Less is Moore: Can cohousing work in Philly?

From couhousingco.com, a snapshot from the Hearthstone Community in North Denver, Colorado.

There's a flaw built into most tips on 'living green' that homeowners get: Each improvement would go further if the homeowner were sharing those resources with other homeowners. But how is that possible? A house is a house, right?

Not if you're part of a cohousing community. And on Saturday, Moore College of Art & Design will host a conference (sponsored by the Interior Design Graduate Program) where you can learn about this social and environmental trend: Cohousing: Building Sustainable and Intentional Communities will include "discussion and discovery about the history, theories and practice of creating and living in cohousing."

In essence, cohousing is the practice of planning a neighborhood by its own future residents, involving some shared living areas and shared resources - "a cross between eco-village and custom neighborhood." The layout tends to be clustered, anti-sprawling. Families may share a laundry room, a playground, a kitchen, a rec room or lounge, maybe even a woods. They're likely to have dinners together, and meet regularly to agree on how to move forward. There's no question that it's more sustainable - especially since one of the main goals is to increase walkability - but it's also something of an international social movement.

I talked with keynote speaker Charles Durrett, an architect and urban planner who is probably the biggest cohousing expert in this hemisphere, about his appearance this weekend. He's the author of two books, "CoHousing: A Contemporary Approach To Housing Ourselves," and "Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living."

Though there have been a small number of intentional communities, and a much larger number of pie-in-the-sky plans for same, Durrett notes that the current model really got started in Denmark in the 1970s. "Yes, over the years there have been a lot of different ideas about how to re-invent our typical habitat," he says, "but this is a late-20th-century reconfiguration of that - by folks who say that the regular neighborhood doesn't work for us."

"We want a place," he continues, "where people will live and share together, a place that is child-friendly, walk-friendly, earth-friendly. The whole premise is 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 people get together and say 'what works for us?' and work it out among themselves."

Cohousing is not just for treehuggers, of course - "It's a quality-of-life decision," Durrett says. "Living lighter on the planet just derives naturally from that."

There are around 120 of these communities already in existence around the U.S. But what about big, tightly stocked cities like Philadelphia? Surely there's no room here to completely retrofit a neighborhood along these lines, I suggested. But Durrett explained that there's a lot of leeway in terms of the initial form. "We're working on projects around the country in high-rises... I lived in inner-city cohousing for several years. We bought an old factory and converted it. It doesn't matter how it starts but how you change it. Even if you're planning it from scratch you always wind up changing it."

So is there something like this already up and running here in town, that we haven't noticed? "No," says Durrett. Although there are plenty of good ideas and plans buzzing around "there's really no existing cohousing community in or around Philadelphia  and that's why I'm coming [to Moore]. I'm tired of people talking about it and not being able to pull it off because there hasn't been a critical mass - they get seven or eight eager people but can't push it further. What's needed is to get 20-30 people who are capable of doing so."

If you're intrigued or interested in the possibilities of cohousing around here, head over to Moore's Web site and register. The all-day event is free ("normally something like this would cost $500-600, so I really have to hand it to Moore for pulling this off" notes Durrett), and seating is limited. So come on down - this could be the start of something small!