Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called isolation one of the most common health problems of our time. And it can have grave consequences, as researchers from Brigham Young University reported in a 2015 study, which found that social isolation, loneliness and living alone raises mortality risk by 29 percent, 26 percent and 32 percent respectively. These percentages are already adjusted for age, economic status and pre-existing medical conditions.

Architect Grace Kim is championing a solution to the isolation epidemic. In a recent TED talk, she claimed the design of our cities, neighborhoods and homes contributes to loneliness. Her cure for modern isolation is based not only on her experience as an architect, but also on firsthand knowledge from living in a cohousing development.

Living together in separate houses

Cohousing is a blanket term. In Kim's case, it means a condo complex with separate units. Each unit is fully self-contained with a living space, kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms. The development also has community spaces where residents can interact with one another.

The cohousing idea started in Denmark in the 1960s and '70s. Initially, the developments focused on families because residents wanted to share childcare duties to lower the cost of daycare. Even today, such practical motivation is behind some family-oriented cohousing communities.

Cohousing has developed in different ways over the decades, however. Some communities, like Kim's, have a common building and outdoor area where residents eat together and celebrate birthdays and other events several times per week.

This more casual approach leaves room for residents' privacy, but still fights isolation by facilitating interaction with other members of the community on a regular basis. Socialization is built in to the community, so you don't have to create a connection with neighbors and invite them over for dinner in order to be part of the community; you simply show up to the regular, preplanned meals and events.

Cohousing for practical purposes

cohousing at Collective Old Oak in London Residents work in a communal space at London's Collective Old Oak cohousing building in October 2017. (Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Other cohousing units take things further. California startup Open Door, for example, repurposes old homes in the Bay Area. These buildings offer a sense of community and a chance to make business and social connections. On a more practical level, sharing units in a larger home also cuts housing costs. High costs are a major concern in places like San Francisco, where housing can be prohibitively expensive, especially for people at young companies that might not yet provide a steady income.

Cohousing developments are not always focused on a single demographic. Family and single units may be part of mixed communities, and some cohousing developments are designed with common areas that include game rooms, pools, playgrounds and picnic spaces that appeal to residents regardless of their family size or marital status. These traits draw people from different life stages and backgrounds, creating spaces that are more diverse and host residents who bring unique attributes to the community.

What's the catch?

This brings us to one of the drawbacks of cohousing. In most cohousing developments, residents have collective ownership of (or responsibility for) common areas, but they have to share decision-making about these spaces with the other members of the community. This arrangement could lead to situations where you end up paying for upgrades or maintenance that you might not agree with. In most established communities, there are bylaws that lay out the decision-making process for such projects, and for other potential expenses.

These extra costs are not unlike dues paid to condo or townhouse associations. Overall, cohousing prices are similar to standard homes in terms of market value. Even so, issues could arise if you treat buying a cohousing unit like a regular real estate investment. Some communities may want to have a say when it comes to accepting new members, which could get in the way of a sell-to-the-highest-bidder strategy. While this might not always be the case, new residents will need to understand the development's bylaws before making a down payment.

A good option for senior housing?

One demographic in particular has embraced the idea of cohousing. A recent national conference, titled Aging Better Together, covered the topic of establishing new cohousing communities for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Some communities developed specifically for seniors offer "assisted living" features with cleaning, medical care and other services provided for residents, who live in condos or townhouses with common areas. These communities may offer accessibility features that allow residents to remain as they grow older instead of moving elsewhere.

Whether for seniors, families, single people or mixed communities, cohousing falls under the wider category of "intentional communities," which are communities designed with a specific purpose in mind.

While cohousing comes with drawbacks, new cohousing communities seem to be trying to minimize these flaws and provide the ideal balance of privacy and community. While this trend is not a cure-all for isolation, it could serve as an option for people who want to enjoy a sense of community.

Can cohousing help solve America's loneliness epidemic?
Research suggests loneliness can harm your health. Cohousing comes with a built-in community that could remedy this problem.