We are beginning to answer questions people may have about our project.

What is cohousing?

Cohousing is a form of collaborative housing that offers residents an old-fashioned sense of neighborhood. In cohousing, residents know their neighbors well and there is a strong sense of community that is absent in contemporary cities and suburbs.

Cohousing communities consist of private, fully-equipped dwellings and extensive common amenities including a common house and recreation areas. Residents are involved in the development of the community so that the community reflects their priority.

What are the defining characteristics of cohousing?

Future residents participate in the design and development of the community so that it meets their needs. Some cohousing communities are initiated or driven by a developer, which may actually make it easier for residents to participate. However, a well designed, pedestrian-oriented community without resident participation in the planning may be “cohousing inspired,” but it is not a cohousing community.

The physical layout and orientation of the buildings (the site plan) encourages a sense of community. For example, the private residences are clustered on the site leaving more shared open space, the dwellings typically face each other across a pedestrian street or courtyard, and/or cars are parked on the periphery. The common house is centrally located so that it is easy to pass through on your way home. But more important than any of these specifics is that the intent is to create a strong sense of community with design as one of the facilitators.

Common facilities are designed for daily use. They are an integral part of the community, and are supplemental to the private residences. The common house typically includes a dining area with a high end kitchen, sitting area, children’s playroom and laundry and may also have a workshop, library, exercise room, crafts room and/or one or two guest rooms. Except on very tight urban sites, cohousing communities often have playground equipment, lawns, and gardens as well. Since the buildings are clustered, larger sites may retain several or many acres of undeveloped shared open space.

Cohousing communities are managed by their residents. Residents also do most of the work required to maintain the property, participate in the preparation of common meals and meet regularly to develop policies and do problem-solving for the community.

In cohousing communities there are leadership roles, but no one person or persons who has authority over others. Most groups start with one or two “burning souls” but as people join the group, each person takes on one or more roles consistent with his or her skills, abilities or interests. Most cohousing groups make decisions by consensus, and although groups typically have a policy for voting if consensus cannot be reached, it is rarely necessary to resort to voting.

The community is not a source of income for its members. Occasionally, a cohousing community will pay one of its own members to do a specific (usually time limited) task, but more typically the task will simply be considered to be that member’s contribution to the shared responsibilities.

Are you affiliated with any political, religious, economic, or philosophical group or ideology?

No. We are simply a group of regular Harrisonburg citizens who want to live in a neighborhood in which the residents know each other. The only organization we’re associated with is the Cohousing Association of the United States.

What if I don’t feel like socializing all the time?

Don’t worry! Very few of us feel like socializing all of the time. Cohousing offers the choice of enjoying the privacy of your own home (and in common areas that are not currently being used by others), or enjoying whatever happens to be going on in the neighborhood. How much you socialize is up to you. Many cohousers in other places create their own signs or symbols to let their neighbors know if they would prefer not to talk at the moment. Of course, those of us who choose to live here do so because in general, we enjoy getting to know one another. Cohousing is actually very popular with introverts, because there’s no “work” required to socialize; it’s “built-in.”

What if I don’t like all my neighbors?

Well, don’t be surprised — would you expect to like every single person in a group of 25 households? There will naturally be some people with whom you get along better than others. But when that person who slightly annoys you picks you up at the airport or helps your daughter with her calculus homework, he or she might suddenly not seem so bad. You may even grow to like people whom you had earlier judged poorly. Some say that cohousing is the biggest personal growth experience you’ll ever have.

How would 25 households make decisions?

Most cohousing decisions are delegated to smaller teams, who create proposals that the large group either approves or sends back for modification. From pet policy to landscaping choices, consensus is the most common decision-making method. Consensus decision-making requires that all voices are heard, which often results in more information being considered. This often prevents the poor decisions for which conventional Homeowner Association Boards are notorious. It also creates more buy-in to the final decision. Consensus is not necessarily unanimity. A consensus decision is one that everyone can live with — it often includes modifications made by those who did not agree with the original proposal. These collaborative solutions can have an elegance and creativity that is only possible through collective wisdom.

Will pets be allowed?

Yes. We will be working on a pet policy in the near future. Pets will be allowed, with certain responsibilities to be carried out by their owners. For example, we probably won’t allow pets in the Common House, because some people are allergic to them. Pet owners will be required to pick up their animals’ droppings, and dog owners will need to assure that barking is kept to acceptable levels.

You say that residents will maintain the neighborhood. Are there “chores,” and how will those be divided?

Different cohousing groups have figured out different ways to divide the work. Sometimes teams are created to either oversee particular areas of work (e.g., maintenance or landscaping), or to perform regular tasks (e.g., snow removal, dishwashing after shared meals, cleaning the common house, or organizing reservations for the guest rooms). Typically, cohousers spend about 4-8 hours per month doing work (remember, you already do a lot of work around your current home). For larger projects, occasional 4-hour work days on Saturdays have proven successful in other cohousing neighborhoods. Residents with fewer physical capabilities help with planning, purchasing supplies, watching kids, providing drink and food to those doing the heavy lifting, putting tools away afterward, etc. As always, how Harrisonburg Cohousing chooses to organize the work will be up to us to decide. Some other cohousing groups advise to keep track of hours worked, and sometimes charge an hourly fee for those who do not work. They find that such structure reduces the acrimony and guilt that can occur in completely voluntary systems.

Please tell me about common meals.

Most cohousing communities usually prepare between two and five meals per week in their common house. The meals are prepared by a team of 2-4 persons for however many eaters sign up for the meal in advance. Eating common meals is always voluntary. In a few communities cooking is also voluntary, but in most cases it is not. However, there is a good deal of variation in the way the cooking (and cleanup) responsibilities are structured. Typically, however each adult is involved in meal preparation and/or clean-up once every 4 or 5 weeks. There is also variation in how the common meals are paid for, but one only pays for the meals one eats, Common dinner prices typically range from $2.50 to $3.75.

Many cohousing residents feel that common meals (even if some people’s schedules permit them to attend only irregularly) are the glue that holds cohousing communities together. A common meal may be the only time in a busy week when we get to have a real conversation with our neighbors. And if we are lucky enough to have a little extra time for some after-dinner coffee or tea and conversation, while the kids romp around in the playroom or outside if the weather is fine, so much the better.

Many communities encourage their cooks to provide a vegetarian option at most meals, and special food requirements are respected, although not every one of them will necessarily be accommodated at every meal.

Will residents be required or expected to eat in the Common House?

No, shared meals are optional. The usual frequency of common meals is 2-3 times per week, and they are usually dinners. Sometimes groups have Sunday brunches. Residents sign up a few days beforehand so that the head cook knows how much food to buy.

Come back soon for more questions and answers.