Drive up to it unaware, and you’d have a hard time distinguishing WindSong from any of the other upscale condominium complexes in the Walnut Grove section of Langley, British Columbia. Here, developments with names like Chelsea Garden and Derby Hills spring from the earth like two-story, picture-windowed cash crops on the disappearing farmland of western Canada.
Look again, though. Steeply pitched glass roofs straight out of an Arthur C. Clarke novel peek above the facade. You park your car in one of the few visitor spots. Despite the building’s ample size and the fact that downtown Vancouver is an easy 20-minute commute, there is no evidence of additional ground given over to motorized conveyances.
Someone has to buzz you in. Stepping into an entry foyer the size of a basketball court, you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore.
But you’re not in Oz, either. WindSong is a successfully functioning cohousing community, only the second in Canada. The 60 adults and 40 children who live here will tell you that life here is a world apart from the anonymity of the traditional housing developments. It is an intentional safety net of neighbors whose lives overlap as much in emotional space as in living space. It’s all about repairing a hole in the human spirit that so many of us feel these days but can’t quite put our fingers on: the kind of support and satisfaction that once came with extended families and small towns.
Can I Help You?
We arrive early on a Thursday afternoon, and we’re not in the door 10 seconds before someone spots us. A handful of kids and adults scurry about, some hauling discarded furniture from a pile in the middle of the foyer to a pickup truck outside.
A man asks, “Can I help you?” He is friendly, but it’s clear he aims to find out what these strangers are doing in the enclave. We ask if he can direct us to the home of the woman we’ve come to see, Deborah Hyman ’81.
Passing through a set of heavy gray fire doors, we enter the heart of WindSong, one of two biosphere-like housing wings. Hyman greets us, dressed in T-shirt and shorts. She and her husband, David Wright, and their two daughters, Joanna, 8, and Morgan, 5, live in an 1,100-square-foot, two-story townhouse that shares walls with neighbors on either side. These contemporary row houses face a similar set across the “lane,” a mere 18 feet from the Hyman-Wright front door.
Well above us, the immense glass roof we saw from the street covers this narrow pedestrian way, forming a daylight-filled atrium where children play and neighbors congregate. The front doors of all the units open onto the atrium, and the area around each entry is furnished to suit its owner’s taste. Flowering plants, potted trees, benches, tables, Persian rugs, fabric awnings, and a smattering of artwork soften the clean lines of the building. Chairs and couches are grouped in alcoves. The atrium makes WindSong feel like a safe and nurturing place.
Hyman invites us into her house to talk, shooing her children and one of their friends out into the atrium. Their laughter and shouts fill the community space and spill in through the open windows.
One of the best things about living here, Hyman says, is the influence on the children: “My kids learn how to cooperate and care for others. They live with people of different ages, religions, and points of view. They learn about diversity and live with it.”
Hyman takes us on a tour of WindSong, which includes two glass-covered wings joined by a large common area, underground parking for 60 cars, a garden, and a narrow yard. There are 34 housing units, ranging in size from one-bedroom flats to four-bedroom, three-story units with basements. The common areas include laundry facilities, meeting rooms, an office, an arts and crafts room, a guest room, and a playroom.
To one side of the foyer is the community dining room, with brightly colored tablecloths ready for the nightly potlucks. WindSong’s community kitchen is not yet finished. When it is, dinners will be cooked and served in some organized fashion that hasn’t yet been agreed on.
A leap of faith
Hyman and Wright are Americans planning to obtain joint U.S.-Canadian citizenship. She is a social worker, specializing in parenting education, and he is a landscape architect for the city of Langley.
In 1990 they moved from Syracuse, New York, to a suburb of Vancouver, where they bought a townhouse. But they felt isolated there, far from family and friends. Neighbors in their area seemed uninterested in getting to know each other. Two years later they saw an ad in an alternative paper about a cohousing community that was forming. The concept intrigued them, so the couple attended one of WindSong’s planning sessions. What they found was a warm, caring group of people, although Hyman and Wright reached that realization at a different pace.
“For me, it was instant,” Hyman said. “David was more cautious.”
Wright had a professional and personal interest in the environmental aspects of the project, and he was tired of the stress and isolation he felt his family was suffering.
“It was easy to see WindSong met a lot of needs,” Hyman says. “It provided an extended family and support with practical things, like child care and car pooling and cooking. We liked the idea of raising our kids with a model of adults working things out together.”
Making a leap of faith, they decided to sell their condo and invest the money in WindSong, becoming the group’s sixth equity partners. They rented an interim house in Langley with another equity couple, regularly attended long Sunday afternoon planning meetings and potlucks, and became well-acquainted with other families involved in the project.
Every decision was made by group consensus. Wright calls the planning phase of cohousing, which took this group 51/2 years, a shedding process. “It’s the longest and most expensive personal development workshop you’ll ever do,” he says. “You learn to shed expectations. You learn you don’t need as much as you thought–as much space, privacy, things. I am more content than I’ve ever been. It seems so natural. We feed on these people, and they feed on us.”
The risks along the way to realizing WindSong were monumental, Hyman says. Once a building site was located, eight founding households pledged their life savings and anything they could beg or borrow to buy the land, even though multifamily zoning had not yet been approved.
When approval came, it included an unexpected restriction from the Ministry of Environment to keep a buffer of four acres of their property undeveloped because of a salmon creek that runs through it. That left fewer than two acres on which to build, impossible for the project they had planned up until then.
“At that point, we could have thrown up our hands in defeat,” Wright says with a slight grin. “We didn’t. We took on the challenge.”
“The group came up with a radically different and ultimately more costly design,” Hyman says. The homes would all be closer together, under a glass roof, parking would be underground, and the four acres of greenspace surrounding the creek would be preserved. The resulting atriums were an innovation the residents are now grateful for.
“We couldn’t have had quite as vibrant a group without the atrium,” Wright says. “It makes us all closer.”
But another sizable challenge faced the founders as construction of the project was completed. According to their agreement with the contractor, sales on all 34 homes had to close on the same day, but only 30 had been purchased.
“Everyone dug deeper,” Hyman said. She and Wright took out a large personal loan. “Everyone did that, and we came up with enough money to secure a group mortgage on the remaining homes.” The 30 families moved in on schedule in summer 1996, and within five months the other homes were sold and the members repaid.
This summer, as the group celebrates its first anniversary at WindSong, one family has decided cohousing isn’t for them, but the rest of the group is intact.
Hyman describes the residents: “We are retired business people, New Age entrepreneurs, healing professionals, artists, bureaucrats, engineers, librarians, electricians, teachers, accountants, and stay-at-home parents. Members range in age from babies to retired people, with a high percentage of children under the age of 6. We have single-parent families, two-parent families, couples with no children, and singles. We are vegans and omnivores, Christians, Jews, secular humanists, and agnostics. And with all that variety comes a range of values and priorities regarding our material needs, parenting styles, food preferences, and political persuasions.
“Still, we manage to live together under one roof, share many meals in our common dining room, run cooperative child care that meets most of the needs of working parents, plan inclusive celebrations and rituals, and come to consensus over the many issues involved to maintain our physical and administrative structures.”
“For the most part,” she muses, “people here are positive. They see challenges as opportunities; they are proactive. These are people who are in charge of their destinies. They know that whatever happens in life, you have a choice.”
Life philosophies aside, we wonder aloud how the practical work of maintaining the facility is accomplished.
“Peer pressure,” Hyman says. Although most cohousing communities resist imposing rules about chores and involvement level, co-housers also tend to be people who want control over their environment. “Our inner sense of ownership and responsibility for the community makes it almost impossible to walk past a mess without cleaning it up.”
Hyman explains that just last week the group decided on a system for taking care of common areas and maintenance to the buildings. Each adult is expected to perform 10 hours a week of a chore chosen from an agreed-upon priority list. “This is still evolving. All cohousing communities have to work this out for themselves.”
We are surprised to learn there are no criteria for new members. No screening of values, politics, aesthetics, or even willingness to participate in the community. Not even background checks for financial or criminal histories.
Hyman explained the group’s policy as “self-selective. Criminal activity would be so out in the open, those people wouldn’t come here. This is an incredibly safe environment. Safer than any alarm system or guard dog. There are always people around.”
“It’s crime prevention through environmental design,” Wright adds, pointing out that most crime prevention methods endeavor to keep people out and things locked up.
“In the United States and Canada, it’s seen as a model of success to have your own home and business and to acquire things and protect them. The price we pay is that we’ve forgotten how to get along. We’ve lost the social skills needed to live together.
“Accepted theory is to keep people separated to avoid conflict,” he says. “Conflict is not something to be afraid of. Conflict is an important part of life. Cohousing is the idea that there’s no reason to be afraid of each other.”
Living by consensus
Hyman could think of only two rules at WindSong: no smoking in the common areas and only two cats and two dogs per household (nobody has that many pets at this writing).
“You need a lot fewer rules in your life if you communicate,” Hyman says. “Respect is more important.”
An example, provided by Hyman: Suppose someone in the community is allergic to cats and someone else has a cat that is allowed to roam the common areas. “The first reaction is to make a no-cats rule. But here, we just talk about it, and we find a way everyone can live with it.”
Then there’s the trampoline story, a textbook case of participatory democracy. Three of the WindSong families brought trampolines with them when they moved in, and wanted to set them up in the common yard. Some of the parents, Hyman included, were adamantly opposed. A series of community meetings, with the children fully involved, ensued.
The kids in the group, who naturally wanted full access to the trampolines, were able to discuss the situation, propose solutions, block acceptance of ideas they didn’t like, and work toward compromises. In the end, the impasse dissolved. Hyman and others became convinced that the tramps were safe enough for older children to jump on alone and for younger children when supervised. Guidelines for use were agreed on, and a trampoline expert was hired by the group to give lessons and safety tips. And everyone went away happy.
“That’s the difference between consensus and a town-hall approach,” Hyman says. “In a town hall meeting, everybody votes, but somebody goes home a loser. That’s divisive.”
Consensus-based decision-making seems very Quaker to Hyman. She says in college she attended Quaker Meeting, where there are no leaders and everyone has a voice, depending on how the spirit moves them. “Swarthmore people are interested in community,” Hyman says. “I always expect to run into other people from Swarthmore at cohousing conventions. So far, I haven’t.”
Members of the community contribute in their own ways, Wright tells us. He scrounged landscaping plants and materials to build the playground, which he designed. Hyman presented an abbreviated seder for Passover and a Hanukkah feast of potato latkes for her neighbors. A retired woman sometimes offers craft classes for the community children. Others have organized classes in ballroom dancing, spinning and weaving, and activities such as Christmas caroling, a New Year’s Eve dance, and cabaret evenings. Families going on picnics or swimming outings take along extra children.
This is one of Wright’s favorite aspects of cohousing.
“I began to realize that I wanted the spiritual growth that only came after I started to extend myself to the community,” he explains. “And it’s not only at home–I go into the outside world not nearly as defensive as I used to be.”
We attend one of the nightly pot luck dinners, which takes place in the common house. Offerings range from pizza to a spicy African stew–and salads, lots of salads. Conversation is light and friendly, and we are introduced to the 25 or so people in attendance that night.
Suddenly, in midsentence, Wright jumps up and dashes out of the dining room to the adjacent outdoor playground to rescue a small child, not his own, who needs a boost climbing up a ramp.
With all these kids, we ask, is there some kind of group parenting standard? There must be different ideas about discipline and tolerance.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion about parenting,” Hyman acknowledges. She spearheaded a parent discussion group that meets once a week. “Of course everyone has their own standards of what is OK and what is not. I tend to keep close tabs on my kids, but other parents are less cautious. My kids have a structured bedtime, while other kids’ bedtimes are looser.
“After a lot of talking, we decided that any grown-up can say anything to any child about anything, as long as they’re respectful. If you see kids about to harm themselves or some property, you can feel free to restrain them, and if that doesn’t work, you go get the parent.” There’s no hitting or swatting. And if the parent doesn’t correct a behavior that you think needs correcting, you have to let it go.
“That was hard, at first,” she says, since talking to another adult about their kids is not usually a comfortable role. “But it gets easier,” she adds.
Hyman says she has discovered her parenting style has changed in her family’s first year of cohousing. “I’m more relaxed,” she says.
People in glass houses
“When you need privacy, you can get it,” Hyman tells us. The houses are constructed with lots of soundproofing, blinds on all the windows, and a private deck in back of each unit, overlooking the greenspace and the Golden Ear Mountains.
“If you choose to move into a place like this, you’re choosing to live in close contact with other people,” Hyman says. “If something’s going on–a couple’s having trouble, or a family has some problem–you know it. But not in a gossipy way; it’s not a soap opera. We all know we’re going to go through these things.”
Hyman says the openness creates a lot of trust among neighbors. It also serves to let the group know when someone needs help. And help is always offered. “It can be just moral support or offering to watch the kids so you can get away for a weekend.”
Inevitably, cohousing has its drawbacks. For one, it’s expensive–a three-bedroom unit at WindSong sells for just over $200,000. Such communities tend to be upper-middle-class, although a movement to make cohousing available to lower-income families is developing. “There’s more progress on that in the States, where there are many more cohousing communities than in Canada,” Hyman says.
Of course cohousing is not for everyone. “You have to be able to give up your sense of boundaries,” Wright says. “And you have to have courage to face things you don’t know about yourself.”
Hyman agrees that cohousing is sometimes hard work.
“It’s not utopia,” Hyman says. “You don’t like all of your neighbors all of the time. You still argue with your spouse, worry about your children, have to make mortgage payments, and put money away to replace the roof. Nobody expects to move here and have all their problems solved, but you have more support underneath you.”
For Hyman, living at WindSong is an answer to the struggle of being a working mom and of needing a supportive, close connection to others.
“Being here has freed us up to think about what we want out of life, to look at where we want to be in five years. Our stress level is less than what we used to have. We feel supported enough to think about a richer experience.
“I am happier now than I have been in years,” she says. “Much of that has to do with living here.”