The Cohousing Development Process – Part Two

While all cohousing communities have a different journey, many share similar steps. This two part post shares an overview of how Richmond Cohousing is traversing the Cohousing Development Process. Part One explores how a few “burning souls” build a group structure, expand membership, and partner with a Developer, while this portion explains the process after site selection.

Site selection and acquisition can occur in any number of ways but typically the group defines a set of characteristics and works with development partners and other professionals to identify sites that meet those characteristics. Once a preferred site is selected by the group, the group and/or Development Partner secures an option on the property, conducts feasibility analyses, and determines whether they want to commit to that parcel or keep looking. Once the group has secured control of their selected site, the community design process can begin.

The process of land acquisition, community and home design, entitlements and public approvals and construction of the community typically takes somewhere between 1 and 3 years, although a number of factors can either speed-up or slow the process. Setbacks can be the result of national forces such as recessions or changes in regulations, or the result of local challenges such as getting needed entitlements and approvals or addressing resistance from surrounding communities. Many cohousing groups experience some setbacks along the way but the determination and creativity that comes from a well-organized and committed cohousing group is a powerful force for overcoming obstacles and reaching successful completion.

While the developer is at work managing the technical and construction aspects of the project, the group plays an important complementary role. They engage actively in a contributing to the community design process by giving input and approval to site design, common house design, and home designs. They also give input on other factors such as green and sustainable elements, aesthetics, efficiency, and cost-saving measures. Most groups have design charrettes (workshops) with the entire group, but also create a small team of trusted members who serve as a liaison between the group and developer, charged with keeping each side informed and passing key questions and information back and forth.

At this stage of the project the group continues the work of finding the future neighbors who will complete the community. This means marketing and outreach to raise awareness about the project and providing support and guidance for new members who need to be welcomed, engaged, and informed about their new community. New members will need support in learning about existing community practices, agreements, and governance. The group will also ensure that all potential full members are in a position to afford their future home; potential members should seek bank prequalification or preapproval (if they need one) early in the membership process.

As construction proceeds and the membership numbers grow, the group shifts more of its energy and attention to planning for life in the community after move-in. They will make decisions about community agreements and policies such as managing community meals, sharing work contributions, annual budgets and homeowner dues, conflict resolution norms, pets, establishing community traditions, using common lands, whether to have solar panels, chickens or a swimming pool, etc, etc. Working through these issues and possibilities creates fertile ground for getting to know one another better through community conversations, listening to different perspectives, and finding common ground and mutually acceptable solutions. The time the group puts into this work grows members’ capacities for working collaboratively for years to come.

The final step in the development process is moving in and beginning day-to-day life in cohousing with people who have become not just neighbors – but friends.


The Cohousing Development Process – Part One

So how do we actually build a cohousing community? It’s a long process from a group of “burning souls” with a great idea to a physical and vibrant community. There’s so many things in between – establishing group norms and processes, agreeing on a common vision and how to get there, making sure there’s enough money to get the thing built (while dealing with site evaluation(s), zoning, and permits), and creating a group of neighbors from strangers. While all groups have a different journey, many share similar steps. This two part post shares an overview of how Richmond Cohousing is traversing the Cohousing Development Process.

Some cohousing projects are initiated by professional developers, but most, like Richmond Cohousing, most are initiated and driven by an early group of ‘burning souls’ who plan to live in the community they create. They are people willing to put in time, energy, effort, and funds to support the realization of their shared vision, through a process that will take many years. If the early group is able to effectively organize itself and develop a functional and collaborative group culture, they begin to turn their vision into a move-in ready cohousing community. They hope that their some-years-long project pays off in a many-years-vibrant cohousing neighborhood.

Along the way, the forming group begins expanding with new members who are drawn to the vision for the community and who are also willing and able to contribute energy, time, and money to the process. Existing members help newer members learn about the project and find ways to engage and contribute. All full members share equal power; earlier members do not have any special rights and have no more formal power or authority than newer members. Over time the goal is for every member of the community to share a deep sense of ownership, responsibility, and buy-in to the project and the community as a whole.

Most groups who have developed a functional process and a committed membership of between a third and a half of their eventual households move to engage qualified development professionals who can help turn their vision into a reality. There are many ways to do this, but the most common is for groups to seek an experienced developer who is willing to act as a fully engaged partner. This developer will work closely with the group to design the site, homes, and common house, manage the physical development of the community, and oversee approvals, permits, and construction. Ideally, the developer also helps with site selection and construction financing.

Real estate development – cohousing or traditional – is inherently risky and it is important for members to understand those risks and to work together to mitigate them where possible. Depending on the details of the formal agreement between the Cohousing group and their Development Partner, the group will typically have to put some “skin in the game” to show that they are committed to the process and will not back out on a whim, leaving the Development Partner high and dry. This means that the group membership usually invests significant funds in the project, often in the form some portion of members’ home down-payments which are contributed prior to the start of construction. This can be up to 20% of the sale price of the home, which is applied to members’ home purchases upon completion.

In the case of Richmond Cohousing, members earn discounts on the final price of their home by loaning funds to the project. Early loans earn higher discounts than those made later in the process to reflect the higher risk earlier in the process. These member loan funds may be used to purchase a site and/or to cover pre-development work (e.g. site and architectural designs, permits and approvals, and professional and consultant services). Additionally, Richmond Cohousing may also seek interest-bearing loans from friends and family and members who have maximized their discounts but have additional funds to lend. Group-generated loan funds that are not used for site purchase or during the pre-development phase are applied to the construction phase. In addition to reducing risk, this reduces the amount of interest the group has to pay to a bank, keeping those dollars in the hands of community members, friends, and family instead.

Part Two will dive into more details around what happens after a potential site has been identified, and how we plan on getting from land acquisition to move-in. Stay tuned!


The Consensus Process

When I first heard about decision-making by consensus, I couldn’t figure out how something like that would work in a large group.  I assumed it meant that everyone had to agree on every decision, which seems totally implausible.  Experiencing it for myself changed my mind.  

Making decisions by consensus doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees on everything.  Rather, it is a formal process that allows differing viewpoints to be heard and considered when making proposals that affect the group.  We gather information about how group members feel about a given topic, and the information is then consolidated into a coherent proposal that the group can discuss and decide to adopt.  Everyone doesn’t get their way all of the time, but a good proposal is a compromise that captures the overall tone of the group while also addressing individual concerns and needs.

Richmond Cohousing has adopted a consensus decision making process that contains several specific steps.

  1. Any individual or committee can propose a topic for discussion.  These topics can be anything that may be of concern or interest to the group, ranging from pets to the group budget.  The topic is presented at a plenary (full group) meeting for an initial structured discussion.  Typically we use a “diverge-converge” approach, dividing into small groups and discussing the issue and then sharing that discussion with the larger group.  
  2. The individual or committee then creates a first written draft of a proposal related to the topic, taking into account what was shared during the discussion. We have a template that makes it easy to write a proposal, making sure it includes evaluation criteria and possible alternatives.
  3. When the written proposal is ready, it is presented to the group at another plenary for discussion.  The group gives feedback at the meeting and a deadline is set for giving additional feedback after the meeting.  
  4. The responsible party revises the proposal, taking into consideration the group’s feedback, and later presents it back to the group for a vote.  If the proposal passes, we adopt it, but, if the proposal is blocked or fails, it goes back for another round of revisions.

We don’t operate as a simple democracy, though!  Voting is done with the “5 Fingers” method.  Each full member household has 5 votes that they can cast for the proposal, with 1 “finger” being minimum support of the policy (e.g. I can tolerate it but won’t help) and 5 being full support.  The total number of votes cast must exceed 75% of the total possible votes without any blocks, so a proposal must have enthusiastic support in order to pass.  A single member can block a decision if they believe that it is not in the best interest of the whole group to adopt the proposal.  But, anyone who blocks is then responsible for working to find a mutually agreeable solution for the entire group.

Decision Making Card used by Richmond Cohousing (see references below)

For those of us who are used to the types of decision-making used in our government, many workplaces, and other venues, consensus decision-making can take some getting used to.  It’s a whole new way of thinking about group decisions and dynamics.  Now that we have been using our decision-making process for about a year, most of the members have become familiar with it and have found it to work very well so far.  We have used it to agree on policies such as a pet policy, a common meal policy, and a shared values statement.  

Through my own experience with this decision-making process, I have been trying out modified consensus approaches in other settings in my personal life, including work and at home.  It has been interesting to present a challenge to the status quo which usually tells us “the majority rules” or “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”.  Traditional approaches may work in some settings, but they can also create alienation and disempowerment which have their own consequences.

Richmond Cohousing seeks to respect and consider the voices of all of its members in making decisions that affect the group.  If you are like I was and are skeptical of the idea of consensus decision-making, I invite you to read more about consensus and to consider the benefits of living in a community where decisions are made with equanimity, compassion, and consideration for all.

Thanks to L for both writing about consensus and being a willing and strong facilitator to guide our group through the decision making process. And we’ve got a lot of decisions up ahead (land purchase! architectural style! paint color!)!


Decision Card text adapted from: Don Wells Consulting, with thanks to the Partnership for Health, Inc.

Decision Card graphics adapted from:

Working Together Builds Community

An exciting cohousing event is happening in Richmond, VA this week – Richmond Cohousing and The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design are hosting a roundtable discussion on the concept and design principles of cohousing and their role in reshaping modern domestic spaces. “Discover Cohousing: Sustainable Community Living” will be a great opportunity for the public, museum members, architects, designers, and all those interested in how design principles can impact community, to learn about cohousing. But the story behind the event also shows the connections and intentions it often takes to make these opportunities to happen.

In the summer of 2014, as Richmond Cohousing was just starting to look for land, members met with John Zeugner, a friend and longtime fellow Sierra Club member, of one of our members, Adele. John has many interests, including architecture and philanthropy, and is a planner by profession. At a group dinner, John shared his idea of bringing his inspiring and exuberant friend, Greg Ramsey of Village Habitat Design to Richmond for an educational forum on cohousing. In the Fall of 2015, John met with Adele and our cohousing consultant, Lisa Poley, suggesting that the event be held at the Branch Museum. We thought this was a grand idea since the Branch is a fascinating building, a great venue, and we desire interaction with Richmond’s architectural/design community. In the New Year, John got the approval of Helene Dreiling, Executive Director, and Craig Reynolds, Museum Director, and the date was set for April 21st. On February 29th, John, Craig Reynolds, and several members of our Membership and Marketing Committee met to articulate our objectives and formulate a plan.

The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design in Richmond, VA

We did not have much time to prepare! Fortunately, amazing people with expertise in cohousing generously offered to be on the panel: Greg Ramsey principal and chief designer of Village Habitat Design; Sandra Leibowitz founder and managing principal of Sustainable Design Consulting; Dene Peterson founder and developer of ElderSpirit Community; and Lisa Poley an early member of Shadowlake Village who served as their project coordinator and now acts as a cohousing consultant.

We were additionally blessed as Richmond Cohousing members stepped forward with their talents and energy to take on this opportunity: Meg worked on publicity with the Branch Museum staff; Anne, a culinary school graduate, organized the food preparation; John and Caroline put up posters and did a radio interview with our local WRIR station; David agreed to be the moderator of the round table; and many members agreed to set up, greet people, prepare food, serve, clean up, chauffeur and provide hospitality for panelists.

It has been an experience of a community coming together. This is what I love about building our community. It’s the enjoyment of working with others towards a common goal, noticing and appreciating each other’s strengths and capabilities in the process. And, if you are in the Central Virginia area, we’d love to have you join us at the event!



Discover Cohousing: Sustainable Community Living
Thursday, April 21

Social hour from 5-6 pm. Program will begin at 6 pm.
Light refreshments and non-alcoholic beverages served.

The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design
2501 Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA

Parking is available at the First Baptist Church lot at Monument and Robinson.

FREE event, but RSVP is recommended as space is limited. Register Now!


Community Roundtable – April 21, 2016

Join The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design and Richmond Cohousing for a lively round table discussion on the concept and design principles of cohousing and their role in reshaping modern domestic spaces. Cohousing communities are intentional, collaborative neighborhoods where residents actively participate in the design and management of their neighborhoods. 

By rethinking architectural space around the shared use of common facilities, cohousing is a design solution that seeks to lessen the impact on our environment while increasing positive social connectivity among neighbors.

Invited guest speakers will share their experiences designing, building, and living in these innovative communities. Members of Richmond Cohousing will share their compelling vision for cohousing in Richmond.

Thursday, April 21
Social hour from 5-6 pm. Program will begin at 6 pm.
Light refreshments and non-alcoholic beverages served.

The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design
2501 Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA
Parking is available at the First Baptist Church lot at Monument and Robinson.

FREE event, but RSVP is recommended as space is limited.

Looking Ahead: Microgrid Possibilities in a Connected Community

One advantage of cohousing is that it is much easier as a community to install projects that save energy and increase community independence by combining resources. Generally, community members are already oriented toward cooperative action. Cohousing communities also have decision-making structures and practices in place and experience in using them, so the decisions around community projects can move forward more rapidly and smoothly than in a situation that involves a city council or neighborhood association.

alt energy
Image from Alt Energy

The creation of a microgrid is one such project. A microgrid is a portion of the larger electrical grid that has its own power-generating capacity. This generation could be from wind turbines, solar PV panels, gas generators, or any other method of generating power a community can live with. Living Energy Farm, a forming community 50 miles west of Richmond in Louisa County, has even experimented with household-level biogas generation.

The microgrid connects to the main electrical grid through a switch. In ordinary circumstances microgrid generation feeds into the grid, and microgrid owners (such as cohousers) can sell that generation to a larger utility like Dominion that runs the main grid. When the main grid goes down, as during an ice storm, hurricane, or thunderstorm, the switch can be cut off, and the microgrid can continue to function for its owners to distribute power within the community. The US Department of Energy has more information on microgrids and the Berkeley Lab Grid Integration Group gives examples of microgrids from around the world. The Sendai microgrid, while larger than what we would need in Richmond Cohousing, is especially notable for functioning in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that produced the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Mesa del Sol microgrid powers a mixed-use commercial-residential community in Albuquerque, New Mexico that is similar in size to Richmond Cohousing’s plans.

Richmond Cohousing plans a community of twenty to thirty households, with dwelling sizes ranging from 800-1600 square-feet, and a large common house. While our development has not yet been fully planned out, it is likely that we will have roof space for 150-200 kW of solar PV panels if all households participate. This likely would result in an average of 600-800 kW per day of electricity generated, translating to 218-292 SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) generated, which are worth $55-60 each to Pennsylvania utilities. That could bring $12,000 to $17,500 in revenue to the development, distributing $400 to $875 in benefits to each household each year.

We could form a co-op with the help of a group

Image from Solar Solution

called VA SUN, a project of the Center for Community Energy out of Mt. Pleasant, Maryland which has already helped co-ops in Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County join for bulk purchases and volume discounts on installation. VA SUN estimates savings of 20-33% off the typical single-home price ($9000 to $40000 per home depending on the size and circumstances of the system) and each household, or the LLC as a whole, could take an additional 30% federal tax credit on top of that, making the installation cost per household as little as 46% of retail value.

A microgrid is the kind of unique, groundbreaking project perfectly suited to cohousing communities like Richmond Cohousing. Our values include environmental stewardship, and a microgrid could be a great way to meet this value for a minimal additional cost. One more thing to think about as we move towards site and dwelling design!

While we continue to work towards a design for Richmond Cohousing, John uses his computation skills daily as a math teacher. You’ll see him commuting to work via bike throughout the year. According to him – the colder, the better for a bike ride!


Cohousing is for Introverts, too!

At a recent Richmond Cohousing event, I found myself in the kitchen with another member acknowledging our discomfort with the large number of people assembled. We joked about staying busy in the kitchen together, then ventured out among the crowd. This was not the first time I’d met a fellow cohousing member in the kitchen regrouping, recharging, and voicing social anxiety. I was surprised to find that studies of cohousing communities show that individuals in these intentional, people-filled neighborhoods actually tend to share the personality aspect of introversion.

I am an introvert. I process things internally and rarely think about making plans for social activities. I love talking with people, especially one on one, but then I need time to be alone and recharge. Most of my introverted life I have lived with other people – my family of origin, group houses, intentional communities, partners and children, visiting friends. Despite my need for alone time, I have come to the conclusion that living with others is essential to my happiness. It brings me joy to prepare meals and eat together, chat as we come and go in our lives, participate in household chores, share stories, laugh, and care about each other. Living with others draws me out of my internal dialogue and into the present.

I joined Richmond Cohousing to ensure that my future will include both abundant connections to others, and private space to recharge. One of the fundamental principles of cohousing design is to include ample spaces for spontaneous interaction between neighbors along pedestrian walkways, gardens, and in the common house, but also to have private spaces where someone can be alone.

In addition, cohousing communities consciously plan social activities – something I am reluctant to do on my own. The Richmond Cohousing vision statement includes: “We are committed to creating a supportive and enriching community that fosters connection with each other and the larger community. We will embrace opportunities to work and play together. We will host regular common meals, community celebrations and social gatherings. We will support each other through life’s challenges and joys and will work together to care for our land and shared facilities.”

My life is already enriched by working with others to create Richmond Cohousing. The appeal of living in cohousing goes beyond my desire to share resources and live more sustainably. Cohousing is a simple and elegant way for me to have an active social life and meaningful relationships.

Kathryn generously hosts many Richmond Cohousing events at her home. You’ll meet her, and plenty of other introverts (and extroverts, too!), at our events. Be sure to check the kitchen!