At the last minute, Kathryn McCamant had to take her 4-year-old daughter Jessie along with her to a meeting. The story of her life, it seemed. McCamant was one of the architects hell-bent on spreading the word about cohousing to America. A Danish invention in which families live in separate homes but share communal space and meals, it wasn’t an easy sell. There were so. Many. Meetings.
At this particular one, Jessie sat at her mom’s feet under the table and drew in her sketchbook as the adults babbled on and on about “the hard knocks of real estate development,” as McCamant put it. As the end of the meeting drew near, she looked down and burst out laughing. “She had written WOW on my shoes,” McCamant remembers. “It took me a while to realize it was ‘MOM’ from her perspective. Great juxtaposition! While they were my dress leather shoes, luckily, they were purchased second-hand. Our kids teach us so much!”
When Jessie Durrett was just starting to toddle, architects McCamant and Charles Durrett were putting the finishing touches on the first distinct cohousing community in America: Muir Commons, in Davis, California. McCamant and Durrett became interested in cohousing while studying in Copenhagen in the ’80s and played a key role in spreading it across America over the next couple of decades. Katie, as she’s known, and Charles lived in two different cohousing communities while they were raising Jessie, one in Emeryville, California, and another in Nevada City, California.
The archetypical cohousing community is made up of a couple dozen private households that are built to face one another around a central courtyard. They share common spaces, like a kitchen and eating area, a garden, tool shed, and laundry facilities, as well as a belief in the value of intergenerational interdependence. In practical terms, this usually means shared meals and communal workdays on the land. In spiritual terms, it means “you’ve got my back, I’ve got yours.” Today, there are more than 160 cohousing communities in 25 states across the country, according to the Cohousing Association of America.