billions of people needed help finding an adequate and affordable place to live. This is a considerable challenge, but so much of the housing debate is narrowly focused on finding ways to build more homes. As important as that is, we also need to think hard about potential ways of living so we can use today's challenge as an opportunity to re-imagine how we might live tomorrow. Shared living isn't just a trendy throwback to a utopian idea from the past. In fact, it may well be the answer to some of our most significant contemporary challenges, like the lack of affordable housing, the growing loneliness in our society, our aging populations, and enabling a better and more sustainable way of life for many people as their needs, aspirations, and lifestyles change.

In this post, I will showcase 3 Senior Cohousing Communities that were the first of their kind to successfully form their communities in their cities, making them valuable resources to learn from as they faced the challenges of building their community,  financing their project, finding a suitable site, and growing together as they faced the hurdles of legal challenges to form a cohousing project. I was able to visit and spend time with these community members, exploring the architecture and interviewing members about their decisions to live in a senior cohousing community. What I discovered during my visits is that the financing model has a direct correlation to the level of satisfaction or enjoyment of their living spaces among the members of these cohousing communities. The more participation the members had during the design phase, the more satisfied the members were with the outcome. This notion seems evident in retrospect, but it's also a luxury during the development phase of these cohousing projects.

The first project I visited was in Oakland, CA, called Phoenix Commons. The project was funded by a developer with a history of developing senior and assisted living housing developments. His brother is an architect who also designs most of the projects he develops. One of the highlights of this project is that the community is very active and has various skills and talents that the members bring to the group to provide the level of engagement that is sometimes required in cohousing communities. For example, a member of Phoenix Commons is a retired civil engineer, and he took on the task of monitoring the levels of energy the Commons was saving with the solar panels that were installed from the beginning. He tracked the amount of energy collected by the panels, followed the amount used by the users, and could report the amount of energy savings the members had per month. This effort was his contribution to the community.

One issue that occurs when the community is not involved in the early stages of the design is that the community members need to be able to share their core values and wishes regarding how they would like to age in place. An example of this is also at Phoenix Commons, where most members are very physically active. Although two elevators are on the property, most members like to use the stairs for exercise. However, given the architect only designed the stairwells for egress, they were not designed with appealing finishes and, therefore, could have provided a better experience while using the stairwell. 

Another cohousing project I visited in Portland, Oregon, was the Phoenix Commons. This project is in a very urban location, with access to public transportation and amenities that allow the community members to not depend on their private vehicles to accomplish daily tasks. The downside of this location is, however, their need for more security that was not planned for during the design phase. This cohousing community was very much involved during the design phase, and the benefits were clear. When I visited them this year, my most significant takeaway was that the design of their project facilitated outdoor gatherings and provided opportunities for members to connect visually during the pandemic.

Lastly, I visited a community in Port Townsend, WA. I did so precisely because it was not an urban setting but very much rural, and the architecture reflected that detail. The community, called Quimper Village, was very much the opposite of the urban communities I visited. One blatantly clear element was how car-centric the design was for this community. When you entered this property, the first element you saw was the row of car garages. The biggest takeaway from this project was that their financing model didn't impact their design as much, primarily because the land they were able to purchase provided the architect with the freedom to design units that provided a lot of space and also offered room for customization as opposed to the urban projects that needed to standardize the design to keep costs down.

In conclusion, having spent time with members of senior cohousing projects and witnessing their level of happiness as it relates to their communities and their everyday lives, I would prefer that path for myself and my loved ones. I suggest looking into similar options in your area.

If you found this blog of interest, watch October's (2023) HAPPI Hour webinar on Collaborative Housing and Care Solutions which drew on the latest research and practice in relational and collaborative housing and care.

You can also check out other relevant resources on cohousing and community-led housing curated by the Housing LIN on our dedicated webpages.


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