CAMBRIDGE — The Cornerstone Village common house fills with sweet and savory aromas. It’s time for Sunday night’s home-cooked communal dinner. More than 20 residents filter into the first-floor dining room — some families with toddlers, some teenagers, some empty-nesters, some singles. They head toward a buffet-style setup near the open kitchen and pile food on plates, then take seats at one of several large tables.
By mid-meal, the younger kids have disappeared into the playroom and the adult conversation grows louder. Everyone catches up on what happened over the weekend, on work, on birthday parties, on upcoming holiday plans. The relaxed atmosphere, the way people easily discuss the details of everyday life, the shared cooking, table clearing, and dishwashing make the group seem like a very equitable, very organized family. This kind of close-knit, intentional community plays a big part of the appeal of cohousing.
“I feel a commitment to the people who live here,” said Elizabeth Locke, 70, affectionately known as the “founding mother” of Cornerstone Village Cohousing. “It must be like the feeling of being in a tribe. You don’t necessarily like everybody. You don’t necessarily always get along. It’s not always easy to get the work done. But you’re connected to them and it’s a great way to live.”
The Cohousing Association of the United States describes cohousing as a “community of private homes clustered around shared space” where “[h]ouseholds have independent incomes and private lives, but neighbors collaboratively plan and manage community activities and shared spaces.” There are more than 160 cohousing communities spread across the United States, including 13 in Massachusetts, with four more in different stages of development in Greater Boston.
In 2003, Mary White, her husband, Michael Arnott, and their daughter, Kira Arnott, were one of the first families to call Cornerstone Village home, moving into the three-bedroom unit directly above the common kitchen and dining room. White, 55, attributes the increased interest in cohousing to greater awareness of what it offers and said, “Not many people had heard of it when we were doing it. Now, it’s been a success and it’s a great way to raise a family. I think people have realized that.”
The cohousing concept started in Denmark in the 1960s, spurred by a desire for stronger communities and a newspaper article headlined “Children Should Have One Hundred Parents.” In 1991, Muir Commons, widely recognized as the first US cohousing complex, welcomed its initial residents to Davis, Calif. Not long after, cohousing appeared in Massachusetts.
With thoughtful architecture and consensus governance, cohousing promotes frequent interactions and places an emphasis on sharing and caring. While each private residence, whether a condominium, single-family home, or other structure, has its own kitchen, baths, and bedrooms, individual living spaces tend to be on the smaller side because it’s expected that residents will make frequent use of common areas for meals, meetings, talent shows, book clubs, movie nights, barbecues, or whatever else they want to organize. The common areas typically include a large kitchen and dining room, laundry facilities, as well as recreational and outdoor spaces.
Residents can be as engaged as they want, opting in and out of group activities depending on their schedules and interests. But it’s also expected that residents will participate in activities that maintain common areas and foster community. For local cohousing projects currently forming such as Bay State Commons and Urban Village Cohousing, the intentional community aspect is central to their plans.
“Five years ago, I was thinking pretty hard about what it was about college that I missed,” said Peter Goldstein, 30, a Google software engineer and a founding member of Bay State Commons. “I missed the opportunity to go to public spaces, whether the dining hall or the library or the lounge in the dorm and run into people and have positive meaningful interactions there.
“I realized, as much as I loved living in apartments, I didn’t know my neighbors. I started thinking, How do you bring that feeling of community back, perhaps more than just knowing your neighbors? And I happened on cohousing largely by accident, Googling around ‘intentional communities.’ I read about it and thought, Hey, this is very much what I was thinking about.’’
The members of Bay State Commons recently signed an option-to-purchase agreement for land in Malden. Next, they will evaluate the site and consider potential building designs. They hope to start moving in during 2018 .
Before she recently purchased a one-bedroom apartment at Cambridge Cohousing, Carol Kunik, 75, was a driving force behind Urban Village Cohousing, which is seeking a site for 25 to 30 units. She first explored cohousing options after wondering what retirement would be like as a single woman in a Boston high-rise. “I wanted connection and community,” Kunik said. “I wanted to know there are people around who have my back. I think that happens in a cohousing community.”
For Bay State and Urban Village, Cornerstone Village has been a model and meeting place. Located in a quiet corner of North Cambridge, Cornerstone Village is a four-building, 32-unit complex centered on a large, landscaped outdoor space. Its unique configuration and multi-colored siding make Cornerstone Village hard to miss. Units range from one to four bedrooms and cost the same as comparable condominiums in the area. Think roughly $550,000 for two bedrooms.
Cornerstone Village owners come from all kinds of backgrounds and professions — architect, mechanical engineer, physician’s assistant, cantor, minister, professor, union organizer, urban planner, and former judge for starters. The youngest residents are infants, the oldest a 92-year-old woman. Currently, Cornerstone Village has a “waitlist” with 205 people interested in buying into the community who want to be notified when a unit becomes available.
On designated workdays, the complex bustles with activity as residents rake the common spaces, clean out the storage shed, install lights and alarms, tidy up the exercise room, and cover patio furniture. Neighbors update one another on when and where they’ll be working, adding to the day’s casual, friendly feel. In the playroom, one resident’s workday involves watching five children as their parents take care of chores outside.
Melissa Paschall, a mother of 9-month-old twin boys, Jason and Zachary, and a 5-year-old daughter, Ellie, was eager to clean out the shed. When the Paschalls outgrew their Kendall Square apartment, they moved into a three-bedroom unit in Cornerstone Village two years ago. Melissa and her husband, Stephen, appreciate how the common areas have become natural extensions of their own condo. And Melissa enjoys the more informal interactions among neighbors — the “bike pooling” of kids to summer camp, the dinner club she participated in during a kitchen remodel, the teenager in a nearby unit who drops by to play with the twins.
“Part of the appeal of moving into cohousing was you know your neighbors and you help each other,” Paschall said. “It seems old fashioned, but it’s a nice thing to have in this world. My five-year-old goes out and visits with neighbors. She has a degree of independence, and we have a degree of security about it. I feel like it’s out of a ’50s sitcom, and it’s really rare to find.”
For another mother with young children, cohousing’s outdoor common areas proved a big attraction.
When Jenise Aminoff, 47, saw the vegetable garden at Cambridge Cohousing, she knew she wanted to live there. It brought back memories of the New Mexico farm where she grew up. Aminoff and her husband moved into Cambridge Cohousing and stayed for 12 years. She became the vegetable garden coordinator and organized a poetry series there. Aminoff enjoyed the lifestyle, particularly the three common meals per week, but never formed strong, lasting friendships with her neighbors.
Aminoff, her husband, Alex, and two daughters, Annelise and Eleanor, moved to Cornerstone Village in July and found a better social fit. Her 12- and 9-year-olds have more children close to their age with common interests. Also, it’s been easier to slide into the social life of the larger group because the Aminoffs considered Cornerstone Village before it was built and knew many of its original members. Like the Paschalls, the Aminoffs value the casual interactions at Cornerstone most of all — the kids knocking on their door to play, the neighbors inviting them over for coffee.
“Fit is really important,” Aminoff said. “At first, we thought any cohousing was better than no cohousing. Maybe that’s still true. But I think we had much higher expectations the first time around than we do now. Part of it is also initial conditions. We came into Cambridge Cohousing not knowing anyone and the good friendships had already been formed. But because we had been in the initial group with Cornerstone, it was like coming home again.”
With more Boston-area cohousing options on the way, others may soon have the same experience.