My dream co-home

Slow Magazine

LAST YEAR, my partner and I imagined setting up our dream home. We’d just returned from cycling 6500 kilometres up the east coast of Australia exploring simpler ways of living, and we fantasised about a bush block with a rustic cottage and vegie patch – our very own organic outpost in the hills. After ogling property porn online, we conceded that even the cheapest land in remotest Tasmania was beyond our meagre budget. But I still clung to my mental blueprint, picturing wooden floorboards, an antique Aga stove and compressed-earth walls.

On our bicycle trip we had also visited “intentional communities” in Victoria, and one of them appealed to us. Unlike the stereotypical rural communes of the 1970s, this was an urban apartment complex with less radical levels of sharing. Most relevant to us, it was a rental co-operative, offering secure, long-term tenancy for people on low incomes. For once, my emaciated bank account was seen as a positive. We applied to become tenants and, about six months later, an apartment became available. Now, just four months after moving in, my idea of what makes a “dream home” has been renovated beyond recognition.

Called “Murundaka” – a Wurundjeri word meaning “a place to stay or to live” – the community consists of an apartment complex with 18 units and two residential blocks nearby, housing more than 35 residents. Each unit has its own kitchen and bathroom, but the laundry is communal. Residents also have access to a “common house” with cooking facilities and dining area, a lounge room, an office, a guest bedroom and a music room. I love the large communal backyard: during summer, pumpkin vines drape from the raised vegie garden and chickens escape their pen to peck at the bases of fruit tree saplings.

Murundaka is a “cohousing” community, a form of development pioneered in Denmark in the 1970s to re-establish the advantages of the traditional village in the context of modern life. Combining the autonomy of private dwellings with the companionship of communal facilities, cohousing is designed to foster relationships between residents. In their seminal book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett acknowledge there’s more to a home than just a roof over one’s head: “…our most important concern is people themselves and the quality of their lives.” There are now hundreds of cohousing communities worldwide, but only four established in Australia.

One of the most rewarding aspects of living in cohousing is you tend to spend time with people of all ages. In a single afternoon, I’ll switch from philosophising with one of my semi-retired neighbours to jumping on the trampoline with an energetic pre-teen. As a childless male who values his free time, I’ve always seen babies as blobs of inconvenience, but now I appreciate their emerging personalities, the joy and wonder they bring into the world. I’m no longer immersed in the insularity of my own age bracket, and that’s a good thing.

Just as you’re invited into the lives of others, they gain a glimpse into your own. Resident Lisa Moore, who has spent three years researching intentional communities for a thesis, says that when you live in cohousing your “whole self” is on display, not just the stage-managed persona you present to the outside world. “We have outbursts, and emotional highs and lows, which are witnessed by the other members…Some people find that a bit confronting because it’s a very intimate thing.”

Because residents are aware of their neighbours’ emotional states, they can support each other in times of need. When Delphine Ormancey fainted one hot summer’s night and had to go to hospital, she returned the next morning to find a freshly baked banana cake on her doorstep. After another resident, Heidi Lee, gave birth to her first child, neighbours chipped in to cook meals and help with laundry. “People would run down and grab the nappies off the line if it started to rain. I saw people doing that before they took their own laundry off…There was just an extraordinary outreach of care.”

One of the co-founders of Murundaka, Giselle Wilkinson, says that when her mother died some residents helped to organise the wake, which was held in the common house. “The big life events and crunch times are when community rallies and shows itself in its best light… What I experienced in the week between my mother’s death and her funeral brought this home to me and holds me in good stead through the tough times.”

It’s important to acknowledge the conflicts. Disagreement plagues many small communities, and since moving into the site in late 2011, residents have argued over communal meals, participation, garden design, fees and many other issues. Back-and-forth email exchanges can build into heated showdowns at monthly meetings, and gossip wafts up from the outside courtyard to the second-floor walkways.

The reasons for these clashes are complex and varied: the community is still at the early, turbulent stage of group development; residents don’t yet share a single set of values; there’s some confusion over governance and rules; and people keep putting food scraps in the wrong compost bin (ok, that’s just my pet gripe).

Lisa Moore says another reason for the conflict is “we’re still very focussed on our individualistic frameworks”. Residents are only beginning to learn skills for cooperation, such as listening, negotiation and compromise. It takes time to move from the individual self to the communal self, from “I” to “We”.

On balance, though, the pros definitely outweigh the cons. The greatest benefit for me has been a change in pace of lifestyle. Since moving in, I’ve spent less time at work and more time at home learning practical skills like organic gardening, carpentry and compost-making. “It [cohousing] really allows people an opportunity to take stock, reduce their costs, get off the treadmill and explore new dimensions of their life,” explains co-founder Iain Walker, who has been involved in co-operative housing for 30 years.

When I imagined setting up my dream home, I saw myself working with physical materials: hardwood beams, mudbricks, garden beds and solar panels. Instead, I find myself working with emotions, the stuff of the heart: words, hugs, smiles, subtle gestures to show I’m listening. Cohousing has taught me that a home is constructed out of people, and what matters most is not the roof that protects from rain or the walls that keep out wind, but the social scaffolding – those invisible bonds that hold us together.

First published in Slow Magazine issue 18.