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Sunday, October 21, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Community by design: Cohousing projects in Seattle combine group ownership with independent living

Special to The Seattle Times

A little over 100 years ago, my great-grandparents helped form a commune in the then-newly created state of Washington. The group found a plot of land near the tiny hamlet of Bow, a few miles north of La Conner.

They cleared the land and built a collection of dwellings arranged around a large common room where they could share meals, work on mutually beneficial endeavors and collectively look after their children. My grandmother was one of the children.

The members of the community held advanced ideas for that time. Women had full voting rights, and the families shared in the ownership of the land, the buildings and the produce they grew. All members shared in various responsibilities of maintenance and operations. They knew that much could be gained by living in a small, cooperative and supportive community.

This spirit — a blend of independence and inter-dependence — is still alive today in the growing numbers of co-housing communities around Puget Sound. Two recently completed projects in Seattle are great architectural examples of how people can create their own unique place to live.

Making a community

Co-housing involves a group of families and individuals planning and developing places to live that are more compact and socially interactive. Typically, a co-housing group will hire an architect and a builder who are willing to accommodate the individual needs of households, and to make a place that reflects the ideals of the group as a whole.

This can take many months, even years, of discussing objectives, ideas and design alternatives. The result is a place that is much like a small village, with modest units grouped around gardens and meandering pathways. In sharp contrast to typical real-estate developments, co-housing projects frequently include widely different types of dwellings in close proximity.

Detached houses, cottages, row houses and a building containing multiple dwellings can be found, along with a "great room" for shared meals, child care and community events. This allows for many types of households to be a part of the community: singles, single-parent families, two-parent families, even seniors whose kids have left home. Co-housing offers something far more sociable than a typical development where different ages and incomes are segregated.

Parking is usually grouped off to one side or placed in a structure, so that the bulk of the site is a quiet, verdant setting. The relatively compact sizes of the dwellings reflect a desire to live more simply, and the bonus is that more of the construction budget can be spent on architectural craftsmanship, higher-quality fixtures and amenities not often seen in other developments.

Sometimes the resident-owners themselves help finish off the last touches by building porches, trellises and fences or installing plants and pathways.

By the time a co-housing development is ready to be occupied, the members have been fully invested — emotionally, financially and physically — in their new community.

Duwamish project

The Duwamish Cohousing was completed last year. Located at 6000 17th Ave. S.W. in West Seattle, the development contains 20 small dwellings, ranging from 940 square feet to 1,400 square feet, plus three larger dwellings up to 3,300 square feet. The architect is Arellano/Christofides, a firm that has designed a number of housing projects around the city.

The Duwamish project includes a Common House — a space for gatherings, parties, meals and children's play. Shared laundry facilities and a workshop are also included. The buildings were clustered to carefully protect a wetland. An intermittent stream, crossed by small footbridges, threads through the central outdoor space.

In recognition that families may increase in size, some of the units were designed to allow for expansion or modification by individual owners. The development feels intimate, nicely crafted and cared for. The collective spirit can be seen in well-tended gardens and a sense of shared responsibility for each other that comes from proximity and friendship.

Replica of hill town

Just being completed is Jackson Place Cohousing, 800 Hiawatha Place S. in Seattle's Central Area. The development feels like a Pacific Northwest version of an Italian hill town. Working with the community, Pyatok Architects designed a tight cluster of buildings and common spaces that terrace down the hillside.

All of the parking is in a structure tucked out of sight under one of the buildings. Buildings fronting on Hiawatha Place include shared stoops, much like row houses in San Francisco. Each unit contains a generous area off the entry that can be made into an accessory dwelling or used to run a small, home-based business.

This development is a splendid example of public/private collaboration. The land had been owned by the city of Seattle but was no longer needed. The city prepared a master-development plan and then invited proposals for housing projects. The Jackson Place Cohousing group teamed with IconPentron Ltd. to make a proposal for two portions of the property flanking Hiawatha Place.

The cohousing occupies the east side of the street. On the west side, Icon will soon start constructing a building containing living/work spaces for artists. Hiawatha Place itself has been designed to be a shared public space, accommodating wide sidewalks, trees and parking.

Eventually, a third housing development will occupy the portion of the site farther up the hillside. Even though it temporarily sits alone, the Jackson Place Cohousing development looks terrific. With its stepped form, broad overhanging roofs and finely detailed bay windows, the place feels supremely humane and livable.

Unlike Duwamish, Jackson Place still has some space available for additional families. More information on the development is available by checking their Web site at www.seattlecohousing.org or calling 206-522-3099.

Both the Duwamish and Jackson Place projects vividly demonstrate how people can take initiative to create good places to live within an urban setting. And they show that such development can be done in a way that is affordable, sociable and environmentally responsible.

Mark Hinshaw is director of urban design for LMN Architects and a regular contributor to The Seattle Times.

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