Back To Sophisticated Communes – Will Baby Boomers Come Full Circle? Scott’s Story
August 18, 2009
by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.
After lifetimes of aggressive independence, Boomers may seek a sense of community as we age. The co-housing movement looks back to the free-spirited hippie communes of our youth but forward to a Utopia of health, learning, and productive work – without skimping on material comfort.
Remember those generally rural, usually idealistic, and mostly unsustainable experimental communes a fair number of Boomers flocked to – at least temporarly – in the ’60s and ’70s?
I certainly do. I was invited to visit a northern California commune for a week or so, in order to write a story for my newspaper column about women living out-of-the-ordinary lives. The woman in this case was named Laraine. Her commune consisted of five or six families occupying a large farm, which one family inherited from a childless uncle.
Laraine, who had a burly husband with a bushy beard and two adorable little children who never seemed to wear shoes, was trained as a biochemist. But she’d traded in labs and test tubes for a small herd of goats, a magnificent vegetable garden, and a healthy life of self-sufficiency.
This was pre-Internet, of course, but the collective families had decided to ban television and newspapers and weren’t too keen on music, either. They grew – or slaughtered – all their own food, made all their own clothing, and home-schooled their kids, way before anybody else thought of doing it.
They were idealistic, earnest, and more than a tad priggish. I found them quite interesting and in some ways, quite admirable. But I finished my assignment with a sigh of relief and without the slightest desire to live the way they did.
Fast forward to today and another northern Californian, Scott Adams.
Scott, a Marin County architect and housing expert, believes the idea of communal living – albeit sophisticated and even luxurious communal living – could start to appeal to Baby Boomers again. He’s among a group of thinkers – architects, planners, economists, and sociologists – lately enamored of a concept called co-housing, which first arose in Europe and is now spreading throughout the world, including the US.
Think of co-housing as a ’70s commune with a coat of white-collar polish. Or a monastery without the monks and religion. Or maybe a condominium complex with the real estate aspect seriously altered.
While co-housing communities often look like your average neighborhood condos – they typically comprise 20-50 residences and townhouse architecture is popular – they differ considerably from other forms of real estate in how they evolve, grow, and what they mean to those who own them.
“People don’t opt into a co-housing arrangement after the fact,” explains Scott. “A group of people come together with the intention of forming a community. They purchase the land, hire the architects and builders, decide on the features and amenities they want, and are involved in every aspect of the community’s development and subsequent growth.”
There’s considerable flexibility in this basic model, making each co-housing arrangement unique. Some communities are multi-generational; some are not. Some welcome children; some do not. Some share professional interests, as in intentional communities of artists, teachers, or even computer programmers.
Scott’s recently-formed company, Communities International, is focused specifically on co-housing arrangements for Boomers, which he thinks will become increasingly popular from now on.
“Yes, Boomers are angry, partly because of financial reverses,” he says. “But they are also disillusioned, because so many sources of emotional support may have failed them, too. Many have been ‘outsourced’ or ‘downsized’ from corporate communities. Others are divorced or widowed. People have chosen to be childless, or children and other relatives may live far away. The world is simply not as socially supportive as it once was, and a feeling of isolation seems to be widespread among the Boomer generation.”
Some studies show that aging within a close-knit community can help prolong one’s life, as well as rendering it happier. “My own family experience supports this thesis,” says Scott, who fondly remembers the small town of Allegan, Michigan, where his aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived and died.
“My grandfather Adams lived with his sister into his late 80s, surrounded by five daughters and their children. My grandmother Herman lived in the same house since she was 18, and after my grandfather died, she had three sisters as near neighbors.”
A Vineyard in Your Future? – Possibly in Mexico?
But not everyone is so lucky these days. Both Scott’s mother and former mother-in-law died in nursing homes. And the incident which inspired the formation of Communities International ended on a down note.
Seven years ago, a group of several professional couples and singles, Scott among them, attempted to build a community in rural Sonoma County, California, which would be based on the plan of a Japanese country village with a central garden. All of them were friends of a wonderful man named Jerry, an astronomy professor who had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “The idea was that we would all take care of Jerry as his illness progressed and take care of each other as we aged as well,” relates Scott.
But Sonoma County zoning laws at that time worked against them. “A wealthy person could get permission to build one 12,000 square foot home. But we couldn’t get permission to buy land jointly and build seven small homes totaling 10,000 square feet.” The potential community disbanded, and Jerry, now unable to talk, lives isolated in a small nursing home, with only occasional visitors.
This incident inspired Scott to turn his full attention to promoting co-housing and eventually building new communities. This fall, he is teaching a workshop on the co-housing concept at a local college. Communities International should launch its first Boomer-planned and Boomer-built project within the next 18 months.
One possibility is a community sited in a vineyard. “That fulfills a dream of many California Boomers,” he says. “Monastic communities have been based at vineyards for centuries. And members of the community could theoretically offset some of their living costs by running the winemaking operation as a business.”
Another possibility that appeals to many Boomers is a co-housing project for small business owners. There are already many neighborhoods where small business owners live in townhomes above the shops, restaurants, or professional businesses they operate. There’s no reason such an entrepreneurial neighborhood concept should not work well within a co-housing framework, with Boomer small business owners banding together to buy and plan the community in which they’ll both live and work.
As the housing market recovers, co-housing projects which need to be financed may be as appealing to potential lenders as they are to potential owners, Scott believes. “A major concern of every lender is ‘Will units in a particular project sell, and will the project be fully occupied?’ That’s never a problem with co-housing, because you know you have 100 percent occupancy before the ground is broken.”
In addition to US locations, Scott’s company is scouting out sites in Latin America, including Mexico. “Land use regulations tend to be very favorable,” he says. “Cost-of-living is often far lower, and there are active groups of ex-patriates in many locales.”
Scott believes that, paradoxically, the financial and political shocks of the past few years may prove to be beneficial to Boomers in the long run, because many have begun to rethink their futures in a positive way.
“Boomers now know it’s important to economize, to feel secure, and to be proactive about their futures, instead of just reacting to what life throws at them,” he comments. “Co-housing can be cheaper than many other alternatives, yet with more amenities and greater safety and security. It can provide a base for continued employment and productive endeavors. And communities can expand and change as residents age, according to their needs and desires.
“It’s an attractive concept in virtually every way.”
What Do You Think?
Could a “sophisticated commune” be part of your future?
What type of community might appeal to you most?
Would a project based on common professional or entrepreneurial goals interest you?
How about a co-housing project in Latin America or another ex-patriate haven?
Is isolation as you age a concern of yours? If so, what steps are you taking to combat it?
For the next story in the series, “Re-Engineered to Smithereens,” please go to: http://wp.me/pxD3J-B
For the Introduction to the Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation series: http://wp.me/pxD3J-3
For our hard-hitting article on Anti-Boomer Propaganda and How To Combat It, please visit: http://wp.me/pxD3J-8
Filed in Architecture, Baby Boomers, Economics, Political Action, Series, Social Issues
Tags: "BabyBoomers-The Angriest Generation", Angriest Generation, Angry Baby Boomers, Angry Boomers, Angry Generation, Architecture, Baby Boomers, Boomers, Co-Housing, Communes, Communities, Countering Isolation, Dr. Ellen Brandt, Ellen Brandt, Ellen Brandt Ph.D., Emotional Support, Ex-Patriates, Housing Development, Housing in Mexico, Housing Innovation, Intentional Communities, Intentional Utopias, Isolation, Latin American Housing, Marin County, Mexico, Scott Adams, Small Towns, Social Support Systems, Sonoma County, Sophisticated Utopia, Utopia, Vineyards