Cohousing organizer in Ashland

Charles "Chuck" Durrett's electric bill this year was $83.84 — that is, the power company owed him $83.84. The average electric bill among his neighbors was about minus-$50, as residents in the cohousing community found ways not only to save on power usage, but to actually produce more power than they consumed through use of solar power and other sustainable methods.

Durrett lives in a conceptual community in Northern California centering on thoughtfully planned construction and bringing community back to a personal level.

The concept is called cohousing and it originated in Belgium. Durrett and his wife, Kathryn McCamant, are considered the movement's trailblazers in the United States, in large part because of their book, "Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves," that they published in the mid '80s. They also have helped to found 50 cohousing communities in this country.

Durrett will discuss his new book, "The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach To Independent Living," at Bloomsbury Books at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Durrett and McCamant have received numerous awards for their work, including a World Habitat Award presented by the United Nations and the Mixed Use/Mixed Income Development Award, presented jointly by the American Institute of Architects and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Durrett also designed and renovated hundreds of childcare centers and classrooms throughout the country.

Durrett, whose work has been featured in such national media outlets as USA Today, the New York Times and "The Today Show," believes senior cohousing is the most sensible approach to housing today's growing senior population, the Baby Boomers.

"It is a different kind of senior now," Durrett said. "This generation is not checking in to check out. Many of them say, 'I've already made it and I don't have to prove it; what I need now are playmates. I want to have fun.'"

He notes the Boomer generation was known for questioning authority and says there's no reason why housing should not be questioned in the same way.

According to Durrett, cohousing is centered around a community of people who know each other and function on a harmonious level, with everyone working together for the greater good of the residents. This includes maintenance of the complex and common areas as well as carpooling and helping each other through the ins and outs of daily life. Many cohousing communities also feature a "common house" where residents can gather or dine together, although they have their own kitchens.

Sustainability is a key element of the cohousing concept, Durrett said. The units in his community have 100 percent passive cooling systems and almost entirely passive heating. The houses are designed to make full use of natural lighting.

The result is a solid community living on a sustainable level. That's the opposite of what he often sees in senior housing and condominium associations today, concepts which he says are alienating and do not meet the needs of today's seniors.

"Buckminster Fuller said, 'If something is fundamentally upside down, it is better to start over than to fix it,'" Durrett said. "There is no more obvious case of this than the situation with senior housing right now."

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