Creating Our Own Neighborhood – Bellingham Cohousing (124)

pm124_550Kathleen Nolan helped shape the beginnings of Bellingham Cohousing, based on a neighborhood design of private homes and shared buildings, managed by residents in participatory decision making. Their 5.74 acre plot originally had one farmhouse, which they modified to become the shared community building with dining, kitchen, laundry, craft, office, guest, and other rooms. The individual townhouses make a small footprint, leaving open space for gardens and a natural wetland. She stresses the importance of agreeing on shared values, and how the social connections enhance and challenge personal growth. Episode 124. []

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  1. kathleen, you are media darling (peakmoments) congratulations. I’m so looking forward to seeing you and the rest of the folks that i miss so terribly much in b’ham cohousing. and i hear that we’re going to have a party. so they say if you are a successful cohousing architect that you don’t even get mentioned — it was all the residents idea — we succeeded.

    love chuck

  2. Corrections: There are several factual mistakes in my interview. As the previous post infers, Denmark, not Sweden, is where this model has historic roots. And, Muir Commons, the first US cohousing community broke ground in November of 1990, nearly 18 years ago.
    I apologize for these and any other inacurracies.

  3. Chuck Durrett of Cohousing Partners keeps his original cohousing dream alive with a new retirement idea by Sam Whiting May 18, 2008

    When it is Chuck Durrett’s turn to make dinner, he is cooking for 50. His specialty is chicken mole, which takes eight hours when he grinds the chocolate and peppers. He has a standard to uphold. Durrett, 52, and his wife, Katie McCamant, both architects, imported the cohousing concept from Denmark 20 years ago.

    “I grew up in Downieville, California with 325 people. We mostly worked in the family gold mine. My wife dragged me off kicking and screaming to live in downtown San Francisco. I decided this anonymous city life is not for me. I needed to live in cohousing, a neighborhood setting that I had seen in Europe.

    Cohousing developments have four common aspects. One is that the future residents play an integral role in the planning and the design and the organization of the development. Secondly, it is designed to facilitate community. Third, there is a common building that people use as a supplement to their private home. Fourth, it is self-managed.

    It turns out you can’t do cohousing by yourself. It became obvious that we had to go write a book so we’d have 20 or 30 households. So in 1984, Katie and I got on a plane, went back to Denmark and studied these projects in earnest. Our book, “Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves,” came out in 1988. We sold 3,200 copies in less than six months.

    Katie and I couldn’t afford to buy a piece of land in San Francisco. As soon as our book came out, I drove to Davis, where I thought people would be interested. I put up some flyers, held a slide presentation and about 100 people showed up. From that group, 26 households emerged the next day. That project was fully subscribed from day one. We built it and it was occupied in 1991. That was the first one built in the U.S. The second one was also finished in 1991, in Emeryville. That was as close to downtown San Francisco as I could afford to live. It’s called Doyle Street Cohousing. We lived there for 12 years.

    Now there are about 100 cohousing communities finished in the U.S. We’ve designed 55, from Auckland to Ann Arbor. We’ve been able to sustain a practice doing it, with offices in Berkeley and Nevada City.

    Four years ago we moved into an intergenerational cohousing community in Nevada City with 21 seniors, 37 kids, 94 people altogether. It’s very lively. We have dinner together six nights a week. Two years ago my follow-up book, “Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living,” came out. In research, I kept asking them, ‘Why are you bothering with this? You’re 60 or 70 years old.’ I marveled at the answers. People talked about things like, ‘I’m not going to just sit here in this house and be bored and lonely and curate my furniture. I want to have fun.’

    This month, we’re starting construction for a 30-unit senior cohousing project in Grass Valley. One of the reasons I like working with seniors is that they are so much more impatient. These seniors tell me all the time, ‘Hey Chuck. I don’t even buy green bananas anymore. Let’s make this thing happen.”

    We are looking for Bay Area people with innovative ideas who have put them to use. Please e-mail candidates to

    The Lightbulb: I was going to the University of Copenhagen. I would walk by single-family housing, apartments, condos – all devoid of life. Then there was this one housing project where there were always people in between the buildings, always people communing with each other, always people sitting at the picnic table. Finally I knocked on a door and asked. This woman said ‘We, the residents, developed this neighborhood ourselves.’ I coined the word cohousing and brought the concept back to the U.S.

  4. Dear Ms. Nolan,

    Thank you for your kind response. I obviously jumped to some conclusions I shouldn’t have in my first comment. Yes, cohousing is an ongoing process of compromise, compromise, compromise and the Bellingham Cohousing community can be very proud of what they have achieved.

    I had no idea the community was so well connected via many transportation modes. I guess the discussion about using asphalt for parking spaces threw me off! Sorry if I came off as the “Environmental Gestapo,” I am sure you will eventually tackle many other environmental projects as they become necessary. I wish the Bellingham Cohousing community continued success.

  5. I wish we had either of those waste water treatment systems, but we don’t. We built a bio-swale to disburse the surface run off water from our site into the wetlands then let nature do the rest. We installed plumbing that allows us to add grey water treatment when we can.

    As I tried to speak to in the interview, the challenge of the develpment choices were extremely difficult and we were not single minded in those choices. The gifts of our site, affordability, timing, zoning/permitting process, consensus decision making (and more) played roles in those decision, not just environmental values.

    Though the one unit currently for sale has a price tag that saddens me, the last one was sold to a land trust and we will remain permanently affordable unit. We also have state funded down payment support available for qualified low income buyers.

    Yes, we are still quite car dependent. But our location right off the freeway, on the interurban trail and the bus route makes alternate transportation quite convenient. Many neigbors bike, bus or walk to downtown (4 miles away), into Fairhaven (1+ miles away), Western Washington University (-2 miles away) or the other side of town (6 miles away). The city allowed us less than the standard number of parking places. Our intention is to let the pressure of not having ample parking remind us to use alternative transportation. I definitely see a community car in our future – right now we do a lot of car pooling and car sharing as well.

    Thanks for your comments!

  6. The use of plants to break down the waste water is becoming more widespread. It’s for greywater — from showers and sinks and laundry — not for blackwater, which is from the toilet and kitchen sink, which are harder to break down.

    Yes, this cohousing community (and perhaps many) have been built assuming the same reliance on automobiles, though they give it short shrift. Bellingham cohousing didn’t give up a lot of land to house the vehicles, and they kept them out at the edges. I except they’ll be an early model of car sharing that perhaps suburban neighborhoods can follow.

    I think it was our guest David Blume (“Alcohol Can Be A Gas”) who said that about cattails. John Todd has pioneered the use of biological processes (like these plus more, like snails that can bind heavy metals) to purify contaminated, toxic, polluted waters. If we learn from nature and follow her wisdom, we’re on the road to sustainability!

  7. I hope I am not double posting here, but I think my first post went into Internet limbo…

    A very interesting conversation about the cohousing concept. I think it is a very good idea for fostering a sense of community, yet keeping a sufficient level of personal “space”. I checked out the webpage and the Bellingham development sounds wonderful. The available 2 bedroom unit had an eyewatering price, but I guess that’s what homes go for these days.

    I was very intrigued by the development’s waste water treatment system. If I understood Ms. Nolan correctly, waste water is filtered naturally using the reeds/cattails and the organisms in the wetland to break down impurities. I don’t think raw sewage can be neutralized like this, but I would like to hear more.

    Finally, a small complaint: I am not sure where the community is in relation to Bellingham and its jobs/stores, but it seems the community is still very reliant on the automobile. This is always a problem with developments that are plopped down in the middle of the countryside. Public transportation is non-existent. Maybe some earth-friendlier strategies would be a car sharing plan or a community shuttle. Or, maybe residents could use their beer brewing skills to make some ethanol! I read somewhere cattails yield much more ethanol per acre than corn or sugar…

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