Cohousing project built from scratch

Delaware Commons neighborhood residents seek community feeling for new homes

The process might strike some as a bit unorthodox.

First buying a house you’ve never seen, then designing the neighborhood where it will be built and only then, during the final planning stage, drawing up floor plans for the place you and your family may live for years to come.

Uncommon, yes. Illogical, no, say members of Delaware Street Commons, a 26-unit cohousing project slowly taking shape in East Lawrence.

“It’s sort of the reverse of the way most real estate decisions are made,” said Rich Minder, the project’s marketing team leader who also will live in one of the $50,000 to $200,000 homes with his wife and two young children. “Very rarely do people who buy houses have a say in how they design their neighborhood. Certainly they don’t think about what resources they could share with their neighbors before they buy their house.”

But Delaware Street members say investing the time and energy first to envision their ideal neighborhood a place where people really know their neighbors, share resources and make as little impact on the environment as possible while still living comfortably will pay off in the long run, the same way it has paid off for some 60 other completed cohousing communities across the country.

Cohousing is a form of collaborative housing that started in Denmark in the 1960s and is meant to overcome the alienation of modern subdivisions. Residents design their own living spaces and are consciously committed to living as a tight-knit community.

Nearly three years after the idea for the Lawrence project sprouted, 10 members of pre-sold households met this weekend for an intensive workshop with their architect to commit designs to paper.

“It’s exciting,” project member Francis Elling said Saturday afternoon during a break in the workshop. “I’m looking forward to living in a community where people know and care for each other.”

Construction at 12th and Delaware streets could begin as early as October.

Growing as a community

Picture a typical Lawrence neighborhood: city blocks lined with houses, residents pulling up after work and heading into their homes for an evening with family. Though they might have an occasional barbecue with neighbors or attend a monthly neighborhood association meeting, many perhaps most Lawrence residents don’t genuinely interact with their neighbors.

That’s not really possible, or desirable, in a cohousing environment.

Members of Delaware Street Commons already have spent hours together planning their community through a series of decisions reached by consensus. During that process, which members admit can be frustrating, they’ve grown closer to their future neighbors.

“The process of learning to get along and make decisions that process is sort of the cultural-sustainability part,” Minder said. “That’s where we’re making the connections. That’s where we’re growing as a community.”

The physical configuration of Delaware Street Commons should encourage neighborly interaction as well. Residents will leave their vehicles in a parking lot on the outskirts of the site and walk to their homes, which will face one another across a pedestrian walkway.

Though each family will live in its own home, community members will share a “common house,” an 1870 building already on the property, where they’ll gather for occasional group meals, meetings and social events. It also will house laundry facilities, lawn and garden equipment, a library, a wood shop and other functions members can share.

The neighborhood will maintain a perfect balance between community and privacy, founding member Linda Journeys said.

“It won’t just be a matter of seeing my neighbors occasionally,” she said. “It’s real easy for someone like me to go home, sit down with a book and never see anybody. But if I want to see a human face, I’ll be able to go out my front door and chat with someone for 15 minutes and then go back inside.”

Recreating the street corner

Another priority of Delaware Street Commons and cohousing communities across the country, for that matter is that its members are striving to make a modest environmental impact on their 3.3-acre tract. The homes will be built condominium style with recycled and sustainable materials.

Architect Kirk Gastinger with Gastinger Walker Harden Architects in Kansas City, Mo., is helping members maximize the community’s efficiency and sustainability.

“One of the things I tell my clients is that we should try to design the smallest space we can functionally afford to live in,” he said. “We’re not trying to build tents or anything, but we’re looking for efficiency and for comfort.”

Gastinger has been enjoying his work on the project because, he said, it’s important to create social space in which neighbors can come together.

“It’s recreating the street corner,” he said. “That casual interaction that’s not planned is so vacant in our lives. You can get it on the college campus or on the street corner on Mass., but I would dare anyone to think that there are probably any other spaces like that in the city, and that’s very valuable. Yet, there are no housing communities that are being built that support that idea except in cohousing.”

The most encouraging part of advising the Lawrence group, he said, has been realizing that Delaware Street may create a pattern for other people at least those who can afford to buy new homes to follow.