If you didn't know what you were looking at, the Mountain View Cohousing Community appears to be like any other apartment complex in the city. It's located on Calderon Avenue, just across the fence from Landels Elementary School and a short walk downtown, and proposes a kind of intentional living and sharing of community resources that is relatively rare in Silicon Valley.
Jenny Bixby and her husband Ken Rosenfeld have been members of the MVCC since September 2018, and raised their children in a cohousing community in Massachusetts before they moved to the Bay Area. Bixby said that she prefers cohousing because she wants to be connected with her neighbors.
"It's random where you end up living. You never know who your neighbors are gonna be, if they wanted to be connected with you or not," Bixby said.
Though the property is organized like an apartment complex, cohousing isn't like living in a typical multi-unit space or retirement community.
"The people who live here run everything, are in charge of everything. We're in charge of the activities, the meals, they're not provided for us," Bixby said.
Susan Burwen, one of the original founders of the MVCC, said that members of the community work together in teams, which operate like subcommittees, in areas such as landscaping, membership, interiors and social activities. Burwen said that the teams are one of the main activities that bring cohousing members together.
Cohousing isn't for everyone. Bixby noted that the level of social activity and community responsibility might be too much for some and that the resident population is "self-selecting." Some might simply want more private space, and even Bixby said that she wishes she had a larger backyard.
This is one of the more challenging aspects of cohousing living, Bixby said. The MVCC works on a consensus model, which means that team members have to come to a solution that everyone believes in, which can take time and patience.
This also speaks to the larger ethic and mission of cohousing and intentional living -- that members of a community are accountable to one another and work together to shape the way they want to live, Bixby said. The willingness to participate in one another's daily life is also what distinguishes MVCC from other housing systems. Bixby said, "When you do things together, you get to know people better, and that's how relationships happen."
Residents have access to private spaces, as well as a number of shared spaces, such as the garden, the rooftop, a woodworking shop, a gym, the underground storage area and the common area, which receives the most traffic.
The common area is designed to be a multi-use space for members who want to host events, meetings and potlucks. "There's something about having a place where you have common experiences that makes you feel more connected with people," Bixby said.
The effort to build a cohousing community started when Burwen and her husband David purchased the land in 2009. They wanted to live a more social life, and came across the idea of cohousing.
The pair worked with the city to protect the historical Abbot House that used to sit toward the far end of the property but was relocated to the Calderon street-facing entrance.
The property sits on land that used to be a walnut orchard, back when Silicon Valley used to be known as the Valley of Heart's Delight for its orchards and farms.
Susan Burwen said the environmentally conscious design of the 19-unit condominium building includes fiber cement paneling that requires fewer natural resources, and solar shades so residents can feel comfortable without air conditioning.
She said that past groups who tried to establish cohousing communities weren't as successful because they went about attracting potential members before securing a plot of land. Land ripe for development is difficult to come by on the Midpeninsula, but thanks to the odd layout of the cohousing parcel, developers couldn't find a way to build a viable apartment building. The Burwens bought the land and started petitioning the city to move the Abbot House, construct a structure that would conceal trash and recycling bins at the front of the property, and build an underground parking structure.
They worked with architect Charles Durrett, who has helped to establish over 60 cohousing communities across the United States. Durrett and the Burwens met in 2009, after he published a book on cohousing architecture. Together they hosted an event at Books Inc. in Mountain View, and by the end of the night, eight families had expressed interest in the cohousing project, Susan Burwen said. All 19 units were sold before construction was finished, and they moved into their units in 2015.
Durrett worked with the Burwens and other interested parties over the course of five meetings to develop a vision for the property. Bixby and her husband attended those meetings in the hope that they would one day be residents of the MVCC.
Bixby said she and her husband are enjoying their new home, though it took work to find the right community, people with whom they could not only share living space, but also with whom they could grow.
"You know, relationships take work. And that's the other part of it. I mean, this is not a perfect community, it's messy and there are things that happen, but if you put the effort into it you get something out of it," Bixby said.