It was his search for a friendly community that led Charles Durrett to build sustainable cohousing developments in Nevada County. As a young man, he moved from Downieville to Sacramento and was struck by how dysfunctional it was compared to the small neighborly town where he grew up.
As he and his wife, Kathryn McCamant, studied architecture in the U.S. and in Denmark, they kept thinking about how the Danes’ approach housing. For themselves, they wanted a community in which they could thrive, raise their daughter and form a smaller footprint. They became attached to the Danish cohousing developments they visited in the mid 1980s and wondered if they could replicate them in California.
“Growing up in small towns, I knew the difference between living in a place with a sense of community and living in a place without,” Durrett said.
“The Danes were manifesting their communities around high-functioning neighborhoods,” he added. “The basic components are knowing your neighbors and caring about your neighbors.”
In Durrett’s view, high functioning meant neighbors helping neighbors, gathering in common areas and solving problems through consensus.
Durrett and McCamant, whose architectural firm is on Commercial Street in Nevada City, were seeking a similar arrangement for their future.
After speaking with residents of cohousing in Denmark, Durrett said he discovered how practical it was.
“I realized that there is nothing that nouveau about the concept; they were just recreating what came natural,” Durrett said. “Then I realized it was an extremely conventional notion. Participants were ultra responsible and independent thinkers. High-functioning neighborhoods are more practical.”
Durrett and McCamant wrote two books on cohousing as they searched for their own housing solutions. “Creating Cohousing” was published in 1988. “The Senior Cohousing Handbook” was written in 2009.
The couple became experts in the arduous task of planning and developing cohousing communities. They are known for coining the phrase and became national leaders in advancing cohousing in the United States. Durrett said he is the number one designer for these communities and McCamant is the number one development expert in the movement.
“We have designed more cohousing projects than anyone else in the nation,” Durrett added.
Nevada City’s cohousing project is “Broad Street Commons,” a community of 34 units on 11 acres that includes three gardens, a common house where residents can cook and eat meals, a pool and several playgrounds. It was built in 2006. Prices range from $250,000 to $450,000, which Durrett said is affordable housing for mostly young families.
Grass Valley’s senior cohousing, Wolf Creek Lodge, which was also designed and developed by McCamant and Durrett, consists of 30 units on 8.8 acres.
Dyann Castro-Wehr and her husband, Frank, raised their two children in Broad Street Commons and said it was the best housing decision for them.
“It’s a great place to live because I feel we have the best of both worlds,” said Castro-Wehr. “It’s a neighborhood with people I know, and I have my own home. We have privacy and access to a lot things that I wouldn’t have if I was on my own.”
She said it works for her family because “you can socialize with neighbors without having to plan. Say it’s Saturday night and somebody says ‘do you want to play games’ and we go to the common house and play games all night.”
The Castro-Wehrs are a founding family at Broad Street Commons. Because they raised two children in the community, they know from experience the good and the bad of cohousing.
“It’s not utopia, and it has its challenges,” Dyann said. “But we all work together and solve problems. I feel I had a calling for this way of life.”
Wolf Creek Lodge is a senior cohousing community for people older than 50. The oldest resident is 93.
“It’s like having really good neighbors,” said Bob Miller, 71, who has lived at Wolf Creek since 2013, the year after it was built.
“When you want community, it’s there. If you want more peace and quiet, you can retire to your own company.”
Miller said he and his wife, Claire, moved to Grass Valley from Truckee.
“The Truckee winters are pretty tough, and we were afraid that we would become quite isolated,” he said. “Now, we are never going to be isolated. As people get older they can become marginalized, but here, people are always there to help each other.”
Recently a group of artists tried to create a cohousing project in Nevada City. As it turned out, the property proved too expensive and the endeavor lacked the interest and resolve needed to create a community.
Affordable housing is inadequate here and around the nation. McCamant and Durrett said they are committed to building affordable housing and have several projects designed and completed to meet this need. But it takes widespread resolve.
Cohousing is not for everyone. Some people chafe at bowing to the majority on issues facing their community. When residents leave or bow out, it’s usually because they don’t see eye-to-eye with the group.
Durrett said turnover at the Nevada County projects is very low, but some folks can’t adapt. And that’s fine. He said those who stay are committed to this way of life.
“People in Nevada County complain about affordable housing,” said Durrett, who lives at Broad Street Commons. “They need to step up. Cohousing is not for the faint of heart. These people are doers. These guys are cool, and they are brave.”
“Sometimes I feel guilty that I took all the cool people of Nevada City out of town and brought them here,” he added.