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Common Ground : 'Cohousing' residents give up a little privacy when they share chores. But they get more time with their families.


DAVIS — With two careers, two kids and a four-bedroom, two-bath house, Daniel and Catherine Mountjoy were living the American dream.

They just didn't have time to enjoy it.

So last fall, they chucked their suburban spread and moved to Muir Commons, the first "cohousing" community in the United States.

Daniel, a doctoral candidate at UC Davis, and Catherine, a community health educator, live with their two children in one of 26 small townhouses in a fenced enclave in this college town 12 miles west of Sacramento.

The Mountjoys have less private space. But they own 1/26th of a large community kitchen and dining hall, a sitting room with fireplace, a laundry room, a children's playroom, an elaborate wooden play structure, a teen room, a crafts room, an aerobic dance room, a furnished guest room, an orchard, a community garden and, in lieu of a garage and driveway, a parking lot on the site's periphery.

"This is housing that works so much better for the way people live," says Catherine, 33.

The Mountjoys have just come home from a leisurely meal of black-bean tostadas in the dining hall, one they didn't have to plan, shop for or cook. Each Muir Commons household is responsible for just one communal dinner a month. So while neighbors chopped 28 onions, sliced two dozen red and yellow peppers and simmered vats of beans and brown rice in the village kitchen, Catherine played a memory card game with her son, Gabriel, 2, in the family's living room. Daniel joined another resident in a carpentry project outside. Their 5-year-old daughter, Ashlin, and several neighbor girls pedaled trikes around the traffic-free three-acre site.

Now, while other neighbors do their twice-a-month dishwashing duties, the Mountjoys are back at home, gathered around the kitchen table to play a board game before the kids go to bed.

Pioneered in Denmark, cohousing is an attempt to combine the benefits of private housing with the advantages of communal living. Each owner has a small home with a yard and shares extensive common facilities with fellow residents.

A second U.S. cohousing community, in Emeryville, near Oakland, opened its doors in February. And construction is to begin later this year on projects in Sacramento and Benicia, northeast of Berkeley.

More than 90 cohousing planning groups--including several in Southern California--are meeting in 31 states, according to the CoHousing Co., a Berkeley-based consulting firm that promotes the concept through a newsletter, lectures and a book, "CoHousing, A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves."

One such lecture, three years ago in Davis, drew Paul Seif, the 37-year-old owner of a direct-mail advertising company. He had concluded that traditional single-family housing was all wrong for him.

"I was driving down my empty street, past blocks of empty homes, to my empty house," he recalls. "Suddenly the isolation of typical suburban life just hit me."

From that 1989 lecture--by CoHousing Co. founders Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, a husband-wife architect team who studied the concept in Scandinavia in the mid-1980s--came a Muir Commons planning group that included Seif.

Nowadays, his home life is very different. At 6 p.m., the Muir Commons dinner bell rings. Seif, the only single man in the community, moves a discarded trike, an abandoned toy fire engine and an overturned child's bike off the footpath on his way into the dining room. Inside, amid a clattering of stoneware and stainless steel, he joins a table with half a dozen friends.

"Sitting alone in your own house watching 'Miami Vice' shrinks your humanity," says Seif, whose most regular dinner companion used to be his cat. "Cohousing expands it."

Cathy and Pierre du Vair might have been able to scrape together enough money to buy a small house in Davis. But they wouldn't have had anything left to make it wheelchair-accessible for son Christian, 7, who has a rare, debilitating muscle disease.

Cohousing, which is designed by the people who will live in it, offered a potential solution: The planning process would permit the Du Vairs to fight for flush entries, smooth footpaths and other wheelchair-friendly features that involve little or no added expense if they're part of an original design.

No fight was necessary. Pierre, 32, a doctoral candidate in environmental policy at UC Davis, says his future neighbors gladly agreed to incorporate such features as wheelchair turnarounds on dead-end paths, which have given Christian a new life.

Muir Commons was conceived as an affordable housing project, another draw for the Du Vairs, who have another son, 5-year-old Pierre. Cathy, 30, teaches high school geometry.

Davis developer Virginia Thigpen had proposed the cohousing project as a creative, cost-effective way for developers of a new 110-acre subdivision in Davis to meet city requirements to make 25% of the new houses "affordable." She organized the 1989 lecture to drum up interest.

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