Monday, June 1, 2009

Thinking about cooperative living spaces

The traditional setup of an American home has a lot of wasted space and materials, especially for someone single or a couple with no kids. You only use the kitchen a few times a day, the living room spends most of its time as a glorified storage shed, and you end up with a large number of tools that only get used a few times per year. On top of this, its lonely! While having a home of your own sounds nice and romantic, coming home to an empty or almost empty house day after day is not. To socialize, you end up having to call someone else and get back in the car and travel.

Contrast this with a cooperative living arrangement. Instead of a single person or couple living in a house, you have anywhere from four on up people living in a shared space. Bedrooms are generally private, and bathrooms vary by setup. In this situation, you still have your own private space where you can go and shut the door when needed, but the formerly underutilized areas such as kitchen and living room are shared.

Lifestyle benefits

Not only is this cooperative living arrangement a more efficient use of space and resources, but it has a number of lifestyle benefits as well. One of the most obvious is the ability to pool resources cooking. It's far more fun to prepare a special meal for a group of people than for only one or two, meaning that in most cooperative living situations you end up with more and more varied home cooked food. It is also much easier to clean up afterwards; many hands make light work, and the growth in dirty dishes happens at a slower rate than the growth in people participating.

Another advantageous element is the social one. While of course, you will still want to get together with friends outside of your coop, it becomes far easier to socialize without going out. Instead of having to call around, plan ahead, and get people to agree on a destination, impromptu social gatherings happen in the kitchen during dinner, in the living room after dinner, and at various other locations all throughout the day. This does, of course, mean that you should only live with people you get along with, but that is a good idea regardless of your living situation.

Actuality: Outside looking in

In truth, I have only limited experience with cooperative living arrangements. In undergrad, I lived with a number of other guys, but we had little space and did very little cooking. While T was in large coops through her last two years of undergrad, I only lived in them part time through her. Next, we got an apartment together, and while we were in several talks with friends to live together, nothing ever ended up coming of it. We had a close friend living in a coop nearby, and spent many days visiting with her and staying over there, but again this was somewhat outside looking in.

Nonetheless, T looks back fondly on her experiences with cooperative living, and every time I am exposed I want to try it at a more in-depth level. In Guatemala, we have experienced some interesting variations on this theme, first living with another family, and now living in a house where we have our own bedroom and bathroom, but share the kitchen and courtyard (complete with couch, hammock, etc). While the family was a bit much, the shared space we're in now is close to ideal, with casual hanging out happening at various times, and no problems so far with conflicts over any space.

The next few years

Back in the bay area, our friend is starting a new coop, and if we were not moving I think we would be joining it. Instead, we're off to find a new community and a new place to live in San Diego. I think we are likely to start off renting an apartment somewhere, but I hope that as we begin to grow our community there we can find some like minded people who are interested in sharing a house.

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  1. The main issue I've found with shared living arrangements is compatibility and a shared sense of responsibility. It has been rare for me to find others who value cleanliness, noise levels, conversation topics, states of dress or undress, food types, etc. in the same way that I do.

    I have a personal connection with my living space such that it is unambiguously *mine* and I can do whatever I want in it. This works out well with a significant other who shares one's interests, but is much harder to extend to other potential roommates.

    Perhaps I just have a desire for a larger personal sphere than some, but I really detest the idea of putting on a public (even if it's a friendly semi-public) face (or clothes or demeanor) to walk around in my own living area. I need my space to be entirely free for my own use, for whatever purpose I desire at the moment.

    I can see how others will make a tradeoff for more socializing and shared chores (if one can indeed find responsible roommates), but I have yet to meet more people who I would be comfortable living with (and vice versa).

  2. I think a lot of this works assuming you're not an introvert. I definitely want to be alone the vast majority of the time, and then on rare occasions wish that someone were around with whom I could be social. Right now, for instance, I share a room with three other women. I *never* use the kitchen exactly because I don't want to have to interact with anyone, and if I'm in shared space, anyone could come up and start a conversation with me at any time. Part of this comes from the fact that I have a job where I have to be "on" and performing for people ALL THE TIME. So when I'm home, I just want to be on my own. But since all that space is shared, I get fast food on the way home so that I can eat it in my room and no one will bother me. I wish I had my own place so that I could use the kitchen in peace and quiet, though.

    (I sound like a real meanie-pants, don't I? :-P)

  3. Hi Brad and Lara,

    I think as Brad points out, it depends a lot on who the other people are. There are a huge number of people that I would most definitely not want to live with. However, most of the coop type people I have interacted with are incredibly relaxed and chill people, and tend to have a good sense of responsibility towards the common space.

    Of course, a good set of rules or otherwise explicit common expectations is also important. One of the big problems comes when different people have a different idea of what is okay in the common space.

    I too, am a bit of an introvert, but I think I'm an intermediate case. I find socializing with large groups of people or new people difficult and draining, but generally I find that time with a small set of good friends is in fact relaxing and energizing. Occasionally I want to crawl into my room, but usually I'm happy to have a few well known people around.

  4. The aforementioned TJune 2, 2009 at 7:55 AM

    I concur that finding the right people is huuuuuuuuge. If I were living with people that I wasn't comfortable enough with (because of me being introverted or because the other people were annoying, or whatever) that I'd be happy for them to strike up a random conversation in the kitchen, I would so not want to do this. Plus, as Brad and Lara both point out, it's really not for everyone - everyone has their own sphere of personal space and their own desires for their living space. I've been surprised in my own life though to find out that I enjoy sharing space with friends much more than I expected myself to. I never thought I'd be a "co-op person," but with the right kind of people and set up, I really am =)

  5. An intermediate stage of this (and one I've been drawn to) is the cohousing community. Cohousing can mean anything from a single residence to a city block, but in many cases it ends up being a set of separate residences with a large common space.

    The common space allows the individual residences to be smaller and promotes activities like shared meals, group projects, game nights, and community gardening. Best of all, you can still wake up and stumble around your own kitchen without having to be social first thing in the morning. :)