On Building

Fringe Benefits:
Part 2 in the Outsiders Series

This article appeared in the February 2008 issue of the Greater Bay Area edition of
Builder/Architect magazine.
By Eve Kushner

In 1980, two young architecture students (a married couple) sought an alternative to the isolating way Americans live. As the couple later wrote in books, we Americans tend to live so far from friends that we must arrange casual get-togethers weeks in advance. We go almost everywhere by car. Furthermore, many of us live in single-family, detached houses—structures that once made sense for families with stay-at-home moms. Nowadays, most adults work, and at the end of the day, we come home exhausted and hungry, peering with dismay into empty refrigerators. Our housing arrangements no longer support our needs.

Photo courtesy of McCamant & Durrett Architects
The community kitchen at Bakken, a Danish cohousing community
that inspired McCamant and Durrett.

Seeking a solution, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett explored Danish communities in which people have clustered smaller-than-average (but self-sufficient) houses, leaving abundant green space around the buildings. The residents spend time in common areas and cook communal dinners in a large kitchen. They share playground equipment, books and tools, help each other with child care and generally look out for one another.

Environmentally, economically and emotionally, this set-up struck McCamant and Durrett as ideal. Tremendously inspired, they brought the idea back to California, forming the CoHousing Company, also called McCamant & Durrett. With offices in Berkeley and Nevada City, Calif., the firm has now designed more than 40 American cohousing communities. The founding partners lived in one for 13 years and recently moved to a second. The communities have long waiting lists; residents love these living arrangements, as do McCamant and Durrett.

Photo courtesy of McCamant & Durrett Architects
Nevada City Cohousing in Nevada City, California.

But what has cohousing meant for the couple professionally? In building communities where residents sacrifice personal space for the common good, McCamant and Durrett run smack up against typical American expectations. To many Americans, bigger is better, especially when it comes to personal space. According to architect Brad Gunkel, who heads the firm’s Berkeley office, “Americans have bought into a dream where their house is their kingdom.” Fearful of the unknown and of strangers, Americans are determined to create an isolated existence for their families and to protect their relative anonymity, he says.

Is it crazy, then, to promote cohousing in this country? The architecture in McCamant & Durrett’s communities looks completely traditional, but confronting American norms certainly puts these architects on the fringe.

Credit: Ben Tremper
Common house and residential units at Silver Sage Village
in Boulder, Colorado.

Specializing in cohousing may also seem masochistic; the architects must sit through years of meetings with residents who make decisions by consensus while custom-designing communities. “You really have to believe in the process to have patience for that,” says Gunkel.

Idealism can easily create rigidity. Those in “activist architecture” (to quote Gunkel) may define their niche within tight lines that they never cross. Accepting less idealistic projects might strike such architects as a morally objectionable compromise.

But the architects at McCamant & Durrett have a different take. “By doing cohousing, we’re not preventing ourselves from doing other work,” says Gunkel. “If we were doing adobe communes,” he adds, laughing, “yeah, we would be out there, and we wouldn’t be able to get the kind of work we do get.”

McCamant & Durrett accepts projects that they deem socially responsible. In addition to cohousing, the firm does affordable housing, urban planning and child development centers. The architects also consult with those who want their projects to invite more community interaction. Gunkel says, “I don’t think anybody in our office feels bad about doing any of that work. It’s not against anybody’s principles.”

In fact, the firm benefits from this expanded focus, he says: “If we only did cohousing, we might be more isolated in our vision, and we might not be as responsible to the community as a whole. I think our work in urban planning definitely helps us be responsible to the larger neighborhood and community.”

Being an outsider architect often means being poorer than one would otherwise be. The poverty may actually appeal to some idealists, as it conveys a Gandhi-like moral cleanliness.

But McCamant & Durrett employees needn’t starve. Gunkel says that because his firm does cohousing, “We get opportunities that might not exist otherwise. We do pretty substantial projects for a firm our size.” He adds, “It’s not something that’s necessarily going to be a financial windfall. But it is steady work for us. And that’s because we’ve become specialists in a niche where most architects lack experience, knowledge and patience. In that regard, being outsiders has proven to be a benefit.”

Courtesy of McCamant & Durrett Architects
A soon-to-be-built cohousing community and mixed-use
development in San Juan Bautista, California.

Go to Part 1 of this series.
Go to Part 3 of this series.
Go to Part 4 of this series.
Go to Part 5 of this series.
Go to Part 6 of this series.
Go to Part 7 of this series.
Go to Part 8 of this series.
Go to Part 9 of this series.
Go to Part 10 of this series.