Know your neighbors takes on a whole different meaning in cohousing

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At Emerson Commons in Crozet, 26 homes will encircle a car-free community with parking on its outskirts and shared spaces including a common house, a community workshop, garden, playground, swimming pool and a network of nature trails. Courtesy rendering At Emerson Commons in Crozet, 26 homes will encircle a car-free community with parking on its outskirts and shared spaces including a common house, a community workshop, garden, playground, swimming pool and a network of nature trails. Courtesy rendering

How many cohousers can fit in an igloo?

When the snow falls in an intentional community like Peter Lazar’s, the whole neighborhood suits up in their warmest wardrobe and heads outside. It was last winter when the residents of Shadowlake Village in Blacksburg built a mammoth igloo and challenged themselves to see how many neighbors they could stuff inside.

“Spoiler alert,” says Lazar, a 12.5-year resident of the cohousing development about 150 miles outside of Charlottesville. “The answer is 30.”

Like a multitude of America’s top trends, this one started abroad. The first cohousing development was built in Denmark in 1972 for 27 families, and the concept has been gaining momentum in the United States ever since. A reported 165 communities have been established from Alaska to Maine, with four of them—including Shadowlake Village—right here in Virginia.

An additional 10 cohousing communities are under development in the state, with EcoVillage Charlottesville in the very early stages of incubation in our backyard—and Lazar is at the helm of a second one that’s also pretty close to home.

The 50-year-old cohouser, and president of the Cohousing Association of the United States, is using his experience at Shadowlake to model a six-acre neighborhood in Crozet called Emerson Commons, where 26 residences will encircle a car-free community with parking on its outskirts and shared spaces including a common house, a community workshop, garden, playground, swimming pool and a network of nature trails. Each home will have solar panels installed on its roof.

In this community, as well as all other cohousing establishments, homeowners have independent incomes and private lives, but neighbors come together to manage shared spaces and activities such as weekly meals, meetings and work days, where members are responsible for the upkeep of the community. Emerson Common’s legal structure is that of a condo association.

Cathey Polly serves up the broccoli-and-quinoa dish she prepared for the weekly shared meal at Emerson Commons. Photo by Eze Amos

Because there’s no management company and the neighbors manage the property themselves, members will pay a low monthly fee that covers non-management items such as snow and trash removal and maintenance on the common house.

It’s not the area’s first attempt at cohousing. The Charlottesville Cohousing Association tried to build a similar neighborhood in 1997, but abandoned the project in 2002. According to Lazar, a comparable project by Blue Ridge Cohousing—on the same plot of land as Emerson Commons—crashed with the stock market in 2009, though 19 of its 26 homes had presold.

While there’s a long list of reasons cohousers are now choosing to live a more community-based lifestyle, Lazar says one of the most attractive features of a place like Shadowlake Village or Emerson Commons is building personal relationships with folks of all ages—a practice that is often lost in today’s society.

“When my daughters were too little to build snow forts, I’d build them with the older kids,” he says. “They’d ring our doorbell and ask, ‘Can Peter come out to play?’”

Lazar and his wife, Molly, have 15- and 13-year-old daughters named Mia and Ava, who had never spent more than a night or two apart until the oldest went to London with her grandparents about four years ago.

“Knowing that her little sister would miss her, Mia emailed the adults in the neighborhood, and asked if any of them would hang out with Ava after school,” Lazar says, and about a dozen people who responded spent the days baking bread, teaching kung fu, reading poetry and building a fort in the woods with the little Lazar. “Both the adults and Ava loved it. It was a chance for adult neighbors—some who didn’t have kids of their own—to get to know Ava a little better and vice versa.”

And now, the Northern Virginia transplant says his daughters have friends at Shadowlake from ages 2 to 82.

“We wanted our kids to be able to grow up in a sort of ’70s- or ’80s-era neighborhood where they knew everyone and could roam freely with friends,” he adds. A few of the families who’ve paid their deposits and plan to move into Emerson Commons later this year share similar sentiments.


Cohousing

Cohousing is defined as an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space, where members have independent incomes and private lives, but neighbors collaboratively plan and manage community activities and spaces.

As defined by the Cohousing Association
of the United States, most cohousing developments have common characteristics:

Relationships

• Neighbors commit to being part of a community for everyone’s mutual benefit.

• Design features and neighborhood size (typically 20 to 40 homes) promote frequent interaction and close relationships.

Participation

• Decision-making is participatory and often based on consensus.

• Self-management empowers residents, builds community and saves money.

Shared values

• Neighborhoods are designed for privacy as well as community.

• Communities typically adopt green approaches to living, and support residents in actualizing shared values.


Mary and Brian Combs, who live in downtown Crozet, have claimed one of three single-family detached homes (there are also duplexes, triplexes and other attached styles) at the cohousing community under development about three quarters of a mile away from their current residence.

“We’re both from very large families, but neither live here,” says Mary at a Tuesday evening community meal in January at the Emerson Commons clubhouse. Their toddler son, Harrison, bangs tiny, shiny pots and pans together at a miniature play kitchen while the smell of a broccoli-and-quinoa dish that’s being prepared a few rooms away permeates the air.

She adds, “It was just strange, especially when Harrison came along in 2015, to not have a big extended family to help raise him. Since we couldn’t move our families here, moving into a cohousing community was the next best thing.”

Though none of the homes in the neighborhood—except for the shared common house—are fully constructed yet, the Combs family is anticipating an August move-in date.

“[Harrison is] going to be the same age as about five or six other kids that are already members here, so he’s going to have all of these cousins, essentially, that he’s going to grow up with, which kind of mimics the experience my husband and I had growing up,” says Mary.

Her husband, Brian, admits to initial reservations about moving to the community, but says he’s learned that cohousing isn’t all community gardens and shared meals, as some people probably imagine.

“There’s a little bit of a code here,” he says. “If you’re not in your backyard or on the porch or something like that, it sort of means you want your space.”

At Emerson Commons, the backyards will face mountains and wooded areas, and Lazar says “privacy is more than half of what it’s all about.”

“I would say there’s actually more privacy here than at a new urbanist community where there are many houses close together,” Lazar adds.

Developer Peter Lazar (right) consults with prospective members at a Tuesday night community meal in the Emerson Commons clubhouse. Five homes in the 26-residence neighborhood are still up for grabs. Photo by Eze Amos
Mary and Brian Combs come from big families, but they’re both far away. The couple is looking forward to giving their son, Harrison, the same kind of experience at Emerson Commons. Photo by Eze Amos

About 15 adults and several children have come out for the weekly meal at the Emerson Commons clubhouse, where one member prepares an entrée and another brings a salad and a dessert. Prospective members are invited to share dinner, learn more about the inner workings of the community and get to know one another.

Aside from the local area, current members will be moving from D.C., Northern Virginia, Fredericksburg, Christiansburg, Boston and Mississippi.

A gaggle of young kids whiz up the common house’s interior staircase as a baby pecks on the piano next to it. Tonight’s chef, Cathey Polly, pokes her head into the room where Harrison, the mini chef, is cooking a tomato on his play stove, and sings, “Dinner is served!”

“Having little ones around is truly a plus for me,” says Polly, a 67-year-old who is also scheduled to move into her home at Emerson Commons by the end of the summer. All homes are set to be completed by March 2019.

The future resident says she always prepares a vegetarian dish when it’s her turn to cook the weekly meal to suit the diets of a majority of her eventual neighbors. She also says most of them prefer to live an eco-friendly lifestyle and some have promised to teach her the way around a community garden this year.

“I haven’t gardened in years, so I’m really looking forward to that,” she says. “It’s really exciting in my stage of life to be learning new things.”

Lynn Heath made a special dessert tonight for 9-year-old Ezra’s birthday. You can tell the cupcakes baked into ice cream cones are good because there’s icing smeared across the faces of several little ones in the dining room.

For Heath, who’s a year older than Polly, moving to Emerson Commons is about aging in a place where she’s not too timid to ask or do favors for her neighbors.

“It’s really nothing to do a favor,” says Heath, “but statistically, people have very few people that they feel they can ask a favor of. In the 1950s, they had one or two people they felt they could ask a favor of and now people are really down to zero.”

In a traditional neighborhood, Heath says someone who asks to borrow a stick of butter might feel required to then gift a loaf of banana bread in return. “We always have to make things equal, and I just think [in cohousing] some of that anxiety disappears.”

Not far from Crozet, another cohousing project is on the horizon in bucolic Nelson County—and this one’s just for seniors.

It’s called Buck Creek Village, situated on a hilltop that overlooks a valley in Faber, just four miles south of the Albemarle County border. Here, construction is scheduled to begin in April on 10 homes that will sit on two-acre lots.

The houses will be connected by a path that also leads to the community’s common house. Members will jointly own a 30-acre parcel of woods and open hillside.

Not surprisingly, a main proponent behind this project is Gordon Walker, who retired from his 29-year role as CEO of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, better known as JABA, in 2013. Walker now serves as president of Buck Creek LLC, the developer of the community. He explains why some older members of the local community saw a need for this type of development aimed specifically at their age group: “The cost of assisted living in nursing homes is beyond the reach of most of us. Oftentimes, the baby boomers are looking for options their parents didn’t have. In our view, cohousing is one of those.”

In a 2017 Society of Certified Senior Advisers journal, Walker wrote that senior citizens are looking for innovation, freedom from isolation and assurances of personal safety in their quest to age in place. Buck Creek Village aims to address each of those facets.

“Nowadays, we’re seeing some really interesting technological advances being made that create means by which you can monitor people in their homes,” he says, and adds that those developing the village are looking into floor monitors that could notify a designated person if a resident were to fall, or temperature monitors that could send alerts if a member left his oven on or his refrigerator open.

Gordon Walker, who retired from his 29-year role as CEO of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging in 2013, serves as president of Buck Creek LLC. Courtesy photo

While homeowners are responsible for the design and construction of their own houses, each space will be arranged to meet livability standards for seniors, which means that homes won’t have stairs leading up to them and the master bedrooms and bathrooms will be located on the first floor if a resident chooses to build her abode with multiple levels.

Buck Creek is situated near the Blue Ridge Medical Center and three doctor’s offices, and it’s only about 40 minutes from UVA Health System. Walker says he’s investigating opportunities for telemedicine at the common house and if all goes as planned, physicians with the local medical center will also visit the community on a regular schedule.

Like at Emerson Commons and other cohousing developments, the residents of Buck Creek will share the responsibility of running the village—and resident jobs will range from making meals and shopping to taking care of the community’s chickens.

“Just because we’re older, we still have assets,” Walker says. “I would say everybody who’s moving in is healthy enough to somehow contribute to the well-being of their neighbors. We try to debunk the myth that anybody who’s old can’t contribute anymore.”

Aside from the “dynamite views,” Walker says other exciting features of the 50-acre community include a proposed music room in the common house, hiking trails and the possibility of a solar farm to make their own electricity.

For Walker, the three things most inspiring about moving to Buck Creek are “being with friends, better preparing for our future as we grow older and living in Nelson County.”

But take it from the president of the national Cohousing Association: It’s not for everyone.

The type of person who does really well in cohousing is someone who’s easy-going, gets along with others, is seeking a balance of community and privacy and values relationships over winning, according to Lazar.

“I see this a little bit differently than some part of our society, especially politics, where winning is the most important thing,” he says. “It’s about each other, and working together to solve things.”


Not cohousing

Two intentional communities are already established in Louisa, but don’t call them cohousing. While one—founded in 1967 with about 100 current members—is one of the largest and longest-enduring communes in North America, the other went fully operational just last fall.

Both are income-sharing and use an economic model to sustain themselves, which is a major difference between the original intentional community and cohousing.

At Twin Oaks, making and selling hammocks has been the primary business since the community’s inception in the late ’60s, but its tofu and other soy products have recently become popular. Among other ventures, the members also dabble in book indexing and farming organic open-pollinated and heirloom vegetable seeds. The entire community shares about 15 public computers and fewer than 20 vehicles.

Members of Living Energy Farm, founded by ex-Twin Oaker Alexis Zeigler, grow food for the community, and sell seeds wholesale for income. With a few recent departures, only the owner’s family and a few interns who come and go currently live on the farm. They’ve stuck it out through recent cold spells by using only solar heat they’ve created and harnessed themselves. Living Energy’s aim is to create a modern lifestyle off the grid without any fossil fuel.

Living Energy Farm

Operating since 2017

Number of residences: One house, with room for expansion

Size: 130 acres

Address: 1022 Bibb Store Rd., Louisa

 

Twin Oaks

Operating since 1967

Number of residences: 7 houses with 10-20 members each

Size: 465 acres

Address: 138 Twin Oaks Rd, Louisa

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