Grace Kim, on the rooftop deck garden of her cohousing building on Capitol Hill. Photo courtesy of Grace Kim.

Choosing a home can be a special undertaking. But architect Grace Kim took this process a step further, by choosing a cohousing community, in which a group of individuals and families set out intentionally to become neighbors who know and engage with each other. 

According to Kim, cohousing isn’t just being friendly. “People have their private homes but also share indoor and outdoor common spaces,” she said. “They also eat together on a regular basis.” 

Kim and her husband, fellow architect Mike Mariano, used their knowledge of co-housing to develop Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing in Seattle. “We were looking for a neighborhood that could offer walkability for daily needs, grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, dry-cleaning, drugstores,” Kim said, plus “public schools for our child to attend, higher education for us to participate in adult education and serve as mentors, parks and library, an easy walk downtown, and opportunities to recreate and attend cultural events in the neighborhood.”

Sociability was a high priority. “We wanted to be less dependent on cars, and have more time to spend with family and friends,” Kim said. “And it turned out eight other families felt the same way and joined us on this journey.” 

Kim’s interest in architecture began at a young age. “As a child, I didn’t know what an architect was or that there was a profession called architecture,” she said. “But I was always reconfiguring my room and interested in self-expression, so at one point, I thought I wanted to be an interior decorator.” 

In college, majoring in architecture turned out to be a good fit. “I was good at math and science as well as art,” Kim said. “I was liked and was good at problem solving, and I thrived in working collaboratively with people.” 

After working for Skidmore Owings & Merrill and the International Masonry Institute, Kim returned to Seattle in 1999 and worked in leadership roles. “I learned about marketing and the business of winning projects,” she said. “I also learned about firm management and how to run a practice.” 

Five years later, she and Mariano launched their own architectural company, Schemata Workshop. “We wanted to work in a firm where we felt our values were aligned with our clients,” she said, “and where people were excited to collaborate together along with our consultants and contractors to create beautiful buildings that would enhance the lives of the end-users and support the building of community.”

For Kim, a top architect has skills similar to those of a good neighbor. “A good architect is a good listener,” she said. “We have to listen not only to what our clients tell us, but also what they don’t say.”

Empathy with clients is important. “They are the experts in what they do, but they don’t always think outside their box,” Kim said. “We are our client’s advocates, asking questions they don’t know to ask and helping them think strategically about impacts and future-proofing.” 

Kim also relies on the collaborative skills she practiced in college. “While there are some skilled solo practitioners, most architects work for larger firms where it is essential to collaborate in order to meet our deadlines and satisfy our client’s needs,” she said. “We also have engineers and landscape architects to work with, as well as contractors who construct our buildings and public officials who grant permits.”  

All this is in service of solving architectural design problems. “There are many ways to solve a problem,” Kim said, “so it’s important to listen, and know what the constraints are, such as code requirements, site conditions, client programs, and budget.” 

Kim’s family background drew her to the sub-specialty of cohousing. “My family emigrated in 1973, and found a lot of support in the small Korean community that was in Seattle,” she said. “Community helps people be their best selves.” 

Based on that belief, she sees co-housing as a solution to many American problems. “Over my lifetime, I’ve seen how isolated American society has become, the segregation and isolation of seniors, reclusive behavior and introspection enabled by video games and social media, and the general dissatisfaction and unhappiness of people as they focus on materialism,” she said. “People have lost their sense of connection and interdependence.” 

What’s missing is a sense of belonging. “People have forgotten the importance of having purpose and meaning in one’s life, beyond themselves,” she said. “Whether it is a cohousing community, an affordable housing development, a transit facility, or a workplace, we consider how all of our projects can support or enhance the sense of community.” 

For Kim, these community connections must be based in social equity. “People who need access to affordable housing, social services, and access to transit are disproportionately people of color,” she said. “I think that some financially stable Asians forget that we, too, are people of color.” 

Schemata Workshop keeps this focus on equity at the forefront of its work. “Many Asians have adopted the persona of the ‘model minority,’ but our current pandemic and political climate has proven that we are not white,’ she said. “Our practice recognizes the inequities of our society and how the many institutional structures involving the construction of affordable homes, community centers, schools, parks and transit facilities were created to uphold and protect the predominant white culture.” 

Equity and community may begin with good co-housing design, but the work does not end there. “This trust in each other started organically, by eating together,” Kim said. “Even before we moved into the building four years ago, we met regularly to prepare meals and eat together.” 

Food, to Kim, is a key element of building connection. “Eating together is something that many Asian cultures know how to do,” she said. “Doing it with intention in our daily lives is something we should aspire to. Doing it in a way that is multigenerational will aid in social well-being as well as generational transference of culture and history.”

Time around the dinner table brought the Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing group closer. “We heard about the struggles of the day, the celebrations of life, and the passing of loved ones,” Kim said. “From our schoolteachers, we learned about the racial inequities of our school system. From the architects, the inequities of housing and land-use policy.”

But building good community does not always come naturally. “As a community, we have completed trainings and workshops to address communications, conflict resolution, and power dynamics,” Kim said of her neighbors. “Many have taken workshops on facilitation, racial justice and non-violent communications. We have had our share of conflict in the community, but we have addressed them individually and in one case had an outside mediator facilitate conversations to re-establish trust and open up lines of communication.” 

Cohousing movie night.

These efforts, on both the professional and personal level, have created bonds among people who likely would never have otherwise met. “They have all become friends whom I deeply care about,” Kim said.  “We all know that we have each other’s backs.”

Ultimately, Kim frames the success of this community in terms of social capital. “If you don’t take time to build social capital through daily and weekly acts of kindness, it becomes hard to ask for help, and hard for others to offer help or give help when asked,” she said.  “Think about social capital as a piggy bank. You need to make regular deposits in order to make a meaningful withdrawal.”    

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