Access to Common Areas in Cohousing

There’s a lot of high-tech, computer-managed, log-keeping, badge-triggered access and security technology available for buildings — but in the US, it’s unusual to find such advanced systems serving moderately-priced residential properties.

At Cornerstone Cohousing, 23 of our 32 units are in one of two apartment-style buildings, each of which has common spaces and amenities. The nine townhouses have their own private locks, but in apartment buildings, one common key accesses seven different entry doors, and some of the normally locked interior rooms as well. Once inside the apartment structure, many common rooms are unlocked, although the workshop and guest room have unique keys. Apartments, of course, are privately locked, but the interior corridor system is not locked down, and any apartment entrance is easily approached.

From a mechanical standpoint, our security is comical. All 32 units possess multiple common keys, and the common key has been duplicated and passed around many times, given to guests who fail to return them, and lost who knows where. For convenience, we added a pushbutton keypad lock to a main door. In theory, the passcode is well-guarded by adults, but in practice, within a few week we saw everyone from plumbers to 8-year-olds punching the “secret” code. At this point, the only way to “re-secure” the property would be to re-key all seven doors, and sell the keypad lock on e-Bay.

Despite this, even after fifteen years of occupancy in the heart of the city, we’ve never had a indoor incident of any kind. With such mediocre mechanical security, how can this be?

It’s because of high social security. Since this is cohousing, everyone knows everyone else, and most people know what’s supposed to be going on hour by hour. We look out for each other. If we see an unescorted stranger, we always ask “Can I help you find somebody?”, or some such. As a result, some apartments leave their doors open a lot of the time. No problems.

(1) A high-tech computer-managed security system is expensive, and may be over-kill. And, it is not set-and-forget; it requires … management.
(2) Your key program needs to be designed to match your building layout and usage. More advanced keying involves a hierarchy of grand masters, masters, sub-masters and uniques; this makes it easier to solve specific key problems without changing dozens of locks and hundreds of keys. There are security experts who can advise on this, and your architect should be able to connect you with one.
(3) Build explicit understandings among yourselves about key sharing policies, how to answer the door, how to deal with strangers, and other habits of daily life. You are your own best security.

Philip Dowds
Cornerstone Village Cohousing
Cambridge, MA