Archive for Sunday, November 7, 1999


November 7, 1999


A housing concept called cohousing promotes neighborliness and sharing. But, "it's not a commune," says one Lawrence promoter of the concept.

Children playing under the watchful eye of senior citizens.

People of all ages gathering a few times a week for a meal.

Neighbors greeting each other not through the windows of their cars, but face-to-face.

These are some of the images offered by Margie Wholey and Steve Polson in their effort to explain cohousing, a living concept they hope to soon bring to Lawrence.


To Polson's disgust, the word brings to mind another "c" word used to describe group living.

"It's not a commune," Polson insists.

Except for the maintenance of the common house and voluntary group meals on occasion, there is not a sharing of money. And every family has its own private living space.

"It's not like a hippie commune as much as it's like an old-fashioned neighborhood or small town," Wholey said. "The combination of individuality and group is, I think, handled really well in the cohousing model."

Cohousing originated in Denmark during the 1960s. The idea floated across the ocean about 10 years ago and has resulted in more than 40 cohousing communities in North America with an additional 150 or so being developed, Wholey said.

Cohousing guidelines

Legally, cohousing usually works like a condominium with each household owning its home and the ground beneath it and sharing the ownership of common areas.

Functionally, it works like an extended family with decisions made by consensus.

The decision-making begins long before any housing has been built. The participants design their living space and establish their own rules, opening the door for a wide variety of arrangements.

But a few guidelines make cohousing what it is:

  • Clustered homes. Whether houses, apartments or townhouses, the living spaces tend to be built in a group.
  • Peripheral parking. The homes are connected by walking paths rather than roads.
  • Consensus decisions. Unless everyone agrees, or agrees not to stand in the way, no decision is made.
  • Manageable size. From 20 to 30 families of varying sizes, ages and descriptions.
  • Common house. A place where common meals might be served with other amenities for social gatherings or child supervision.

A sense of community

The result is supposed to offer company to the lonely, help in raising children for parents, support for the elderly and a sense of community for everyone.

It sure struck a chord with Wholey, who had never heard of the idea before July.

She and Polson, who live together, were on their way to an art film in Kansas City when she shared her feelings with Polson.

"I'm in this big place. There are all these people, and I feel lonely," said Wholey, 51, a social worker who has two grown sons and is divorced.

Polson, 55, who also has raised two children and been divorced, told her about the cohousing concept and their mission began.

They have collected information and attended a meeting at a cohousing community in Amherst, Mass., last month.

They have run a classified advertisement, distributed fliers and begun talking about the idea to most anyone who will listen.

Their initial efforts have drawn 13 queries from people who are interested.

They will have a meeting of their own at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, inviting anyone interested to Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass.

Something for everyone

Maura Piekalkiewicz, 66, and her 73-year-old husband, Jarek, plan to be there.

Piekalkiewicz said her husband is planning to cut back on his teaching at Kansas University, but they want to remain active and social, which the cohousing idea seems to offer.

"We'd like to continue in a lively neighborhood," Piekalkiewicz said. "We would prefer that to a retirement community."

Piekalkiewicz sees the group living idea as a trade-off.

"We can baby-sit for younger children," she said. "They can eventually drive us to the doctor."

Lynate Pettengill, 32, has also responded.

She hopes cohousing will offer her 5-year-old son, Ethan Pettengill Miles, a group of people to socialize with and learn from.

"In our society today we are kind of isolated," Pettengill said. "We just kind of lost that neighborhood feel."

Polson can philosophize some about that loss.

The former architect lays some of the blame at the feet of his colleagues.

The attached garage has virtually eliminated neighborly contact. The push of a garage door opener allows people to drive into their homes.

"We've never laid eyes on anybody. Nobody has laid eyes on us," Wholey said.

Because families tend to move more, extended families are no longer in the same cities, Polson said.

And a growing economy has allowed more people to buy homes with larger yards, putting them that much farther from their neighbors, he said.

A burning soul

Wholey and Polson won't be starting from scratch.

The growing interest in cohousing has led to books that help with the process and a support association.

"We do not have to invent the wheel," Polson said.

Polson and Wholey don't see themselves as leaders. That would violate the concept of consensus decision-making.

But they do know they have a lot of work ahead of them if their vision is to grow into reality.

"Every community has a burning soul, somebody who really wants it," Wholey said. "We're sharing that burning soul."

-- Kendrick Blackwood's phone message number is 832-7221. His e-mail address is


Anyone interested in cohousing is invited to a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass.

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