Modern US attitudes towards community have been affected by the way we build our homes but co-housing, which shares space and resources, is challenging that, says Leon Kaye
Looking back to the 1970s, I remember it as a time when neighbours knew each other and kids played outside, often in a nearby park. Closets were closets and not small rooms which you can now find in recently built American homes, because most of us had less “stuff.” True, by then we were locking our doors and wary of strangers, but we also did not talk about “community” because in the Silicon Valley town where I grew up, we lived it.
Much has changed over a generation. American homes are frequently built as fortresses, usually without a porch and a tiny yard at the back. Closets are wired with their own lighting and are often large enough for sleeping in because the accumulation of more items, from clothing to electronics, has become the norm. New housing developments not only exclude open space, but lack sidewalks because there is no point in taking a walk in your neighbourhood if you have room for a treadmill or gym inside your house.
Nevertheless attitudes are slowly changing on both sides of the pond. The trend to build mixed use developments has morphed into “co-housing,” the practice in which homes are built to share resources and space. One such development will soon break ground in Mountain View, the home of Google. The residences will offer privacy yet ample shared facilities. And unlike urban “lofts” and the condominiums that has redefined California’s housing stock over the past 40 years, this new development has engaged its future residents from its conception.
For co-housing advocates, this project fulfils a dream that has existed since the 1980s and has been planned since 2003. It finally won approval from the city council on 27 September this year. Homeowners will not only have a say in how shared spaces are designed, they will have a genuine stake in this community because all residents will partially own the outdoor space and 420 sq metres of shared indoor facilities.
Mountain View Co-housing Community’s (MVCC) vision starts with an efficient use of space. Parking spaces and storage will both lie underground, allowing more open space for outdoor recreation, raised bed gardens and fruit trees. The 19 flats within this complex, 40 miles south of San Francisco, will have their own kitchen and washer-dryer hookups. Residents, however, will have the option to share laundry facilities, and a shared kitchen will encourage the scheduling of several communal meals a week. Additional shared indoor space will allow more social activities and entertainment.
A compelling example of adaptive reuse can also be seen in the common area. Overnight guests can stay in a 125-year-old farmhouse that will be relocated within the property and renovated, providing a link to Silicon Valley’s past, which was full of orchards and farms.
With this old-fashioned sense of community comes a contemporary approach towards more sustainable design. The development will include optimal water efficiency measures such as grey-water and storm runoff capture. In an interview, Katherine Forrest, MVCC’s marketing committee chair, boasted extra insulation, central water boilers, reflective roof materials and an airy design that encourages air flow and natural cooling to keep each flat’s utility costs low.
Passive solar, electric vehicle chargers and thermostat sensors will also be ready to link up to smart grid technology. Building materials like fibre cement siding and lightweight concrete floors will keep flats cool during summer nights and help retain solar heat in winter. The development is also within walking distance of downtown Mountain View’s restaurants, shopping and local rail and its location will contribute to less car use.
While the concept sounds ideal, its development has faced a long and tortured path. In pricey Silicon Valley, finding suitable land was initially the largest obstacle. Then came the bureaucratic hurdles to win local approval. While the homes’ prices are comparable to other housing in the town, financing one will not be easy for everyone. A home here will set you back $750,000 to $1.2m (£465,000 to £745,000).
Sustainability has a way towards reaching affordability, but MVCC will be a prototype for future residential developments.