Over the summer I visited some city boomers in Helsinki, Finland. My brother and sister-in-law gave up their large suburban house as the last of the kids headed for college and moved into a brand-new co-housing apartment building. The beautiful, modern building, completed in November 2013, is the culmination of six years of work from a group of people, many baby boomers, who formed an association called Home In the City, in 2007. The guiding principle for the building was to make it a place for economical, social, ecological living.
My brother joined the group as the group was already well along with the plans. There was an interview process and, because the group was not able to get bank financing, a substantial financial commitment. The building ended up with a mix of empty nesters, singles, and families with children of different ages. There were several families that together bought multiple units. Most of the owners were professionals in different fields, several were in the arts.
This group wanted to create a close community, but still live in the city near good public transportation and ample cultural offerings. They wanted the peace and solitude of own home, but also a chance to live close to friends and, in many cases, relatives. They wished to offer their children a supportive environment and make sure older member of the group did not succumb to loneliness. They wanted to be able to participate in the design of their own apartment and live in a beautiful, well-designed building with plenty of common areas for socializing and hobbies.
So, how did they succeed? From what I was able to see and hear, splendidly. My brother’s two bedroom duplex is a beautiful, modern space that is designed to work through senior years. One feature I loved was motion sensitive lighting at the floor level between the master bedroom and bathroom. I was wondering about the spiral staircase between the two floors, until I found that there was a separate entrance to the upper level directly from the outside hallway. The doors and bathrooms were all wheelchair accessible.
While the apartment was lovely, the building’s common areas were equally great. There were several lounge areas with high-end furnishings, several laundry rooms, three saunas (this was Finland, after all!), a greenhouse sitting area on the top floor and large sitting, eating and grilling areas on the roof deck. Some lounge areas were equipped for children, others had large movie screens for communal movie and sports event watching nights. There was a sewing room with a sewing machine and two large looms, one of which was being used by a group of resident to make a rug for a long hallway. There was a bike room with a bike workshop, and a woodworking room. There were areas to store kid’s outdoor toys. There was even a small “mother-in-law” room available for a minimal fee, maximum of 3 nights, for a visiting relative.
However, to me the most wonderful thing was a large professional kitchen and dining room. The building’s members can opt to cook and eat dinner together Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the school year. According to my brother about half of the residents participate in these communal dinners.
Within a two month rotation, a chef prepares menus and shopping lists and each dinner participating family works twice per each diner, either cooking, cleaning up or picking up the week’s groceries from a wholesaler. If someone is working late and misses the dinner hour, the kitchen crew will pack their meal for later pick-up or freezing.
When I was asking about the menus, my brother said that in the beginning they were being a little too ambitious with special themed dinners, but over time they settled to more typical Finnish everyday family dinners. Now Mondays and Wednesdays have fresh, seasonal, family-friendly main dishes, always with a salad. On Fridays, menus are a more special and include a dessert. Diners get water, but bring other drinks from home. The cost of each meal covers the approximate cost of the ingredients. A family will have a full, nutritious meal, made with high quality ingredients, for less than the cost of a take-out pizza. And without any after meal clean-up!
I came away wondering why we could not have something like this in NYC. It could be a perfect housing solution for empty-nest city boomers.