Communes for Grown-Ups

A 1960s ideal gets a modern makeover in cohousing projects designed for living in close quarters.

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Published in United Church Observer in March 2014

Brian Ast always dreamed of sharing space with people beyond his family. As a young man in the 1960s, he opted out of the mainstream by experimenting with living on a commune in northern Ontario.

Eventually he married, had three kids and spent 28 years as an executive in the energy industry. He lived in a ranch home in the suburbs where the backyards had high fences and people coming home from work disappeared into their garages at the end of the day.

“It was really boring,” he says. “We never saw our neighbours except in the summer.”

As he entered his 60s, his youthful desire to live in community still tugged at him. So when he heard about a new cohousing community being built in a working-class neighbourhood in Saskatoon, he and his wife, Mary Lou, were among the first to sign on.

Last year, they sold their family home and purchased an 1,100 square foot, $420,000 unit in Wolf Willow, a 21-residence cohousing facility that bills itself as “an intentional, evolving community fostering belonging and purpose.”

The facility, which cost $6.5 million to build, is owned by its occupants, who range in age from 54 to 85. Boasting plenty of shared communal spaces - a large dining room and kitchen, laundry facilities, craft room, music room, workshop, exercise room and sitting room with a fireplace and plenty of comfortable seating - the building is designed to promote meaningful connection among the people who live there.

Residents share everything from cars to tools and regular potluck dinners. Ast, who ecame ordained as a United Church minister 10 years ago after leaving the corporate world, has never been happier. “This is where we want to spend the rest of our lives,” he says.

Part condo, part commune, cohousing is a type of residence that originated in Denmark in the early 1970s and was imported to Canada in the mid-1990s book clubs and music and movie nights.

Ask Matthew what drives people to cohousing, and she’ll tell you it’s simple: “They believe having more connection with their neighbour is going to enrich their quality of life.”

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