Mary Grace Long

After practicing architecture for more than a decade, Grace Kim, AIA, decided to go back to school to study cohousing—collaborative communities where residents have their own homes and share common spaces and services. Today, Kim is one of the foremost experts on cohousing in the country, and gave a 2017 TED Talk on the ways in which the housing model improves social resilience and longevity. As a founding member at Schemata Workshop in Seattle, she designs cohousing developments all over the United States—and also lives in one with her family.

I got interested in cohousing in the early ’90s, in architecture school. We had gone to study in London, and we had a guest professor that came down from Copenhagen who was sharing cohousing as an idea. At the time, I thought it was just another housing model. But it was around the time that it was being introduced in the U.S., and it’s been an interest of mine since then. I realized in the subsequent decade that it was unusual in Western cultures. I went back to grad school, with the express interest of getting my head more into that project type. In 2004, I got a grant from the University of Washington to go live in Copenhagen for a few months, and I did some intense research in cohousing. When I came back, I started sharing my findings and got very involved in the national cohousing movement.

Not only am I an advocate for cohousing and design it, but I also live in it. While architecture can significantly impact the way that communities can get together and build more bonds, it’s really understanding group process that will help make the group successful. I’ll hear people say, “Oh, we do a lot of projects with community stakeholders and public agencies, we’re used to doing charrettes, we’re used to engaging people.” But it’s different. It’s the same dynamic of designing a house for a couple—it’s that level of care and meaning, but instead you multiply that to engage 10 to 20 households during the design process. There’s going to be conflict, differences in opinion, in expectation—all of those things. I think for most architects, they can’t imagine the level of complexity that adds to a project, both in terms of duration as well as the feedback they’re expecting to get; not to mention the design process itself.

It’s important to be humble and recognize that you might be the professional that they’ve hired to be the expert in designing buildings, but they are the experts of knowing how they want them to work. A phrase that I use often is “Use your ears and mouth proportionally.” We have two ears; we have one mouth. We should listen and give folks a chance to tell us their story, and help them actively listen to each other while they learn this complex process of designing buildings.—As told to Katherine Flynn