Cohousing with comfort

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Four friends who have chosen to share their last year together through co-housing are finally within sight of seeing their dream come true.

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In the works for five years, the women, Dona Bowers, Kathy Crowe, Mary Alice (Ang) Henry and Norah McMahon, who call themselves the Soul Sisters, are nearing completion of their one-of-a-kind home under construction in Vanier.

Technically a townhome that conforms to city zoning requirements, the 5,780-square-foot building is divided into four apartments of approximately 800 to 900 square feet each, plus a shared common space for gathering as a community or cohousing.

The concept, which originated in Denmark in the 1960s, is a way of forming an intentional community to share their lives, and although it is common elsewhere, particularly in British Columbia, it is one of two developed cohousing communities. in Ontario, which is here in Ottawa, according to the Canadian Cohousing Network. Those who co-host have similar values ​​and often share weekly meals and other activities, as well as offer mutual support.

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The Soul Sisters project is a large townhome on a corner lot in Vanier with four private apartments and a shared common space of approximately 1,245 square feet.  In total, the building is 5,780 square feet.  Construction is expected to finish in late fall.
The Soul Sisters project is a large townhome on a corner lot in Vanier with four private apartments and a shared common space of approximately 1,245 square feet. In total, the building is 5,780 square feet. Construction is expected to finish in late fall. Photo courtesy of Rosaline J. Hill Architect photography

But these women are not the Golden Girls. Unlike the four mature women who shared a single house together in the 1980s TV sitcom, the Soul Sisters each have their own private two-bedroom apartment, complete with kitchen and living room, inside the smaller house. great.

“With a lot of deliberation between us we built privacy so we’re not wasting our whole lives,” says Henry. But the house also includes a larger shared kitchen, a dining and living room, a guest room, a storage room, and a multipurpose craft room.

Each half of the townhouse is open to connect the four units, although they could be closed to create two separate houses.

“Technically speaking, there are primary units and secondary units in each half and that’s how we achieved a four-unit building; a four-unit apartment building is not allowed here,” says its architect, Rosaline J. Hill. “We had to go to great lengths to convince the building permit staff that this really wasn’t a four-unit apartment building, it was a semi.

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The Soul Sisters began exploring cohousing in 2017, but it wasn’t until they teamed up with Hill in late 2019 that things really got going. An architect with a strong sense of community, Hill has a deep understanding of how to navigate the city’s development system, making her a valuable ally to the Soul Sisters. Still, it would be more than a year and a half from the time the group purchased their property in March 2020 (just as COVID was emerging) until builder Arterra Custom Homes broke ground in November 2021.

Terra Firma is a long-standing cohousing community in Old Ottawa East.  It consists of two three-unit townhouses joined by an infill house that includes the group's common space.  There are also four separate auxiliary dwellings.
Terra Firma is a long-standing cohousing community in Old Ottawa East. It consists of two three-unit townhouses joined by an infill house that includes the group’s common space. There are also four separate auxiliary dwellings. Photo from AllThingsHome.ca photography

The experience, and the timing, led Hill to launch Ottawa Cohousing (ottawacohousing.ca) earlier this year to help cohousing stakeholders meet and work through the sometimes lengthy process of developing relationships between them and then build their community.

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“Ninety percent of groups that start out wanting cohousing never form,” says Linda Kruus, managing director of Ottawa Cohousing. “It’s a huge undertaking for people… Our intention for Ottawa Cohousing is to shorten the timeline for these groups and give them a chance by giving them the experience and organizing them to move forward in their group work in a methodical way and address all the things that need to be addressed before it becomes critical.”

The Soul Sisters are quick to point out that their cohousing arrangement is not typical.

“This is not the norm for cohousing, either in terms of demographics or in terms of numbers,” says Bowers, adding that cohousing groups are often multi-generational, unknown to each other in advance, and average 25 units. “We knew each other before and we didn’t have to recruit. That, I think, is quite a challenge for a lot of cohousing groups… We knew our values ​​and what was important to us.”

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His ownership arrangement is also atypical. Where most cohousing communities are a condominium, the Soul Sisters each own 25 percent of the entire building. They have also taken the opportunity to create a home that respects the environment and allows them to age in place, something that is important to them.

“Our whole idea to begin with was that we share our lives as we age, so that we don’t necessarily do a lot of intensive care for each other, but we advocate and we can make sure the appropriate resources are accessed,” says Henry. . The building includes an elevator, curb-less showers, and easy-access closets, for example.

The other Ottawa cohousing group just celebrated its 25th anniversary.the anniversary. Called Terra Firma, the group is small by cohousing standards, with seven families making up their condo and four auxiliary families living separately in the neighborhood.

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Like the Soul Sisters, Terra Firma took several years to establish itself, eventually purchasing two three-unit townhouses separated by an alley in Old Ottawa East. They would later add an infill house in that alley to create a seventh house and add common space for their community.

Group meals are one of the pillars of cohousing.  For Terra Firma, their backyards are a common space and families gather on each other's terraces.
Group meals are one of the pillars of cohousing. For Terra Firma, their backyards are a common space and families gather on each other’s terraces. Photo of Photo courtesy of Terra Firma

All the original Terra Firma families are still part of the group. “There’s a commitment there to trying to make things work,” says Suzanne Gagnon, who is one of the founders and who mentored the Soul Sisters when they were establishing themselves. “I am a strong advocate of building the soft infrastructure, which is relationships, because at the end of the day, what makes or breaks is the relationship.”

His advice for those considering cohousing is to build the relationship, hire professionals, be clear about your values, and develop good principles to guide your decision-making. “If you’re someone who needs a lot of quiet and downtime and you’re private, this isn’t for you.”

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Kruus points out that the benefits are enormous. “We think there are a lot of people who really long for something like this, so they don’t feel isolated, so they can share resources, so they can get into a mode of housing that is environmentally sensitive and they can live in a city and feel like they have a little people around him.”

The Soul Sisters hope to move into their new home in late fall. While they will miss the houses they have each lived in for many years, they are eager for change.

“There are so many little things that I think it will be fun to have other people to share,” says Henry.

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