What’s in a Common House?
e know a common house is a definitional feature of a cohousing community, but what makes for a great common house?
o start with, it’s useful to consider the central purpose of a common house, which is to support relationships, connection and time together. One measure of success in cohousing is the number of common house person-hours, with a general understanding that more people spending more time in the common house is good for community. When considering design or changes to a common house it is wise to ask ourselves, “Will this increase the time people spend together in our community?”
or those who haven’t lived in community yet, this can be a shift in thinking. In most public spaces (think a museum or a gym) we tend to prefer not to be crowded by other people. For most of us it is fairly easy to imagine that we could use a laundry, media room or guest rooms as an alternative to maintaining comparable spaces in our own homes. It is a bit more of a stretch to think about walking into a media room, finding someone else already there, and being glad for the connection of watching a movie together rather than watching your own choice alone. Veteran cohousers tend to value both the availability of resources and the relationship building that comes of sharing them. It is wise to hold this perspective when planning spaces.
common house generally includes a dining room and a kitchen and these are usually the most used and most valued spaces particularly with communities with robust common meal programs. The bigger challenge in design comes around the other spaces. Here are a few ideas to consider.
ncidental engagement - Will people who come to (or walk by) the common house for one purpose be aware of others in the common house and be drawn into conversation? This will have a lot to do with the flow of the common house as well as uses that encourage short daily visits like main collection or recycling. Those accidental conversations are some of the most powerful relationships builders in community.
ifferentiation - While our relationships benefit from being more aware of one another, that concept doesn’t extend to a teen foosball tournament sharing space (even auditory space) with a yoga class. You will want ways for very different kinds of activities to happen at the same time without disturbing one another.
ersatility - The range of activities that will want to happen in the common house will (hopefully) far exceed the number of spaces available. Odds are the same space that is used for common dinner (tables and chairs) on Wednesday is also used for a general meeting (no tables, big circle and a white board) on Thursday and a glorious dance party (open floor space, sound system) on Friday. It pays to be thoughtful about how and where the furnishings and equipment will be stored when not in use. Can wall art that makes lovely ambiance for a meal be set aside to make space for chart paper or yogi handstands?
ariability - Your community will change and the common house will be used differently over time. From year to year a given space may be used as a teen hang out, and then a yoga retreat, and then a homeschool classroom . . . Building spaces that can be used in different ways is one piece of this. The other is holding “ownership” of spaces loosely and periodically reviewing use and needs, expecting to make adjustments. Having these conversations often reinforces the idea that change is a normal part of community life.
olicy - Welcoming and empowering policy may be more important than the structure itself in determining how much your common house is used. You will want to find a balance between asking people to clean up after themselves and avoiding having people feel they are being policed. Some structure helps people to know what works and how to use the space collaboratively and safely. Too many rules or too much enforcement can discourage people from using the space at all. As in so much about community, balance is key.