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How cohousing can make us happier (and live longer)

Loneliness. All of us in this room will experience loneliness at some point in our lives. Loneliness is not a function of being alone, but rather, a function of how socially connected you are to those around you.

There could be somebody in this room right now surrounded by a thousand people experiencing loneliness.

And while loneliness can be attributed to many things, as an architect,

I'm going to tell you today how loneliness can be the result of our built environments — the very homes we choose to live in.

Let's take a look at this house.

It's a nice house.

There's a big yard, picket fence, two-car garage.

And the home might be in a neighborhood like this.

And for many people around the globe, this home, this neighborhood — it's a dream.

And yet the danger of achieving this dream is a false sense of connection and an increase in social isolation.

I know, I can hear you now, there's somebody in the room screaming at me inside their head, "That's my house, and that's my neighborhood, and I know everyone on my block!"

To which I would answer, "Terrific!"

And I wish there were more people like you, because I'd wager to guess there's more people in the room living in a similar situation that might not know their neighbors.

They might recognize them and say hello, but under their breath, they're asking their spouse, "What was their name again?" so they can ask a question by name to signify they know them.

Social media also contributes to this false sense of connection.

This image is probably all too familiar.

You're standing in the elevator, sitting in a cafe, and you look around, and everyone's on their phone.

You're not texting or checking Facebook, but everyone else is, and maybe, like me, you've been in a situation where you've made eye contact, smiled and said hello, and have that person yank out their earbuds and say, "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

I find this incredibly isolating.

The concept I'd like to share with you today is an antidote to isolation.

It's not a new concept.

In fact, it's an age-old way of living, and it still exists in many non-European cultures around the world.

And about 50 years ago, the Danes decided to make up a new name, and since then, tens of thousands of Danish people have been living in this connected way.

And it's being pursued more widely around the globe as people are seeking community.

This concept is cohousing.

Cohousing is an intentional neighborhood where people know each other and look after one another.

In cohousing, you have your own home, but you also share significant spaces, both indoors and out.

Before I show you some pictures of cohousing,

I'd like to first introduce you to my friends Sheila and Spencer.

When I first met Sheila and Spencer, they were just entering their 60s, and Spencer was looking ahead at the end of a long career in elementary education.

And he really disliked the idea that he might not have children in his life upon retirement.

They're now my neighbors. We live in a cohousing community that I not only designed, but developed and have my architecture practice in.

This community is very intentional about our social interactions.

So let me take you on a tour.

From the outside, we look like any other small apartment building.

In fact, we look identical to the one next door, except that we're bright yellow.

Inside, the homes are fairly conventional.

We all have living rooms and kitchens, bedrooms and baths, and there are nine of these homes around a central courtyard.

This one's mine, and this one is Spencer and Sheila's.

The thing that makes this building uniquely cohousing are not the homes, but rather, what happens here — the social interactions that happen in and around that central courtyard.

When I look across the courtyard, I look forward to see Spencer and Sheila.

In fact, every morning, this is what I see,

Spencer waving at me furiously as we're making our breakfasts.

From our homes, we look down into the courtyard, and depending on the time of year, we see this: kids and grownups in various combinations playing and hanging out with each other.

There's a lot of giggling and chatter.

There's a lot of hula-hooping.

And every now and then, "Hey, quit hitting me!" or a cry from one of the kids.

These are the sounds of our daily lives, and the sounds of social connectedness.

At the bottom of the courtyard, there are a set of double doors, and those lead into the common house.

I consider the common house the secret sauce of cohousing.

It's the secret sauce because it's the place where the social interactions and community life begin, and from there, it radiates out through the rest of the community.

Inside our common house, we have a large dining room to seat all 28 of us and our guests, and we dine together three times a week.

In support of those meals, we have a large kitchen so that we can take turns cooking for each other in teams of three.

So that means, with 17 adults, I lead cook once every six weeks.

Two other times, I show up and help my team with the preparation and cleanup.

And all those other nights, I just show up. I have dinner, talk with my neighbors, and I go home, having been fed a delicious meal by someone who cares about my vegetarian preferences.

Our nine families have intentionally chosen an alternative way of living.

Instead of pursuing the American dream, where we might have been isolated in our single-family homes, we instead chose cohousing, so that we can increase our social connections.

And that's how cohousing starts: with a shared intention to live collaboratively.

And intention is the single most important characteristic that differentiates cohousing from any other housing model.

And while intention is difficult to see or even show, I'm an architect, and I can't help but show you more pictures.

So here are a few examples to illustrate how intention has been expressed in some of the communities I've visited.

Through the careful selection of furniture, lighting and acoustic materials to support eating together; in the careful visual location and visual access to kids' play areas around and inside the common house; in the consideration of scale and distribution of social gathering nodes in and around the community to support our daily lives, all of these spaces help contribute to and elevate the sense of communitas in each community.

What was that word? "Communitas."

Communitas is a fancy social science way of saying "spirit of community."

And in visiting over 80 different communities, my measure of communitas became:

How frequently did residents eat together?

While it's completely up to each group how frequently they have common meals,

I know some that have eaten together every single night for the past 40 years. I know others that have an occasional potluck once or twice a month.

And from my observations, I can tell you, those that eat together more frequently, exhibit higher levels of communitas.

It turns out, when you eat together, you start planning more activities together.

When you eat together, you share more things.

You start to watch each other's kids.

You lend our your power tools. You borrow each other's cars.

And despite all this, as my daughter loves to say, everything is not rainbows and unicorns in cohousing, and I'm not best friends with every single person in my community.

We even have differences and conflicts.

But living in cohousing, we're intentional about our relationships.

We're motivated to resolve our differences.

We follow up, we check in, we speak our personal truths and, when appropriate, we apologize.

Skeptics will say that cohousing is only interesting or attractive to a very small group of people.

And I'll agree with that.

If you look at Western cultures around the globe, those living in cohousing are just a fractional percent.

But that needs to change, because our very lives depend upon it.

In 2015, Brigham Young University completed a study that showed a significant increase risk of premature death in those who were living in isolation.

The US Surgeon General has declared isolation to be a public health epidemic.

And this epidemic is not restricted to the US alone.

So when I said earlier that cohousing is an antidote to isolation, what I should have said is that cohousing can save your life.

If I was a doctor, I would tell you to take two aspirin, and call me in the morning. But as an architect, I'm going to suggest that you take a walk with your neighbor, share a meal together, and call me in 20 years.