By Simmons B. Buntin
What is cohousing?
Cohousing is an intentional, collaborative style of residential living that is characterized by private dwellings centered around extensive common facilities—including pedestrian-oriented pathways, other outdoor space, and a common house with such spaces as a large dining room and kitchen, lounges, meeting rooms, recreation facilities, library, workshops, children spaces, and guest rooms.
Cohousing began in Denmark in the late 1960s, spreading to North America in the 1980s. Today, there are more than 100 cohousing communities in the United States and Canada. There are four cohousing communities in Arizona, and three of those are in Tucson.
Cohousing communities are generally designed and managed by residents: people of mixed ages who are consciously committed to living as a community. The physical design therefore encourages social interaction, and often an environmental ethic embodied through alternative and low-emissions construction practices, water and energy efficiency, limited or no use of pesticides, and open space preservation.
Residents live in attached and detached single-family homes, lend their knowledge and skills to community areas of need, and often have several optional group meals and other activities in the common house each week.
Sonora Cohousing is Arizona’s first cohousing development, located on a 4.7-acre infill parcel in Tucson. Except for a circa-1940s adobe bungalow—which was converted into a cohousing residence—the parcel was vacant, and wedged between an apartment complex and predominantly 1950s-era homes.
Sonora is comprised of nearly 100 residents living in 36 attached townhomes, predominantly placed in groups of three and four units along lushly landscaped placitas to take advantage of solar orientation. The 3,500-square-foot, straw bale common house is the centerpiece of the community. Other amenities include a pool and hot tub, central courtyard with grass and adjacent play structures, peripheral covered parking, community-hosted intranet and high-speed Internet access, and a strong sense of resource protection embodied through onsite water harvesting, alternative building materials, energy efficiency, and passive and active solar energy use.
The Sonora Cohousing mission statement is:
Design and Construction
Creating Sonora was an eight-year process, beginning in 1993 with a slideshow promoting the idea of cohousing in Tucson. Once organizing documents were created, in 1994, an initial site search began, focusing on an infill location providing close proximity to Tucson’s urban and cultural amenities.
In 1995, potential residents formed the non-profit Tucson Neighborhood Development Corporation, establishing the initial investments for membership and creating the community’s first business plan. By 1997, members selected the Wonderland Hill Development Co. and narrowed their choice of sites down to the current location on Roger Road.
The following year the site was optioned, a feasibility study was conducted, community-building workshops were held, and construction documents were underway by year’s end. According to John Jones, then project manager of Tucson’s fledgling Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization project, Sonora qualified for city fee wavers both because it is in a low-income neighborhood and “because it embodies the principles of Livable Tucson,” he said. “Those goals include greater accessibility by means other than the automobile.”
Some neighbors dropped out when the Roger Road location was chosen—hoping instead for a downtown location (and, perhaps, hoping still for a Rio Nuevo cohousing project). Others dropped out earlier, when discussions at times dragged. But on May 8, 1999, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held, and later in the year, a builder was selected and construction finally began in October.
By the end of 2000, nearly all homes were occupied, despite a significant setback to the straw bale common house, which received heavy water damage and had to be rebuilt. It was finally completed in October 2001, bringing closure to the fundamental building and hardscape construction of Sonora Cohousing.
Green Building and Site Design
Central to Sonora is the tenet of ‘green’ building, in which natural features, design, and technology are maximized to make the community as resource-efficient and harmonized with the Sonoran desert environment as possible. All homes, for example, are oriented to receive beneficial passive solar heating and cooling opportunities, as well as take full advantage of solar energy for those homes with photovoltaic panels.
On the site itself, 100% of stormwater is captured in drainage basins designed to slowly percolate the water back into the soil, or provide the water for onsite landscaping. Many individual homes have cisterns to harvest water, as well. All plants required for protection by the Native Plant Protection Ordinance (NPPO)—including cacti and specimen trees such as mesquite—were transplanted onsite, and low-water native and desert-adapted plants are used throughout the site to great effect.
Outdoor gathering spaces incorporate both garden design and permaculture ideas, and integrate with open space courtyards, pathways, and related landscape amenities to provide the critical opportunities for formal and spontaneous neighbor activities. Additionally, the community has more than 40 fruit trees, providing citrus, avocado, peaches, nuts, and much more for the neighbors’ palates.
Other green building and site design features include:
Common House and Community Amenities
The Sonora Cohousing common house is built in the traditional mission/territorial style, arranged with wide porches around a central courtyard. It features a large gourmet kitchen adjacent to the dining room, as well as a lounge, guest room, craft room, laundry room with outdoor drying area, kid’s room, and teen/music/multipurpose room.
The 36 homes at Sonora are one- and two-story attached townhomes, many with basements. The homes’ exteriors feature colorful stucco, metal beams and corrugated metal roofs, front porches, and close proximity to the landscaped network of walkways that weave through the neighborhood. After more than four years, the homes’ exteriors have been personalized and the landscaping has matured, creating a richly textured sense of place. Rather than standard sidewalks, the placitas between homes meander and feature wide patios, creating destinations at each front door. The texture is replicated throughout the community’s sculpted walkways, elaborate fencing, and low, curved walls.
Community Governance and Interaction
Because Sonora Cohousing residents manage their own community, they make decisions of “common concern” at regular community meetings. Using the consensus model, decisions are made together as a community. Members define consensus as “a process in which decisions are made by the collaboration and consent of every member of the group. This does not necessarily mean unanimity, and in fact, total agreement is rare. The decision must be acceptable enough, however, that everyone can live with it.”
“Consensus empowers all members of the group,” they agree, “and requires them to be active participants in the decision-making process. Participation is a foundation of community governance. Participation in the maintenance, decisions, and social life cannot be enforced but is an expected part of the community experience at Sonora Cohousing.”
Prospective and new members are paired with a Sonora “buddy,” who helps the new member understand the community’s policies and practices. The buddy not only introduces the new resident to other members, but also facilitates participation in the community.
According to Sonora’s members, there are many advantages of living in cohousing, including “rich relationships, a sense of extended family, and the opportunity to share resources and live more lightly on the land.” With these advantages, however, come responsibilities inherent in any cohousing development. These include the requirement of each adult to join and participate in at least one work team—the entities responsible for community activities and maintenance. Members may also participate in committees, which are involved with overall community governance and function, and short-term task forces created to address specific issues that are not otherwise addressed simply by individuals working on their own. On average, members contribute about four hours per month in the community’s organized work system.
The common meal “may be one of the few opportunities in our busy week to sit down and have a real conversation with our neighbors,” say members of the community. Most common meals are prepared by a small team, based on the number of members who sign up for the meal in advance. Sonora’s rule is that for every four meals a person eats, he or she is required to sign up for one work shift. Other common meals include potlucks and eating circles. There are usually three common meals per weeks.
Many people have moved to Sonora for other forms of personal support that, though not required nor necessarily defined, are also intrinsic to close-knit communities. Support includes shared childcare, rides, meals for new parents, offering assistance with a special skill, teaching swimming lessons, home maintenance assistance, and house, pet, and plant care while away. Other social activities include a wine-tasting club, singing group, Friday evening happy hours, book club, ping pong tournaments, game nights, landscape ‘parties,’ and more.
“Cohousing is a way for me to bring that thing about extended family that I miss,” said resident Martha DePauli in 2001. She grew up in an extended Italian family in New Mexico, where “my grandma lived down the street, my aunts and uncles were in the same town. I had a sense of comfort that I worried my kids wouldn’t have. This gives us a sense of place.”
For more information, visit www.SonoraCohousing.com.
Milagro—the Spanish word for “miracle”—is a cohousing community of about 80 residents living in 28 homes on a 43-acre site in the foothills of the Tucson mountains west of Tucson. “It has,” the residents say, “taken many miracles for us to get as far as we have.”
Milagro was initiated in 1994 and has been fully occupied since August 2003. Of the 43 acres, 35 are set aside as permanent natural open space. The homes— nestled into a small ridge and aligned east-west to take advantage of solar gain—are clustered around a common pedestrian walkway that by now is lushly landscaped with both desert and edible plants, such as artichokes and figs.
Milagro’s vision is “People living in community with a focus on ecological principles,” while its values are, “We value integrity, generosity, respect for other people, community, the individual, and the environment.”
Design and Construction
Milagro began in 1994 with four couples who “met regularly to develop the vision of a group of families living by environmental and community principles,” according to the community’s information on its living history. The following year, membership expanded and members developed a policy manual and committee structure while initiating the search for land.
After incorporating as a non-profit organization, members purchased the 43-acre site in November 1996. Two years later, the designs went before Tucson’s city council. Despite its ambitious environmental and community goals, according to a 2001 Tucson Weekly article, “the neighbors were not impressed” and opposed the rezoning.
“There was a fear they’d get the rezoning, the project wouldn’t be pulled off, and then they might put in apartments,” said neighbor Carol Starr. Despite these and other concerns, Milagro members reached an agreement with neighbors, not to mention the Tucson Unified School District, which allowed the Milagro driveway to be moved east of a dangerous curve. Members also agreed to ‘hide’ the two-story homes by constructing them in natural tan adobe and sage green metal roofs. Additionally, Milagro members offered the remaining open space as a publicly accessible nature reserve.
The city council ultimately approved the cluster-design development, changing the zoning from one house per three acres to 28 townhomes.
Construction financing was not secured for another two years, but in 2001 Milagro held its groundbreaking ceremony, and the first member moved in the following April. Later that year, it was named the “Best Project for 2001” by the Arizona Planning Association. By August 2003, all 28 homes were occupied, even though members acknowledge at that time—and still today—that there “still remains much work to do, both on our individual homes and on community developments.”
A Community in Balance with Nature
Milagro’s tagline is “a community in balance with nature,” and its emphasis on preserving the Sonoran desert and using alternative building materials and techniques in the homes is clear. The well-insulated homes are crafted of adobe brick, topped with metal roofs, and feature passive solar water heating and water harvesting in landscaping and, for many homes, corrugated metal cisterns. In the future, some homeowners plan to add photovoltaic panels.
The community’s landscaping features principles of permaculture design with an emphasis on native plants, especially on the periphery of the clustered homes, where a temporary construction road has been reclaimed with salvaged trees, young cacti, and other native plants so that it is now impossible to tell it was once a road at all. The community’s private road is paved with a non-toxic, non-permeable surface of decomposed granite held together with a wax and polymer binder. Its parking lot, primarily covered spaces, is a permeable surface of gravel held in place by a series of connected rings atop a water-permeable membrane.
Like Sonora, Milagro maintains its stormwater onsite. Milagro directs all stormwater into a recycling system that features a wetlands and an underground irrigation system.
Community and Amenities
Milagro’s common house is located at the center of the community, adjacent to small plazas and play structures and overlooking a pool and the Tortolita Mountains to the northwest. The common house features a large gourmet kitchen, dining room, library, kids’ room, and other spaces convertible for public or private needs. It also hosts the common meal twice per week.
“We need more young children,” says Wisconsin transplant and resident Holly Lovejoy, whose lushly landscaped yard features a guest house and living ocotillo fence that back to the revegetated construction road. Two houses down is Milagro’s newest resident, a five-week-old baby. “That said, it is really wonderful here, and was worth the wait.”
For more information, visit www.MilagroCohousing.org.
Tucson’s newest cohousing development is also its largest: Stone Curves Cohousing features 48 attached homes in five ‘villages’ across a 5.1-acre infill site only a mile west of Sonora Cohousing. The second of two phases is nearing completion, and the impressive, two-story common house wrapped around a Mexican-style open air plaza has recently opened, as well.
Stone Curves is surrounded on two sides by a thick, curving wall stained a desert umber. It is interspersed with artistic rebar security gates designed by project manager James Hamilton, who created similar rebar fencing and gates at Sonora. Across from the arching wall is the colorful Stone Avenue mural that is a landmark of the Limberlost Neighborhood.
In addition to its Southwestern vernacular and artistic entries, Stone Curves is defined by its environmental and community ethic and variety of amenities available in the common house and elsewhere, all of which are embodied in its vision statement:
Design and Construction
James Hamilton, who was the original project manager for Milagro and then project manager for and member of Sonora, also helped found Stone Curves Cohousing. He is now a member of Stone Curves, and its project manager. Unlike both Sonora and Milagro, Stone Curves got a jump start on the design process by going directly to Wonderland Hill Development Co., a national builder of cohousing communities. “At Stone Curves, to ease the process, and ramp it up to full participation, we picked the site,” said Hamilton in 2001. “I put together the concept and the site plans. And I put together a 70-page process manual” that builds from the essential planning knowledge learned at Milagro and Sonora. “What we’re saying to the new group is we’re not gonna start at ground zero.”
Hamilton’s wife, Diane deSimone, more recently said, “What we’re basically creating is an old-fashioned neighborhood… an incredible project.” Like Hamilton, deSimone was also involved in Milagro and then Sonora before joining Stone Curves.
Common House and Community Amenities
Stone Curves’ 3,800-square-foot common house serves as the core of the neighborhood, offering indoor and outdoor space ranging from the ground-level plaza to second-story balconies, a two-level chiminea, to a community kitchen and dining room.
Other features include a children’s playroom, adjacent playground, three guest bedrooms, an office support room with computer and other business equipment, library and reading room, the “teen room,” community living room with widescreen TV and an assortment of games, arts/crafts studio and workshop, community laundry room, and an exercise/dance studio.
Other Stone Curves amenities include a community garden currently under construction, front porches on every home, a network of meandering and landscaped sidewalks, covered parking at the periphery, a garage/shop, outdoor play facilities, pool, and native landscaping.
The members of Stone Curves have signed on to the community’s environmental focus statement:
The community meets the statement in many ways, including as an infill project that, according to its members, “intensifies an urban land use with a small footprint.” Across the site, alternative building materials have been used where feasible, low-water xeriscaping—highlighting salvaged or maintained-in-place specimen plants such as saguaro and mesquite—is abundant, water harvesting and water flow management have been incorporated into the site’s topography, and light, noise, and air pollution are “minimized by an undulating periphery ferro concrete wall build on berms,” as well as native landscaping that attracts birds and, therefore, birdsong.
The homes themselves, which range from one to four bedrooms in size, are energy-efficient, as well. Window design and placement was as critical as overall solar orientation, and homes feature double-pane windows, solar tubes, extra insulation in walls and ceilings, and super-efficient air conditioners.
For more information, visit www.StoneCurves.com.
|Home : Archives : News
Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments : www.terrain.org
Terrain.org is a publication of Terrain Publishing.