On the road in Wyoming last week one night was spent at the Green Creek Inn and RV park. If you’ve stayed in camping / RV parks there’s, generally, an area set aside for semi-permanent places for longer-stay RVers.
In Wyoming, they are seasonal park workers, oil and gas field workers, hard-core hunters and fishers.
There’s been talk about low cost housing types for Millennials paying off student debt, seniors seeking nursing home alternatives and marginalized populations like homeless vets.
Forms of cooperative and collaborative approaches float to the surface. Tiny houses are low cost to construct and lots of them can be crammed onto a piece of ground. As such, there are cities that are building tiny houses for the homeless population.
A few years ago, I helped organize a Regional Cohousing Conference in Boulder. There were around 90 people in attendance from the US, Canada and Australia with various interests in this collaborative housing form.
In a past life, I used to be a city planner in Wyoming and a member the Boulder Planning Board in Colorado, as well as the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley in Longmont. I studied ecological biology and environmental politics as an undergrad and grad student. How to live a balanced life in both the human and natural environments has always been an interest of mine.
The cohousing idea is a little bit about the buildings, but it’s more about setting up an old fashioned sense of community in which residents participate in the design, character and culture of their neighborhoods. With an itinerant population like homeless people, creating a sense of community would be a challenge.
The cohousing idea originated in Scandanavia, which is a bit more communal and socialistic than in the US. Here, cohousing tries to adapt communal tenets into the “rugged individualism” of America.
The pitfalls of that evolution was the main topic of the Regional Cohousing Conference which was entitled “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” I’ve written a post or two about those issues.
Over the past few years, interest in “tiny houses” has been growing. That is, people choosing to live in homes that are from 200 to 600 sq ft in size.
They are generally built on a “flat bed” and can be wheeled around from place to place, but also can be built on a foundation, but that kicks in an entirely different set of building requirements. Tiny houses on skids or wheels fall into the land use category of mobile homes.
They are far different than your standard mobile home. Regular mobile homes can be the size of stick built houses that incorporate some space saving design features. If you google “tiny house” lots of websites and images pop up.
How about this idea – a cohousing community that consists of tiny houses?
It makes sense to me.
The biggest hurdle for traditional cohousing, as well as regular housing, for that matter, is money.
Money for land, money for the development. Because cost is such a huge factor, homes are constructed that maximize profit. This generally means expensive houses crammed onto a tiny space. How about the opposite – inexpensive houses on tiny spaces, that results in more open spaces?
Tiny houses cost anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 and can be parked in friends’ back yards. They are often built with sweat equity. There’s a cable tv show about downsizing baby boomers, young couples and individuals making the move to drop out of the “bigger is better” society. Some tiny homeowners want to be more mobile, others are sedentary.
With tiny houses, a cohousing organizer wouldn’t need near as much space as a typical coho development. It would depend on the rules, but a tiny house development would likely be more transient.
Utilities could be “hook ups” like in an RV park. Decisions would have to be made, based on political jurisdiction about individual septic or a septic field or central wastewater collection; individual water cisterns or central water.
I would think there would be some amenities like streets, sidewalks, open space, in addition to the common house.
At the typical RV park, the longer-stay “residents” have access to the common showers / restrooms, laundry, the little store and breakfast available to the overnight campers.
I can envision a common house that is more permanent, though. As a monetary hedge against potentially higher turnover rates, the common house could be mixed use with community amenities like the open dining area, kitchen, laundry facilities, TV room, guest rooms, with business tenants or owners like a convenience store, coffee shop, business offices, laundromat and the like.
I happened to be at a commercial development in Highlands Ranch – a ‘burb of Denver. There was high and medium density housing on the back side and mixed use / commercial fronting on the main drag and a strip mall with convenient services like coffee shops and kitschy stores that also included large box retail which require lots of parking.
Highlands Ranch is more known as a typical “cul de sac” nation and not as a “sustainable” community – intentional ir not.
Because tiny houses are small, neighbors would be more likely to frequent the common house, than in some traditional cohousing communities in which homes are the same as in suburbia with large living rooms, utility rooms, large kitchens. Neighbors go in their house and you don’t see them again.
There are the unfounded housing characteristics necessary for resale, as espoused by Sarah Susanka author of “Not So Big House.”
Susanka, who is also an architect, says that the sense of “home” has less to do with quantity and everything to do with quality. She points out that we feel “at home” in our houses when where we live reflects who we are in our hearts.
I heard her speak at Denver University a few years ago. The examples that stuck with me are those of the “den” and “dining room.” She asked the huge audience about who uses their den and who eats in the dining room. Not many hands went up.
I’d say that, for the most part, communities still have a bias AGAINST mobile home parks and hold the “trailer trash” stereotype. In a place like Boulder, there would be an uproar about this as a form of affordable housing. The best place to try this out would be where land is inexpensive and there is less of an elitist attitude.
At the coho conference, I was talking to a fellow filmmaker from Minnesota, who also lives in cohousing, about the idea of tiny house cohousing.
I’ll plant the seed here, but it may take me developing the idea in order for me to document it.
As it turns out, I am trying to get interest in a mixed use intentional community located in Cheyenne, Wyoming called the Lincoln Court. We had our first informational meeting with participants naming “tiny houses” as one of the possible land uses, along with cohousing, apartments, coworking offices, gallery and performance space and studios.
The project is moving forward with a draft business plan available. Check it out. The project is planning for a tiny house village to diversity apartments, and two affordable cohousing projects offering stick-built town houses and cottages.
Anyone interested in building a tiny house in a cohousing community?
This article was originally published in December 2014, but updated, in part due to a wordpress glitch that obliterated the story.