Cohousing in Medieval China


At the time of writing, I’m helping to prepare Concorde’s Fall Information Session. One slide I thought I’d finished is “Cohousing is Not (Very) New”, which gives a brief history of cohousing since Jan Gudmand-Hoyer created the word bofællesskab in the sixties.  

In that slide, I describe Hoyer’s efforts as having “formalized” cohousing.  I wanted to be clear he hadn’t invented it; for thousands of years communities around the world included more or less of the features we today identify as cohousing.

Today, I stumbled into a seeming example of the more: Tulou. 46 sites were inscribed in 2008 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, they were apparently a minor story point in a video game (Front Mission 3) all the way back in 1999, and Disney pretends that Mulan lived in one in their upcoming movie, so you may already know about these incredible multi-story earthen structures that housed communities of seeming equals, but I’m learning about them for the first time and I’m fascinated.  They were designed to prevent attack, and were built by families who’d first joined together in mountaintop strongholds to defend themselves from armed bandits.   Because of the nature of the building materials a large Tulou can take up to one year per floor to build, so completion was definitely a feat of cooperation and planning.


Wikipedia can give you an explanation that starts you down the same rabbit hole I’ve just been in, but, basically, Tulou are a type of walled village, with a fortified outer structure enclosing a central courtyard.  Living quarters are built into this exterior wall, kind of like town-houses: a family occupies a vertical set of rooms, usually with the first floor designated for kitchens and dining rooms; the second floor, storage; and the higher floors, bedrooms.


To be an effective defense, the exterior wall had no windows on the first or second (nor sometimes, third)  stories, which, when you remember that these are earthen walls, could make you think that it would be like living underground in the Diefenbunker: dank and smoky and depressingly dark.  Photos show this is not even slightly true; the homes were bright and well ventilated.  While one end is earth, the other end of each room opens onto the courtyard, which offers plenty of light and air.  The courtyard also contains additional concentric rings with common facilities such as water, tools and weapons, a ceremonial hall/sitting room, and, occasionally, a library or school. This courtyard is apparently very effective at creating community – families have lived in the same Tulou for 15 or more generations!

So, cohousing:  an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space!



Aligned with the goals of many cohousing communities, Tulous were built sustainably.  In fact, they’ve been studied by at least two North American universities as potentially one of “the greenest buildings in the world”, because of their durability and renewable materials.  The earthen buildings were constructed of cut stone blocks and dirt mixed, according to one article, with lime, rice, brown sugar and egg white.  This was reinforced with bamboo and compacted to form a very strong substance that was partnered with wooden posts and beams jointed together, without metal nails, through “pinned connection”, such that there is a “load-sharing effect in a manner similar to a fixed beam” Whatever that means, it sure sounds good and the results speak for themselves: Tulous built in the 14th and 15th centuries are still standing, and it’s claimed that in 1934 a cannon was fired 19 times at one tulou, but made only a small dent on the outside wall!  


Further, temperature and humidity are passively moderated because of the thermal mass from the earthen wall and ventilation from the floor plan.  (The Info session I’m supposed to be preparing for is all about passive house standards, so arguably I’m actually on task!) One researcher says that Tulous meet environmental guidelines like “LEED”.


So, not just cohousing, but environmentally friendly cohousing!  I was nearly ready to campaign for Concorde to commit to such a design, especially when I found out that Chinese independent architecture think tank Urbanus had built a modern one as affordable housing in 2008.  Sadly, but unsurprisingly to those familiar with cohousing principles, despite the amazing architecture, no community seems to have formed. When EnviroSustain consultants visited on a sunny April day, the inner courtyard was actually empty.   Their assessment was that inclusive participation of the future residents’ needs, desires and perspectives of living were the missing “key to creating more liveable cities.”  This is familiar to cohousers: we know that to have an engaged community, the community has to be engaged!  The first North American Cohousing Book instructs groups to

    1. Work in a way that encourages everyone to contribute
    2. Design the project together

Which is why it’s so much fun to be working on a specific design & vision exercise (we’re calling it a “charrette”) right now.  Folks who don’t normally contribute in business meetings or socials now have a new way to have their voices heard, and we get to clarify what we’re looking for in a way.  Hopefully this will allow us to better present our ideas to potential community members, professional contractors and government representatives.  We look forward to sharing some of the ideas we develop with you in the not-so-distant future.  In the meantime, I’d better get back to work on our slide show!


Sources and additional info:

Invitation: (Practically) Impromptu Outreach: Nature Walk

Dewberry Trail & Dolman Ridge

Sunday, 28 April, 2:00 pm – 4:00

RSVP for details

Fern and moss detail from by lezumbalaberenjena

A couple of people interested in our development happen to be in town right as the birds are set to arrive, so instead of answering their questions over a coffee table, we’re putting our coffee in thermoses and hitting the trail!

There is no formal program other than the walk, so if you’ve questions about where we are at with the Cohousing process or want a chance to informally get to know a bit about some of our members and are interested in an outing  of this sort please let us know:  We’ll either add you into this event or add another one like it, depending on timing and size.

Don’t forget your boots!

Why Cohousing? Kinship!

“Kinship is a rich bondedness that calls forth to the deepest parts of ourselves.  It is a mutuality of understanding, a sense of belonging, a union of spirits, a loving appreciation, and a deep communion which comes from having known experiences similar to the person with whom we are bonded”

–Joyce Rupp

Invitation: March Social: Another Potluck

Sunday, 31 March, 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm

Secret Location Nearish to Nanny Goat Community GardenRSVP for details

Concorde members are attending a Legal & Financial Information workshop early in the afternoon.

Then we’ll eat.  Because our brains will be tired, and eating together is good for brains!

Come, bring us food!  Or share in the plenty* and be the first to learn what we’ve learned & decided at the workshop!

Last potluck


*usually there are plenty of vegetarian & gluten free options, but if you need Vegan or have some other dietary concern, please include that in your RSVP and we’ll see what we can do – Concorde Members (Generally) Love a Cooking Challenge!

Member Intro: Pierre

Pierre is a social person who has considered living in a communal milieu for some time. Born in the early fifties, “when everything of consequence was invented”, he is a former high school teacher still involved in education by overseeing high school students transitioning to Algonquin College.

A passionate tinkerer, Pierre loves to spend time in his extensive workshop, building, fixing and feeding his soul by using his skills to make his environment more pleasant and functional.  Recently divorced and currently involved with a wonderful lady friend, he’s quite a decent cook and baker , loves cycling and Blues music and plays a “passionate” Backgammon game.

“I enjoy being with people and sharing food, the outdoors and various entertainments, but I need private space & time, too, so cohousing looks like a good fit for me.”

I think we should make Pierre wear this for all our outreach events!

Guest Post: Hello / Goodbye

Today’s post was written by one of our founding members, Anne, who has decided that her true home is in Nova Scotia, but was kind enough to write a post about what had brought her to us.

Please note that any text in italics is mine, whereas the plain text is Anne’s.

photo credit: MichelleM @In Michelle’s Kitchen

If you have ever made popcorn on the stove in a pan with a glass lid and watched the kernels begin to pop and then pop faster and faster and soon fill the pot, you have had a glimpse of what my brain feels like from the inside. Ideas heat up and explode over each other all the time. [coolest popcorn distraction ever]

I first heard about cohousing around seventeen years ago, through a network called Sustainable Maritimes. I was subscribed (and still am) to its listserv. One day a notice came round about an event in Halifax, funded by CMHC (Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp) and organized by some folks in the greater Halifax area who had heard about cohousing and wanted to create communities.

These folks, perhaps?

I think it was a two day event. I invited a forward thinking municipal councillor to go with me, and off we went. Follow through has never been my strong point. I realize now I ought to have been at the council meeting where she reported back on what we had learned.

Ronaye Matthews from British Columbia had been flown in to enlighten us. She is one of the folks who run Cohousing Development Consulting.

We learned about the process of getting Quayside Commons up and running, the difficulties, and the clever ideas like getting funding for some sustainable aspect of the community.

Quayside has been happily inhabited for 17 years.

We learned about process cards and practiced using them.

We heard about what people in Nova Scotia were hoping to do.

We learned about Roberts Creek Cohousing, formed by people who were, and were not, living on BC’s Sunshine Coast.  They did a lot of groundwork by email. Their neighbourhood is not around a courtyard, my ideal, but is little houses on little roads in the woods. They built their own sewage treatment system which they then turned over to the village.

A 3-minute walk to the main commercial centre of Robert’s Creek, and less than a 10-minute walk to the ocean.

At one point in the question period in the first session someone in the audience, from Antigonish, the town in Nova Scotia where co-ops are at the epicentre of community development, said,

“Well, we have been doing co-ops for decades!”

And then we went through a lot of back and forth about what makes cohousing different from co-ops, and the different ways communities in BC were structured legally.

I came away thinking,

“It’s Anne’s world!”

I had lived in many different shared situations: Rochdale College, a big house with a shared kitchen, a small house with two families and many kids. And I am a hermit, who loves company, so the idea of private homes and shared common spaces completely fills the bill.

I have done one too many loads of dirty dishes and gone out, only to come home with groceries ready to cook a meal and discovered a kitchen even messier than before I had cleaned it. And, I have never been good at having that conversation. And, I have walked out on messes I have made, too.

Comedian Justin Cousson apparently fought the “messy kitchen/roomie” battle with art.

Since that sudden, intense immersion in the cohousing concept, living mainly on my own in a very rural area, I have lurked on the list-serve, bought and read and given away a ton of books about cohousing, and talked far too much about it to people who really wished I would draw breath and let them say something.

I have a popcorn pot full of thoughts and imaginings about intentional communities, which I first heard about in grade ten social studies. I wrote an essay about some community in New England for that class back in something like 1964.  (Anyone else wondering if it was Caroline’s?)

I love the evolution of the Ecovillage at Ithaca, and think that Cape Breton might really be revitalized if we invited people to come to the island and followed that model, instead of letting our farm land be cut up into cottage lots.

Community Supported Agriculture, with cohousing neighbourhoods around the farm land, how brilliant is that?

Anne brought curry & raita to our last potluck. I can attest that she should cook for me more !

Cooking is more fun if I am cooking for a crowd. Sharing meals. helping out, being able to walk to a workshop or exercise room, seeing kids playing, it all looks so rosy.

And I believe Concorde will exist one day.

But really, my heart and home is in Cape Breton, in the home built for my great-grandfather’s sister.

Ottawa is a great city, and will be even better when the cohousing idea takes hold.  I wish you all the best on the journey towards the common house, and hope to visit one day.

If you are reading this on the Concorde website and wondering, “Would I like to meet these folks, and maybe even live with them?”   I’d say,

“Go for it!”

Beside Cohousing: Why I Fell in Love with Haitian Lakou

my 1st day in Haiti, in a rural kitchen

My name is Valerie and my interest in cohousing began when I lived in Haiti in 2005.  (After coup, before earthquake, for you fuzzy-in-recent-ish-history types)

It wasn’t called cohousing, but “Lakou.”  I’ll let the esteemed & incredible author Edwidge Danticat introduce you, in the first 40 seconds of this video:

Lakou, physically, are “communities of private homes clustered around shared space.”  The only word from the short form definition of cohousing that might not obviously apply is “intentional”.

Fishing Huts near St Marc, Haiti

That isn’t to say that the clusters were put together thoughtlessly, just not with the same type of “intent” implied by most Canada-raised folk using the word.  Rather, Lakou tend to be structured around how to best use the space you have for whatever you need that space to be. Bedrooms could become dining rooms, Nurseries could become rental units, and then those rooms could change again, ever adapting to the needs of the families living there.

It was Beautiful.

I mean… if you got into a slum where people didn’t really have ownership of anything, and the sewer-gutter was backed up and stinky, it wasn’t so beautiful. We’ve all seen those photos too many times, so I won’t share any of them here.

But the system of sharing and adapting and making room for everyone, that was beautiful.

The system of having grandpas and great grandmas and brand new babies all living, not under one roof necessarily, but within shouting distance certainly, that allowed true culture.

The system of kids having other kids around for play, adventures, chores; without an adult having to endlessly complete reward charts and permission slips, that was freedom.

The system of frequently sharing meals, which meant way fewer people-hours sitting in the hot sun over a hot pot, that was life-saving.

(At least for me.  I would’ve given myself food poisoning or burned all my eyebrows off trying to manage the unfamiliar ingredients and charcoal stoves.)

So, ya.  When by happenstance I visited a cohousing community in Michigan, I was hooked before dessert.  Back then, I was too young to make many choices about my own living situation beyond “have roommates = make rent”.  Now, finally, with Concorde, I can once again experience something akin to this beautiful piece of an amazing country.

For the record: I wasn’t in Haiti long enough to be able to say anything definitive about anything, and I want to be careful to not steal something that doesn’t belong to me.  So, for the record: I’m not actually trying to argue that we’re building a Lakou, just that it was inspiring.  All of the photos are my own or from a colleague, and we got permission to take them, though sadly, because of the nature of Haitian migration and 2005 telecommunication, I won’t be able to let the subjects of the photos – my erstwhile neighbours – know what I’m doing with their images now.  I hope and believe they will be happy with this portrayal if they ever do come across it. (& if they do, I really hope they reach out!)

Now, a song about Lakou by a group named after them:



photo from IMDB

My name is Valerie.  I signed up to be the webmaster.

However, it turns out that’s a loaded word, both in real life and the movies, so I’m downgrading my aspirations.  I’ll be the narrator. (At least until someone changes the password!)

We have some other people who are better at tech stuff, and others who are better at writing, (especially writing concisely) but none who are adequate at both AND have spare time.  So, dear reader, you are stuck with me.  I’m sorry.  As often as I can, I’ll cajole the others into writing.  They seem pretty keen to introduce the ideas and strategies we’re working on; just a little hesitant to introduce themselves or spend 90 minutes coming up with a catchy jingle to advertise our next social event. Ridiculous, right?  Anyway, leading by example, off I go to write my  real  intro piece, about what sparked my interest in Cohousing.

Ok, I admit starting to blog publicly does feel a bit like climbing into a retro sci-fi fish bowl.

Skating (Some slipping)

photo credit: Ottawa Tourism

1-3 pm, January 12, 2019

Sens Rink of Dreams

110 Laurier Ave W, Ottawa, ON

Regardless of your skill on skates, join us to enjoy one of the luxuries of living in Ottawa: myriad outdoor rinks on public property – this one on city hall’s front yard, which is central enough to get to without a car, though if you do drive, the garage under city hall will be free.

If you have skates, bring ’em.  If you don’t, come anyway!  You can rent a pair (and even a helmet) or just stand by the boards and watch the Zamboni.
If you are worried about staying warm, don’t forget your toque, but also, be assured that there is a warming hut and Beavertails stand (go here to check out nutritional & allergen info, or just to drool over the options.) I’m told there’s a warm up space inside city hall too, but I can’t find any supporting evidence, so do remember that toque!