In many ways, cohousing is a lot like dormitory living, only without much of the adolescent nonsense. So if you're yearning for those college days of shared space and communal meals, but you're more interested in "green" living than binge drinking, Pittsburgh's first cohousing project could serve as the perfect new home.
Community-developer East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI) bought the decrepit three-story apartment complex at 5620 Rippey St. last fall after residents fended off a government proposal to turn the structure into transition housing for ex-convicts [City Paper, "Proposed federal halfway house axed," July 26, 2007]. Now, as demolition crews gut the complex and architects develop designs geared toward shared space and green living, the building's owner is looking for people willing to give cohousing a try.
"Cohousing," which originated in Denmark in the 1960s, is a type of residence where neighbors design and run their communities cooperatively. Such communities, for example, typically use common facilities for meals and social activities, and make management decisions collectively.
"We're spreading the word to see who's interested," says ELDI planning coordinator Kendall Pelling.
According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, there are currently 113 cohousing developments in 30 states. Pennsylvania hosts five of those, though 5620 Rippey would be the first such project in Pittsburgh.
Pelling says that ELDI hopes to transform the building into roughly 12-15 residential units, with ample common space. But for now, the main challenge is finding applicants.
Three families have expressed interest in the cohousing concept so far, but ELDI hopes that number will increase in the near future as more people see plans for the building. The group will hold its first open house at the building site on Aug. 16 at 3 p.m., so interested buyers can get an idea of what the complex looks like, and how it could be laid out.
Lab|8 Designs, a South Side-based architectural firm, has already sketched out some potential plans for the site. Currently, artist renderings show that while the front façade will be little changed, the rest of the building could look completely different. New features could include: a modular green roof system, rainwater collection tanks and solar-shaded balconies. The former parking lot behind the building could be reduced significantly, making space for a children's playground, common patio and vegetable garden.
Pelling cautions that these plans are only preliminary. Because the design will depend on the desires of occupants, he says, designs are "completely subject to change." Depending on the wishes of the building's community, individual units could cost as low as $60,000 and as high as "the sky." Some buyers might want expensive granite countertops, he says, while others might be satisfied with inexpensive wood.
"It's much like custom home building," Pelling says. "[Cohousing buyers] don't want a standard vanilla box. They want their own stamp on it." In the meantime, the plans are being furnished to show "what the building could be for people who have trouble visualizing things."
Pelling says ELDI will evaluate the level of interest in cohousing over the next few months, and make a decision about whether to adopt the approach sometime in the fall. If there's insufficient interest in communal living, ELDI may pursue a more conventional renovation, turning 5620 Rippey into standard apartments or condos.
If cohousing gets the green light, Pelling says, construction could start next spring. And in the meantime, neighbors are hoping for the best.
"I see [cohousing] plugging into the existing community," says Pat Buddemeyer, a Rippey Street resident and ELDI board member. "It's about people sharing resources instead of competing for resources. This could be a wonderful addition to the neighborhood."