CoHousing - Designing the Urban Village


DESIGN - Urban Apartments vs. Urban Cohousing:


Young families drawn to the cohousing lifestyle are especially interested in providing green spaces where their children can play freely outdoors in fresh air and plenty of sunlight. This is one of the main reasons cohousing villages exist mostly in rural areas where land is less expensive, and there is plenty of room for playgrounds, gardens and fields for children to frolic and explore. Unfortunately, locating a new cohousing project in a rural setting is a non-green practice in that it promotes development on previously undisturbed land, requires additional infrastructure, (roads and utilities), and promotes the use of cars and fuel to access the site.  By selecting an urban setting, the need for parking can be vastly reduced, especially because many cohousing communities share cars, and car expenses.


What would the program of an urban Co-housing Community look like? It certainly depends on the individual families and the location, but a description of how a person lives in cohousing is a good start:

The goal is to create an Urban Co-housing Village that is warm and friendly, highly participatory, collaborative, and eco-friendly.  In rural Danish projects, parking is located outside the boundary of the community. People leave their cars along the outside perimeter and enter into the great outdoor “common space” where their children are playing, where neighbors are barbequing, gardening, unwinding from the day. This transition from the outside world to the community helps one decompress, and take stock of the goings-on of the neighborhood, possibly stopping to chat with a neighbor, notice new flowers in the courtyard, before picking up the children and entering their own dwelling.

One can see that this decompression is also a transition from the public realm to the private. In the sketch below, you can see that this transition continues within the individual dwelling. One leaves the public domain as one enters the porch or outdoor seating area in front of each house. The most public part of the house itself is the kitchen, where parents who are cooking can look directly out onto the common courtyard to keep an eye on kids or watch neighbors coming and going. The more private living room faces outside the co-housing, and the most private rooms, the bedrooms, are located on upper floors facing out to provide the most secluded area for tenants.


Fundamental to cohousing is the "Common or Main House" which is space shared by all residents. In an urban setting, it may not be one spacific area, or even be on the same floor, but the Common House must include the “hearth” of the community. Spaces to consider are:

Living Room

Dining Room



Family Room

Sitting Area

Exercise Room

Teen Room (located far from other community spaces. Teenagers typically want to be alone, and seem to be happier in the dark to play their guitars and video games. You can either fight this, or accept this.

Two Guest Rooms (with closet and bathroom) should be made available to in-laws or out-of-town guests who may want to stay for a week or more. Consider providing an efficiency unit for a couple who may stay for more than two weeks, so that they have access to their own kitchenette.

Computer Room (with printers, scanner, copier, fax)


Yoga/Meditation room – The cultural makeup of the residential population may require an area for prayer. Consider the religious dictates for spaces designated for prayer. Will it need to face a certain direction? Will there need to be an ablution trough nearby? Will there need to be a place to put bibles, shoes, candles, or yarmulkes?

Storage Room (located in basement) with room for a storage bin for each unit.

Tool Shed for outdoor tools and play equipment.

Mechanical Room (Boiler, pumps, electrical panel, etc,) (located in basement)

Laundry Room (perhaps one on each floor of a large building, or one large room with plenty of glass looking out onto the playground.)

Toilet Rooms near the Dining Room and other important community spaces.

Make note that one of the main rooms of the Common House must be able to accommodate the entire co-house population for special events, assemblies, celebrations, and meetings. Several students designed dining rooms adjacent to living rooms, with operable walls between, which could be opened to create one large space. This borrowing of other spaces occurred frequently throughout the design process. Students allowed child care facilities to open directly out onto roof terraces and courtyards for outdoor play. As noted earlier, Child Care was sometimes located near the entrance so that the “entrance lobby” was actually the living room for these children during the day, and where parents would find their kids upon coming home in the evening. Child Care was often placed near the Kitchen so that providers had easy access for lunch and snack times.


The fundamentals of the rural cohousing project remain the same in an urban environment. The design strategy in an urban envronemtn, therefore, is to modify successful urban dwelling models to suit the cohouse lifestyle. For example, let's look at the typical urban apartment building. It is set up with single or double sided corridors, flanked by individual dwelling units located side-by-side. The corridors tend to be dark, narrow, and rather relentless. The walls give way only to the apartment doors, the elevator doors, or the laundry or storage room door. How many of us have experienced the un-nerving feeling of walking down one of these corridors, where the carpet pattern and light fixtures repeat and repeat, as if the corridor lasts forever? Clearly, this design is a direct result of  economics; developers constructing these buildings for profit. In a "for profit" world, common space, (circulation, elevator cores, lobbies), everything we might call the "Common House" is un-leasable, and is therefore be minimized. The actual rentable area, the apartment itself, is maximized and given optimal lighting and view. This is because tenants are usually more willing to pay extra for their individual units, and often balk at having to share the costs of commonly used areas. And who can blame them? Why would anyone want to share with neighbors they rarely meet?

The diagrams above show the relative area given to circulation in a typical apartment building, (top), compared to the same in a potential cohousing project, (bottom). In the cohousing model, one can see that the number of apartments is sacrificed, (20 versus 17), in order to allot more square footage for common spaces. Daylight enters these spaces as well as the main circulation corridor and provides relief from the darkness and strict geometry. The circulation zone is essentially a series of “living rooms” where tenants see one another, spend time together, work on projects together, and allow children to play together. The corridors can, in some ways, become mini-Common Houses, serving sub-communities on each floor.

In cohousing, the line between what is individual dwelling and what is common circulation is blurred. In fact, one may find that the idea of "arriving home" itself is blurred. Hallways widened to create small “living areas” are shared by all the tenants; libraries, sitting rooms, small dining areas, study rooms for children, are shared.


In cohousing, the question that comes up most often is “When is someone ‘home’?” Unlike entrance to typical apartment buildings, (which is essentially a transition from parking, to lobby and reception desk to a bank of elevators to a long hallway and ultimately to what one calls "home"), the cohousing community entrance must immerse you in the feeling of having arrived home almost immediately.

In several of our student projects, the entrance was the play area for child care. Parents who entered could immediately see what their children were up, who they are playing with, what they made that day. In other schemes, the entrance was just off the community kitchen, so that the aromas of that evening’s meal would greet people as they arrived. In other student projects, the dining area was just off the entrance so that there would always be activity, and thereby greater security, at the entrance to the building. In any event, one should avoid placing an area simply envisioned as a “common space” at the entrance, because without a particular function, such spaces are doomed to be empty and impersonal. In fact, every common space, room, courtyard, or assembly space must be designed in terms of what is meant to happen within it.

As Jackson notes in “The Vernacular Landscape;”

“A plaza is not an environment, a stage set. A plaza is where the role of the individual in the community is made visible, where we reveal our identity as part of an ethnic or religious or political or consumer-oriented society. The plaza exists and functions to reinforce that identity.

The entrances to the building and the roof garden must be communal, with the physical layout and orientation of the entrance designed first and foremost to provide an immediate sense of having arrived “home.” It should include a reception desk with a small office, email and mail boxes, bicycle storage, community store.


The cardinal rule in our design studio was that entrance should not provide immediate access to vertical circulation. The idea was to prevent residents from bypassing the community as they made their way to their units. Students sometimes placed the elevator core at the far end of the entrance area to force residents to walk past the child care area, or the store, or the dining room, before going upstairs. Others used a two-story entrance way, vertically related to an active space like the kitchen or dining room so that smells from the kitchen or sounds of people eating immediately greeted them upon entry.


Lengths and widths of egress areas will be important, as well as the overall feel of entrances, lobbies, and open spaces. To avoid long dark corridors, students came up with several interesting ways to activate and widen the path of travel. One student designed dwellings so that the kitchens were located closest to the corridors. Operable frosted glass windows opened the kitchen up to the corridors so that parents could look out from their kitchens into the common play area on each floor to watch their children while cooking or preparing a snack. This student envisioned a very lively floor, with children from several units playing together while parents in adjacent units called out to one another to borrow spices and sugar. 

In an Urban setting, the project also has a responsibility to relate to the street and neighborhood. In most cases it requires a strategy for defining the boundary between cohousing and the neighborhood, while providing communal yet secure access to the project. Consider providing ample retail to invigorate the street, possibly having a shop or organic grocery store that is run by the co-house itself. One must also be sensitive to the vernacular landscape of the site so that the Co-housing project enhances rather than detracts from the very city it inhabits. Maximize the pros and minimize the cons of children growing up in a city.


A major component of apartment design involves an analysis of the site’s reasonable dwelling capacity. In typical apartments, the goal is provide a range of unit sizes, (based on the number of bedrooms and baths), which is iteself based on market demands. As most couples move to the suburbs to raise their children, the formula for unit sizes in urban apartments shrinks; 1- and 2-bedroom apartments, and efficiencies, essentially for adults. Bedrooms are generally 11’x 12’ for typical bedrooms, and 14’x12’ for master bedrooms which have their own bath. Apartment buildings are often designed with a specific population in mind, (young professionals, elderly, students, etc.). The 3-bedroom urban apartment is a rarity. (The sketch below shows a typical apartment building with bedrooms in gray, compared to a cohousing model).

In the cohousing eample, the idea is to maintain a mix of unit sizes that can respond to the changes that take place in a typical extended family. Efficiencies are available to young adults who are either in school or are beginning their careers. One bedroom apartments are reasonable for young couples, or elderly couple who want to be close to their families down the hall, but not so near that they are in each other’s ways. The three-four bedroom apartments attract the growing families, including young children and an elderly grandparent. As life progresses, families may take up residence in different apartments as needed, without having to leave the all-important “neighborhood” of friends and support.

The goal is "balance:' maximizing the number of units while providing enough square footage for the Common House, communal areas, and leasable retail space on the ground floor. Each household within the Community will own its individual unit but commit to a kind of shared living experience — one that can accommodate regular shared meals,  a schedule of assigned daily chores and shared purchases of  food, tools, laundry equipment, landscaping equipment and lawn-mowers. Private dwelling units should still contain all the features of conventional apartments, but at a smaller scale. Residents must also have access to common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a green roof and the “common house.”

In the sketch below, Living, Kitchen and Dining areas are shown in gray. You can see that in cohousing, the individual dwelling units (or households) would have the same sized bedrooms one expects, but  proportionally smaller Living/Dining spaces to encourage interaction with neighbors. The cohousing apartments are therefore smaller than typical condominium apartments, leaving more area for common spaces on each floor.

It is best to provide a mixture unit sizes, ranging from 400 to 1,500 square feet:

Unit 1 0/1 Efficiency/Studio (One main room, kitchenette, one bath)

Unit 2 1/1 (One main room, one bedroom, one kitchen, one bath)

Unit 3 2/2 (One main room, two bedrooms, one kitchen, two baths)

Unit 4 4/2 (One main room, 4 bedrooms, one kitchen, two baths)

Each unit will also have a closet in each bedroom, a coat closet, and space as required for the mechanical system. Heat pumps need direct access to an exterior wall.

Each dwelling unit should have the typical condo features one would expect, plus access to the community dining room for shared meals, community living room, game room, yoga/exercise room, library, meditation/prayer room, workshop, geothermal heating system, and green roof. Common facilities should be designed for daily use, be an integral part of the community, and always be supplemental to the private units.


The Cohousing attitude of share and share alike applies not only to interior common spaces, but exterior, as well. In typical apartments, balconies are shallow and private. Used exclusively by individual tenants, they are too small for furniture and seating, and often end up as glorified storage areas, catch-alls for bicycles, sports equipment, grills, etc. In the Cohousing model, balconies present a range of privacy for tenants. The most public being the balcony of a common circulation space. More private is the balcony off of a defined common space used either by tenants on a particular floor, or by a specific group of tenants, (childcare, yoga room, dining). More private still is the balcony that is accessible from the Master Bedrooms of two adjacent apartments.


So how does one create appropriate cohousing green space in an urban setting? First, we must state the non-negotiable design parameters. Green space must be secure, sunlit, centrally located for direct parental supervision of children, easily accessible, an integral component of the “arriving home” sequence, and capable of supporting native vegetation and vegetable gardens.

In an urban context, the roof becomes an important source of natural daylight, outdoor play space, roof gardens, and solar energy. The roof structure in this type of building is generally deeper than typical apartment buildings since it may need to be capable of supporting enough insulation and structure to support soil for vegetation. Consider the types of plants you propose (vegetable garden, landscaped terrace, flower garden) to integrate with your overall scheme.


Urban Cohousing has the ability to lease much of the ground floor to retail to maintain the building and defray costs to the residents. The retail providers must be able to operate independently of the Cohouse, but may share access to the service and loading dock areas. In some jurisdictions, wood framing construction is limited to three or four floors. Fortunately, these floors may exist above retail of an entirely different structure, (steel or concrete slab) that can provide the long spans required for retail flexibility, and the 18-20’ floor to ceiling height generally preferred for retail

LOADING AND SERVICE - (loading dock, trash and recycling) 

MECHANICAL  Each floor should have its own mech. room, elec. closet, and janitor closet.