Grace Kim: What Happens When You Design A Home With Community In Mind? For architect Grace Kim, the antidote to isolation is co-housing. She describes how she built a home—and a community—by designing an apartment building for her family and eight other families.

Grace Kim: What Happens When You Design A Home With Community In Mind?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Just as Susan said, like eating, drinking and sleeping, we need social connections. We need meaningful interactions and relationships to fight loneliness. And for architect Grace Kim, that starts with the homes we choose to live in.


GRACE KIM: Let's take a look at this house. It's a nice house. There's a big yard, picket fence, two-car garage.

ZOMORODI: Here's Grace on the TED stage.


KIM: And for many people around the globe, this home - it's a dream. And yet the danger of achieving this dream is a false sense of connection and an increase in social isolation. I know - I can hear you now. There's somebody in the room screaming at me inside their head, that's my house. And that's my neighborhood. And I know everyone on my block. To which I would answer, terrific. And I wish there were more people like you because I'd wager to guess there's more people in the room living in a similar situation that might not know their neighbors. I find this incredibly isolating. The concept I'd like to share with you today is an antidote to isolation. This concept is cohousing. Cohousing is an intentional neighborhood where people know each other and look after one another. So let me take you on a tour. From the outside, we look like any other...

ZOMORODI: Grace designed and built her own cohousing community, an apartment building in Seattle where she lives with her family and eight other families. And today, Grace and her neighbors are hunkered down and practicing social distancing like the rest of us. But a couple months ago, before COVID-19 changed all our lives, she showed us around.

KIM: And we're in a fairly urban environment, so we have this lovely security gate.

You know, it's a five-story building, and it's only 4,500 square feet of land.



KIM: So on the first level, there's a courtyard, and there's our common house and two residential units.

And you can see everybody's home right now. I always love this time of night because it's, like, busy town. Oh, everybody's home and, you know, getting ready for dinner or whatever.

And then from the courtyard, when you look up, you can see three more floors of homes. And there are balconies that connect these homes.

So you can always kind of see a window into people's homes.

The balconies are open and look down into the courtyard, and that was intentional because we wanted everyone to be able to see the activity and the life that was happening in the courtyard.

We had a house concert here this summer. And it turns out that these are great balcony seats for the musician that plays down in the courtyard. So that was kind of fun.

ZOMORODI: Clearly, Grace put a lot of thought into designing the building. But she says that that was the easy part.

KIM: I think the harder thing was actually building the community and the social infrastructure that was built on trust and respect and reciprocity. That's a harder thing to do in our society.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: People hear the bell, and then we hear a lot of footsteps in the stairway.

KIM: We have meals together every other night.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There is parmesan to put on the soup. It's Italian stew and focaccia. Happy birthday, Bella (ph). See you at the party.


KIM: That was actually a pretty lightly attended meal that night. I think there was maybe only, like, 12 or 15 people.

ZOMORODI: That's small?

KIM: That's small.



UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

KIM: And it just happened that that night, there was two birthdays being celebrated.


KIM: And the littlest one had a birthday pinata.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: It's raining candy.


KIM: So they were doing that out in the courtyard.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Twenty-seven cakes a year. That's better I even do with my family.


ZOMORODI: It's interesting. I've kind of always thought of the word home as being a sanctuary, a retreat from the world. And it sounds like you have sort of a different definition of home or what it means to you, that word.

KIM: I actually have the same definition, but I think of the physical construct of what that looks like - might be different, meaning, like, in our community, the nine of our families have our individual home, our - the four walls that bound what we occupy personally. But we also collectively think of the whole building as our home. And we encourage that from day one. So as soon as you walk in that front gate, you are home, right? The whole building is a sanctuary and a place to feel safe and to feel connected and to feel supported. My family feels that in our home, but I know the rest of the community feels that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I live right on the courtyard, and I love the activity. There's sound and kids.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: There's people to play with.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We have issues and challenges that come up between adults, as they do with children. It's just - it's a very human condition, but there's so much advantage to having these people around you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Just different - less lonely.

KIM: So whether you're in the common house doing your laundry or making a meal or in the courtyard or on the rooftop enjoying a glass of wine, there's lots of places in the building that is outside of what other people might consider your home. And yet we're all at home in the building because it's our community.

ZOMORODI: How much are you using architecture in some way to replace the way that we used to live, like the village, the family, all three generations, four generations, even, all together? Are you sort of taking your cues from that and manufacturing it in some way?

KIM: Socially engineering it, you mean?

ZOMORODI: No, I mean, it's not bad, right?

KIM: No, I don't think it's bad because I think our society has pushed us so far into the - you know, you must be independent, the nuclear family. And while I think that there are some positive benefits that I could point to, I would say the negatives far outweigh that.


KIM: And I know people here that have said they've not ventured outside of a three-block radius, you know, because they're are transplant, so they have friends and community online or back home. But they've not done anything to form connections here to the place and to the people around them. Like, those are the people when there's a crisis, where do they go? Who do they ask for them to take them to the hospital, you know? And you can certainly pay for things. Of course, you can get a taxi or an Uber, but it also means that you have to be in a society where everything is transactional. There's no social capital to knit us together. And when you're in community, you build that social capital through small, little things, like a smile or opening a door for somebody. And over time, those become more meaningful connections and more meaningful conversations. That's the thing that makes us human. Otherwise, we could live in this world and just be surrounded by robots.


ZOMORODI: In just a minute, we'll hear how the pandemic and social distancing has kind of brought Grace Kim and her neighbors closer together. On the show today, loneliness. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we were just hearing from architect Grace Kim, who lives in Seattle in a cohousing apartment building with eight other families. She talked about how they support each other, especially in moments of crisis. That was back in February. And at that point, Seattle had already seen its first cases of COVID-19, but we had no idea how big the crisis would get. So we called Grace to see how her community was doing.


ZOMORODI: Grace Kim, repeat performance (laughter).

KIM: Hi.

ZOMORODI: It feels like such a long time ago that we spoke. Like, it was a different universe that we lived in.

KIM: It was a different universe. Exactly.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So how's it going over there? I mean, presumably, when you designed your building and invited all those other families to be part of your life, you didn't anticipate that a pandemic would be one of the tests that faced you and your community.

KIM: Yeah, that was definitely not on our radar.


KIM: But I would say that we did anticipate that things wouldn't always be rosy, that people would have difficulties in their lives. I would say we're not doing the dinners every other night. We have reverted to doing Zoom meetings to sort of make up for the lack of social time that we have had together.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I just wanted to thank everybody for showing up. And actually, I'm not sure we're actually social distancing, but there is a wall between us, so I think it's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: There is a wall. Yeah.

KIM: Our conversations have been pretty deep and a little bit raw and emotional. The last couple of meetings have really reinforced that idea of, we're in this together, and we're going to help each other figure it out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It's great to see everybody. This is so exciting. I feel way more connected.

ZOMORODI: You know, we're all in this weird situation, and I think a lot of people are feeling lonely and isolated right now. So I guess I'm just wondering if that's been on your mind - this idea of feeling lonely.

KIM: Well, it's interesting. We've been talking with my husband's family or when I talk to my brother who lives in Southern California in the suburbs - and I do feel a little bit sad that they are so isolated, and they feel it very much. So I know it's inconvenient for me to not be able to see my neighbors on a regular basis, but I don't feel isolated at all.

The other day, we had a huge hailstorm. It was really sudden. And five or six of us were out on the balcony kind of watching in awe and amazement. And just hearing each other and the laughter and the surprise that we were all kind of sharing is a very meaningful connection. You know, if we were living somewhere else, we wouldn't have called our friends and said, hey, go outside and look at this hail.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

KIM: But it's a thing that happens spontaneously, and those kinds of things happen often. So I have not actually felt isolated since this whole thing has started. It's definitely been different, but I do feel like I have the support of our community. I feel like I have those connections. I want more just because we're so used to having more. But I don't feel alone.



ZOMORODI: What is the first thing do you think y'all do when, eventually, you can all come together as a community, all 27 of you?

KIM: We'll probably touch each other a lot.


KIM: I think we are missing the physical, like, hugs or the hand on your shoulder or whatever. It's been really difficult for the kids not to be, like, hugging us. So I just miss that interaction of just a simple hug. I think that's the biggest thing. We'll probably be together a lot when this is over, just wanting to be in each other's company.


ZOMORODI: Grace Kim is an architect and co-founder of Schemata Workshop in Seattle. You can see her full talk at

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.