'We want to know our neighbours better:' Co-housing projects take root in Saskatoon

By Charles Hamilton, The StarPhoenix, February 8, 2014 - The front lobby of Wolf Willow is a busy place. It's mid-morning and the sun is shining through the large windows of the condo complex. The smell of coffee is wafting from the common room, where a small group is gathering.

"This is where we run into everybody. That's the idea," says Lawrie Stewart, one of 40 residents who calls Wolf Willow home.

The co-housing development turns the middle-class dream on its head - owning a home with a fenced backyard, but locking your doors when you leave, knowing your neighbour's first name but never stepping foot inside his or her house.

Across the country, groups of people - young and old - are fighting off the isolation of modern living.

"I think the whole thing about owning your own home, owning your own space and being able to do whatever you want to do, it's insulating us other from each other," Stewart said.

Born in Denmark, the concept of co-housing has been described as "communes for the middle-class." People in co-housing units own their own homes, often complete with a kitchen, bedrooms, dining room and bathrooms. But there are also shared spaces such as a communal kitchen and dining space, entertainment areas and community gardens.

The idea has been around for decades and there are more than 100 co-housing projects in North America. Now it's been gaining steam in Saskatoon.

"I have community in every other part of my life but my home life," said Olivia Swerhone-Wick, one of a dozen young people planning Saskatoon's next foray into co-housing called Radiance Co-housing.

While Wolf Willow bills itself as a community for older adults, Saskatoon's soon-tobe-built co-housing project is the brainchild of a group of young people who wanted to create an affordable and environmentally sustainable co-housing space.

Swerhone-Wick owns a condo in Lakeview and doesn't know any of her neighbours. Like other members of the Radiance Co-housing project, she wants to create an "intentional community" where people know and trust the people next door. They also want to avoid any talk of living in a "commune."

"We want to create that sense of community but not fight over whose turn it is to do the dishes. We have our privacy," Swerhone-Wick said.

Radiance is partnering with a group of developers who own vacant land across from Optimist Park. The group is planning to build 11 privately owned townhouses, with common spaces that include a shared yard, garden, patio, community kitchen and guest room.

"Basically we want to know our neighbours better. It's designed so that we can interact with our neighbours more often and work with them collaboratively to build more community into our lives," said Michael Nemeth, one of the founders of the Radiance project.

Tabitha McLaughlin's parents are from Sri Lanka. The idea of having trusted friends around to help raise her daughter, Simone, is a big reason why she and her husband, Mark, decided to get on board with the co-housing project.

"In Sri Lanka, villages come together and support one another. Mark and I love the idea of an intentional community that Simone would grow up in that people would support her growing up and it wouldn't just be us raising her. There are people who would know and care for her too," McLaughlin said.

The $6-million Wolf Willow development sold units for between $380,000 and $446,299.

Radiance hopes to keep prices more affordable, possibly under market value. Unlike Wolf Willow, Radiance has the financial backing of a small group of private developers who hope to convert the stretch of vacant land adjacent to the co-housing project into affordable housing.

Saskatoon's first co-housing experiment at Wolf Willow is now into its second year. Stewart says living in such close quarters has taken some getting used to. While he got to know his would-be neighbours well in the years leading up to the building's construction, he says living in shared space with people outside of his family adds another dimension.

"You have to give up a little bit of autonomy. You have limits ... there are 40 people who live here, so there is bound to be a little friction now and then, but we are learning," Stewart said.

Radiance co-housing hopes to learn from Wolf Willow as well.

The group affectionately calls residents their "cohousing grandparents." Radiance is in the final design stages and if all goes according to plan, they could move in together as early as 2015.

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