Part One: Chapter Three: Creating Sustainable Neighborhoods

Forgive me if I sometimes seem to equate the pioneers of cohousing with the pioneers who resettled America. I know it seems like a gross exaggeration, but you have to admit, there are similarities. In both cases, pioneers work within given conditions—sometimes harsh—to try to create a safe, equitable, livable world. In our times, the given conditions include things such as traffic congestion, overconsumption, and global warming—as harsh as they come. However, I believe that the best measure of a successful civilization—or community—is how well it can absorb disruption and keep going. A sustainable community produces less stress and more support for its inhabitants and puts less stress on the environment by conserving resources such as energy, water, and soil.

Most cohousing residents are keenly aware of the environmental and social challenges we face, and I’m hopeful that, by example, cohousing will help steer a tarnished American Dream in a more sustainable direction. The choices made in cohousing communities help create a model for a new lifestyle in which each person leaves a smaller “footprint” on the Earth—choices such as reducing consumption and car dependence, eating higher quality food, and living in well-designed, clustered homes that preserve land and energy.

In communities such as Quayside in British Columbia, recycling becomes a sport in which the goal is to keep 90 percent of the neighborhood’s waste out of the landfill. In other communities, such as Wild Sage in Boulder, Colorado, scavenging used solar panels on a Saturday morning is more fun than going to the mall. Some of us have become so interconnected with the neighborhood garden that we can’t find time to take a summer vacation, which at least keeps us out of airplanes and off of highways. For us, filling huge bowls of salad with fresh greens for community meals is by far more pleasant than eating a Happy Meal or watching Survivor XXII on television. Being able to borrow the community pickup truck is more valuable (and even in a way prestigious) to us than owning and maintaining one.

In communities such as EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York, Pioneer Valley in Amherst, Massachusetts, Harmony Village in Golden, Colorado, and Sonora in Tucson, Arizona, green-building methods are standard. These include employing techniques such as straw-bale construction; using insulation made from recycled newspaper; using passive and active solar heating and electricity; having on-site storm-water retention; and using highly efficient appliances and nontoxic materials, such as paints, that don’t give off harmful fumes.

{Figures 54, 55, 56, Bike Sheds in Denmark; Upstairs, Downstairs at one of Cob Hill’s 23 Compost Toilets}

At Cob Hill in Hartland, Vermont, all twenty-three units have compost toilets. “There are no flush toilets anywhere in the twenty-three units,” says Cob Hill resident Susan Sweitzer. “Our current documented water use per day per person is twenty-three gallons, less than a fourth of the national average.”

The community heats all the units with a central wood-burning boiler using wood harvested sustainably from the Cob Hill forest. “All members sign up for feeding the fire,” Sweitzer adds. “Many of the units now have solar panels for household hot water in order to use the central boiler less in the summer. When fuel cell technology matures, we plan to substitute that highly efficient fuel source for our very efficient wood-burning boiler. The fuel cell would generate both electricity and heat for the village.”

Most cohousing communities are far greener than conventional neighborhoods, but they also have to stay on budget, so many of the features members would like to see in the community fall off the table after a few passionate discussions. There are always a handful of environmentalists and social adventurers who are willing to pay a premium for solar-powered electricity; water-conserving plumbing fixtures, such as the dual-flush toilet or front-loading washer; or a greenhouse.

I was on the design team that met during the planning phase of Harmony Village. My own dream list included a Living Machine to treat the village’s wastewater. Living Machines mimic the way nature decomposes wastes by employing microbes, snails, fish, cattails, and other aquatic species in various miniecosystems within a greenhouse. I admit that for the average person, a Living Machine is about as compelling as a bowl of Brussels sprouts and quite a bit more costly, but I wanted our community to be a model of sustainability.

Also, if we were going to build houses that looked like adobe, I wondered why didn’t we construct them out of adobe instead of stucco wood framing. We could build forms and create our own adobe blocks made partly from the clay soil that could be mined across the street, where there was a clay mine …

For each suggestion I championed, architect and future resident Matt Worswick would patiently explain that we didn’t have a line item in the budget for Living Machines and that building with adobe would take more time and money than the construction schedule and budget would permit. Without his pragmatism, we’d probably still be dreaming about the community rather than living in it. Still, we futurists and sustainability nuts die hard and the quest for a smaller village footprint has continued with literature about neighborhood electric vehicles and schemes to install solar-electric panels on our roofs.

Like many other cohousing communities, we’ve looked at a formal car-share operation in which members can rent cars, vans, or trucks by the hour. Doing so might allow the second car in a household to be put out to pasture—or in some cases, even eliminate the primary car if alternatives are available. The Eugene Downtown Cohousing community already participates in Eugene BioCarShare, a bio-diesel car-sharing cooperative. Says member Tree Bressen, “We have nine drivers and one car, which we run on bio-diesel. We formed a cooperative corporation to hold the title, and we have insurance through a regular company. Each of us pays a $400 buy-in, $20 per month for insurance, and $0.30 per mile plus fuel. Since we are scattered across town, we sign the car out using our Web site (www.biocarshare.org).”

Another element of sustainability in cohousing is a measurable reduction in the flow of stuff. For starters, cohousing homes tend to be smaller and there’s typically less space than in the average American castle to store and display stuff. Imagine this: I have zero storage (other than closets and a crawl space under the basement stairs). I rent my finished basement apartment and have no garage or carport. This is a great incentive not to acquire stuff. As George Carlin phrased it, the typical house is a pile of stuff with a lid on it. But not my house, which includes an office-sized stack of paper from various writing projects and a makeshift living room/greenhouse filled with the dirty flats of garden seedlings. (I have it made!)

Then there’s all the unseen stuff. As affordable-house architect John Wolff points out, “Building thirty units per acre is the most sustainable way to conserve land, water, and energy, compared to the typical suburban density of three units per acre that requires ten times as much land and ten times as much infrastructure for water, sewer, utilities, and roads.” In cohousing, smaller homes and yards are acceptable without any sense of sacrifice, because there’s usually a guest room in the common house; there’s a large commonly owned lawn; and there’s often a workshop, utility room, office, and other features that can be used by members (if they remember to sign up for them on the calendar).

According to recent surveys by Abraham, Paiss and Associates and others, those who live in cohousing drive 30 percent less, pay 50 percent less in utility bills, and use 40 percent less water than the average American. Still, according to architect Kim Grace, who toured twenty-two cohousing communities in Denmark in 2004, North American cohousing is not nearly as green as European cohousing, where the bicycle is a major source of transportation, houses are often 1,000 square feet, food is grown locally, and consumer goods are designed to last. “Danish cohousers pay more attention to things like light fixtures, which enhance quality of life by being attractive and by putting light right where it’s needed. In a common house, for example, a well-designed light fixture suspended over a table can make dining a much more intimate experience,” she told me.

We had direct feedback from other Europeans when a Harmony family exchanged houses, jobs, cars, and friends for a year. A very lively Swiss family lived next door to me for a year, and once Guido Muller, a schoolteacher, got to know me a bit, he shared some of his observations about our neighborhood. He was especially curious about why our neighborhood didn’t have a community clothesline, especially in such a dry region. “I can’t understand why people in Denver have tumblers (dryers),” he said. “At home, we don’t have lawn sprinklers because we always get lots of rain, so why water the lawn? You get lots of dry air, so why tumble the clothes?” We have 320 days of sun a year, so why didn’t every house have solar panels? In a very polite yet honest way, Guido commented that our neighborhood wanted to be green, but was really only “light green.”

I should have told him that our sustainability group has a recipe for saving the world. For starters, we try to keep informed so that when a given issue or need arises, we can respond. If a telecommunications company wants to put a high-voltage television tower on the adjacent mountain, we can send at least a handful of activists to the public hearing. We know how to mobilize petitioners, attendees at city meetings, researchers, and writers because we built a neighborhood together. (It was our familiarity with working together that resulted in a neighborhood park landscaped with native vegetation.) If a drought looms over our region, we can respond by sharing suggestions such as, “Save the gallon and a half of cold water that runs down the drain before the hot water comes into the bathtub or showerhead. Water the tree in your front yard with it.”

—D. L. W.

Related pages:
Sustainability