Reinventing Community

Edited by David Wann

Text and illustrations copyright © 2005 David Wann, unless otherwise noted

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.

Interested in a hard copy of the whole book? Reinventing Community can be bought from your local, independent bookstore - find one near you on the IndieBound website. To purchase Reinventing Community online, Dave recommends the Fellowship for Intentional Community bookstore.

Two other titles by David Wann of special interest to cohousers:

Superbia 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods (Amazon)
Ways to remodel existing suburban neighborhoods, see this article about the concept.

Affluenza: The all-consuming epidemic (Amazon)

Learn more about Dave Wann at his website.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to the many contributors in this book, who wrote and rewrote their stories and put up with my endless requests for more pictures; and to the staff at Fulcrum Publishing, who saw the need for a book about how cohousing is working and had a strong commitment to making it the very best book it could be.
And thanks to my good friends and neighbors in Harmony Village Cohousing. We’ve been through so much together—and we’re still talking!

Dave Wann

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Introduction: Adventures in Cohousing

The idea for this book was born in typical cohousing fashion—with one cohousing resident helping another. Diane de Simone, a lively soul from Sonora Cohousing in Tucson, knew I was interested in writing a book about cohousing and suggested it be an anthology. She’s a writer and thought about doing such a project herself, but unselfishly offered the idea to me instead. It made perfect sense—a gallery of stories and photographs contributed by the folks who live in cohousing. In keeping with the aims of cohousing, it would contain many different viewpoints, rather than just my own. Together we would present a colorful impression of daily life in this new way of neighboring—we would “dance our story,” as contributor PattyMara Gourley phrases it.

I personally know several hundred cohousers, including the sixty or so in my own neighborhood, and I was confident that finding writers and photographers would be a snap. Residents of cohousing, many of whom helped design the neighborhoods they live in, are very creative people.

I talked with the editors at Fulcrum Publishing, who published another one of my books, The Zen of Gardening. They were interested enough to sign a contract, and I put the word out on Cohousing-L, a national e-mail discussion group, that I was looking for lively stories and essays as well as clear, storytelling photographs. My aim was to compile material that brings to life some of the sparkle, good intentions, and impressive results of cohousing. Immediately I began hearing from writers across the country who proposed pieces on topics as diverse as working with kids in gardening and theater; living with multiple sclerosis in cohousing; and, through environmental activism, permanently shutting down a pesticide-happy farmer on an adjacent property. Then others joined the project with stories about one neighbor offering a kidney transplant to another neighbor; about a cohousing architect who liked the group so well he became a member; and about how a neighborhood used sweat equity to lay a 55,000-brick walkway, connecting both buildings and people.

I wanted to show potential residents what it’s like to live in cohousing because I’m hopeful that the idea, and variants of it, will become an energetic grassroots movement. Despite being acknowledged champions of stress, dedicated television watchers, and dutiful consumers, we human beings of the American variety share fundamental characteristics with all other humans: we long for something meaningful to do, someone remarkable to love, and something magical to hope for. In our very pivotal era, I think it’s fair to say that violence against humans and other living beings, at both the national and neighborhood scale, is making many of us tired. We want to stop the bleeding, and prevent it from happening again.

I believe the mini-movement of cohousing is partly a response to a perceived loss of trust and individual control that’s becoming pervasive in our world. People gravitate toward do-it-ourselves communities because they sense they can be better heard and understood in a place that strives for cooperation and support. They can be neighbors with others who want to help put the pieces back together. When I first joined the group that would become Harmony Village, my old Subaru sported the familiar bumper sticker “Cohousing: Changing the World, One Neighborhood at a Time,” and I’m still convinced that the reinvention of community can bring individual empowerment as well as cooperative action. The world is sorely in need of focused, nonpartisan cooperation right now. Why not deliberately create neighborhoods that are safer, friendlier, and healthier? Is there a downside to this?

Naturally, I’m hoping my cohousing peers will enjoy these stories of cohousing heroes and nerds, empathizing with and celebrating lifestyles that are remarkably similar to their own. Maybe it’s the common design themes and ways of making decisions that make cohousing a distinct species, but there’s also a common sense of adventure and a shared belief that we can improve the world if we work together.

I can imagine this book being useful when a confused parent or friend asks, “What’s this cohousing thing you’re always talking about?” Cohousing residents or wannabes can hand their inquisitors this book. Even if they just look at the pictures, they are likely to be pleasantly surprised: these are real houses with real roofs (not tipis and tents) and happy, healthy-looking kids.

Of course, from a marketing standpoint, the cohousing goal of reducing unnecessary consumption may inhibit book sales, because knowing cohousing residents, they’ll probably share this book rather than buy it, suggesting that prospective members borrow it from the library. So much for a year’s worth of collecting, compiling, and editing—and scaled-back spending while the work was being done. … Still, I’ve had a lot of fun working with dozens of energetic writers, designers, and photographers from more than thirty North American cohousing communities, and I hope this book helps spread the word about this energetic, idealistic experiment in living.

Some things we do out of conviction. In an e-mail on Cohousing-L, Liza Cobb quoted Anatole France: “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” Liza was looking for other people to join her in creating a community and ended her note about the virtues and values of cohousing with the enthusiastic phrase, “Let the adventure begin!”

Clearly, it already has. With more than eighty cohousing communities already built in America and Canada and more than that in the planning or design phase, it’s obvious the spark of what I call neighborhoods on purpose has ignited a small, unwavering flame.

The first designers and inhabitants of cohousing are sometimes called the burning souls, whose pioneering efforts in the early 1990s resulted in communities such as Winslow, Nyland, and Muir Commons. (See Rick Mockler’s story about the burning souls who invented and designed Muir Commons, page XX.) Some of the stories in this collection offer evidence that cohousing, similar to a smart and sometimes-boisterous student, is starting to be noticed by the rest of the crowd. Says cohousing architect Kathryn okay McCamant, “No book or seminar on American housing would be complete without mentioning it.”

The reason cohousing fuels my own burning soul is that many of its experiments are extremely valuable to a society so distracted by materialism and so shell-shocked by the frantic American lifestyle. What kind of experiments am I talking about? Consensus decision-making; participatory design; alternative sources of energy; alternative sources of information; shared resources and designs that reduce each person’s ecological footprint; aging gracefully and vigorously; neighborhood activism in surrounding towns and communities; and collaborative management of neighborhood resources, to name just a few. In general, residents of cohousing are living actively rather than passively.

The underlying intent of cohousing might be seen as the deliberate substitution of real experiences for canned ones. Cohousing at its best provides a structure for learning to trust other people and for learning to be unselfish, at least in theory.

But you know what? Cohousing isn’t Utopia, as you’ll see in some of the stories included here. For example, the process of codesigning a neighborhood involves many, many meetings, some of them very emotional. Children begin to role-play going to meetings as a way of life, and outside friends of cohousing participants begin to suspect insanity. But the dividends begin to accrue as future members start to know and rely on each other, learning how to create and maintain a mutually beneficial neighborhood. By the time houses begin to rise up from construction sites, cohousers are ripe and ready for life in cohousing.

And then other challenges—lots of them—pop up like jack-in-the-box puppets. What happens if the community won’t let your free-range cat roam the neighborhood? What if one of the neighbors is “difficult,” a carrier of stress? What if nobody wants to do the work required for the maintenance of commonly held property?

That’s where the curtain of this book opens—on the walkways, common greens, and in common house meeting rooms, where people are joking, debating, borrowing tools, setting policy, and trying new recipes—where the neighborhood is alive and interconnected. In these stories, the reader lives vicariously in construction sites; meets the furry and feathery creatures that also occupy the land; and goes through the gee-whiz phase of moving, into the cold-sweat phase of dissension and beyond.

Please note several things: this book presents cohousing in North America, but by extension represents examples of cohousing throughout the world. It is not my intention to exclude the many thriving communities in Australia, Austria, Sweden, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, and other locations, especially Denmark, the birthplace of cohousing. My call for stories seemed to reach mostly Americans, however, and the book self-assembled that way. In the future, I want to tour cohousing worldwide, as many already have, and maybe then there can be another anthology.

Second, this is not a how-to book that describes the process of finding a site, getting financing, designing and building the neighborhood, or mediating conflict. There are already several other excellent books on these topics (see Resources on page XX). Instead, these short stories jump right into the middle of daily life in cohousing, showing what it feels like, looks like, and sounds like. I asked potential contributors what they wanted to write about, and they responded with themes from all compass points of human experience: celebration, birth, death, finances, art, drama, sustainability, conflict, and yes, meetings.

Is all the work worth it? Read on, I’ll let you decide.

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Part One: Chapter One: Neighborhoods on Purpose

What makes cohousing unique is that residents take an active role in determining what kind of a place they’ll live in, like many people did before the age of mass-produced housing. Cohousing is “reinventing community” in the sense that it replaces social values and architectural concepts that were once very common and adds new approaches that are proving useful in cohousing as well as the mainstream market. For example, neighborhood developers such as the Cottage Company based in Seattle, Washington, adapt cohousing features such as common houses, community greens, remote parking, and smaller-than-average houses with great results. Says Jim Soules of the Cottage Company, “We’ve seen a high level of satisfaction among the people who occupy our neighborhoods. For example, not a single resident has complained about the parking, which typically is more than 100 feet from a house. They like what they get for the minor inconvenience—a quiet, car-free courtyard and the sense of an outdoor room.”

Members of newly constructed cohousing communities play key roles in designing the physical arrangement of the buildings. They learn how the placement of the buildings can affect the functionality and “feel” of playgrounds, gardens, and community spaces; where the common house should be located so that all the houses in the neighborhood will have good access to it; whether the homes should be townhouses or single units, multistory or elder-friendly ranch-style homes, and so on.

The first members of a given community also have a say in what the homes themselves should look like; how big they should be; what materials should be used in them; and how resources such as energy and water can be conserved by using good design and management. So they really have an opportunity to be architects and planners of their own neighborhoods. They are also social architects, designing systems of governance and processes for maintaining shared property, as well as strategies for optimizing relationships and trust building among neighbors.

Obviously, this approach to home selection is very different than the conventional way of doing it. When a typical homebuyer is looking for a house, he or she simply chooses from a menu of houses or apartments that are already built—often by a developer who hasn’t put much thought into the concept of “neighborhood.”

The homebuyer typically selects a house that offers the most square feet of living space for the least amount of money. The implicit understanding is that the house will offer a lot of privacy and convenience. On the other hand, the designers of cohousing communities tend to think “outside the box” of their houses to create synergistic, lively communities in which a primary goal is to provide both adequate privacy and lively community.

However, cohousing is not just about designing new communities. Those moving into existing neighborhoods are also designers, because in cohousing, an implicit goal is continuous improvement—even though there are sometimes delays, disappointments, and inevitable “steps backwards.” In my neighborhood, for example, we always have many physical and social improvements on the drawing boards, such as a grape arbor for the community garden, a new bathroom for the common house, a new, mutually agreeable system for getting the neighborhood work accomplished, and so on. After twelve years of working with each other, we’ve seen one improvement after another come to fruition—and we now realize that patience really is a virtue!

This book presents many different shades and flavors of cohousing. I suppose a person who doesn’t live in a “neighborhood on purpose” could read the chapters, “Daily Life in Cohousing” and “Visiting Five Cohousing Communities” and get a pretty fair idea of what living in cohousing is like; however, I recommend that newcomers to the concept of cohousing carefully read chapter one, which will equip you with the basic principles and practices. Throughout the rest of the book, the people who already live in cohousing will introduce themselves through their stories as they describe in their own words the successes and failures they celebrate and endure.

I really hope you enjoy getting to know them!

David Wann

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing

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Laboratories of Social Change or “Yuppie Communes”?

David Wann, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

“We need something bigger than we are to be awed by and to commit ourselves to.” —Abraham Maslow

It’s a crisp, autumn Sunday outside: bright-blue sky, leaves turning, the sound of the high school band playing at the football game across town. A few of us wish we could escape to watch the television for just a few minutes to see how the Broncos are doing against their archrivals, the Raiders.

But instead, we sit in our familiar circle of chairs with twenty-five or thirty other neighbors, hashing out a system to ensure the community work gets done. A proposal has just been presented that will reclassify some of our individual work as nonessential. Things that some of us do routinely, such as gardening, newsletter editing, and external communications, have been deemed by an ad hoc team as important for community building but not important for fiscal stability. Only those things we’d pay to have done are officially designated as essential.

I look at my neighbors’ faces and it’s clear this proposal has knocked some of us off center: we are wondering if money is an appropriate way to evaluate community. Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen, this could be a turbulent ride. By comparison, it might be less stressful to spend the afternoon balancing the checkbook, carrying heavy boxes, or having a root canal.

Why do we do it? Why do we swim upstream like 10,000 salmon when hitching a ride down the mainstream currents of suburban or apartment life might require so much less exertion? Why are we working so hard to invent a new, improved American Dream?

This is not an easy question to answer, but certainly it has something to do with wanting it to feel right; with wanting our lives to feel secure, stimulating, and productive. We want to feel good about getting out of bed in the morning. It’s that simple—and that complex.

We’ve built and maintained do-it-ourselves communities because we believe there’s much more to a neighborhood than redundant rows of houses and hallways without any other humans in sight. As a self-selecting band of social and environmental activists, we decided that if the market wouldn’t supply “neighborhoods on purpose,” we’d do it ourselves. We enlisted the expertise of designers and developers who understand that there’s more to building a home than increasing its average size. The bottom line is, we aspire to build neighborhoods for people—not just cars, lawns, and fences.

In some cases, we spent up to ten years designing and building communities because we were tired of feeling like strangers on our own streets. We wanted to come home to something more significant than “reality” television. We literally wanted to think outside the boxes of our homes to create neighborhood networks that bring clarity and purpose to our lives—along with uncomplicated fun. This may sound too good to be true, but to a certain extent, cohousing communities are working, and this collection of stories offers ample evidence.

“Sort of Like Being in College”

As any resident of cohousing can tell you, there’s no lack of curiosity and discussion about our compact, living neighborhoods. For some reason, people are not only curious, but sometimes feel uncomfortable about groups of people who want to know and support each other, as if it’s somehow un-American. On a nationally aired edition of Dateline, NBC did a pretty good job of explaining the benefits and challenges of living in my neighborhood, Harmony Village, but they couldn’t resist digging into their archives to include footage of 1960s-style communes in which face-painted clusters of counterculture dropouts were skinny-dipping and passing joints.

Fueled by media stereotypes, the American imagination automatically defaults to the idea of a commune whenever households or groups of people are intentionally living and working together. But the field is far broader than communes.

What’s currently happening in cohousing, new urbanism, ecovillages, intentional communities, and transit-oriented developments is simply the mainstream rerouting itself, giving itself more options. Try thinking of the word “collaborative” if the word “cooperative” bothers you. When people collaborate, they are often business partners—as are cohousing residents, in a sense. Cohousing residents own their own houses (or rent in private houses), but they also own shares of open space, buildings, and other property that belongs to the community at large. The advantage is that each resident actively participates in the neighborhood. To manage these common interests, cohousing residents collaborate with each other, building bonds of trust in the process.

Still, in my eleven years of experience, cohousing neighborhoods are not dramatically different than conventional neighborhoods—certainly not different enough to be intimidating. They’re simply friendly, sustainable neighborhoods-by-design. Says Judy Baxter of Monterey Cohousing near Minneapolis, “I tell people it’s like a condo complex—though it may be single-family homes, townhomes, apartments, whatever—with a lot more common facilities and the intention to be involved with your neighbors.”

Whenever I show college students my slide show about cohousing, they comment, “It’s sort of like being in college.” In a way, it is, with the open spaces, certain shared facilities, lifelong learning, and lots of activities going on (except that in college, there’s probably more beer consumed per capita and less organic produce).

In cohousing, you know who lives six houses down because you eat common meals with them once or more a week, decide how to allocate homeowners’ dues, and gratefully accept a ride from them when your car’s in the shop. As the years go by, you come to trust them because you’ve seen them move through life’s ups and downs. You trust them enough to let them take care of your four-year-old, or to lend them a thousand bucks for a month or two. You listen to what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with them at first, because you’ve learned (the truth hurts) that you’re not always right, especially regarding the greatest good for the whole group.

Because people have different skills and aptitudes, some of your neighbors will be better at carpentry, cooking, or speaking a foreign language than you are—this all makes for great learning opportunities, rather than cause for feeling insecure. Any given neighborhood also includes various personality types: extroverts and introverts; rational thinkers and intuitive thinkers; neatness nuts and those whose priorities are elsewhere. I believe it was our ability to tap into these many styles and skills that made Harmony Village a reality. We had the full mix of personalities, and step-by-step, we grew from a vacant parcel of land into a vibrant, colorful, living neighborhood.

Along the way I learned that a person doesn’t have to be wildly social to live in cohousing. In my presentations about cohousing and sustainable neighborhoods, I usually get questions about the loss of privacy and individuality. I believe that privacy remains at the level a person chooses, and that individuality actually increases because the support of a group enhances personal growth.

In my neighborhood, when I’m not feeling especially sociable, I just keep walking past a lingering group of chatters with a wave and a smile, often into the community garden. But on the other hand, a person is typically welcome to join most casual conversations in common areas, a luxury and comfort not available in many fenced-off neighborhoods.

Often the front side of a cohousing home faces a common courtyard or green, while the back is more private, with a sitting area or small garden. At the Tierra Nueva community in central California, some residents use reversible signs that say “Welcome” on one side and “Go Away” on the other. Everyone there gets the humor and the intent of those signs.

Is Cohousing for Me?

For some people, cohousing seems like too much work. The meetings, socializing, and shared-work responsibilities seem like extras that can never fit into lifestyles already jam-packed with appointments, overtime, shopping, and commuting. But for other people, jam-packed lives are the very reason that cohousing is valuable—because it offers an alternative. Sociologist and author Paul Ray, a veteran poll taker and trend watcher, estimates that at least 50 million Americans are “cultural creatives.”

Says Ray, “If you hunger for a deep change in your life that moves you in the direction of less stress, more health, lower consumption, more spirituality, more respect for the Earth and the diversity of species, you are a cultural creative.”

In a 1999 survey conducted for the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Ray and his colleagues documented that 77 percent of Americans want an ecologically more sustainable world, which would include things such as healthy food, less driving, energy-efficient homes, and lifestyles that don’t pollute the environment. Two-thirds of Americans specify a small town or village as the ideal place to live and “at least half of the U.S. population would take a serious look at cohousing, with its clustered housing, common greens, and sense of neighborliness,” concludes Ray.

Charles B. Maclean, Ph.D., an eight-year resident of Trillium Hollow Cohousing in Portland, Oregon, has compiled a self-assessment tool to help a person decide if cohousing is right for him or her. (See Contributors for Maclean’s contact information.) Some of the factors considered positive for cohousing are a desire to learn and grow together; an affinity for intergenerational contact (“It takes children to raise a village,” believes Maclean); respect for individual differences; an ability to remain civil and focused on solutions, even in disagreement; and a belief that people are out to do each other good.

In general, people who live in cohousing desire a more harmonious world; however, there have been some conflicts in cohousing so troublesome that people moved out.

“It is my experience that both the joys and the frustrations of life are multiplied in cohousing,” says Maclean. Yet given the very low turnover rate in cohousing, it appears that the joys seem to be winning.

“Whatever growing up I didn’t do in my family of origin is accelerated by living in cohousing,” he continues. “Cohousing isn’t for those wanting to keep the status quo; not for the reclusive or no-growth person. It is for the adventuresome who want to live a juicy life in community.” (See Maclean’s story, “What I Learned from Children about Giving and Receiving,” on page XX.)

The Miracle of Consensus

“How many cohousing residents does it take to clean the bathroom rug in the common house?” asks Sandy Thompson of Heartwood Cohousing in a Listserv e-mail.

“Let’s see. … Four to decide what needs to be done before it is considered clean. The whole community to decide who should do it (Should we hire someone? Ask for volunteers? Or just assign the job?). Another two or three to make sure the cleaning supplies are on hand. One more to make a chart or check-off sheet to record that it was done. And one to do it!”

Joining the dialog, Diane Margolis of Cambridge Cohousing in Massachusetts calculates a slightly larger effort, adding, “A dozen to discuss whether it’s dirty enough to need cleaning. One to put a notice on the white board to set up a meeting. Fifty to reach consensus on how the rug got dirty and ways to keep it from getting dirty again.”

Diane mentions the “C” word in her note, dredging up a topic—consensus—that is sometimes roughly synonymous with fried brain cells. In order to reach consensus—in which decisions have the support (or at least lack of opposition) of the whole group—cohousing residents have learned to think pluralistically under the awesome guidance of facilitators whose abilities often seem superhuman.

Among the prerequisites for successful use of consensus are that people be willing to express what they think and feel without fear of reprisal and that participants agree that the good of the group is the most important factor. Not exactly a slam dunk, yet these bionic discussion leaders somehow download, defuse, analyze, and verbally summarize the essential content of each viewpoint and how it interconnects with others. They also suggest ways to sail beyond the choppy waters of A and B to arrive peacefully on the shores of C, a solution that everyone in the group can live with.

The process of reaching consensus is a miracle to me, and I sometimes walk out of meetings as if I’ve just received communion. Wasn’t it cool the way we came up with a new way of doing it?

Just to set the record straight on the number of people needed to clean the bathroom rug, I’d have to add at least one more—a neighborhood consultant on environmentally friendly products, because surely the group wouldn’t want to use anything toxic.

Not only do cohousers typically choose green-building materials in their homes, even the tools they use in meetings are often carefully evaluated. “White boards don’t use up paper, but most of the wipe-off markers give off really bad vapors,” writes RoseWind resident Lynn Nadeau. “We tried wipe-off markers that were less fume-y, but enough of us are sensitive to what we breathe that white boards just haven’t been an option. We use butcher-paper flip charts, though they are fairly expensive and consume paper—not ideal either.”

Eugene Cohousing’s Tree Bressen, one of the superhero facilitators mentioned above, responds, “Weyerhauser paper company, less than five miles from my house, sells ends of rolls for a mere $3 per roll, because it’s a waste product from their production. Sometimes they are too wide, so we cut them in half using a circular saw.”

I find that, in general, facilitators’ enthusiasm about the excellence of meeting tools (and other details) is roughly proportional to a group’s chances of creating a bloodless community culture.

The Cohousing Template

If there’s an official shorthand description of cohousing, it might be a list of six elements compiled by the American pioneers of cohousing, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, who imported the concept from Denmark in the late 1980s.

  1. The participatory process. Residents-to-be participate in the planning and design of the community so it directly responds to their needs.
  2. Neighborhood design. The physical design encourages a sense of community as well as maintaining the option for privacy.
  3. Private homes supplemented by common facilities. Common facilities are designed for daily use; they are an integral part of the community and typically include a dining area, sitting area, children’s playroom, guest room, as well as garden and other amenities. Each household owns a private residence—complete with kitchen—but also shares extensive common facilities with the larger group.
  4. Resident management. After move-in, residents participate in decision making about common facilities, social activities, and financial expenditures related to commonly held property.
  5. Nonhierarchical structure and decision making. There are leadership roles, but not leaders. The community is not dependent on any one person, even though there is often a “burning soul” that gets the community off the ground, and another that pulls together the financing, still another that makes sure the group has babysitters for meetings, and another who …
  6. The community is not a primary income source for residents. There is no shared community economy. If the community provides residents with their primary income, this is a significant change to the dynamic between neighbors and defines another level of community beyond the scope of cohousing.

Certain features are typically found in a cohousing neighborhood, such as parking at the edges of the neighborhood so the interior remains as living space—an “outdoor room” where neighbors can meet each other casually. The average number of homes is between twenty-five and thirty, because studies have demonstrated that at this scale, neighbors can get to know one another and can share common facilities without conflict. The fact that community members need to take care of common property literally gives them something in common—something to talk about and work together on.

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Why Can’t We Put a Million People in Cohousing?

It’s easy enough to find out what the goals of cohousing are. Just go to the www.cohousing.org Web site and look up some of the mission statements posted on community home pages. At Sunward Cohousing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the big-picture goal is to create a place “where lives are simplified, the Earth is respected, diversity is welcomed, children play together in safety, and living in community with neighbors comes naturally.” At Winslow Cohousing near Seattle, Washington, the aim is to have “a minimal impact on the Earth and create a place in which all residents are equally valued as part of the community.”

It’s hard to contest goals such as these, isn’t it? Motherhood and apple pie. But the mission statements actually work because they remind us that each person is both “me” and “we,” and that we’ve agreed and recorded an expressed purpose.

But cohousing residents don’t assume that achieving these lofty goals will be automatic. They actively create their lives rather than let them be created by media, advertising, and power politics. Cohousing residents aspire to “be the change they wish to see in the world” by designing and governing their neighborhoods mindfully, with mission statements and other agreements as guidelines. As some of the stories in this book demonstrate, cohousing is a natural training ground for citizenship, both in the neighborhood itself and the world at large.

It can also be a model of ecological stewardship. Vashon Cohousing, which is also near Seattle, blends sustainability with enlightened self-interest: “We see the need to coordinate resources and services as a means of reducing expenses, lessening our collective toll on the land, and having greater control of our consumer intake.”

The mission statement of Songaia Cohousing in Bothell, Washington, spells out key social goals:

We create ways and appropriate spaces for people to give clear communication without fear of rejection. We seek to create an atmosphere of cooperation and willingness to help, especially in times of need.

Everyone in the community, from infant to elder, is a lifelong learner as well as a teacher. We all have experiences, ideas, and insights that are worthy of sharing with each other. Each of us brings particular skills, whether in gardening, cooking, computer, construction, or interpersonal skills, that are essential to making community happen as we work together.

Can you imagine how many hours it took to draft all these mission statements? First compiling lists, then wordsmithing, polishing, and presenting a draft to the group; adding and deleting phrases; presenting it to the group again … Cohouser David Heimann compares efforts such as these to the labors of the American founders. “As I see it,” he writes, “the Declaration of Independence had to be a cohousing moment. After all, it took about a year to decide on it; the draft was written by committee; and it was adopted by consensus after virtually an infinite number of meetings and discussions.

Sometimes you put many hours into a certain product or decision and it still comes out misshapen and ugly, like the first bowl or mug in a pottery class. Moments such as these require a shift in focus. Rather than dwell on the imperfections of group process and the limitations of the human mind, think about laundry: you left a load of clean socks and towels in the common house dryer, and when you came back for them the next day, they were neatly folded and stacked. An anonymous neighbor went the extra mile.

David

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing

“Bofaellesskaber?” An Interview with the Pioneer Couple of American Cohousing

David Wann, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

I interviewed Charles (Chuck) Durrett and Kathryn (Katie) McCamant at a recent national cohousing conference in Boulder, Colorado. These two architects, who imported the Danish idea of bofaellesskaber, or living together, have launched a minimovement among Americans, Canadians, and others who want to help create healthier, friendlier, and more beautiful neighborhoods. Here’s what Chuck and Kate had to say about the movement’s origins, benefits, and potentials. —D. L. W.

David Wann: What were your earliest, in-person impressions of cohousing as practiced in Denmark since 1972?

Chuck Durrett: In 1980, when Kate and I went to architectural school in Denmark for a year, the cohousing neighborhoods we visited were part of our overall study of that country’s architecture. But across the board, whenever we walked into one of Denmark’s several hundred cohousing communities, there was such a life there—unlike most suburban or multifamily developments—such a joy and sense of interaction, that we began to comment, “This is unique. This is working.” It made other housing seem more like warehousing. The original Danish term for cohousing, bofaellesskaber, means “living together,” or “living community.” In other words, you have living communities, and then you have, what, dead communities? That is the way it seemed.

When we came back to the United States, got married, and began to think about how to raise a family, we kept asking ourselves, “Why wouldn’t we want to live in a place that feels more like a small town, more like a community? Where neighbors know each other and agree, to some extent, when they move in to cooperate with each other, or at least to give cooperation the benefit of the doubt?” It just made sense.

Wann: What specifically were the Danish residents in living communities doing that seemed unique?

Durett: I lived near a cohousing community in Denmark, right next to a living community. As I walked by every day to catch the train, I noticed that people were standing between the buildings talking to each other, you know, holding a basket of laundry, and what we would normally think would be a quick salutation often grew into a fifteen-minute conversation: “What are you doing this afternoon? I’m thinking about going to the ballgame,” or “I’m thinking about going to an orchard to pick fruit, do you want to come?”

There were picnic tables between the houses where neighbors sat. Some would stand and chat for a minute; others would be there for longer, talking, laughing, sometimes eating, engaged. People were coming and going.

What struck me in particular was how these households related to each other in what seemed to be a healthy fashion. And then, of course, there was this common building that didn’t look like anybody lived in, but people spent a lot of time there. The lights were on late at night and you could look through the windows and see people talking over a cup of coffee, or playing music together, or sewing together. I could see that these people were doing things in the common building that made sense for them to do in common—things that are more fun, more entertaining, often more economical, more practical to do together.

Then, of course, they also had their own houses, which we also saw people sitting in, reading the newspaper or whatever—it felt like when you walked into a cohousing community, people had a choice between as much community as they wanted or as much privacy as they wanted. And in other housing projects, you could see that people had as much privacy as they wanted, or as much privacy as they wanted—in other words, no choice. And that’s one of the things that has made cohousing translate well into this country. Americans like to have lots of choices.

Kathryn McCamant: It was very evident how advanced the Danes are in the art of housing themselves, with lots of clustered housing based on sociological research about what people need. What we saw there seemed very applicable to the American lifestyle, especially the idea of balance between privacy and community. Privacy is very important, but in America, we’ve come to an extreme point on it, losing community along the way. Sure, you can get in a car and drive to find community, but that gets really old after awhile. The idea of spontaneously finding community just walking out your door, running into neighbors, and being able to go to a movie with them, or sitting down with them and talking about what a tough day you had at work—that’s hard to find these days. People interested in cohousing are trying to find a balance between privacy and community again. Without losing their sense of autonomy, they want to come home to something bigger than an empty house.

Wann: What are some of the other dysfunctional elements of American culture that cohousing can help fix?

Durrett: Just like in Denmark, the demographics in America changed drastically after World War II, especially in the early 1960s, when women started working outside the home. More frequently, families were having fewer children, working longer hours. ¬There’s quite an array of demographic changes that began to alienate people, or at least isolate them.

A great number of people in the United States consume to feel satisfied, at some basic level: “Maybe if I just get another sports car … ” or “Maybe if I just go on another vacation or buy something else, I’ll be happy.” Cohousing reduces the need to consume, both physically and psychologically. Physically, we don’t need a lawnmower for each house when much of our lawn is a common lawn. Each household doesn’t need its own washer and dryer when there’s a laundry room in the common house. Houses can be slightly smaller, and therefore have less stuff in them, when a guest room is available in the common house for everyone’s use. After all, guests don’t all arrive at the same time. At Doyle Street Cohousing, we’ve shared many of the things Americans would typically spend a lot of money on, from cars to magazines to gourmet kitchen equipment.

In cohousing, it begins to become clear that there’s nothing quite like relationships to satisfy basic human needs for identity, belonging, and even accountability. In this regard, cohousing can be psychologically grounding. You feel like, “Now I’m part of a society that makes sense.” If you look at the typical choices, you’re an individual in a 2.3-person household and you are part of a national culture that spends years of its life watching television. You wonder, “What am I really a part of?” You may join clubs and interest groups to help feel a sense of identity, but those people aren’t necessarily there for you day in and day out like cohousing neighbors are. In a world where the extended family tends to be spread all over the country, there’s nothing like having neighbors that you can ask about children’s earaches and other daily dilemmas that you would traditionally look to your family for.

Wann: What were your greatest motivations for getting cohousing started?

Durrett: When we came back from our first trip to Denmark, we were very interested in the values this kind of housing could offer, for ourselves as well as others. I grew up in a small town—so small that I couldn’t get Kate interested in moving back there. So I had to figure out how to get small-town relationships in an urban environment. We always intended to write a book about our observations, and when we became serious about creating a village we would live in, we got busy and wrote it— Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves —partly to see if there were others as interested in it as we were.

McCamant: After our second self-funded thirteen-month trip to Denmark in 1984-85, we visited about 185 cohousing projects and studied forty-six cohousing projects in depth. We really believed, “Okay, now we know how to go about this.” We came back with 5,000 slides and we were ready to write our cohousing book.

Durrett: We originally meant to stay six months, but it turned out to be a much more complex issue than it looked like on the surface, so we stayed and learned as much as we could, especially about cooperation and the balance between privacy and community. We wanted to bring the idea back in its widest context and let people make conscious choices about how to implement it. After thirteen months, we said to ourselves, “Okay, we have this figured out from the design to the development, to the financial scenarios, to the group process.”

In our book, we discuss how the physical aspects of a neighborhood enhance and reinforce the social aspects. If you believe, like I do, that our second priority as a species (after procreation, which we seem to have mastered) is to build a viable, healthy society, then we have to consciously format a world that allows that to happen. Along the way, maybe we will figure out how to make it as much fun as fulfilling our first responsibilities.

Wann: How specifically do well-designed physical features help create community?

McCamant: The relationship between community building and community buildings is a subject a person could devote a whole lifetime of study to. We strongly believe in the participatory-design process, in which members of a community decide together what their priorities are and what sort of space they’ll live in. It’s important that residents feel a sense of ownership in the design of their neighborhood, and it’s also important that certain principles are carefully considered, because after the honeymoon of building and moving in is over, good design is what will sustain a neighborhood’s sense of community.

If you look around at existing neighborhoods that are not cohousing, you see that we’ve actually designed community right out of our lives. There are very specific reasons why people don’t run into each other and therefore don’t relate. There are no large porches; instead you have large barriers in the form of garage doors. And there’s no place in the typical neighborhood where people can gather and get to know each other.

Cohousing, on the other hand, is designed to make it easy for busy people to transition from the privacy of their own homes into the common areas, where they can interact with their neighbors. The kitchen is typically in the front of the home—you can look out and see your kids in the play area; you can see who’s coming and going¬ to pick up their mail or recycle their glass containers; you can holler at a passing neighbor who has a recipe you want.

The area right in front of the house is still your private realm, but it’s directly adjacent to the common area, so it’s a semiprivate space, which the Danes refer to as the soft edge. In many ways it’s analogous to the old-fashioned front porch. By sitting in this space instead of in the back of your house or on a private balcony, you indicate that you’re open to visit. People will stop and join you for coffee or just chat there in front of the house.

Another link from the private realm to the community realm is what we refer to as gathering nodes. Often as simple as a picnic table that five to eight houses share, it might be next to the children’s sandbox. From there you can look up the walkway or street to the common terrace directly in front of the common house, where it’s typical to see people lingering with glasses of wine on a late afternoon before they go up for dinner. On Saturday mornings, somebody brings out coffee and somebody else brings over something from the bakery. By having transition spaces, you create choices. The idea is to make it easy to flow from your kitchen to the common kitchen without giving it a lot of thought.

Durrett: The fundamental responsibility of the architecture is to keep people relating to each other. There’s nothing like a common house as a place to meet in neutral territory and discuss issues of the day, like the school district, the city council or national politics, or child rearing. You can have the kind of great discussions in the common house that are sometimes difficult to have in someone’s private house. It’s hard to tell somebody you think they’re full of it at their house, and you’d be a pretty bad host to do it in your house, so in the common house, you have incredibly genuine conversations that are much deeper, partially because you have this physical venue that is so unique. In our common house, we explore the subtleties of any issue at the ecological level, at the gender level, at the political level, the social-justice level. It makes for a very rich experience, much less of a sound-bite or a bumper-sticker level in which a person says, “I’ve got my opinion and that’s all there is to it.” In cohousing, significant strains of conversations go on for years.

McCamant: But a common house has to feel comfortable and inviting, or people won’t use it.

Durrett: That’s right. Take the common house kitchen, for example. I would say the key factor in the overall success of a kitchen design is its social success. If you’re working in a back room somewhere helping with a common meal, you end up feeling like the slave for the day. But if the kitchen is designed to be open, you can see people come and go. They see you too, and you’re the center of attention, you’re the hero for the day. People come in and say, “How’s it going? Hey, this smells great.” It’s a subtle thing, but it makes you look forward to cooking dinner.

We’ve observed that how you design the spaces between buildings is also a key factor in creating community. In cohousing, which is typically clustered housing, the distance between front doors is typically twenty-five to thirty feet, while the average American house is running about 100 to 110 feet—no wonder Americans feel so estranged at a basic level. When people join the cohousing process, they are used to the 110-feet distance, but after they start to know and get more comfortable with each other, they start to believe that there’s something in it for them. The trust level begins to build, and the closer distances feel right. When you come out of your house on a Monday morning, you can relate to the mood of your neighbor and you can ask your neighbor if he got the report done that’s due today, or if his mother is feeling better after chemotherapy. That is how you stitch a society together.

The design of private spaces is also very important, because if cohousing residents really, really like their homes, they will also be more comfortable outside their homes, interacting with their neighbors. We help groups become communities, and our customers always want their houses to be as energy efficient as possible, with natural lighting, good sound insulation, an open, spacious feeling. The fact they’ve had a say in their homes’ design makes them feel integrated with their physical surroundings, which in turn helps them feel comfortable socially.

Wann: Is it easier for people in cohousing to get know each other because they are working on things together, things that they have in common?

Durrett: The process of designing and operating a cohousing community does give neighbors lots to talk about. Rather than being a stranger to your next-door neighbor, you’re the person who planted a tree with them last weekend and worked on the budget with them last month at the annual budget meeting.

When people ask me what my community has in common as an organizing principle, I can’t tell them it’s spiritual, because we have people of various beliefs. It’s not political, because we have Democrats, Republicans, and others. We have Asians in the community, Caucasians, African Americans,¬ so it is not really cultural. But the great thing is, when you have diversity, you learn about others. When you begin to see a face with these points of view, you begin to respect these people as people. What our common denominator comes down to is cooperation. We believe that to the extent that it makes each life better—easier, more fun, more economical—we’ll always give cooperation the benefit of the doubt first. You begin to hear everyone’s point of view, and that’s the first step in building a healthy society.

Wann: Does cohousing teach people to be better citizens in the larger community?

Durrett: Without a doubt. In the process of putting a cohousing community together, you learn how local decisions are made. Out there in the big, bad world, developers, bankers, and bureaucrats are deciding, “We’ll make the boulevard this wide, we’ll put another 200 houses where the oak grove is now.” What impresses me about cohousers is that after their cohousing projects are built, they often become active in their city council and school districts. A couple residents in our community ran for school board, got elected, and are making a big difference for our kids.

Cohousers are not intimidated by decision making. They’re used to working with people, they’re used to ferreting out the issues, and they’re typically much more aware of the issues, because they sit around the common house and ask things like, “What about that new bridge that’s going in? Doesn’t it block a driver’s panoramic view of the city?”

Cohousers often have very positive, creative solutions, because they’re used to forging consensus. Instead of shouting about what they don’t want, they come up with great suggestions about what they do want—suggestions that are in everybody’s best interest. So nationwide, cohousers are becoming city council representatives and planning commissioners, and making very positive changes.

Dave: What about kids? Does cohousing make them better students and better citizens?

McCamant: We hear stories all the time about teachers seeing a difference between cohousing students and their peers. For one thing, whenever a dispute comes up, the cohousing kids are always on the front line of problem solvers because they’ve been exposed to it. They know how to get along with other kids of all ages because that’s what they do in their own neighborhoods.

One of my favorite stories is that when we moved into cohousing, our daughter, Jessie, was one and there was a twelve-year old in the community who treated Jessie like a younger sister. Now, years later, what Michele gave to Jessie as a child, Jessie passes on to the two-year-olds in our community. That’s a really powerful thing to see.

Durrett: Jessie is a good example of another benefit of cohousing. She’s an only child, but in effect, she has eight cousins, because the kids in the neighborhood are so close. Instead of feeling like we had to have a second child to keep Jessie company—a typical reason to have more than one child—we knew that she’d find all the companionship she needed right in the community.

Wann: Can you speculate on the future of cohousing?

McCamant: The future of cohousing seems very bright, because it meets many of the needs that are not currently being met. The first cohousing residents were real pioneers, people who’d never even seen a cohousing community. They set off on a journey believing in an idea without ever sitting in a common house. Now, increasing numbers of people can visit a friend in cohousing and see firsthand how it works. For every resident of cohousing, there are hundreds more who are interested and intrigued. We’ve observed that every time a cohousing community is built in an area, it tends to spawn other communities nearby. The truth is, cohousing is now an American housing option—no book or seminar on American housing would be complete without mentioning it.

We’re actively working with other professionals to refine a streamlined model for developing communities. The exchange of ideas on what’s worked and what hasn’t, on how to make the development process smoother next time, is tremendously exciting. There’s a level of refinement we couldn’t have dreamt of a decade ago. In areas like sustainable building practices, creative use of existing buildings, and resident participation in location selection and design, cohousing will continue to be a model, and we’re excited to be part of this growing movement.

Durrett: The key challenge for Americans will be to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We Americans are hell-bent on making things efficient to the point of gutting the original intention; spaghetti sauce from a jar will never compete with homemade. But with the streamlined approach, we are figuring out how to keep the good and move past the stuff that just takes more time and more money with very little value added. (And when it comes to unnecessary acrimony, even value lost.) The communities today are taking a quarter of the people-hours to create as the early projects did with better value, more sustainable design, and with more time for just being friends.

Tags: 

Guiding a Community Home

Matt Worswick, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado, and Synergy Design

When I began to look into joining a cohousing community, I went to several groups’ meetings and was especially impressed by the approach and good energy of the group that would become Harmony Village. The original members, Matt Worswick and his wife, Linda, seemed to have the right stuff to make the dream a reality. Walking through the process of designing our own community was an exciting, challenging experience I can never forget, going from a blurry idea to a custom-fit place to be in seventy-five meetings or less! DLW

As the long-awaited workshop begins, I think about the many roles I’ll play today. First, I slip on my striped referee shirt and hang the whistle around my neck, just in case. Then comes the tweed jacket and bow tie. Next, I dust off my cowboy hat and pull on my boots and spurs. Finally, I pick up my pom-poms and I am ready to go. It is time for another home-design workshop with an eager and anxious cohousing group.

My metaphorical outfit represents some of the many roles I may need to play. Similar to a college professor teaching design and construction 101, I’ll need to dispense a tremendous amount of information to an audience with very diverse backgrounds, most of whom have never designed or built a home before. Occasionally, I’ll need to referee disputes between competing factions. Often, my role will be to stand on the sidelines, more like a cheerleader, as the group makes major decisions and choices that will define their community and make it unique. And throughout the whole enterprise, I’ll need to sit high in the saddle, along with my community-process facilitators, acting like a process cowpoke herding those (highly intelligent and independent-minded) cats, trying to keep any strays from sidetracking the progress of the main group.

The room is abuzz with energy and anticipation. Many in the group have been moving toward this moment for years. Some joined more recently, just to be sure they could experience the participatory-design process that is a hallmark of cohousing. Their faces already reflect a myriad of ideas, questions, and concerns that will need to be addressed. They are about to take another huge step from the dream into the reality of what their new home will be. And with it will come a roller coaster of emotions, from fear and frustration to joy and satisfaction.

As a professional guide for this process, I’ve tried to clearly identify the objectives and expected outcomes. On paper, as I review the workshop agenda, it seems orderly and well-defined. Developers may refer to it as “refining the pro forma by finalizing the unit mix and schematic plans,” but for these future homeowners, it will be so much more than that: it will finally give physical shape and texture to their hopes and dreams; it will define the materials and spaces that they will call home for many years to come; and it will complete the picture they have collectively been painting of their future neighborhood.

We’ve applied the wisdom gained by other cohousing professionals over the years, saving individual home designs for last. To help nurture the bonds of commonality, the preceding design workshops have already defined the site and site plan and the common house that the group will share. By visualizing and planning those common elements, each individual has had a chance to imagine and savor the benefits of their collective facilities. They are already looking forward to harvesting from the common garden and building things in the shop; to kids frolicking on the playground or playing adventure games in the natural open space; to gatherings in the common house, from boisterous dinners to intimate book groups or rejuvenating yoga classes. Similar to the initial romance of a relationship, the group has been getting high on the possibilities of community living. But as I’ve learned from experience, the next phase of emerging individuality, or jockeying for power, will almost always add extra tension and excitement during the design of the dwellings.

The transition from dream to reality can be a difficult one. Hard choices will have to be made to balance the many and sometimes-conflicting goals of the group. Some things that members had hoped for won’t make the cut.

Even though I have been in this position numerous times before, it is hard to feel fully prepared. The group has hired me based on my twenty years of experience in energy-efficient and sustainable residential design. Having toured several examples of my community designs, they know that I can create efficient, attractive, and unique homes. What they don’t know is how challenging it can be to combine the values, passions, and ideas of dozens of individuals into some sort of optimally designed buildings. I can feel my heart pounding and the adrenaline rising as I prepare to begin. It will be a wild ride and take some unexpected turns, but that’s why I’ve brought so many hats!

Hardened from many a cat herding, I’ve learned that it’ll save a lot of saddle blisters if we first get the group to agree on where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. So I start off with a detailed description of the design process we are going to use to get to the final designs. The process defines the players and their roles (community, design team, unit subgroups, designer, developer, and builder); the steps along the way and who gets to make which decisions; how communication will be handled between all parties, and so forth. Some of the wise old cats nod knowingly (good process is critical in such a large undertaking). Many others sit with glazed eyes, wishing they could catch a catnap. Others fidget and scratch, wondering when the design fun is gonna start. Then they realize I’m not letting them out of the corral until they reach consensus on this here design process. Itching to hit the design trail, they make a few pertinent refinements and agree to our design trail. Yee haw!

I swing the corral gates open wide with a slide presentation of images from other communities. The rush of possibilities fills the room. “Oh yeah, I love that porch design,” “Can we have floors like that?” “Wow, look at the natural daylight in those rooms.” Laughter and jokes fly. “Looks great, when do we move in?” To prepare ourselves for a challenging afternoon, we all break for a hardy potluck lunch.

After lunch, I’m back, with pom-poms in hand, ready to cheer on the team as they focus on the serious enterprise of prioritizing design standards that will guide the development of their homes. These are the big-picture guidelines that determine which elements are most important to the group. Will the units be single-family, duplex, or multiplex? Which ranks higher—affordability or quality materials and low-maintenance finishes? Trying to prioritize these strongly held values brings passions to the surface.

“We need to be an example to the world of how to live more sustainably,” says one future resident.

“That sounds good,” says another, “But I can’t afford the additional costs for your proposed alternative building materials.”

I reach for my whistle as I step into the fray. I try to calm the passions by explaining that this isn’t a black-and-white decision. This will be a guideline that will help us balance our choices as we continue to design the project. The group then continues through a facilitated process by using an exercise of comparing and prioritizing pairs of design criteria. After an intense hour and a half, the group has carefully sorted which issues are most important.

Now I stride to the lectern, adjust my bow tie, and begin to address the class. An expectant air has taken hold of the students. They know that the information bestowed by the next speaker could potentially determine their futures as cohousing residents. I begin, “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct honor and privilege to introduce to you the Dean of Cohousing Development, Mr. Jim Leach.” Respectful applause as Jim steps forward, followed by a hushed silence. This is serious stuff. This is high finance. After some qualifying remarks about the accuracy of initial home pricing, Jim passes out a detailed spreadsheet and walks the group through line after line of pricing particulars.

There are different scenarios depending on the total number of units, unit sizes, and configurations. Each individual is now able to see the implications on their own home price depending on certain design choices. The more units they can fit on the site, the better they can keep costs down. “But we don’t want it to feel too crowded.”

Attaching multiple units would also save space and money. “But I really like the daylight from an end unit better than an internal one.”

We all listen carefully to each individual’s needs and preferences, then take straw polls to determine which unit size and configuration will work best for each household. Jim runs some new scenarios on his laptop computer and presents a recommendation. The group works toward a consensus, sorting the numerous issues and concerns.

Finally, a decision emerges: for this group, it will be a total of thirty-four homes, with four different models in duplex and quadplex configurations. The scale of the decision leaves the group in a mixture of relief, awe, giddiness, and hesitancy. “Wow, this is it! I hope we made the right decision. … ”

Now it’s time for the most rigorous part of today’s session. For the next three hours, I expound upon a myriad of design and construction parameters. First, there are all the elements that affect the building form, from the number of stories and roof pitches to porches and private patios; issues of style, building codes, solar access, costs, and construction materials are covered. Then it’s time for a detailed look at the interior spaces, such as the zoning of rooms, spatial relationships, traffic patterns, visual connections, and public versus private areas. Each room in the house is covered and many decisions are made about basic components. As the class wraps up for the day, the students’ heads are spinning with new information.

But they’re back again in the morning, excited about their roles as codesigners. The most challenging stretch of the trail is just ahead—agreeing on the designs for each individual home model. As a hardened wrangler, I’ve come to the opinion that consensus is best used for the big-picture issues and decisions, but using it for approving every idea or detail can add months to an already lengthy process, as well as set a poor example for future community decision making. I recommend that most of the details be left to the professionals. Meanwhile, the specifications will be refined over the next several months with the developer and a hardy handful of members known as the design team.

As I work with the subgroups for each model to refine their basic plan arrangements, members add many good ideas for me to work with. As always, a few conflicts arise between individuals. The model-D folks are hung up on the master-bath arrangement and the political correctness of a soaking tub. Conversely, the model-C group wants the option to eliminate bathrooms and convert them to closets. A few members are lobbying for a laundry chute. One says she’ll drop out if she can’t be assured radiant heat in her unit. The model-A group has only two members, but they are having a heck of a time deciding whether they should go with the master bedroom on the main floor or the upper …

My striped shirt is pretty wrinkled by now and my bow tie has long since been pocketed. I’ve lost one of my pom-poms and I’m getting pretty saddle sore. But the designs are coming together. Peoples’ issues are out in the open. Of course, not everyone is getting everything they want, but these homeowners have had their say and their home designs will reflect their own specific needs better than anything out of a plan book or engineered subdivision.

One Year Later …

I’m kicking up the dust on the trail again, and this time it’s not imaginative dust, but real dust. As I walk the construction site, I can see the outcome of all the design work. The first units are complete and look beautiful. It seems like ages ago now that the design process began. It’s been a whirlwind of activity for me, including drawing and detailing all the plans, refining the specifications with the design team, working with the group to create a list of options and upgrades, and coordinating with the developer, builder, and code officials.

The group has dealt with a tremendous amount as well. The pace of meetings and decisions has continued to be intense. Construction cost estimates have increased. Some members have switched to smaller units in order to stay within their budgets. Several more have left the group entirely, but new members have joined, bringing much-needed energy and enthusiasm. Some design features remain from departing members that aren’t a great fit for new members, but most of the design features still reflect the priorities and needs of the community.

It has been a long trail together. Everyone is a bit tuckered out—the group, the builder, and developer. But as we approach final completion, despite the weariness, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Together we have done something amazing. I know that despite the fact that the group feels like this is the end of the trail, it is really just the beginning. They have so many more joys and challenges ahead. I feel like that professor again, proudly watching his students graduate and move on with their lives. And even though I won’t be physically there with them, I’ll be there in spirit. In my office is a favorite memento, a collage with photographs and appreciative notes from many of the households, all surrounding six wonderful words: Thanks Matt! We love our homes!

Related pages:
Creating Cohousing

Part One: Chapter Two: Putting the "Neighbor" back into "Neighbourhoods"

Everyone has favorite things about cohousing neighborhoods, and from time to time, lists are compiled that summarize the benefits. Rob Sandelin’s list below may have been first, but many others followed.

Terri Hupfer of Pleasant Hill Cohousing likes the support and friendship of neighbors the best. “You get to relax and read a book for an hour while your neighbor takes all the boys on a long bike ride,” she lists. “Your neighbor not only comes over to help you clean and cook the fresh trout your son has brought home, but he helps pull out the bones and sits down to eat it with you.”

Joani Blank of Swan’s Market Cohousing asks, “Where else could I get someone to take a splinter out of my finger at 7:30 in the morning?” Joani also writes, “No more special trips all the way home for five minutes just to feed the dog!”

—D. L. W.

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing

Ten Great Reasons to Live in Cohousing

Rob Sandelin, Sharingwood, Snohomish County, Washington

Living in a community offers security. You can rely on your neighbors to help you, even when you don’t ask. This is huge for me, that my family is in a safe and supportive place. My grandmother died recently. My neighbors knew all about it and sent cards and sympathy and support to my family. Her neighbors didn’t even know she was sick. Most of them didn’t even know her name. How many of them could she ask for help if she needed it?

  1. Community offers social opportunities. I can have wonderful and meaningful interactions with people I like—my neighbors—just by sitting out on my porch. I really enjoy hanging out and talking with folks about everything—politics, the news, kids. Sharing our histories and ourselves grows a wonderful bond among us—I suppose much like encounter groups do. I know more about my neighbors’ histories and lives and why they do things the way they do than I know about some of my family members.
  2. Cohousing is a supportive place for kids to grow up. Cohousing is safe and there are lots of friends—both other kids and adults. Kids can play and I know any adult in the neighborhood will be there for them in case of need. It’s also a fun place to be an adult. There are lots of opportunities to play with the kids and other adults.
  3. Cohousing is a great place to collaborate with people who share similar interests. Small groups form that revolve around shared common interests such as beer making, sewing, gardening, music, and so forth. I don’t have to “go” anywhere to enjoy a beer-making club; my neighbors and I can do that. The common house is great for that.
  4. There is a sense of togetherness and belonging. I am part of something that is really wonderful: it is a model for a better way to live, and together we are doing it. I can’t explain this in words very well, but there is a strong feeling of happiness in me that comes from working toward a common good. I used to get this feeling as a teacher and environmentalist, and now I get it as I work with my neighbors on a variety of projects.
  5. There is a great restaurant in the middle of my neighborhood—called the common house—where I can go have dinner and great conversation with friends.
  6. Cohousing is a great place to learn new things. I always wanted to try making beer. Having a couple of neighbors share that interest got me into home brewing. We learn and try new stuff all the time.
  7. Cohousing is a great place to share ownership of things that I couldn’t really afford by myself, such as a workshop, play structures, tools, a library, and so on.
  8. Many personal resources are available. Want to know about bee keeping? I ask Mel and get all kinds of information. Having problems with my car? Mary knows a lot about such things. Want to build a shed? Bob can give me advice and help me scrounge for materials. A neighborhood like mine is a collection of twenty-six lifetimes’ worth of experience in all manner of things. What a treasure trove!
  9. Privacy. I get all the great benefits of cooperative living and also get privacy whenever I want just by going home and closing the door or going into the twenty-five acres of woods that surround my house that everybody shares ownership of.
  10. To me, the monetary value of all these things would be in the million-dollar range. My house cost me less than market value to build and is worth much more than I paid for it should I ever move to another community—notice that I said move to another community. It is inconceivable for me to ever move back to a “normal” neighborhood, where everyone is a stranger and I have to be afraid every time my kid goes out the door.

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing

Sharingwood Stories

Rob Sandelin, Sharingwood, Snohomish, Washington

I was hunkered down underneath my car doing something oily and I could see down the street as one of my neighbors, Michelle, was trying to set out some metal light fixtures to spray paint. Every time she lined them up, her toddler would carry one off or otherwise disrupt the process. I was sort of tied up working on the car, so I couldn’t help her, but I didn’t need to. Rosemary, another neighbor, walked up to the toddler with a couple of little baskets and took her hand and diverted her into picking berries, while the mom gratefully arranged the lights and painted them without further interruption.

The thing that I did not realize until later reflection is that Michelle never had to ask for help. Her neighbors saw her needs and helped her in the sort of quiet, unspoken way that communities work.

Another day, one of the older kids was walking down the road with an adult I did not recognize. She was clearly showing the place off to someone. I thought it might have been a tourist (we get a lot of those) who had asked her for a tour. I thought I would check. It turns out he was her teacher from school. He was so impressed with her conflict skills, group skills, and maturity in working with adults that he had come see this place in which she lived. He later joined another cohousing group.

I remember a few years ago, our neighbors were in a tizzy because the in-laws were coming to visit for the first time and the house was a mess and they had very little time to work on it. I took their two boys off on a long expedition in the greenbelt to look for frogs, bugs, birds, and the like. I kept an ear cocked for the arrival of the in-laws and delivered the boys right as Grandpa and Grandma arrived. The house was spotless, and I never mentioned the field trip. However, after the in-laws left, I came home to find a six-pack of very good beer on my front step with a simple card that just said, “Community works!”

I noticed one summer evening that my daughter had a new bandage on her elbow. She had been playing on the other side of the community and had fallen down. A neighbor heard her crying, comforted her, brought her in and cleaned her up, bandaged the small scrape, fed her some cookies and juice, and sent her off, good as new. I never even knew about it until I saw the bandage—my neighbor did exactly what I would have done.

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing

How Sixty-Seven Tons of Brick Connected a Community

Saoirse Charis-Graves, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

Joe picks up the top brick from the pile on his left and adjusts it into position on the sliding tray of the tile saw. He braces the brick with one hand while he flips a switch with the other. Zzzz! The brick eases forward into the diamond-edge saw blade and soon becomes a custom-fit brick paver. He wears safety glasses, earplugs, and rubber gloves to protect him from the intense noise, tiny chips of brick, and cold water spraying from the whirling blade. The saw stands near the center of a grove of young aspen trees that commemorate the arrival of four babies in the first year of our village. The leaves of the aspens and the pea gravel under the trees are covered with a fine red film—water mixed with pulverized brick dust.

Tonight Joe will wash red dust out of his ears and nose and hair and eyebrows and every inch of every layer of clothing. The saw has been running ten hours a day for the past ten weekends—up to 200 hours so far—and will continue running for another 100 hours to complete all the cuts, recuts (“It doesn’t fit!”), and fancy cuts before our brick walkway is finished.

We worked through the scorching summer of 2001—a drought year in Colorado—to lay down 55,000 half-thick bricks over the ten-foot-wide gray concrete stretching the length of our community. For five years we had tripped over raised manhole covers and concrete step-ups that were designed to accommodate the height of our future walkway. We fretted over the amount of work involved in the project and debated the fears of some residents:

“The surface will be too rough for the children to play on.”

“The bricks will be too hot to walk on with bare feet.”

“The designs will be too hard and look too busy.’”

“It will take us forever and we’ll burn ourselves out.”

“We could use this money for something else.”

Macon, one of our elders (eighty-four years young), moves a push broom back and forth across the top of a completed section of bricks. He wears a straw hat to protect him from the high summer sun and work gloves, a soft swish of his broom the only sound in a moment of respite from the saw’s intermittent whine. Macon sweeps fine grains of sand into the cracks between the bricks to stabilize them in place and complains, “It’s a thankless job scraping this sand around.” Of course, we know he’s just kidding and that he wishes he were young enough to be doing “real” work. A couple of kids zoom past him on their scooters. In the background, bricks clink against each other. A work crew 100 feet down the ten-foot-wide walkway rolls out a black carpet: tar paper laid down as the first layer. Several emerging masters reach for bricks from small stacks on the grass next to the work in progress.

They wear sunglasses and sun hats and loose summer clothing for weather conditions that often feel like a superdry sauna. Hands protected by heavy-duty rubber gloves, some duct taped to cover holes worn by the bricks’ sharp edges, move in a rhythm, laying bricks one by one on top of the cushion provided by the paper. A new, four-color pattern is emerging in the red swath and the workers stop for a moment to check their accuracy and admire their work, as if they were painting a huge mural on the ground.

From the work crew comes a sudden flurry of laughter. The patterns in the walkway confer a tangible sense of productivity, but just as satisfying are the patterns being laid among people.

In five years of living together, we had discovered how the work gets done. Projects large or small rest on the back burner until a champion decides to take them on. The $10,000 set aside for the walkway from our initial budget accrued interest while we recovered from the physical trauma of move-in, working through punch lists of things to be fixed and developing trust in our decision-making process. The first required a few months, the latter several years. The decision committing us to the walkway project occurred before we moved in; to reopen that decision for discussion required assent by a majority of households at a full community meeting. Therefore, the walkway was on until we actively decided otherwise. But we had lessons to live before we were ready to tackle a project this large.

First, we learned not everybody has to do everything. Some people watch children while others push and pull and lift. Some people fix lunch and carry water to thirsty workers while others saw, carry bricks, and pound nails. Some people buy supplies and clean up the mess at the end of the day, while others calculate lineal feet and materials wastage and draw out designs on graph paper. Whatever project we tackle takes all of us, but in very different capacities. Over time, we learned to trust that work would be found that is appropriate to each one’s abilities and desire. Each one could contribute, albeit in different ways.

Second, we learned to delegate responsibility and let go of control. Some of our residents consistently demonstrate an outstanding talent for taking complex tasks and breaking them into manageable chunks. We’ve learned to trust these individuals, to rely on their insight and their judgment. Instead of getting involved in the details, we allow them to do what they do best. We offer support and ask clarifying questions, but we don’t do too much second-guessing. Mostly, we’re grateful they’re willing to take on the organizational challenge of such projects. And when asked for help, we show up.

I am leaning over a puzzle in pavers, bricks at all angles winding their way around a double curve along the outside of the walkway. With bad knees and a stiff lower back, I don’t kneel anymore. I sit and scoot along the grass or brick surface. The corner of each courtyard is a special challenge, forcing rectangular bricks into sinuous angles. Each corner requires more than 150 individual cuts; each cut requires a set of special tools—eighteen-inch metal rulers, permanent markers, a stash of discarded brick pieces to fill in odd-shaped gaps. I pull a brick from one stack, position and reposition, mark the cutting line, draw an X to indicate which side to toss away, and write a number on the back of the brick and on the concrete below so each piece will match up after the saw has done its work. I mark as many as I can carry, then walk to the saw, trim my stack, and carry them back to my work area. One corner takes me all day to complete, sunup to sundown. At the end, I am racing the sun to finish the cuts and clean up the saw before darkness falls.

I joined with Matt, Harmony’s designer, to move the walkway project forward as co-champions. We formed an ad hoc team of community members to help us examine our options, project material costs, organize our workforce, and finalize color selections, material lists, and so forth. We’d paved the patio of our common house five years before, and from that experience estimated the walkway would require an average of eight people per day for eight to twelve weekends. The ad hoc team met several times over several months, considered all the concerns and ramifications, and prepared a detailed plan for the community. The plan was clearly ambitious, and we hoped everyone would participate to some degree. But the work was all volunteer. Some thought we’d be lucky to finish before the snow flew in October; some thought we’d be laying bricks into the next summer.

We didn’t really know how long it would take or even if we’d have enough bricks. We didn’t know exactly how we would handle the sunken pans on the edges (for drainage) or what the designs would look like. We didn’t know how we would manage to move 135,000 pounds of bricks. Would our backs hold up, and our spirits? Would our community survive? I developed what I thought was a reasoned response to such doubts: we’ll figure it out. We’re anticipating what we can and we’ll solve whatever problems arise as we go.

In the end, all twenty-seven households contributed. Some people worked nearly every weekend, some only a few hours. Some individuals came out of guilt; others enjoyed the camaraderie of working together and even came to love it. Some of the kids worked alongside their parents, presenting us with the challenge of finding adequate work gloves for such small hands. (Several of the kids were especially excited about the “hockey rink” pattern we designed and placed right in front of their house.)

To accomplish our goal, we ruined gloves, clothing, and shoes. We developed deep tans and toned muscles. We put in more hours than some people wanted to count—an estimated 800 hours—but, as Matt said, “When you love it, you don’t count.”

We produced something of beauty with our own hands, something tangible for all to see, a physical symbol joining us together in this final way. The red bricks match the red tile on our porch roofs and sweep down the length of our community, carrying the eye through the stucco arch at our western edge and right up into the blue-green foothills that dominate our western sky. A neighbor who’s a pilot reports that the walkway is stunning from the air. As Joe, the brick cutter, summarized, “Nobody did this but us.”

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing

What I Learned from Children about Giving and Receiving

Charles B. Maclean, Ph.D., Trillium Hollow, Portland, Oregon

Giving neighborly support has often been easier for me than receiving it. A near-death car accident a few years ago followed by extensive shoulder surgery changed my perspective in a heartbeat.

For the first time since childhood, I couldn’t put on my socks, scratch my nose, or use my right hand to eat. I mentioned to my young neighbors, Lily and Emanuel, that I couldn’t even shampoo my hair. Spontaneously, they shouted, “Don’t worry, Charles, we’ll shampoo your hair for you!”

Their unrestrained enthusiasm quickly replaced my skepticism. I soon found myself kneeling outside the tub, arm in sling, with my head and neck extended into the tub, totally dependent on their care. Giggling wildly, the dynamic duo sprayed me down with the shower hose and lathered my head with gobs of shampoo. Suddenly, Lily stopped, and in a whispered voice said, “Charles, do you know that you have a bald spot on the back of your head?”

I erupted into laughter so pervasive that my shoulder pain dissolved. In that moment, my relationship with Lily and Emanuel shifted dramatically for me—and, I suspect, for them. They had opened me up to receiving support in a way I’d never experienced.

As a nonparent, I previously related to kids primarily as beings to give to and hadn’t thought much about what they could give in return. With Lily and Emanuel, I experienced fully for the first time the rapture of receiving from children. They became my teachers about natural giving, helping me discover a piece of me I had missed during my own childhood.

I now view giving and receiving as flip sides of the same coin called community. Whenever I give my time, attention, love, or money, the relationship between me and the recipient shifts. As with a child’s teeter-totter, our giving-and-receiving relationship must be balanced over time in order for each of us to experience wholeness. To participate fully in community and feel a sense of personal gratification, the receiver—whether he or she is a child or adult—needs to give back to the giver or give forward to someone else. Likewise, someone who tends to be a giver has much to learn from simply receiving.

When Lily and Emanuel stop by now to ask if they can lift something for me or pick up my mail, I delight and revel in the feeling of no-strings-attached receiving. We now look at each other through deeper eyes of love because we both give and receive with open arms and hearts. This, for me, is one of the true gifts of living in cohousing.

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing

Looking Back—But Only for an Instant

Steve Einstein, Two Acre Wood, Sebastopol, California

The other night, I went with the kids to visit some old friends. Their small house was a fixer-upper that they’d spent a good amount of time remodeling and their finished product is absolutely adorable. And my God, the backyard was massive and stunning. I recognized the wave of envy that was invading me. A small, tasteful house with lots of character, a backyard to die for, and neighbors you know and like. ... It looked so perfect.

I’m feeling a bit sad as I pop the kids into the car and we drive off, leaving all that privacy and massive backyard and character behind. A minute later, we pull into our place. Just as we came in, Mary pulls into her spot. She bounces out of her car, greeting us energetically. She’s been to drumming class and is literally more upbeat than usual. A moment later, Tom lopes along with big, ole Dailah. He asks about Malka, who has an injured leg, and then he jokes with the kids about this or that. Holly waves from her kitchen sink, Koby hollers, “Goodnight, Leo!” in the direction of Leo’s house, though he is nowhere to be seen, and then Michael J. appears with a friend.

We make a date for early-morning tennis. Excellent. There’s cackling coming from Louise’s house again. Marty spills out with Louise right behind. I tell them how nice it is to hear laughter again from Louise’s. We all agreed.

We weren’t home two minutes and we’d seen six friends and neighbors and hollered goodnight to another. All that sweetness and quiet privacy of my friends’ house on Neva Street was eons away. I didn’t really care how pathetic a backyard we had. It was fun coming home.

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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

A Recipe for Saving the World, One Bagel at a Time

David Wann, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

Start with a group of ten culturally creative cohousers interested in social change and sustainable lifestyles. Throw in a hunger for spirited discussion. Toss lightly in a neighbor’s living room and dice up bright, unsettling ideas from books such as State of the World, When Corporations Rule the World, The Cultural Creatives, Believing Cassandra, Affluenza, and Natural Capitalism. Combine with ingredients of day-to-day life: the relentless loss of local open space; the construction of a golf course on adjoining property; the election of politically incompetent candidates to state government; the desire to incorporate nature-compatible technologies into our community; and federal policies in which sustainability is not even on the radar screen. Stir-fry with a sense of mission.

What do you get? A spicy, colorful, healthy dish called the Sunday Morning Sustainability Group at Harmony Village. We’ve been meeting on the fourth Sunday of the month at Macon and Ginny Cowles’ house for four years now. Over bagels, juice, fresh fruit, and tea and coffee, we discuss both global and local issues and learn from each other—always with a spirit of creating environmentally friendly, socially sustainable alternatives. The meal is simple, maybe in keeping with our shared conviction that our lives need to be simpler.

No need to ring the bell on these mornings, just walk in, greet your neighbors, and grab a cup of your favorite beverage. Ginny has the coffee ready and the juice glasses out, and someone will show up with a dozen or so freshly baked bagels. The atmosphere is comfortable and familiar. The place and faces remain much the same—it’s the issues that are constantly changing.

You could call us a support group. At the end of each gathering, the intellectual and social support we’ve given each other lifts the weight just a bit from challenges that often seem to blanket us like a dense fog. But we’re also an action group. If Worldwatch literature reminds us that carbon dioxide levels have quadrupled in recent years, we assign a delegate to become a compact fluorescent bulb guru, promoting their installation in all outdoor community fixtures. If we learn from David Korten’s books that national corporation’s mission statements specify shareholder profits as their sole responsibility, we look for ways to support local businesses, such as the hardware store, or to support local organic farmers. This summer, we got excited about a succinct twenty-five-word “do-no-harm” clause we found on the Internet that can be added to corporate charters to broaden their missions, and we explored ways to publicize it.

Sunday Morning Sustainability Group members come from varying backgrounds, if similar concerns. For example, Virginia is a consultant on socially/environmentally conscious investing. John’s a retired psychotherapist and volunteers his time with homeless people. Wendy works with outdoor education at the Division of Wildlife. I’m a writer and video producer on sustainability. Harmony Village cofounders and our group’s hosts, Macon and Ginny, have brought a century of social activism to our discussions. Macon marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and Ginny won the American Friends Service’s Peace Award for her work at Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons plant.

Last spring, Macon passed away (at the exact moment the community was gathering for a candlelight vigil in front of his house), but his energy and his resolve continue to resonate with us on Sunday mornings. We find ourselves referring to articles he wrote for the community newsletter in which he championed active participation in composting, political activism, and energy efficiency.

He had a tenacious, curmudgeonly skepticism for easy answers. We once caught him on his front porch measuring the speed of his electrical meter after installing dimmers on some of his lights. Though he’d been told that dimmers didn’t save energy, he wasn’t convinced. He sought out second and third opinions, discovered that they do save energy, installed the dimmers, and advised us in the newsletter to “Dim it, dammit.” He would also routinely remind vacationers and business travelers that their flights were burning fuel at the rate of twelve gallons a minute just to give us a healthy dose of guilt. (When he and Ginny went on annual vacations to California, they drove.)

Our small Sunday group has affected Harmony Village as well as the city of Golden in various ways. Most meetings, we bring letters we’ve written to politicians and editors and have spearheaded evenings with local politicians in our common house. When developers had their eyes on prime open space, we helped defend it. Knowing that Colorado is an ideal location for solar energy, we’ve explored ideas for financing solar panels out of long-term maintenance reserves, paying ourselves back with energy savings. (We’re excited about Muir Commons’ recent solar installation!)

We’ve already got a community pickup truck, thanks to the generosity of one of our group members, Bob, but we’re always open to the idea of a car-sharing cooperative that might include noncohousing neighbors. Maybe some would progress to being one-car households.

Someone said that the fork may be the greatest weapon of mass destruction, given the environmental destruction and nutritional deprivation that conventional agriculture causes. We hope to help reduce that impact with a highly productive organic garden, now eight years in the making. A few years ago, with our sustainability group as a catalyst, Harmony formed a private corporation of shareholders in an agricultural ditch that flows right past our garden. We own a share of Clear Creek in perpetuity and have installed a solar-powered pump to access the water.

A few meetings ago, we accepted responsibility for saving the world, since
somebody has to do it. We each showed up with platforms of five short-term and
five long-range suggestions for improving the world. This month’s meeting will
continue a discussion in which we began to apply first-aid to the most pressing problems, such as military aggression, child abuse and neglect, and other forms of violence. We concurred that only when our world is out of the crisis mode can we gain the flexibility and sense of empowerment to support the inevitable transition to a more equitable, secure, and permanently renewable economy.

What specific rehabilitating actions will be proposed for the long term?

We’ll find out this Sunday, and maybe we’ll follow through on an idea I once brought to the discussion, which I called the power of ten. What if our group of ten sustainability nuts comes up with ten priority actions that are fairly easy to understand and very endorsable? What if we then e-mail these priorities to our sixty-odd cohousing peer groups and they e-mail them to family and friends throughout the world? Our group of ten feisty change agents would have launched an exponentially influential document, read and endorsed by millions. Will we save the world? Probably just in the nick of time.

Related pages:
Sustainability

How Does Cohousing Create Sustainability?

Graham Meltzer, Ph.D., Cohousing Scholar

This piece answers the question “Why is cohousing sustainable?” very thoroughly. For more of Graham Meltzer’s observations about cohousing, read his book Sustainable Community: Learning from the Cohousing Model, available at www.trafford.com.

—D. L. W.

In the Fall of 1996, I undertook a grand tour of North American cohousing by visiting all of the established cohousing communities in New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and California. I spent three to five days in each of eighteen communities and made short visits to four or five more. The primary purpose of the trip was to research the ecological advantages of community life. The fieldwork included a ninety-question survey of 350 households, extensive interviews, and an evaluation of site planning and architecture.

I looked at the real and potential benefits of cohousing with respect to land-use efficiency, alternative green construction, resource usage, conservation practices, and environmental quality. In addition, I set out to test a hunch: that communal living per se holistically integrates practical and social dimensions of daily life in a manner that reduces consumption, raises environmental consciousness, and realigns personal values. I sought evidence for what Don Lindemann expressed so poignantly in his inspiring Cohousing Magazine article “Coming Home”: “Cohousing is attractive to me precisely because it meets an immediate practical need for a rich social environment close to home, while also satisfying a deeper need to be a global citizen, to somehow reconcile the awareness of ecological and social deterioration with the actions of my everyday life.”

The Physical Elements

The physical attributes of cohousing—its location, site planning, and architecture—are its most immutable. Their careful consideration is critical for fledgling groups in the site-selection and development stages, when future needs and opportunities are defined.

Location is perhaps the single most important choice for many groups. Whether it be urban, rural, or something in between, location fixes proximity to schools, employment, shops, and services. This largely determines travel needs—though, clearly, homeschooling, telecommuting, and home businesses can mitigate vehicle dependence. Urban projects, such as Cardiff Place, Doyle Street, Southside Park, and Berkeley Cohousing, are impressive laboratories for the testing of green strategies for building reuse and sensitive in-fill development of existing neighborhoods (building in vacant areas). Such groups often sacrifice affordability, private space, and amenity in order to remain fully embedded within mainstream society. They demonstrate a civilized, sociable urban lifestyle, and, in my opinion, they provide the greatest impetus to broad social change toward a more sustainable society.

In contrast, less dense, more travel-dependent rural projects, such as Sharingwood and Nyland, enjoy peaceful, healthy, and safe surroundings in close proximity to nature. These communities have been instrumental in protecting the natural heritage of their locality and lobbying for improved services and public transportation.

Most cohousing groups, however, have adopted the compromise position of a suburban or small-town location where relatively affordable sites offer easy access to services, facilities, and recreational open space. Such sites are often large enough to accommodate modest employment, leisure, and cultural facilities that can then be made available to the wider community. The range of development options made possible in such locations offers great potential for sustainable strategies, such as the application of alternative, green construction methods and materials. Groups are generally active in local affairs and their efforts are visible to the wider community. A suburban or small-town location is likely to be most appealing to the mainstream; therefore, it’s important, if cohousing is to be a model of sustainability, that new projects demonstrate a potential for low-impact building, technology, and lifestyle.

Apart from the inner-city projects mentioned, those that I found most impressive in terms of how the land is used were Highline Crossing, with its uncompromising yet evocative urban aesthetic; Muir Commons, with its exemplary landscaping, orchard, and vegetable garden; Puget Ridge, with its dense yet human-scaled architecture beautifully integrated with landscaping; Windsong’s high-density and radical architecture configured to protect the habitat of threatened salmon species; and Winslow’s deceptively dense dwellings nestled amongst lush permaculture gardens and surrounding woods.

Despite the generally compact housing form and explicit commitment to sharing, little centralization of services and infrastructure has been attempted in American cohousing. An obvious exception is the EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York, where a centralized plant distributes energy to six or eight units at a time. Pine Street and Cambridge Cohousing have installed geothermal heat pumps that deliver air at belowground temperatures to the majority of dwellings; however, these are exceptional examples. The conventional architecture of most cohousing projects poorly represents the unconventional social settings they foster. Perhaps in the years to come, as cohousing gains acceptance and certain aspects of project development become streamlined, greater thought may be applied to developing a genuinely representative architecture of community—one that more confidently expresses shared aspiration through its site planning and in its built form.

The Social Elements

My research survey, though mostly quantitative, concluded with the open-ended question “How has living in cohousing affected, if at all, your household’s ecological practices?” Responses suggested that among other factors, four distinctly different kinds of social interaction impact the degree of proenvironmental behavior: influence, exchange, cooperation, and support.

Influence

Influence occurs where knowledge and skills are imparted from one person to another. The data confirm that cohousers are remarkably well qualified, with 50 percent of the adult population having a Masters- or higher-level degree and another 30 percent having undergraduate qualifications. Many members are highly experienced in a range of life skills and practices. In conventional society, specialists (whether they are doctors, plumbers, or pastry cooks) tend to guard their expertise and protect the status and financial reward their position incurs.

In cohousing, knowledge and skills are more readily shared. They become diffused throughout the community and contribute to the welfare and personal development of all. This appears to be particularly true of environmental consciousness and practice. Those who have considered the issues and adapted their lifestyles accordingly readily influence members without much knowledge or commitment. This is well illustrated in the Berkeley Cohousing project, an exemplary model of environmentally benign urban redevelopment that combines refurbishment of existing housing stock with in-fill development. Much of the credit for the community’s innovative design goes to one enthusiastic member who researched alternative building methods and ecologically benign materials. He influenced not only the residents, but also the architects and contractor. Indeed, his work may well inform and inspire cohousing groups to follow.

Exchange

Apart from the influence of individuals, there occurs between members a more reciprocal and indirect process of exchange. This involves the mutual sharing of ideas and experiences and is therefore dependent upon the quality of social relationships within the group. The greater the respect and receptivity, information is exchanged. Through daily contact with neighbors, new learning is constantly reinforced—a condition that residents reported was conducive to lasting improvement in proenvironmental practices. Respondents to the survey reported significantly increased levels of composting, recycling, and resource conservation as a result of personal interaction with others who are more experienced.

Cooperation

Cooperation, like exchange, builds social relationships and is also dependent upon them. The degree to which residents are willing to cooperate is a function of the trust and goodwill they’ve established. In cohousing, the common house is the most tangible expression of member cooperation. Shared facilities both within the common house and elsewhere take considerable coordinated effort to operate and maintain. However, extensive shared facilities do not necessarily generate high levels of resident cooperation. In fact, somewhat ironically, my data suggest that communities with the highest ratio of common-to-private space had the most underutilized common houses, and those with relatively little shared space per household generally had higher rates of cooperative activity and participation.

Cohousing lore suggests that members own in common or readily share consumer items such as gardening equipment, carpentry tools, and household goods. Indeed, survey respondents reported owning 25 percent fewer freezers, washers, and dryers and 75 percent fewer mowers as a result of moving into cohousing. Informal sharing of smaller household items also occurs, but only one community, The Commons on the Alameda, appears to have optimized the process by circulating an extensive list of building, gardening, camping, cooking, and other equipment that each household owns and is willing to share.

Cooperation to reduce driving via carpooling and the coordination of trips is also thought to be widespread in cohousing. But in fact, little formalized carpooling exists in the communities visited, although the coordinated running of errands is common.

Another apparently untapped potential of cohousing is the economy of scale available for food procurement. Some communities, Muir Commons, Nyland, Pine Street, and Pioneer Valley in particular, have extensive vegetable gardens coordinated by small committees on behalf of all the members. But most leave this activity to households to manage in private garden plots or those shared by a small number of households. Few groups, with the notable exception of Muir Commons, yet enjoy significant harvests of fruit, although many have planted orchards.

Support

Allied to cooperation but operating at a more personal level, support is readily offered and accepted in cohousing. Practical support occurs in a multitude of circumstances. There is willingness to care for their garden or feed their cat when neighbors are on vacation. Advice is offered and time readily spent in helping friends fix a leaky faucet, install new software, or move heavy furniture. This kind of mutual aid can save money, alleviate stress, and give substance to relationships. It is an essential ingredient of the social glue of most cohousing communities.

Some groups nurture practical and emotional support by establishing a committee to tend the personal needs of members. Radically changed circumstances and emergency situations are often catalysts for such support. Unexpected loss of employment may necessitate a loan from an emergency fund; accommodations within the community may be found for one member of a splitting couple; a cooking roster may be devised to provide meals for a family in need. One member of Pioneer Valley, for example, reported not having to cook for two months following the birth of her child.

How does this relate to sustainability? Well, I believe that a deep sense of connectedness to others can lead to a radical realignment of personal priorities. In conventional society, a focus on individual well-being is fused with a materialist conception of the world to become the American Dream. In cohousing, the focus becomes more altruistic and outwardly directed. Caring for the well-being of others becomes part of daily life.

In my tour of cohousing, I observed personal fulfillment within a context of nurturing, supportive social relationships; self-knowledge and efficacy balanced with a commitment to others. For example, my arrival at New View Cohousing coincided with a fortieth birthday being celebrated in an open parking lot festooned with balloons, a live band, and a buzzing camaraderie. At Nyland, I felt privileged to be present when Halloween and Day of the Dead traditions were conjoined at a campfire gathering. I felt a sense of deep personal meaning and strong group cohesion. And at Southside Park, a moving Chanukah service was led by Jewish children in the presence of the whole community in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.

These are the stuff from which lasting bonds are formed and a sense of community is built. I like to believe they herald a grassroots’ driven paradigm shift toward a sustainable society underpinned by strong community values. We shall see!

Related pages:
Sustainability

If Not Us, Who?

PattyMara Gourley, Tierra Nueva, Oceano, California

When we citizens feel like we’re up against a brick wall in the form of bureaucracy or corporate domination, we sometimes lose our sense of empowerment. Not so at Tierra Nueva, whose members drilled an exit hole in the brick wall and marched full speed ahead.

—D. L. W.

Tierra Nueva Cohousing holds the distinction of being one of the first cohousing groups in the nation. Our founding members formed our group in San Luis Obispo County, California, in 1988. As pioneers in the new cohousing movement, we were faced with high-risk financial challenges, land-title complications, and the task of convincing our county planners and fearful neighbors that cohousing was the wave of the future. But we didn’t know in those early years that our biggest challenge still lay ahead of us.

While other early groups moved more quickly through their development, design, and construction phases, we plodded along, meeting each new barrier or “project breaker” with dogged determination, honing our skills of communication, collaboration, and consensus. The early families leaned into one another for encouragement through those dark days and shared the plain stubborn notion of “We’ve made it this far, we can’t stop now!”

A full ten years after the group formed, in the summer of 1998, the first families of our twenty-seven households began moving into our homes. We built our passive solar homes in the heart of a five-acre organic avocado orchard near the small town of Oceano on the central California coast. We settled into our new lives with relief and delight. I remember thinking at the time, “Surely the difficult work is done. Now comes the easy part!” Then strange things began to happen.

The same month my family moved into our new home, my “other mother,” Marya, a beloved elder of our community, died suddenly from an asthma attack while she was walking through the orchard to visit her home site. We gathered in shock around the tree where she took her last labored breath and grieved her passing with a candlelight memorial service. We did not know then that her death was only the first of many mysterious illnesses and deaths that would haunt Tierra Nueva Cohousing community.

In the bittersweet haze of our grief and our joy, we cooked nourishing meals for one another, planted gardens, threw parties, and tended our organic orchard. Through trial and error, tears and laughter, we became more closely connected with each other and with the universe we all inhabit.

More than half of our community residents had moved from other cities and states. Adjusting to the new climate took some time. Those with seasonal allergies experienced the effect of unfamiliar pollen, but felt no relief when the seasons changed. Our meetings and meals began to be punctuated by odd, dry, persistent coughing. Chronic headaches and flu symptoms became common complaints.

After months of puzzling allergies and digestive discomfort, Carol, another community resident, was diagnosed with stage-four cancer, which had spread from an unknown source in her body. Within three months, she was gone. Even then, we did not make the connection that many more of us were being poisoned by an unknown source. After all, we were living in the midst of an organic orchard, eating homegrown, nourishing foods, living healthy lifestyles in the community of our dreams.

And then Leah Rose, a sturdy seven-year-old, started coughing that same dry cough that wouldn’t go away. During a night of wheezing, she told her mom and dad, “I have a ball in my throat!” as she struggled to breathe. After weeks of frightening symptoms, she was diagnosed with asthma. By the autumn months of 2001, it was finally becoming disturbingly clear to us that something dreadful was amiss.

A prime suspect in the mystery surrounding our illnesses was the picturesque strawberry farm that Leah Rose could see from her upstairs window. This thirty-acre farm that borders our land was being fumigated and sprayed with a cocktail mix of toxic pesticides and herbicides. One of them, the infamous methyl bromide, was determined by the Montreal Protocol International Agreement to be damaging the ozone layer of the Earth’s atmosphere and was slated for an eventual worldwide ban. But meanwhile, down on the ground, Leah Rose had a ball in her throat and an alarming number of us were suffering increasing respiratory illnesses, skin rashes, headaches, flu-like symptoms, and mental disorientation.

We were getting and staying sick, and we weren’t the only ones. We learned that other neighbors from surrounding residential areas had been complaining for more than a decade of symptoms associated with pesticide-drift poisoning. A dedicated small group of these neighbors had successfully convinced the county Public Health Commission to sponsor a public meeting about the strawberry field’s affect on the neighborhoods. When Karl Kempton, our neighborhood poet-activist, contacted us about the meeting, we readily agreed to participate.

More than 100 people attended the meeting, which the county health commissioner opened by giving extensive time to the Agricultural Commission and the local growers and brokers. At long last, when the microphone was finally opened to the public, Michael Kaplan spoke eloquently about his daughter, Leah Rose, experiencing her first asthma attack and the frightening weeks of symptoms before diagnosis and treatment. Others described their illnesses that followed each spraying and fumigation of the field. Nurses from the area reported growing statistics of respiratory diseases. Long-time residents, including Karl, spoke of the same symptoms they had been complaining about for nearly fifteen years with little response from governmental officials.

The next day, we read a newspaper article about the meeting, and then, silence fell. The Health Commission had formed a Pesticide Task Force to investigate the complaints, but how much would that help Leah’s hacking and wheezing in the middle of the night? At our next business meeting, Michael announced his intention to write a letter of complaint to the owners of the strawberry farm, a theosophical community named Halcyon. In true cohousing style, discussion arose from the group and Michael was challenged to form a committee first, with the gentle suggestion that we couldn’t complain about the problem without also offering to help create a solution.

We formed Neighbors at Risk (NAR) as a coalition of neighborhoods that surround the strawberry farm. In our first flyer we described ourselves as “ordinary citizens wondering why we were getting sick.” Our prior environmental work consisted more in writing donation checks to groups such as Greenpeace than in direct action. But all that changed when we started getting sick, and the county agencies that we thought were looking out for our heath seemed to be more attentive to the big business of agriculture.

What began as a simple wish to write a letter of complaint grew over the next year into a wildly successful grassroots citizen coalition that broke new ground in our county and in the state. As ordinary citizens new to the complexities of pesticide drift politics and science, we sought and received help from a state organization named Pesticide Watch as well as our local environmental council, the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County (ECOSLO). They helped us focus our efforts into a cohesive campaign with clear goals. We decided to launch a two-pronged campaign involving a public outreach to the surrounding neighborhoods and a more private interaction with the owners of the field.

We NAR members perceived our mission in very basic terms: we hoped to unite the extended neighborhoods by sharing information about pesticide drift, mastering the complicated complaint process required by county and state agricultural regulations, and devising an early-alert network for neighbors before each new spraying or fumigation. We believed that if we all paid attention to how we and our families were feeling in the days following each pesticide application, then carefully logged and accurately reported all the illnesses, we would become impossible to ignore.

The skills we had practiced over the long years of development, design, and construction of our cohousing community served us well in our new role as activists. We incorporated our meeting structure and facilitation style into the NAR committee meetings and made sure that everyone felt heard and acknowledged for their previous efforts, particularly those neighbors who had lived here long before our cohousing community was built. Our years of practice with consensus gave us the organizational tools to build a coalition of diverse interests, and our years of marketing Tierra Nueva—presenting informational slide shows, creating brochures and press releases to attract new members—also served us well in our campaign.

Our next step would be to canvass the surrounding four neighborhoods that bordered the field and invite them to a community gathering in our common house. Amy Leach had spent time in college canvassing for a statewide environmental organization, and based on that experience, she wrote a summary statement for the canvass teams that enabled us to conduct an informal health survey. Every day of canvassing revealed a growing list of diseases, whole cul-de-sacs of cancers as well as alarming incidents of miscarriages and birth defects. Everyone we spoke with had a story of illness or death. In light of this sobering information, we decided that our first gift to the neighborhood would be to simply listen to everyone’s story.

Candia Varni, a new neighbor who had purchased Carol’s home after her death, had begun to experience reoccurring skin rashes. Candia agreed to take on the gigantic task of “doing the science” of pesticide drift. She researched and described the symptoms of exposure for each of the chemicals being used on the strawberry farm and compiled numerous fact sheets to help inform the neighborhood about the realities of pesticide drift. One of these papers described the procedure our doctors would have to follow to report suspected exposures, which she had learned firsthand after her agonizing skin outbreaks. She had to educate her doctor on how to fill out the form in a way that would fulfill the requirements of state pesticide regulators. We planned to make Candia’s information available to all our neighbors.

In the days preceding that first April gathering in our common house, tensions were building. The big business of agriculture wields powerful influences in our county. How could a ragtag group of neighbors make enough changes to keep our children and ourselves safe? One day, I sat in our meditation garden that overlooks the strawberry fields, struggling with the paradox that this farm’s sacred soil could become so menacing a danger. I knew we needed help of a different nature.

I began to think of all my neighbors reporting their illnesses and imagined a line of light flowing through each one’s heart, encircling the field. No longer menacing, the sacred soil of the land became my ally, energizing my efforts and sustaining my vision. Every day after that one, I silently linked hearts with my neighbors and the soil and its guardian spirits.

On the evening of our gathering, thirty people showed up. I opened the meeting by suggesting that we acknowledge the suffering we all had experienced by listening to one another tell our stories. I began by describing Marya’s asthma attack that ended her life under one of our avocado trees. Michael spoke of Leah Rose’s ball in her throat. The stories continued to flow around the circle. Two adult sisters spoke of their parents’ deaths from different cancers, of sick and dying neighbors up and down their block. Another woman spoke of her life-threatening struggle with pulmonary fibrosis, her son’s asthma, and her husband’s allergies. She hadn’t connected the dots until that night. She wondered out loud if the pesticide drift might be a factor in all their diseases. Others reported of having to sell their homes and move away in order to regain their health.

We listened, we recorded each story, and we handed out piles of Candia’s fact sheets. We passed around the e-mail-and-telephone early-notification list, promising everyone we would keep in touch. Then we served platters of organic strawberries, a symbolic gesture, to emphasize the nourishing possibilities of growing wholesome food on a farm without harm. By the end of the evening, we no longer felt isolated and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tasks ahead. By listening to and acknowledging each person’s story, we forged a mighty coalition of heart connection with one another.

In the next eight months, we worked on strategies, wrote press releases, and created a Web site. Following our intention to work cooperatively rather than with confrontation, we invited the agricultural commissioner and the field inspectors to our common house to present their perspective and answer our questions. They agreed to work with the farmer to give us a twenty-four-hour prior notice for all sprayings and fumigations, which averaged once or twice a month during the growing season.

Before each application, we contacted all the neighbors by e-mail or telephone to remind them to close their windows, keep pets indoors, and be aware of any change in their health. When I made the calls, I became especially fond of one of the elderly neighbors who lived directly adjacent to the field. During our third conversation, she revealed that her husband had recently died of cancer and she had just begun to make the connection that perhaps the pesticides were the cause. We shared a sad moment of silence together. My last phone call to her was answered with a recorded message that she had left the area.

The agricultural department agreed to conduct an expensive scientific sampling to test if drift was occurring. Though the test results were positive, their official response was less than encouraging. They determined the positive results to be “insignificant.” The agricultural department ignored the fact that all drift is illegal and chose to advocate for the farm owners rather than the farmworkers and the neighbors who breathe the deadly drift clouds. We also learned from them that the official complaints we were submitting would take years to be analyzed by the state’s pesticide regulatory bureaucracy.

Based on the gruesome results of our early canvassing, ECOSLO was awarded a grant for an official public health survey through researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles. Tierra Nueva’s common house was used to stage the canvass teams and NAR volunteers walked the streets knocking on doors and asking survey questions. Preliminary hospital statistics revealed elevated birth anomalies in the town of Oceano, which is home to many farmworkers. In addition, the county epidemiologist studied local hospital records that revealed significantly higher levels of asthma, pneumonia, pleurisy, and male urinary tract cancers.

Concurrent with our public outreach, NAR made plans for a more private interaction with the owners of the field, the Halcyon Temple. We worked on creating a new vision for sustainable farming practices as an alternative to the monocrop factory farming. We informally named our vision “farm without harm” and set about developing a relationship of communication and trust with the Halcyon community’s Temple officers, including the Temple’s guardian and chief, Eleanor Shumway. We compiled packets of information to present to her, describing alternatives to conventional agricultural practices. We also gave her Michael Ableman’s excellent book On Good Land, which describes Fairview Farm in Goleta, about ninety miles south of Tierra Nueva. This successful urban farm, completely surrounded by suburban development, grows nourishing organic produce without the use of pesticides and other chemicals.

In ongoing meetings with Shumway, we gradually earned her trust and cooperation. Her deep loyalties to the local farmer who had leased the fields for many years was tempered with her increasing dedication to our vision of a farm without harm. It resonated deeply with the Temple teachings of stewardship of the land.

Nearly a year after NAR’s formation, the Temple officially announced its intention to sustainably farm the thirty-acre field with “sensitivity to the farmworkers, neighbors, and the land itself.” In March of 2003, the Temple announced their selection of a local farmer, Jerry Rutiz, as the new farmer whose methods would be sustainable. All the neighborhoods surrounding the field breathed sighs of relief and shouts of jubilation.

But just when we thought we were no longer neighbors at risk, we were directly exposed to pesticides in broad daylight. Sprayings and fumigations normally take place in the middle of the night, when no wind is present and most people are asleep. But on a clear, windy afternoon in March, twelve Tierra Nueva children and six adults were rehearsing our spring equinox play in the meditation garden that overlooks the strawberry field. We were startled by the growl of a large tractor spray rig rumbling toward us, driven by a man in a full chemical-protection suit. Immediately we smelled a sharp chemical odor and tasted an acrid bitterness in our throats. One of the parents of the children who was standing at the fence yelled “They are spraying now!” I directed all of the children to run up the path away from the field and into their homes. My many urgent phone calls finally resulted in the dispatching of an agricultural inspector, who called me from the field after he interviewed the spray rig driver. The inspector listened to my report of the direct exposure of our twelve children and six adults, heard the terror in my voice, and acknowledged the unusual circumstances of the daylight spray with windy conditions. Then he dropped a bombshell.

The farmer insisted that only water was being sprayed when the tractor was driving by our garden. They were only testing the rig.

I realized then that the field inspector was choosing to believe the farmer, not us. I begged him to do a drift test, and he agreed to try to get permission from his supervisor. Permission was denied to run the tests.

When we reported that a neighbor had taken photographs of the tractor rig spraying close to our land, the officials finally agreed to test for drift, but when the weeks piled up with no official response, I was reminded of the mantra we repeated in the early days of building our dream of cohousing: “We’ve made it this far, we can’t stop now!”

I believe it was our training in the community politics of cohousing that empowered us to work effectively with various state and county offices to create better methods of reporting pesticide exposures and receiving immediate assistance from county public health agencies. It wasn’t enough to be heading out of the shadow of pesticides ourselves; we wanted to help reduce the risks for all others who also lived near farms.

In May of 2003, Tierra Nueva hosted a huge organic potluck feast, inviting all the neighborhoods to come celebrate the new “farm without harm” and meet farmer Jerry and his family. We feasted on wild Alaskan salmon, fresh vegetables from Jerry’s current farm, and a staggering variety of organic casseroles, salads, breads, desserts, and free-trade organic coffee. More than 100 guests stuffed themselves into the common house, dancing and singing together to live music provided by Halcyon troubadours. Jerry spoke to us about his plans for replenishing the sterilized soil with compost, growing a variety of food crops and flowers without toxic chemicals and working toward building a Community Supported Agriculture operation. We lingered long that night, moving from group to group in a daze, enjoying the distinct feeling that this was just the beginning of something marvelous.

The juiciest fruit harvested from NAR’s year of activism was the promise of the new farm. Encouraged by the new farmer’s vision, I am imagining a fruit-and-vegetable stand at the edge of the field with a colorful cafe serving organic coffees and fresh-baked lemon-walnut scones. As an educational demonstration farm for the community, tours will gather and learn about the magic of growing whole foods. On summer evenings, Karl can read his poems to us in the cafe, while we pass around heaping platters of organic veggies and Tierra Nueva guacamole. As shareholders in the farm’s harvest, we will collect our weekly bags of fruit, veggies, and flowers. At harvest time, we will gather in gratitude, gleaning the fields for the local food bank.

Foremost in my vision is Leah Rose, and all of our children, looking out their windows and seeing a patchwork quilt of colorful crops growing from sacred soil, wriggling with the healthy organisms of living earth. Above the farm, wind currents will carry purified air to Leah’s window. Below the ground, the underground water sources will return to their crystalline purity, no longer saturated with agricultural chemicals. Our nearby creek’s habitat will steadily improve and the native steelhead trout will swim upstream once again to spawn.

The heart connections that flow through Tierra Nueva and surrounding neighborhoods that circle the farm will sustain us for lifetimes if they are nourished with fellowship. After all, we’ve made it this far, we can’t stop now.

Related pages:
Sustainability

Preserving Open Space—and My Sense of Humor

Edee Gail, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

Come see Harmony Village’s little “pocket park,” landscaped with native species; hike a nearby mountain trail; or maybe play a round of golf on the adjacent golf course. You may see and hear coyotes and meadowlarks, and you’ll certainly see lots of fat bunnies, whose population somehow stays ahead of both the coyotes and the resident mountain lion, who was recently seen peering in a neighbor’s living room window! -- D. L. W.

I grew up on an island in Michigan seeing ships from all over the world cruise right past our house. I loved looking across the vastness of the Detroit River and Lake Erie, and from an early age, I learned the sanctity of open spaces.

Years later, at a city council meeting in Boulder, a group called Ancient Forest Rescue was passionately attempting to persuade the city council to boycott Stone Container Corporation. They were cutting down the oldest trees in America to make two-by-fours to be sent to Japan at a loss to U.S. taxpayers. The leftover wood pulp was made into Domino’s pizza boxes and King Soopers and Safeway paper bags, all stamped with ecological arrows on them even though they were made from virgin wood.

I stood at the microphone telling of having spent eight years working for United Airlines, where I could fly around the world for $199. I told about what happens when you spend that kind of time in the air you see what is being clear-cut. You see that more than 95 percent of our ancient forests are gone. You recognize that you cannot stand a redwood back up or replace an ancient forest.

I spoke up not only on that day, but also on the day I was arrested and thrown in jail for defending our forests’ remaining old growth. My heart was in my stomach when I heard the cell doors of the women’s Durango prison echo as they all slammed shut. We six women arrested had our legs shackled as we were taken into court in bright-orange jumpsuits. Although I was found not guilty of trespassing on Forest Service land, I was charged $900 for attorney fees. I was innocent and it cost me $900? We risked our necks to protect the intrinsic value of this land, rich in biodiversity and history. We wanted it to be seen as something far more magnificent than profits.

When Robert and I first got involved with cohousing, I liked the idea that our home would be on the perimeter of the land, so I’d have a sense of space and a vista to take in. The idea of our emerging cohousing community buying land adjacent to open space was perfect. The cohousing standard of a common green where all can play and know they’re safe from traffic felt right too. Living in Golden with its open vistas all around us would be ideal. All was going according to my visions and hopes.

Little did I realize the extent to which the space around us would begin to shift and how we would need to get involved to preserve open, accessible land. My father used to say that above all else, keep your sense of humor. This has been great advice, along with my realization in recognizing that what is important to us defines who we are.

Space for Dogs

I tried to find my sense of humor when three neighbors decided they wanted dogs and didn’t feel they had room to keep them tied up at their own homes. Their vision was to have a dog yard out in what feels like the only open space left at the village—right near our house. I knew a chain-link fence would not be not my idea of how open space should feel or look, and the thought of four barking dogs just outside my window did not thrill me either. I thought, “There goes any sense of spaciousness.”

The night of the meeting about dogs, I felt like I was the only one out of twelve people who opposed three new dogs and a dog yard. This would make a total of eight dogs and I was thinking, “How can I possibly go against what the kids want and still get what I need? Am I the selfish one by wanting this open land and sense of tranquility? And why do dog owners think other people want to hear their dogs bark?”

Luckily, a solution was found by open communication. The facilitator had each of us say what we needed in order to make the dog scenario work. Three and a half hours went by before we reached consensus on an underground electrical fence that no one would see. The owners would pay for it and agree to be mindful when the dogs were barking and bring them inside. They also promised to be diligent poop-scoopers. This agreement was a victory for everyone involved. Later in the week, other neighbors thanked me for speaking up for what they didn’t have the nerve or time to share.

The Nineteenth Hole: A Public Park?

We moved into Harmony Village with five horses as neighbors just behind our house on Jefferson County Open Space. They grazed and roamed the openness, often stretching for better lunch on our side of a simple barbed-wire fence. They were able to canter and gallop on this wild acreage that swings around to the east behind a row of big trees on the property line. An old silo stands stoically on the hill, (which we were able to save from extinction with a few timely phone calls) and to the west of us are acres of old clay pits. The clay was mined and rode the rails to Denver, where it was made into brick. A gazillion years before any clay was dug, dinosaurs walked this land; a tyrannosaurus rex tooth was found in the clay pit, along with fossils of ferns and footprints more than 60 million years old. Somewhat ironically, the golf course is called Fossil Trace, maybe indicating that most of the fossils are now in the walls of Denver homes or jumbled up under the green fairways—only traces remain.

The thought of losing our coyotes, horses, history, and open space to men wearing madras slacks was a claustrophobic nightmare to me. At a city meeting in our common house, we were informed that only golfers would be allowed on the open space when the course opened. We did some research. According to Golf Digest, only 10 percent of the public plays golf. I knew that I was just one of that 90 percent who isn’t interested in the game, is too young, too old, or simply can’t afford it. I felt there must be someplace that the 90 percent could go to take in the green, open beauty of the soon-to-be-golf course. If we couldn’t be on it, at least we should have a place we could walk or ride our bikes to.

I invited various city planners over for lunch to propose the creation of a park in place of some of the golf course homes that were being planned. With the support of my neighbor Dave, I invited every city councilor over to see that this land would make the most beautiful park in Golden because of the 360-degree view of foothills, golf course, mesas, and mountains.

I invited the developer over so he could see what our cohousing community was about—clustered housing with common spaces that allow residents to feel that they have more space in their lives. We suggested how much more marketable his homes would be with a park available to the residents.

It was an afternoon of golds, from the turned cottonwoods lit up by the sun to the golden-yellow lentil soup. As we sat outside on the patio, all three of us laughed and joked, and he even asked for a tour of my house. Although he quickly nixed the idea of donating the land for a tax write-off, he didn’t slam the door on the idea of getting fair market value for several of his undeveloped lots. I don’t think he really expected us to convince the city to buy them.

When the mayor saw the land, he totally understood what our passion was about. He refused lunch yet was willing to sit and give us the low-down on the hoops we’d have to jump through to bring this to fruition. He stated the importance of getting a majority vote from the citizens’ parks and recreation advisory board before even thinking about the city council approving the developer’s $120,000 asking price.

We found out all too soon that the advisory board, guardians of city open space funds, might be a hard egg to crack. About six of us in the village pulled together a Neighborhood Park Packet for each voting official, and my husband, Robert, and I hand delivered the packets on his motorcycle.

Individually and in small groups, we courted each decision maker, walking the land with them. For many of our meetings, the weather was bleak, windy, and cold. Grays and browns are not a match with the word park, but that’s all God could give us at the time. I tried to bring warmth and lightness to the on-site meetings by offering hot chocolate and cookies in colorful cups to whatever official was available that day.

We organized a strategic neighborhood canvassing effort to garner signatures and contributions toward shrubs and trees. In three weeks, we collected 437 signatures and pledges of $2,200 for water-efficient landscaping for the proposed park.

Months went by and we finally got the approval of the parks and recreation committee. Although they were initially opposed to the idea of a pocket park with a high price per acre, they began to listen after seeing the land and hearing our well-researched arguments.

The winter night the city council voted was surreal. We had experienced many footsteps and heartaches to get to this place. The near-champion Golden High School football team received an award from the council for outstanding athletics and sportsmanship, which was accepted by a physically challenged yet proud and handsome coach in his wheelchair. Having the team’s energy in the council chambers was invigorating, with a flush of small-town spirit. When the decision about purchasing the park was presented on the overhead electronic boards, there was an unprecedented jump and cheer for joy by all the neighbors. It was a unanimous decision, with the mayor stating, “This is a true example of what democracy is all about.”

Last weekend, we planted our trees and shrubs in the park—one of the most memorable days of my life. I was tired after the work, but it was the best kind of tired because our efforts had gone somewhere. We were birthing a place that would be here for many future generations. The city sent over Josh, a twenty-something kid with his head on straight, to work the backhoe. He helped us distribute the trees to their chosen locations and carve planting holes into the world’s hardest material—or so it seemed on that day. At the end of that hot eight-hour period, he told us, “This has been totally cool, planting a neighborhood park I can show to my kids one day.”

Looking Out for the Future

When a local gravel company offered to trade 438 acres of Golden’s North Table Mesa for sixty-three acres of gravel-rich lowland, everyone involved won. The negotiation took three long years to complete, but the rewards are forever—permanent open space on a visually and historically valuable landmark.

We faced another challenge on the neighboring mesa, South Table Mountain, where Nike proposed building a 5,000-employee campus. This parcel of land, with its Castle Rock butte, was pictured on the Coors beer cans and ads for many years. More importantly to us, it’s what Golden residents see from any point in Golden. To many Native Americans, this is sacred land. To me, the Nike proposal would be like building on the Statue of Liberty’s head.

To face this challenge, we formed a citizen group called Save the Mesas to educate the public and even our own city government on the importance of procuring this land as open space. We sent newspaper articles and letters to the editor and to the Nike’s board of directors expressing the importance of the Mesa remaining undeveloped. Nike backed out for numerous reasons, a success still partly in the shadows since it’s unclear what the landowners will ultimately do.

The future of Golden’s open space is being decided as I write. It’s odd to me how these days one must battle for frontier—we no longer battle the frontier because there is so little left. We’ve tamed, groomed, and sculpted her to suit us, like the now-complete manicured golf course we see from Harmony Village living rooms and patios. At least the neighborhood kids who helped mulch the trees in the new park will remember how we created a new public place, and hopefully they’ll feel empowered to preserve land for their kids. One thing is certain: the land can’t preserve itself—it needs our help. May we find the persistence, people skills, and sense of humor that we’ll need!

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Sustainability

Money, Homes, and Trust: Economic Diversity Issues at Wild Sage

Ellen Orleans, Wild Sage, Boulder, Colorado

Sustainability is about more than environmentally friendly appliances, sustainably harvested lumber, and organic farming; it’s also about the overall satisfaction of people. Can they sustain a high enough level of involvement in the civic life of the neighborhood to maintain what has already been created, and even continue to improve it?

This piece by Ellen Orleans demonstrates that sustainability also includes qualities such as economic fairness and diversity.

—D. L. W.

“We support connections and relationships at all levels, consciously seeking and valuing diversity and the challenges it brings. … ”

At the core of most cohousing communities is a statement spelling out the group’s values. Common to many of these statements is a phrase about honoring diversity among its members. My cohousing group, Wild Sage, includes economic diversity as one of the differences it values.

At the start of our twice-a-month community meetings, we usually read our vision statement. During this part, I often find myself thinking, “Why does a group seek economic diversity?” Because it makes for a more interesting community? Because it’s a socially responsible position? Are vision statements written from the perspective of people with more money saying they value the presence of people with less money? Is it equally true that people with less money consciously seek and value living among people with more money?

These questions flit through my head, then beat a hasty path to the back of my gray matter, pushed out by talk of parking and participation, pesticides and pet policy. Sometimes, though, I wish our group could spend several hours (guided by a skilled facilitator) really talking about this.

Economic diversity is a hot issue in Boulder, Colorado, where rental and housing prices have spiraled upward since the late 1980s. Having survived the last fourteen years by living in increasingly smaller apartments, at age forty-two, I am now purchasing my first home, all 640 square feet of it. At $106,000 (about two-thirds of market value) this carriage house is part of Boulder’s permanent affordable-housing program. This means if I ever sell, its price will remain proportionately low. (Boulder County has about 3,000 such permanently affordable homes.)

{Figure 64, 65 Wild Sage Residents Salvage Solar Panels; Habitat Sweat Equity at Wild Sage

Boulder began its affordable-housing program with the intention of helping middle-income households—such as those headed by teachers, nurses, store managers, police officers, and city employees— buy homes in town. Some affordable housing is in mixed-use developments, where homes are clustered with shops and offices. My home is in one such area—a former drive-in theater in North Boulder.

The city-affiliated Boulder Housing Partners acquired the drive-in site in the mid-1990s and began a public-private partnership with for-profit and not-for-profit developers, such as Jim Leach’s Wonderland Hill, which has a long history of building cohousing communities.

A major impetus in developing the drive-in site was to significantly increase the number of affordable homes in Boulder. Of the 329 units to be built there, 43 percent are to be affordable. Of the thirty-four units at Wild Sage, twenty-one are sold at market rate, nine are permanently affordable, and four are for Habitat for Humanity. (Habitat is a nonprofit Christian housing group. Using volunteer labor, donations, and sweat equity from its homeowners, they build and rehabilitate houses. Habitat then sells these homes at no profit and finances them with affordable, no-interest loans.)

When I joined Wild Sage in March of 2001, the group was a mix of affordable and market-rate buyers who were working with Habitat to find families that were a good fit for cohousing. Unlike communities that have to search for land, we already had the drive-in site, but we hadn’t yet chosen units. Individual unit design was evolving; price estimates changed monthly.

It was a nebulous time, and that cloudiness carried through to the buyer categories. Only a mild friction existed amongst us. For instance, during my first year with Wild Sage, I’d hear assumptions such as, “Since we’ll be moving from larger homes to smaller ones, … ” or “Let’s have a meeting about timing the sale of our current houses to match the purchase of our cohousing unit.”

Remarks like these didn’t recognize that many affordable buyers were currently renting and would be moving into larger homes than those in which we currently lived. These comments were not devastating, but they did lack awareness. Although the Wild Sage vision talks about “consciously seeking and valuing diversity,” some members seemed pretty unconscious. I didn’t push the matter though. I was still in the group-development stage known as “dreaming and planning.” During this stage, community members don’t tend to challenge each other. The emphasis is on fitting in.

Two things changed during the next year. The first was personal: I left my adjunct faculty job at the University of Colorado and found steadier work. Happy in my new job, I remember one Wild Sage member (I’ll call him Pete), asking me how much I was making.

“Thirty thousand a year,” I told him.

“Wow, that’s practically volunteer work,” he said. He worked in high tech.

I didn’t tell him it was the most I’d ever earned. More importantly, I didn’t tell him, as I should have, that I felt insulted. For me, this conversation drove home the salary gap between me and some of my future neighbors.

The second change was that money conflicts began brewing at Wild Sage. Boulder Housing Partners clarified and changed some rules about required square footage and prices of affordable homes. This created an overall price increase. To absorb the increases, the prices of our units went up—market-rate homes disproportionately more than the affordable ones. Increasingly at meetings, talk arose about market-rate buyers “subsidizing” affordable buyers.

The conversations felt condescending, but since none of the other affordable buyers were speaking up, I didn’t either. Finally, at one meeting, when Pete again said, “Yeah, but we’re subsidizing you, so … ” I lost my composure.

“Actually Pete, affordable buyers are subsidizing your overpriced salary, which wouldn’t exist if the people you rely on for your health care, city services, and foamy mocha lattes got paid a living wage.”

I wasn’t quite as quick and eloquent as that and I said it while I was facilitating (which is highly unprofessional), but the effect was immediate. The room got quiet until someone from our process team said, “This sounds like an important discussion to have at a later time.”

After the meeting, three affordable buyers spoke to me. One said, “I’m glad you spoke up. I’ve been wanting to say something for a long time.” The other two said they were starting to feel guilty, as if they weren’t pulling their weight simply because they were buying affordable homes.

As a way to explore the growing divisions at Wild Sage, our group tried an activity to help members think outside their own experience. We used the activity during an upcoming discussion about the homeowners’ association (HOA) dues in which Wild Sage’s finance team was wondering if the category of one’s unit—whether market rate, Habitat, or affordable—should be taken into consideration when determining dues.

At the next meeting, we arbitrarily divided the community into groups of threes. In each of these groups, the members were again arbitrarily assigned identities, as a market rate, Habitat, or affordable buyer. If a member was assigned, for instance, the identity of an affordable buyer, no matter what category of unit they were actually buying, during this exercise, they needed to speak from the perspective of an affordable buyer. I then posed the question about homeowners’ dues.

The resulting conversations surprised me. A few market-rate buyers, for instance, were only slightly over the eligibility limit for affordable housing and could barely afford their units. Other market-rate buyers were unemployed and concerned about down payments. One Habitat buyer wanted to pay the same HOA dues as everyone one else because she didn’t want to feel indebted to the group. A market-rate buyer was eligible for affordable status and was considering switching to an affordable home. This exercise was a success; it got us talking and helped us gain empathy for each other.

A few months later, tensions again rose with a sudden “garage shortage.” In part, this shortage was caused by a new rule that allowed affordable and Habitat buyers to purchase garages. Again there were scattered comments about garages being an extravagance for Habitat and Affordable buyers.

What underlies this attitude is a false belief that one group of people knows best what another group needs. For instance, one of Wild Sage’s many single moms told us that, for her own sanity, once a month she treats herself to a day at a spa. A market-rate member commented that someone buying a discounted house shouldn’t indulge in such luxury. But who are we to judge how someone prioritizes their money?

Such judgments aren’t a one-way street. One time, a potential member, another single mom, was considering purchasing our most expensive home. A few days later, an affordable buyer apparently remarked, “What is she, a princess?”

Maybe this potential buyer was a princess or perhaps she simply had a high-paying job. Perhaps she’d invested well or had recently moved from a part of the country where homes cost more. The point is that when we make snippy comments, whether based on envy or distrust, it’s a sign we aren’t taking the time to learn about an individual. Assumptions are walls; we need bridges.

One bridge-building exercise we used at Wild Sage took a hard look at communal dust we’d swept under the rug. For this activity, I wrote twelve statements that summed up, in tactless and thoughtless ways, unspoken concerns about anxiety, participation, and finances. A few examples:

I’m tired of subsidizing affordable units. I don’t make much money myself.

If Habitat buyers can afford to purchase a garage, they should pay more for their houses instead.

Market-rate buyers are patronizing. I’m sick of how clueless they are about gender and class issues.

I purposefully made the statements harsh to cut through the politeness that sometimes keeps us from honest conversation. For the activity, I again asked the community to divide into groups comprised of at least one buyer from each category. I asked them to read and discuss the statements. Some groups focused on how unrealistic the statement seemed—“No one really thinks that, do they?”—while other groups directly tackled the issue raised. The ensuing discussions succeeded—if not in vacuuming up the dust under the rug, at least in lifting up the rug to reveal the hidden dirt.

Another bridge-building exercise I’ve used is “Standing in Each Other’s Shoes.” For this activity, the group forms a circle. The facilitator reads a statement, and if it is true for an individual, they take a step forward. The resulting inner ring of people is then encouraged to look at each other, acknowledge their commonality, then step back.

If the statements are mild, such as, “I have a dog.” or “I like vegetable lasagna.”, the activity simply encourages connection among members. However, if the statements are riskier, such as, “I have been in an abusive relationship.”, “I have been threatened because I am gay.”, or “Someone I cared about has recently died.”, the exercise drops to a deeper level. When you stand in that inner circle, amid people who have experienced similar suffering or heartbreak, the affinity is more profound.

To help the group explore money differences, I prepared statements reflecting economic concerns. One statement addresses that casual remark I first heard two years ago, “My Wild Sage home is larger than where I live now.” Other statements read, “I am concerned about HOA dues and I’m not sure I can handle my mortgage payment.” For these statements, I imagine buyers from every category will be represented. This, I hope, will remind us that money worries are not confined to a single income level.

As we continue to build community at Wild Sage and participate in bridge-building exercises, my hope is that someday we won’t need them. It’s not that I imagine our conflicts will magically go away, but instead that we will know each other well enough and trust each other deeply enough to initiate discussions on our own, preferably in the common house, over a big slice of vegetable lasagna.

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Have Conscience, Will Build: A Developer Reflects on Cohousing

Jim Leach, Wonderland Hill Development Company, Boulder, Colorado

If cohousers resemble the European frontier folk who settled America, it’s not difficult to picture developer Jim Leach in a buckskin coat. In a variety of ways, he’s in the vanguard, leading the movement to resettle America. In addition to being the developer of Silver Sage Village, an experiment in elder cohousing, Jim and his wife, Brownie, will also live there. DLW

Like a flame draws a moth, cohousing attracts a certain type of house builder. I’m afraid I am one of those types, as are many of my friends and associates. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we think we are going to save the world, our country, or at least our hometown from environmental and social degradation through the quality of the housing we create. This challenge keeps a lot of us going in an industry that is full of political adversity and economic risk.

Back in 1989, my friend Ed Trunk, a fellow home builder and a founding member of the Nyland Cohousing community, approached me with the idea that I might be interested in helping Colorado’s first cohousing community develop their project. He thought cohousing and I might be a nice fit together because I had, with partners, developed several planned communities in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, my company laid claim to having developed the first planned community in the city and probably in the state of Colorado that had common areas and a homeowners’ association (HOA). We had also done some innovative solar- and energy-efficient housing in the late 1970s and early 1980s and had collaborated with the Department of Energy to the tune of $250,000 in solar grants. All of this played well with the members of the cohousing community that later became the Nyland community.

By the time I met them, the future Nyland community consisted of more than twenty members, mostly proactive, relatively highly educated, and talented individuals whose heads of household ranged in age from their late twenties to mid-seventies. They had plenty of variety and talent in the group, including architects, at least one builder, and a number of educators, therapists, artisans, business owners, and even retired military people. They had taken the leap and gathered enough resources to option a forty-two-acre former farm in eastern Boulder County on land once farmed by the Nylands, a family with Danish roots—very appropriate, since the roots of American cohousing are also in Denmark.

When Ed described the concept of cohousing, which includes a strong commitment to green building and living sustainably, I was intrigued. I immediately went out and bought Kathryn McCamant’s and Charles Durrett’s book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, and speed-read it. This idea seemed like a breakthrough in developing a market for a more environmentally progressive housing. I was eager to work with the cohousing group to create a method to develop their community. Maybe they could become a model for other similar communities. It was clear to me that cohousing was very much resident driven: it is basically a group of people who want to design and build their own neighborhood and do a better job of it than conventional builders are doing.

As a custom builder, I’ve observed that just designing and building one’s own house is a monumental endeavor that few people have the energy to even attempt. Of those that do, many are tortured for years by the process. The decision making alone is enough to break up a good marriage. Trying to do this for a whole neighborhood of homes seemed like an overwhelming task for a diverse group of households, and the Nyland group was just coming to that realization after optioning their land. They had decided to seek outside professional help. After I began working with them, I had a realization of the potential power of community to change the way Americans live, moving us in a more sustainable direction.

Modern housing for the majority of the America population really traces its roots to the early-production models of suburban housing created by the Levitt brothers and other builders right after World War II. It was a natural evolution of the mass-production mind-set that brought our country so much success in winning the war and creating the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s. What some call the American Dream was just beginning to blossom. But like most success stories, too much of a good thing creates problems—in this case, long commutes, traffic issues, and the “collision” of automobiles with neighborhoods. It’s hard to get to know your neighbor when you’re inside a car or she’s disappearing into her garage with the door closing behind her like a drawbridge.

Solutions began to emerge in the 1970s and the 1980s—planned developments and planned communities where open space and common facilities were incorporated into neighborhoods to alleviate the negative impact of the automobile. In the past ten years, new urbanism has emerged as a strong force in attempting to make our developments more livable. Greater social interaction and community is encouraged in front of the houses in an attractive environment that’s not designed purely to accommodate automobiles.

But when cohousing came along in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was like adding a whole new dimension. Now, instead of just designing housing that offered a more attractive and resource-efficient product, we could codesign neighborhoods with the very people who were going to live there. These future residents could help decide where the kids’ playground should go and what kind of building materials should be used. They could tap into the synergies that inevitably arise when many creative minds focus on a single project. They could make a commitment to live a more sustainable, satisfying lifestyle together and could share not only common facilities but also their experiences, talents, and aspirations.

The Nyland community, like other groups we’ve worked with since, included several strong-willed interest groups. Among them were avid environmentalists with extensive knowledge about green building who wanted their future community to be a model for sustainable living. There were also individuals with great knowledge and interest in building the social aspects of the community. They spoke passionately about concepts such as raising children in a nurturing environment. For many, the affordability of their future homes was foremost, so they needed to participate in a program that delivered high quality at prices near the conventional market.

What resulted from this mix of needs, knowledge, and commitment was a very pragmatic approach to creating a resource-efficient neighborhood. Nyland was deemed by Public Service Company of Colorado to be the most energy-efficient new development built in the state the year it was completed and it was the subject of many magazine and newspaper articles. We included a host of green-building techniques in the project, ranging from lumber-conserving framing techniques and the use of manufactured wood structural components to water-conservation techniques in both homes and landscape. Grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Office of Energy Conservation funded the testing of indoor air quality in the homes, both when the homes were first completed and several months after the homes were occupied.

The tests determined that the Nyland homes had significantly lower levels of indoor air pollutants than a group of comparable new homes built at the same time. Some of the contributing factors were innovative low-cost fresh-air ventilating systems, paints that emitted fewer fumes, and carpeting made from recycled materials. However, one of the most important differences was that the Nyland homes in the study didn’t have attached garages, while the standard homes experienced significant pollution from automobiles and the chemicals associated with them.

In the tests made after occupancy, the most significant Nyland indoor air pollutants were generated from furnishings, household cleaners, and other substances brought into the homes by the occupants. One conclusion that can be drawn from the EPA tests is that lifestyle choices, such as the kind of household chemicals a person chooses and whether the car is parked in an attached garage, are likely to be as important as the way the house is built. The cohousing community process influences these lifestyle choices because households learn from each other and adopt behaviors that become part of their mission and their community culture.

Nyland also implemented an aggressive recycling program, as well as transportation programs that resulted in one-third fewer vehicle trips in and out of the neighborhood than comparable developments, as tested by the City of Lafayette. These various efforts resulted in an exemplary sustainable neighborhood of quality homes that were built for just 5 percent above the typical production home-building budget.

Nyland was ahead of its time: many of the green-building techniques used there ten years ago have since been incorporated in good, quality production housing throughout the Denver area because they make good common sense. However, it takes something like a group of future neighbors working through a functional community process to successfully challenge and change the paradigm.

The community process provides the energy that drives the change. However, it helps to have knowledgeable and experienced professionals who are willing to put in the extra effort it takes to push the envelope. In the Nyland project, these building professionals ranged from the primary designer, Matt Worswick, who brought practical green-building experience, to the trades people who had to take extra care and sometimes learn new, innovative techniques.

I have a slide that I’ve used many times in speaking about our green-building experience at Nyland. It’s a picture of one of the first homes under construction with most of the rough framing complete. The carpentry crew is standing around listening to a group of designers and engineers explaining a method of eliminating unnecessary framing lumber—Optimum Value Engineering, or OVE. The leader of the framing crew is standing, holding his bowed head between his two hands as if he just felt a big headache coming on.

Still, the community’s commitment to green building energized the professionals, and in a way, made them part of the community. It was evident that everyone working on the job felt the underlying vision of the group.

Wonderland Hill has now served as the developer in eighteen cohousing projects, and one of the things we learned early on is the importance of good community process. Most cohousing groups practice consensus, in which a decision requires unanimous consent. Typically, it’s regarded as inappropriate to block consensus for reasons other than the good of the group as a whole.

For a group of twenty or more often diverse-thinking Americans, consensus decision making can be a very time-consuming process. Group members must reach a high level of understanding and trust in each other and must be reasonably aligned and clear about their common vision for their community. This requires continuous team building and group process work that many Americans are not familiar with. That’s why we at Wonderland decided to establish a professional community-building and group-process function within our company. Their job is to help the groups become stronger communities with better group process. From our standpoint as at-risk developers, this is important both for project management and marketing. New prospective members want to join a well-functioning community and are turned off by poor group process.

In fact, group process is probably the greatest single challenge in cohousing developments. The process needs to be managed carefully but can’t be overly controlled by either professionals or individual community leaders. Lessons learned by Steven Covey, Jim Collins, and others in the creation of high performance and high creativity in business management are valuable in the cohousing process. As in business, we have found the Myers-Briggs personality profiles helpful in building understanding and respect among group members. A mature cohousing community, like a well-functioning business, takes on a life of its own and becomes like a living organism that transcends the individuals within it. People can leave or enter the group and it goes on in a flowing, organic way, moving toward the fulfillment of its vision.

We at Wonderland also believe that it is important to have a viable financial partnership between the community and the professionals, with both sharing the risk and success of the project. When inevitable disappointments arise in the development process, members and professionals who have financial risk in the project are more likely to pull together to resolve issues than to abandon the project.

The first cohousing communities developed in the United States faced special challenges due to the unique nature of the concept. There was this nagging perception that cohousing communities were communes. I can’t count the number of headlines for newspaper articles that included the words “communes of the 1990s.” Another misperception that affected the financing of early projects was that American homebuyers would not accept homes that didn’t have attached garages, or at least parking very near the house. The Nyland community debunked this myth when their first homes were chosen. The homes with the highest location premiums (perceived to be ideal locations) were also farthest from the parking lots. The home site with the highest premium of all was more than 100 yards from parking, but it had the best view of the mountains to the west, and was chosen first. So much for conventional suburban expectations.

Then there was the issue of common facilities adding to the price of the homes. These unfamiliar factors made it hard to get a construction loan at Nyland. But when we pointed out to the banks that more than 70 percent of the homes were presold, they began to warm up to the concept. It was important to make cohousing seem familiar to the lenders. We structured homeownership as it is in a normal, planned residential development, where individual households own homes and common areas are held in a homeowners’ association with covenants and bylaws. We also pointed to successful developments that our company and other home builders had done, with fairly extensive common facilities, such as pools and clubhouses and community greens. Our aim was to show that cohousing was not that much different—the buyers were just choosing slightly different common facilities.

Since Nyland, we have had very few problems obtaining construction financing for cohousing projects. Local smaller banks seem to love them because they are mostly presold to a group of potential future loyal bank customers. However, having an experienced cohousing developer backing the financing has been important. The construction lender’s greatest and most legitimate fears revolve around dealing with a group that is relatively inexperienced in real estate development and that might fall apart during the process.

Housing value is another challenge that cohousing struggles with. Not only do the cost of common facilities and sustainable design add to the price of cohousing homes, but the cohousing process is inherently less efficient than production-built housing, since the involvement of future residents can slow the project down. More professional time and talent are required to manage it effectively. A common question that comes up among professionals first looking at the cohousing process is: why can’t it be done without so much resident involvement in the development process?

The Mainstreaming of Cohousing

Some larger production builders, such as my friend Perry Bigelow in Chicago, are experimenting with cohousing-style design without the cohousing process. By eliminating the community involvement in the design and construction process of the homes, Bigelow will be able to offer significantly lower prices for cohousing homes than we’ve seen in the recent past. What they will lose is the community building that grows out of the experience of participating with your future neighbors in decisions about the design and construction of your homes.

Obviously, there’s value in a sense of community, but the homebuyer market often overlooks that value. We are a society that’s used to having our purchases fully assembled and ready to work without much effort on our part. Not very many Americans—even the so-called cultural creatives—are able to understand the value they will get from cohousing and are willing to pay the price for it. There is a need to document with credible research what existing communities are doing that adds significant value for their members. (I suspect this book may help identify some of these values.)

To have broader appeal, cohousing will have to offer better understanding earlier on of the expectations that the group will have on the individual both financially and in terms of personal time and energy. A better understanding of the vision of the community and how will it be implemented is also important, along with a clear understanding of the benefits that vision offers. Clearly, some people are able to see the final product even in the early stages of a cohousing project, but can we expect the typical homebuyer to be that visionary?

One way to create a stronger emotional appeal for cohousing is to tailor it to special segments of the population, such as seniors. This will result in less diversity but more easily defined satisfaction. In Denmark, they have been successfully creating seniors-only cohousing for the past twenty years. We are just beginning to work on similar communities in the United States. From a few early meetings with interested seniors, we have identified some interesting departures from the typical intergenerational communities we have been working with. Seniors place a high priority on a supportive physical and social environment that they can live in for the rest of their lives. They also place a higher emphasis on luxury and the aesthetic qualities of the homes and common areas. Wellness is a strong interest with a desire for common exercise space, lap pools, and therapy rooms, and even possible living units for wellness practitioners who would become part of the community.

Likewise, communities that offer a special environment for families with children, such as special schooling opportunities, play groups, and coparenting to free up parent time, will have a stronger appeal to young families. By locating senior communities next to communities that emphasize the needs of families and children, the intergenerational advantages of cohousing may be captured, while providing a stronger emotional appeal to both seniors and families.

Another unique quality that cohousing has is its ability to integrate households of diverse economic means. This attribute could play an important part in cohousing’s future and has already been demonstrated well in several communities in Colorado and California, such as the Nomad and Wild Sage Cohousing communities in Boulder. Boulder has an aggressive permanently affordable-housing program that is promoted by inclusionary zoning and financial assistance from the city. (Inclusionary zoning refers to the affordable-housing requirements that local governments place on new residential developments, requiring a minimum percentage of the homes in the development to be affordable to low- and moderate-income buyers or renters.) Nomad and Wild Sage have more than 60 and 40 percent respectively of their housing units in the city’s permanently affordable program, and Wild Sage has four units that are being built for Habitat for Humanity buyers. Home prices within these communities range from well below $100,000 to more than $400,000. Integrating households with that much economic diversity is not easy, but it is a challenge that is being met in cohousing. Diverse households are discovering the synergy that is generated through community and helping each other in ways that go beyond just providing decent housing for all. Habitat’s slogan, “It’s not a hand out, It’s a hand up.” is taking on a whole new dimension in these progressive cohousing communities.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Joining a cohousing community has been described as the longest and most expensive personal growth workshop you can attend. While it’s a major challenge for a community to organize itself effectively enough to get through the development process, for most groups, learning how to live together after moving in is even harder.

Yet after nearly two decades of cohousing experimentation, several observations keep coming up. There’s a very tangible dynamic that occurs when people cooperate to build their community and reach an understanding of how they will live together. They become an extended family of sorts, and they develop ways of loving, respecting, and having patience with each other. If cohousing is, at its core, about building a better world, one neighborhood at a time, then the world has already been improved by sixty or seventy neighborhoods, and many more are on the way. That’s a start.

Related pages:
Creating Cohousing

The Journey to 90 Percent Recycling at Quayside Village

Brian Burke, Quayside, North Vancouver, British Columbia

The Quayside community recently won the annual Environmental Stewardship Award given by the City of North Vancouver. Says Brian, “Seizing the opportunity to impress the city council with Quayside’s efforts toward Zero Waste, the Quayside kids took bags of what we recycle—and what the city at present does not, such as three kinds of Styrofoam and meat bones—along to receive the award at City Hall. We struck up a chorus to the tune of ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ with the words ‘Zero waste we say, in thirty different ways, reduce, reuse, recycle, rejoice, you can start today.’” –DLW

What happens when an aging hippie who got arrested protecting the last of the Canadian rain forest meets an irrepressibly positive grandmother and former shop steward? Well, for one thing, you’ve got a recycling problem!

When Carol McQuarrie and I first met seven years ago, I was looking for a new, environmentally friendly community to buy into and she was one of the original Three Blind Mice, a trio of single almost-grandmothers who didn’t want to grow old and lonely in their empty nests. They had an idea for creating a friendly, supportive neighborhood, and by the time I met them, five other families had bought into their crazy idea. They had plunged their savings into hiring the cohousing consultants Community Dream Creators.

At those first dream-creating meetings, often at Carol’s old heritage house, I noticed that her blue recycling box on the back porch wasn’t used all that often and there was no compost out in the yard. My mission was to change that kind of behavior. I asked the emerging community if they were willing to adopt a goal of diverting 90 percent of its waste into recycling. Perhaps they were overly influenced by the desire for more members, but they said yes and I joined the community.

A year later, our cohousing consultant was on the front cover of the local newspaper, pictured standing on our beautiful urban site that overlooks Vancouver Harbour, the Pacific Ocean, and the snow-capped North Shore Mountains. Downtown Vancouver was only a ten-minute ferry commute away. What a location!

The recycling program was already well underway during construction. The first step was to demolish three houses on the site, and based on my two years of experience in the recycling industry, I instituted an extensive demolition salvage-sale and recycling program. During construction, 51 percent of all material was recycled—the highest level ever achieved in the Greater Vancouver area. Wood, cardboard, paper, metal, Styrofoam, soft and rigid plastics, beverage containers—all were separated. Lunch leftovers were composted off-site and even all the old concrete foundation material ended up in the harbour as fill for the new cruise ship terminal.

By the next summer, that excavated site had been transformed into Quayside and we began to move in. Quayside inherited the contractor’s supply of garbage cans, which ended up in the parkade. This fleet of carts and bins holds both the materials picked up by the city as well as twenty-two other materials to sort, all of which I load into my van every month and take to a number of recycling facilities across the city.

“I’ll never get the hang of this,” Carol would cheerfully report in those early days, but I was determined to prove her wrong.

Challenges

At move-in, Quayside was halfway to our goal at 50 percent diversion, thanks to community members such as Kathy McGrenera, super single mother. Her daughter, Elise, became the first member of the day-care operation that had been Kathy’s dream to open in cohousing. Kathy was soon seen squinting over recycling bins separating items too small for normal people to see. “You know,” she giggled at one point, “once you get started on this, it’s hard to stop!”

But we faced other challenges. Some neighbors, perhaps a third of the community, made our recycling goal of 90 percent seem very unlikely. As recycling coordinator for the maintenance committee, I started recording how full the two-cubic-yard Dumpster (the smallest unit available) was every two weeks on pickup day. When several new members moved in, in spite of the clearly marked metro-wide cardboard ban that threatened fines, cardboard boxes began appearing from every weekend’s shopping sprees. The bin measurements went from averaging 75 percent full to overflowing. It was obvious that part of the challenge was to reduce what we brought into the community.

Then there were the days shortly after the Chinese owners of the little corner store in our building moved into their new house. They had bought the same historic corner store site where the Dome Mart had stood since about 1915. (Although the historic dome itself was relocated, Quayside’s architect had carefully reproduced the famous dome on the new building.) Suddenly, the day after regular pickup, the little Dumpster was full again, this time with cardboard boxes full of Chinese papers and old business files. Did that have something to do with the $1 extra garbage can fee assessed by the city?

Progress!

For two years, nothing much seemed to change, except that the donated backyard composters multiplied from two to four. Soon even the four units were not keeping up with demand, with, at that time, about three-fourths of the community participating. So we decided to invest in a high-volume, triple-bin composter made out of cedar, similar to the one at Cardiff Place in Victoria, British Columbia’s first cohousing community. Was our community culture maturing? My investigations showed we had now achieved 63 percent recycling, and six months later, this had risen to 70 percent. But our goal was still in the distance.

Most other similar buildings in the neighborhood were on weekly Dumpster pickups, but Quayside’s remained on a two-week schedule, in spite of the challenges. Clearly, the last one-fourth of the community was producing almost three-fourths of the waste. But people such as Kathy were leading the way, with program breakthroughs such as:

Putting a plastic bag in the common house freezer for bones, which get taken to a willing butcher for inclusion in the bonemeal industry pickup.

Collecting all Styrofoam. White bead board goes to the local ‘retro’ beanbag chair manufacturer. Eggs, coffee, and meat trays, weighing almost nothing, are nested and mailed to the Canadian Polystyrene Recycling Association in Toronto. Net cost is about $35 a year.

Bringing batteries and compact fluorescent lightbulbs to the IKEA company’s new recycling program.

What Goes Where?

While the municipality does pickups of metals, glass, numbers one and two plastics, mixed paper, cardboard, and newspaper, Quayside has recycling bins for many other items, including soft plastic; numbers three through seven hard plastics; low-grade paper and cardboard, such as pizza boxes and milk containers; Styrofoam; and several other groups of items. There are labels on the wall above the bins to give residents a map of what goes where.

We have a container for deposit bottles for funds that go toward common-house expenses. We have a container for clothes that gets taken to the Salvation Army. There’s even a bucket for wine corks and wood that get sent through a chipper at the transfer station; these are combined with other landscape materials to become garden and landscape mixes. Soft plastics get recycled into pellets that are then recycled into more plastic bags.

There’s no such thing as real garbage. But some of the items that we haven’t figured out how to recycle include incandescent lightbulbs; items that are made of different types of materials glued together, such as metal and plastic toys; disposable diapers; cat litter; and large vinyl items, such as shower curtains and raincoats.

The Final Push

On our journey to 90 percent, a fundamental question kept coming up: how to get problem recyclers such as Carol on the recycling bandwagon? I asked her if I could look under her sink, which was very fastidious, the same as the rest of her showpiece apartment. I saw a problem here. One of the keys to a successful program is to reorganize under the sink to allow for multiple bins, such as our recycled ice cream buckets, so that sorting and emptying is just as fast as throwing out garbage. There weren’t enough such containers under Carol’s sink. “How about starting with just one or two more items?” I asked.

“No, too complicated! Too yucky! I don’t do ugly!” she protested. And what can you do when someone blocks consensus on your proposal? We were head-to-head. She was the interior-design nut who refused to budge, but I was equally as determined—an activist who had once said no to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Clayoquot Sound when my environmental values were at stake. But this is Canada, you act polite. We weren’t playing hockey, after all.

Then I remember strange things started to happen. A few months later, I was back in her kitchen and noticed a beautiful ice bucket on the counter. Since she wasn’t known as a drinker, I asked her what it was. “My compost bucket,” she said. “It was a perfect match with the sink and faucet.”

Next she volunteered to empty the three little bins in the common house laundry, which are for lint, paper, and everything else. “Start small so you don’t fail,” she said.

Finally, I remember feeling hope for the world when Carol started her own recycling program, signage and all. She collected and delivered tin cans for the Community Arts Lantern Festival and corks and paper for the museum’s children’s program. She told me, “I love doing that. It makes me quite happy when I help recycle.”

It was the same voice that had started the community. In our early meetings, Carol’s voice had sometimes risen above the despair in the room to rally the group with her unwavering positive words. Now she was becoming a leader with the recycling. “Yes, we can do this too.”

P.S.

No, we haven’t reached our lofty 90 percent goal as of yet. But four homes have recently sold to new members who are all, so far, looking like more avid participants than the outgoing group. We must be well over 70 percent, although I haven’t done a formal calculation this year. And this weekend, we cancelled the garbage pickup for the third time in five years. After three weeks, we’re still not full!

Related pages:
Sustainability

The Landscape of Cohousing and Other Reflections

Grant McCormick, Sonora, Tucson, Arizona

Is sustainability possible in a resource-hungry location such as Tucson? Maybe so, if someone like Grant McCormick is on the design team. –DLW

In addition to the appeal of community living, I became involved in cohousing as someone who had skills to offer in the development process. I was interested in eventually owning a home, but I didn’t have the resources to buy one at the time, so it was more about supporting something I felt would be good for Tucson. I studied community planning in school, with an emphasis on the social factors in design, and cohousing seemed to offer solutions to many problems. There are many assumptions built into the phenomenon of suburban sprawl, for example, that suburban locations provide better environments for children, or that far-flung locations provide better access to nature and open space. Cohousing seemed to be able to challenge some of those assumptions. My goal was to choose an urban in-fill site instead of destroying untouched desert, and also to avoid infrastructure burdens associated with new suburban development. I wanted a location close to downtown, commercial services, and public transit.

The social aspects of cohousing—community, collaboration, and consensus—were especially appealing to me. I wanted to promote and learn about these aspects and integrate them into both my personal and professional life. Many of the textbook cohousing ideas about being connected to a community—casual social opportunities, a pedestrian orientation, participatory design and management, shared open space, knowing neighbors—were also appealing.

{Figure 69, Sonora Landscape}

The prospect of collaborating in the creation of an entire neighborhood from the start was interesting to me because of the contributions I could make in both urban planning and landscape design. I was also intrigued by the possibilities of a highly participatory planning-and-design process, producing results more responsive to future residents than occurs in typical developments. Aside from opportunities to demonstrate specific sustainable-development techniques, such as material selections, cohousing offered the potential to demonstrate sustainability due to the collaborative, shared resources nature of the community.

The most surprising part of creating Sonora Cohousing was how long it took— seven years from the first meeting to move-in. Still, even the more developer-driven and streamlined forms of cohousing development can take many years, as can conventional development projects. The key stumbling block is related to financing. Finding a partner that could arrange financing was the watershed event that eventually made the project happen.

Despite the fact that government regulations related to codes and the approval processes were a drag on the development process, in our case, the city was very supportive, predictable, and presented little overall impediment. A far more limiting factor in terms of time delay and innovative design was what might be called “design by inertia” on the part of the professional development community. The idea of a participatory design that included future residents in decision making was unfamiliar to design professionals, the builder-developer, and the city, thus we met some degree of resistance.

Yet the results of our participatory-development model speak for themselves. Value was added and many sustainable goals were included as a direct result of resident input. For example, the community has more than forty fruit trees, including citrus, avocado, peaches, nuts, and others. One hundred percent of our sparse rainwater is captured in drainage basins designed to slowly percolate the water back into the soil; it is also used to provide on-site landscaping. The common house was built out of straw bales with a stucco finish and it has photovoltaic panels on the roof. We recycle gray water from the common house laundry room for use on our landscape, and a number of homes have cisterns to store rainwater.

Goals Realized and Future Goals

Most of my early goals have been realized to some degree. I have a home in Sonora Cohousing. While the site isn’t as urban as I would prefer, it is within several miles of the city core and is built on an in-fill site. I believe it is a great environment for kids and parents and it has a lot of very appealing open spaces. I’ve learned a lot about community, collaboration, and consensus, although I think we have a ways to go to reach our full potential. The social results are not as fulfilling as I had originally hoped, largely because of my full work life, the time demands of being a primary steward of the community’s landscape, and a few community conflicts.

My goals for the future are focused more on the social aspects, centering on my family, the creation of a more effective community decision-making process, and stronger personal relationships with other community members.

I continue to nurture the Sonora Cohousing landscape, which I believe is key to the community’s sense of place within the Sonoran desert. The landscape was designed to be a diverse and beautiful place for people’s enjoyment, while also demonstrating appropriate ecological choices for the Sonoran desert.

Other outstanding development projects also demonstrate sustainable practices appropriate to the region, such as landscaping with native and edible plants and water harvesting. But what distinguishes our landscape is the integration of these practices into shared spaces. We don’t know exactly what will evolve, but it will likely be a compelling symbiosis between the natural world and the resident stewards who care for it. This is rather uncommon beyond the scale of the single-family home.

There’s also symbiosis among Tucson cohousing communities. For example, Stone Curves used our common house for many of their development-phase meetings and used our physical environment as a marketing tool. Sonora’s landscape may have “raised the bar,” encouraging an above-average budget and consideration given to the Stone Curves landscape, and hopefully others. I suspect that after Stone Curves is complete, many opportunities will emerge for sharing experiences and knowledge among residents.

Related pages:
Sustainability

Reflections of a Cohousing Elder

Renate G. Justin

The blizzard Renate G. Justin writes about in this story brought Colorado to a screeching halt for three or four days. No doubt there were many households in which cabin fever took hold. But in the state’s diverse collection of cohousing communities, deep-walled pathways to the common house turned the blizzard into a great excuse for a party. -DLW

Snow, snow everywhere, two feet high and drifting much deeper. The sky is gray and flakes are dancing slowly and deliberately to the ground. The bottom half of my door is covered by snow, but I can still see out the top. The sharp outlines of our houses and their roofs are rounded and softened and the picnic tables are just humps under the cold blanket of snow. In this whiteness, every able adult in the community is shoveling the paths that lead from one house to the next and to our common house, the web of our connectedness. It is the second day of this great blizzard (more than three feet of wet snow), and even though our members have shoveled the same walks at least three times, they are still cheerful, calling out to each other in astonishment at the amount and weight of the snow; there is joy in working together. We are hoping that this is the end of a two-year drought, including the driest summer in 200 years.

Our children are yelling happily as the younger ones disappear in the snow and the older ones build igloos. Snowballs are flying in every direction on the green. I hear a scraping on my porch as my neighbor digs me out. Yesterday, she even swept the snow off my car. No one can go to work today—schools and shops are closed and there’s no mail service. It is a snow holiday for adults and children alike and we are celebrating! It is invigorating to be a senior citizen in the Greyrock Cohousing community—part of a vibrant, active group of people, young and old, who I have come to love and respect. My neighbors phone just to check on me, we will have a potluck supper tonight, and last night, I was invited to a birthday party next door. Once we can get around in the snow, I might organize a Scrabble game in the common house. The children can enjoy their own games in the playroom while the adults try to think of words with X, Y, and Q.

{Figure 37, 38 The Blizzard of 2003, Still Comin’ Down!}

My community of neighbors keeps me from feeling lonely. Every day children come to my door and ask if they can play with me. With my friends I can share the joy of nature’s abundance and the ubiquitous anxieties of politics in America. This blizzard, like the flood a few years ago, draws us closer together and quickly becomes a noteworthy event in our collective memory.

As I watch the snow continue to fall, my thoughts travel to my happy, secure childhood in a small village on the edge of the Harz Mountains in Germany, where I lived on skis and built snow sculptures. The shock of being expelled from that community at the age of ten because of being Jewish remains painful to this day. I was fortunate that after having to leave my school, my friends, my parents, and sisters, I was allowed to join a group of refugee children at a boarding school in Holland. This community of orphaned, displaced, and disoriented youngsters and teachers, located in an ancient castle, prepared me for cohousing and supported me during the difficult years of the war.

In the castle, the kitchen was large to accommodate the huge wood stove. It felt warm, cozy, and busy in that kitchen. You could look out a small window across the moat where sheep grazed in the field. The ample cook, Mrs. Schmitt, could throw pancakes high into the air and catch them in her skillet every time. We students in the boarding school helped in the kitchen, washing and drying dishes, setting the table, and cleaning the marble floor of the castle’s large dining room. As we peeled potatoes, shelled peas, and cut beans, we sang and talked, momentarily forgeting our longing and despair.

Today, when working with the Greyrock kitchen crew, I inevitably think about those early days in Holland. We have lots of electric gadgets to prepare our food for cooking and to help with the cleaning (including a dishwasher that finishes a load in thirty seconds), but the sense of community is cemented by preparing food and eating together, the same way it was sixty years ago in the castle.

At Eerde in Holland, we grew the food we ate, sheared sheep, cleaned dormitories and windows, and took care of the grounds—jobs we each had to learn, which stood many of us in good stead as we became older. At Greyrock, we also garden and plant together, we anticipate the flavor of our homegrown produce, we become friends as we fertilize and rake leaves.

In 1934, we students at Eerde decided we wanted to build a swimming pool. Money was found for shovels and with young and old working together, we dug the pool. Since this was a Quaker school, consensus was achieved by respectful consideration of the opinions of all, very much like our Greyrock business meetings. As Americans, we start to vote as toddlers, learning to raise our hand before we even walk. The concept of decision by consensus is foreign to many of us and requires self-discipline and willingness to learn a new skill. As we get to know each other at ever-deeper levels, we can acknowledge and accept the differences among us. Indeed the value we assign to those differences makes each person an equal member of the group. It is this acceptance that makes it safe to voice our views in a business meeting. Consensus is more time consuming than voting, but as in the case of the swimming pool, once achieved, the final product is mutual satisfaction. Its completion is a triumph both for the consensus process as well as the community.

The fellowship that grew at Eerde was tightly knit, supportive, and comforting. The student body was in flux because of the frequent arrival of new students fleeing from war and extermination, and the departure of those who were fortunate enough to emigrate. When parents were killed or incarcerated, when siblings were missing in action, the group mourned together, enabling us to survive as individuals. At Greyrock, although membership is more stable than it was in Holland, we have had one of our members die, we have had families splintered by divorce—all of us shared in the grief and difficulty of these events.

My eyes stray to the window again. It’s still snowing, and I recall another snow day.

At a Quaker boarding school I attended after coming to America, right before the World War II, we were blessed with a huge snowfall, similar to the one we are experiencing at Greyrock today. At breakfast, we were told to get into our snowsuits and assemble to help build a sledding track. The headmaster declared a snow day—no school. The teachers and students spent the morning building the long track and the afternoon sliding on it. It was only because of the combined effort of the faculty and student body that the track was created before the snow melted and we could enjoy the speed, thrill, and laughter of using it. I’m sure the Greyrock igloo builders outside my window feel a sense of accomplishment and community similar to what I felt building that sledding track.

To my surprise, at this American school, the students had no duties to help with housekeeping, apple harvesting, or kitchen chores. However, once America declared war, food became harder to purchase and most of the paid help was conscripted into military service. At that time, we started a work program, and soon everyone participated in all the tasks involved in keeping the buildings clean; raising, freezing and preparing food; as well as caring for the grounds. Once again, I experienced the healing power of community work and the sense of pride and achievement that comes with it. This particular school continues its work program to the present day because of the positive effect on the community that comes about when students and faculty work side by side.

When as an adult I became acquainted with the cohousing philosophy, it seemed logical and desirable to join a group who work, laugh, and grieve together. The commitment of time and energy required to make community living successful is considerable. The patience needed to sit through many long meetings is even more demanding. The delicate balance community members have to maintain between individual and group interests may at times lead to strong differences of opinion. To achieve a satisfactory melding of these two interests is especially difficult for Americans, who are protective of our individual privacy, rights, and privileges. In cohousing, as in my school years, consensus, respect, and a strong sense of community help resolve the inevitable conflicts. The rewards of shared meals, of landscaping achieved by hard work, of friendships, neighborliness, and trust are immeasurable.

I probably could not have survived the difficult years of my childhood—both in Holland as a refugee and in this country as a new immigrant—without the support of a community. As the snow continues to fall outside, I reflect on how fortunate I am to live the years of my old age in the embrace of another strong community: Greyrock Cohousing.

Chapter Four: Visiting Five Cohousing Communities

Here in Colorado, many a devoted hiker has climbed all fifty-three peaks that are higher than 14,000 feet. It would might be an even greater challenge to visit all the cohousing communities in North America, especially since—unlike Colorado’s Fourteeners—a new one seems to appear every month. Raines Cohen, a resident of Berkeley Cohousing, observes that cohousing communities (and their guest rooms) are now within a day’s drive of each other all the way across America. “Boston, Ithaca, Ann Arbor, St. Louis, Lawrence, Denver, Salt Lake, San Francisco Bay area,” he says, offering one possible itinerary as evidence. “You could also tour cohousing on the East and West Coasts that way,” he adds. The nice thing about such a tour is that guest rooms tend to be pretty reasonably priced, from “Suggested donation” and “Please wash and dry the sheets” to $35 or so. And chances are decent there will be a common meal the night you’re there.

There are always opportunities to rent a cohousing home if a person wants to try out living in cohousing before buying. And cohousing residents often trade homes with each other (one household wants to be in Colorado, another wants a vacation in Washington), or rent a home while a cohousing resident goes on a sabbatical or into the Peace Corps. Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the collective members of cohousing cooperatively buying a vacation home in Mexico, Costa Rica, or some other warm, de-compressinglush location. NOTE: The current site of choice is Baja, which isnot “lush.” The concept is great, and if that idea gains momentum, it would be a great opportunity to practice my Spanish …

Whenever I visit another cohousing community, I see familiar patterns in both behavior and architecture. And I always come away with design ideas for possible use in my community—for example, I love the Sonora Cohousing fence that’s constructed out of welded rebar, and the tiles in the River Rock common house that celebrate the passions and personalities of each resident.

Newcomers to cohousing:, go out and see what do-it-ourselves neighborhoods are like; most have scheduled tour days, or at least tour contacts listed at www.cohousing.org. Or if visiting cohousing communities in person is a logistical challenge, there’s a perpetual flow of cohousing chatter on the Listserv, Cohousing-L [at] cohousing [dot] org, a great tool for getting to know specific communities. Usually there are pictures and community histories and sometimes also virtual tours. (By clicking to the left or right of a picture, you can walk through a neighborhood and see its features.) A lot of “lessons learned” are shared among communities on the Listserv.

For example, as I work on this chapter, I notice that a survey of the pet policies throughout the cohousing world was recently completed. Fifty-seven communities responded to Sonora Cohousing’s survey, reporting issues such as off-leash dogs attacking leashed dogs; pet excrement in common areas and private yards; cats killing wildlife; barking dogs and meowing cats; and other pet-related dilemmas. Of course, we tend to think our pet is angelic, while neighbor pets are silly-looking or foul-smelling. So the pet issue has never been a particularly easy one to resolve. In the survey, five communities responded that they allow no dogs, and two have no cats. Thirty-five communities require a leash, fence, or documented voice control for dogs, and thirty-one require bells and owner assurances that cats won’t endanger wildlife.

My “pet peeve” (literally) is that hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent for human wastewater treatment and zero for pet poop treatment. And whose poop is that, anyway? As one of my neighbors suggested, “We already have designer poop scoopers—why can’t someone invent a laser poop scanner to identify, with DNA data, which overlooked pile is associated with which pet?”

Sometimes, unfortunately, pet issues cross the line from nuisance to trauma. A recent incident in our neighborhood was reminiscent of a fictitious story Garrison Keillor might tell on “Prairie Home Companion,” yet it actually happened. Two pre-schoolers were walking a neighborhood cat, Thunder, on a leash. They didn’t see the harm of letting go of the leash, and, poignantly, they watched Thunder dart up a tree after a bird and hang himself.

In other news from Lake Woebegone, community policies to mitigate personality conflicts continue to evolve. Fortunately, no serious injuries or homicides have been reported in the first decade and a half of cohousing in America, including the five communities profiled in this chapter. The neighborhoods described below offer a good cross-section of urban and suburban cohousing, communities-from-scratch, and communities carved out of existing neighborhoods—what has come to be known as “retrofit” cohousing. Enjoy the tour!
—D. L. W.

Related pages:
Living in Cohousing

Greyrock Commons, Fort Collins, Colorado

Growing Pains, Trials, and Triumphs

Katharine Gregory

Katharine Gregory’s story was a welcome addition to this anthology because it highlights so many familiar cohousing practices and very effectively answers the question, “How can we make this work?” -DLW

“So, what’s this crazy living situation you’re into this time?” my longtime friend Lindsey asked me over the phone from the East Coast. That was shortly after I’d left a voice mail message for her trying to tell her about the cohousing neighborhood my husband and I planned to move into.

“Well, this time,” I told Lindsey and others (as opposed to last time), “the community I am moving into isn’t based on a spiritual practice. It is based instead on the idea of an old-fashioned neighborhood, where people know each other, help each other, and share resources. And like many cohousing communities, at Greyrock Commons (named for the view of Greyrock Mountain), the neighbors hail from varying backgrounds, ethnic groups, and religious and political beliefs.”

“But does everyone get along?” Lindsey later asked me skeptically while standing in the kitchen of my new home during a visit.

At that point, my husband, Dan, our two-year-old daughter, Kate, and I had lived at Greyrock for about six months and had spent more than a year prior to that in cohousing planning meetings getting to know our soon-to-be neighbors.

I looked my old friend in the eye. “People seem to get along most of the time,” I told her. “We definitely don’t always agree, but we try to work things out and respect different viewpoints.” I glanced out my kitchen window and spread my palms toward the houses we could see through it, across the grass. “With thirty single-family homes,” I explained, “there are enough people so you don’t necessarily have to interact with everyone. I find I’m friendly acquaintances with most and closer friends with others.”

Looking back now on the past seven years of living here, the interesting truth is that our most obvious differences—such as religion and politics—seem to pose much less of a challenge than our more subtle differences do. Whether we’re of the same religious or political bent or not, practically any combination of neighbors can have, for instance, varying ideas on how to run a meeting; radically different parenting styles; radically different standards for how to care for the landscape or the common house; and downright opposing views on how closely we have to adhere to previously agreed-upon guidelines and legalities. If the actions of certain children seem playful or healthy to some parents but destructive or rude to others, how do you resolve the conflict? What do you tell the children? If lack of adherence to the Codes, Covenants, and Restrictions (CC and R) and other written agreements seems to some households disrespectful but seems to other households natural or even necessary, how does a community deal with the intense frustration, anger, and disappointment that inevitably emerge? The best answer to all of these questions is that for the most part, we’re still finding out.

Often disagreements and problems are tackled well during our once-a-month community meetings. Occasionally, though, tears or angry words surge to the surface. We’ve struggled, for instance, over countless decisions, such as how severely to limit the number of garages and parking spaces per household and how to deal with various instances of private structures being built on commonly owned land. Many final decisions are reached as a matter of compromise. Our decision early on to limit the number of second garages to seven has worked well, giving members the opportunity to buy or sell one of the seven as needed. We’re still in the midst, however, of discussing our diverse views regarding private use of commonly owned land.

The consensus process we use during some meetings, when important decisions need to be made, presents unique challenges, sometimes drawing out the process over several months, or longer. As a community, we often look for guidance regarding consensus issues from Greyrock member Renate Justin, who, now in her seventies, has had decades of experience using the consensus process within the Quaker community. (See her story on page XX.) At a community meeting during Greyrock’s first year or so, Renate pointed out that sometimes, when we don’t know at first exactly how to resolve an issue, “we just have to muddle through, finding our way.” As a group, we laughed in agreement with this energetic, wise community elder. Years later, her comment still seems such an apt description of our experience.

Muddling Through

Early members wrote as part of the Greyrock Commons mission statement:

We understand that building community is a fluid, evolving process to which each of us contributes. As we move along this path, we expect course corrections and value learning from our missteps.

We have indeed continued learning and making course corrections.

Quite a number of households, for instance, had outdoor cats when we first moved to Greyrock and had failed to notice the clause in the CC and R stating, “Household pets shall not be allowed to run at large within the community.” Quite a few other Greyrock members had looked forward to a neighborhood where birds wouldn’t be disturbed or threatened by cats, where gardens and sandboxes wouldn’t be used as disposals for cat waste, and where newly planted trees wouldn’t be damaged and sometimes destroyed by excessive climbing and scratching. Many of us moved in, however, never imagining that we would be expected to tackle the near-impossible task of keeping our outdoor cats inside.

We formed a “cat team” and took five months to come to an acceptable agreement for the community, in which current outdoor cats would be able to remain outdoor cats as long as they wore bells to warn birds and as long as we would put protective barriers on the trees and scoop out our shared sandbox. All new cats coming into the community would need to be kept indoors. Doug Swartz and his wife, Karen Spencer, who put in years of generous hard work as two of the original founders of Greyrock, have held the vision for a neighborhood where birds and other wildlife would be less threatened than they are in typical neighborhoods. Doug recently described his memory of our approach as a community to the cat dilemma saying, “This is a good example of a decision that was by no means my first choice but that I felt I could live with in the interest of community harmony.”

Our optional program of sharing meals together stands as another example of course corrections we’ve had to muddle through. At first, those who chose to cook on a certain evening posted their menu and anyone was welcome to sign up. Sometimes so many signed up that the dining room was overcrowded. The cooks and cleaners were overwhelmed with extended hours of work. Also, some members were discouraged by the noise and high energy of so many kids at the meals; little ones have a hard time resisting running across our wood floors in stampede fashion, shouting to friends across the dining room and regularly interrupting their parents mid-sentence. So we experimented and finally settled on a meal program everyone’s been happy with. For instance, the Tuesday dinners are for adults only and usually include hors d’oeuvres, wine, and relatively uninterrupted conversation. We also struggled with how to collect payment for the dinners, at first experimenting with handmade tickets and later settling on a household billing system that works well.

Our willingness to gradually muddle through the decision-making process, and to keep making course corrections as we go, allows us to reach decisions we can live with. In spite of the inevitable challenges (and in some cases perhaps because of the close interaction required to confront those challenges), we continue to build trust and strengthen rapport.

Sharing Resources

What are some of the ways we support each other and share resources? The list seems endless. Via our shared local area network, we can e-mail all households at once whenever we need to. E-mails include announcements, invitations, and requests to borrow items or equipment, as well as details about occasional nighttime thefts on Greyrock grounds (and the consequent need to lock cars and watch for strange vehicles). We watch each other’s houses when we leave town and there’s almost always someone taking care of someone else’s children and/or pets.

All thirty homes share a fenced-in Dumpster area for collection of trash and recyclables. An organized program for recycling cardboard and paperboard, with special bins built by Greyrock members, has inspired many of us to refrain from adding these items to the trash and to take turns driving them to the recycling center. Likewise, many have been inspired to use our community compost bins instead of contributing extra bulk to the landfill.

In addition to the shared dinners and occasional breakfasts, we use the common house regularly for potlucks, parties, dances, talent shows, fundraisers, and meetings. The basement rooms include a guest suite, a study/library, an equipped exercise room, a rec room with a pool and ping-pong table, a teen room, and an office—all resources that reduce our need for huge, overequipped houses.

Many of us enjoy sharing holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the common house often include non-Greyrock friends of various backgrounds and nationalities who contribute unusual, delectable dishes to the feasts. During Hanukah, Greyrock Commons children—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—light the menorah and dance the Israeli horah with the adults. Kids of all ages enjoy our annual spring egg hunt, and the Fourth of July decorated-bike parade, as well as the Halloween trick-or-treating followed by the chili cook-off and costume party in the common house dining room and spooky haunted house in the common house basement.

While many conventional homes in Colorado sport large, grassy lawns and individual backyard play sets, at Greyrock Commons, our private backyards have very little grass in order to reduce the use of water in this arid region. Instead, we’ve worked together to landscape with water-wise perennials, including native grasses, blooming ground covers, hardy shrubs, and colorful wildflowers. And our thirty homes form an oval around an area that includes a large, shared play structure and one large Kentucky bluegrass lawn—both of which get a lot of use.

Community Meetings

During our first few years, the Process team planned and facilitated our once-a-month community meetings, working together to address the needs and challenges of the community. Then, five years after move-in, a new group formed to take this on.

“We already had acronyms for other teams,” explains Marilyn Murphy, whose steady, warm personality provides a calming influence in our midst. “We kept asking ‘how’?” she says. “How can we improve our communication? How can we build greater respect and trust among ourselves? How can we keep ourselves organized? So we decided we could call ourselves the HOW team, an acronym for honoring our wisdom.”

Sometimes referred to as “Hell on Wheels,” any way you cut it, the HOW team has no easy task. Its members have been making an effort to pay attention to how we relate to one another and to reduce the challenges we face regarding disagreements and decision making.

In several situations, newer Greyrock members have wanted to be helpful—to contribute their time, effort, and ideas—only to find out that to follow through with these contributions, they were expected to closely follow the process that had already been set up. In one instance, a small team wanted to find a simple, effective way to make decisions about purchasing furniture and games for the common house rec room. Other members—some who had spent years of work envisioning and creating Greyrock Commons—had strong convictions that our previously established processes needed to be followed. Intense discussions such as this one can end up causing rifts and open wounds, especially when there are differences in style and approach. The HOW team helped steer this discussion toward consensus. Although the process wasn’t simple, we did successfully end up with great furniture and games for our rec room.

One of the fruits of the HOW team was two workshops offered to Greyrock members: the first focused on group dynamics and communication and the second on effective facilitation of meetings. Both programs were led by two women, non-Greyrockers, who work with issues such as cultural diversity and team building in professional corporations.

The HOW team later organized a retreat—partly as a way of helping to orient several new households—in which many seasoned as well as new Greyrock members participated. Held for a day and a half in the common house, with small groups meeting in individual homes, the retreat’s themes centered around the many aspects of what it means to each of us as individuals to sustain our community—to let it thrive as more than just a typical neighborhood. Although certain challenges will always be part of community living, the workshops and retreat—along with games and exercises we’ve incorporated into meetings—have helped strengthen our understanding of one another, our ability to work together, and our friendships.

Kids

One of the first warm evenings this past spring, I stood in my doorway marveling at the sight of kids, kids, kids (including my now nine-year-old daughter) running around together on the common green. There are currently thirty-seven kids between the ages of two and eighteen and the summertime ritual of playing there together until after dark had begun. This time it was a beloved game of Capture the Flag and I counted twenty-five children, ages two to fifteen, playing it together, the older ones helping the youngest.

One of Dan’s and my reasons for wanting to move into a cohousing community was that we planned to have only one child and we wanted to make sure she had lots of interaction with other children. She has cousins, but they live about half a continent away. Several families began watching each other’s children long before our Greyrock Commons houses were built, so by the time we moved in, we all knew each other pretty well. One afternoon, after our neighbor Heidi von Neida and I had been watching each other’s children for a year or so, I left Kate with Heidi and her children. When I arrived at the door to pick up Kate later on, Heidi told me, “I have good news and bad news.” I looked at Heidi closely, never sure exactly what to expect from this petite, vivacious woman with an infectious sense of humor. “The good news,” she said, “is that Kate and Eli played together like siblings. The bad news is they fought like siblings!”

I laughed and told her, “That’s good news to me! Kate needs that experience!” Heidi heartily agreed that the extra challenge she’d had with the two of them that day was worth it: you can’t learn how to work things out and settle conflicts if you never have conflicts. I’m thankful that through the years, Kate has developed close relationships with several children here—for all the benefits and enrichment that provides.

Some of the children seem to be receiving a unique education in cooperation and are passing it on. A couple of them have at times been overheard making gentle comments to others who haven’t lived here as long (and who may attempt to try to take over certain parts of the play structure or to hoard common toys for themselves), such as, “You know, when you live in cohousing, everybody plays with everybody, and we share our toys.”

Celebrating Success

Despite the growing pains of building a community, we find our triumphs in so many of these little things: in the caring environment and countless opportunities for children, in the pooling of resources and ideas, in the ongoing processes of problem solving and learning to respect differences, and in the joy and fun we share together.

So, back to my friend Lindsey who was standing with me in my kitchen those six and a half years ago (not long after that sibling-rivalry incident with Kate and Eli). After Lindsey was here for about a day and had had a chance to look around and meet some of our cohousing neighbors, she said to me, “To be honest, when you told me about this cohousing thing over the phone, I really didn’t think it would work.”

I smiled at her with raised eyebrows.

“I was wrong!” she said, laughing. “I’m glad I was wrong!”

The extent to which cohousing will really “work” on all levels, or prove itself successful in the eyes of many, in the coming decades depends, I think, on the willingness of its participants to share more than physical resources; it depends also on our willingness to share genuine, deep respect for different opinions, standards, and values that make human life so interesting.

Many quotes have graced the walls and bulletin boards in our common house through the years. One quote that hung in the middle of our main outside bulletin board for awhile last spring—handwritten by a Greyrock member in black marker on plain white paper—was authored by Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk:

It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community—a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the Earth.

We don’t make any claims that Greyrock Commons strives to collectively manifest the Buddha or any other deity, but we’re grateful to be part of a community where people sincerely try to practice understanding and kindness. So in this culture we’ve created—where caring and playfulness are never more than a heartbeat away—we continue to muddle along.

Related pages:
Living in Cohousing

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Contributors

Jenise Aminoff is a freelance writer who lives, works, plays, sings, and gardens at Cambridge Cohousing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, Alex, and daughter, Annelise.

Bryan Bowen lives in Wild Sage Cohousing in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, Dale, and son, Elijah. Professionally, Bowen is an architect who explores how we can live and work while treading more lightly upon our Earth in beautiful, healthy environments. He can be reached at 303-443-3629 or bryan [at] bryanbowenarchitects [dot] com.

Brian Burke has been spearheading recycling projects, including job site recycling during Quayside’sour construction (51 percent diversion from landfill; highest in the region) and producing compost for our urban organic gardens. This is a fine balance for his work teaching and performing whirling dervish meditation. His Web site is www.geocities.com/open_secret_arts.

Raines Cohen is a longtime communitarian, learning by starting and running computer user groups for the past quarter century. He serves on the Cohousing Association of the United States board of directors and lives at Berkeley Cohousing in Berkeley, California. He is a former member of Swan’s Market Cohousing in Oakland, California, and is helping to organize East Bay Cohousing, located near San Franciso. He loves to visit and make connections between people and communities.

Steve Einstein lived for many years on a kibbutz before compromising and moving to Two Acre Wood Cohousing in Sebastopol, California, with his wife, Karen, and two children, Koby and Elsa. He is a hospice nurse who enjoys excessive newspaper reading, hanging around a fire pit, late-night ping-pong in the common house, and the company of his cohousing neighbors.

Silvine Marbury Farnell is a retired literature professor who lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband, Stewart, making money by freelance copyediting and pursuing her passion for leading people deeper into poetry in every way she can think of. She can be reached at silvine [at] silvinefarnell [dot] com. (She often doesn’t answer e-mails, but if you have something really interesting to say about poetry or elder cohousing, she might respond.)

Elaine Marshall Fawcett is a mother of two, a homeschooler, and a freelance writer. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Her family outgrew their small dwelling at Cascadia Commons Cohousing in Portland and moved a couple of miles away to regular house in a regular neighborhood. She still comes to Cascadia for meals, writing groups, and general hanging out.

Laura Fitch is a principal with Kraus-Fitch Architects, Inc., a firm specializing in cohousing and ecological design. The company was named one of the top ten green building firms of 2005 by Natural Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a resident of Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst, Massachusetts, the first cohousing community to be completed on the East Coast. She has worked with numerous cohousing communities nationwide.

Edee Gail is a writer, musician, performing artist, ecological activist, actress, and adventurer. She lives in Harmony Village Cohousing in Golden, Colorado. She traveled around the world by herself twice while working for an airlines company and continues to travel while performing her one-woman show, “More Than Music.” She can be reached at edeegail [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Katharine Gregory has worked as a teacher and an editor and enjoys writing fiction and nonfiction in her home office. She has lived at Greyrock Commons in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, and various pets since 1996.

Karen Hester is an events organizer who maintains an e-mail list for folks interested in retrofit cohousing in the East Bay Area. (To subscribe, please visit her Web site, www.hesternet.net/.) Active in her community, Hester organizes local street fairs and is helping to renovate a nearby arts center called Studio One, which is run by the City of Oakland.

Renate G. Justin lives in Greyrock Commons in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is a retired family physician who writes essays both for professional and lay journals. Community living has been a passion as well as a joy for her since early childhood.

Mary Kraus is a principal with Kraus-Fitch Architects, Inc., a firm specializing in cohousing and ecological design The company was named one of the top ten green building firms of 2005 by Natural Homes and Gardens Magazine. She has worked with twenty communities nationally, using a consensus-based participatory-design process. She was a charter board member of the Cohousing Association of the United States and has served on the board of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. She has been living at Pioneer Valley Cohousing in Amherst, Massachusetts, since its completion in 1994.

Jim Leach is the president of Wonderland Hill Development Company, the largest developer of cohousing communities in the country. He recently made the decision to live in cohousing and is a member and the developer of Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colorado’s first elder cohousing community. Leach and Wonderland’s philosophy is “Sustainability through Community.” www.whdc.com.

Bruce Gourley is a multimedia designer and photographer when he is not following a creek while fishing for rainbow trout. Visit the Gourley Web site at www.gourleydesign.com to view his work.

PattyMara Gourley paints silk, fuses glass, and throws pots at DolphinSmile Studio in Halcyon, California, a short walk from her home in the Tierra Nueva Cohousing community in Oceano. The farm that borders her studio and home is now pesticide-free, providing succulent vegetables, glorious berries, and luminous flowers to all of its surrounding neighbors (who are no longer at risk!).

Dr. Charles B. Maclean is a founding member of Trillium Hollow Cohousing in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and Chief Committed Listener of PhilanthropyNow.

Grant McCormick is a resident and founding member of Sonora Cohousing
in Tucson, Arizona. He works as a campus planner at the University of Arizona and has a professional background in geographic information systems, landscape architecture, and urban planning.

Michael McIntyre has been involved with community building and networking with the Fellowship for Intentional Community and the Cohousing Association of the United States for many years. He was an original member of Sunward Cohousing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and got his start in cooperative living in the University of Michigan Inter-Cooperative Council.

Dr. Graham Meltzer is an architect, scholar, and architectural photographer who consults, researches, and lectures in the fields of environmental and social architecture, communal housing, and communalism. He is the author of Sustainable Community: Learning from the Cohousing Model and is published widely in architectural and sociological journals.

Lynn Nadeau has been part of RoseWind Cohousing in Port Townsend, Washington, since 1989 and is a supporting member of the nascent Port Townsend EcoVillage project. A peace and social justice activist, Nadeau has a particular interest in the Middle East. She can be contacted via the contact link at www.rosewind.org.

Su Niedringhaus married into cohousing and Harmony Village almost three years ago. She works as a theatre artist and educator and uses innovative theatre techniques to explore human interaction and problem solving. Niedringhaus indulges in music and amateur anthropology.

Ellen Orleans is a creative writing teacher and the author of five books of queer humor and social commentary. A Quaker Universalist, she’s currently writing a performance piece about Colorado’s nuclear missiles. When not photographing Wild Sage’s pet population or reorganizing the common house refrigerator, Orleans is often off birding, hiking, or watching waterfalls. She can be reached at eorleans [at] earthlink [dot] net.

Franny Osman writes and drives kids around in Acton, Massachusetts, though she is working to create a local bus service to lessen the latter. She loves living in New View Cohousing with husband, three kids, and dog. This year, she watched with mixed feelings as five of the original neighborhood actors graduated from high school.

Linda Reed is a grandmother of four, and since 1999 has enjoyed the “life
learning laboratory” NOTE: Where she learbs about life…? I put it in quotes…? called Wasatch Commons Cohousing in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is currently studying conflict management, mediation, silk painting, aikido, how to balance work and play, and how to find a husband at age fifty-five. She can be reached at lindareed99 [at] hotmail [dot] com.

Jane Saks is a management consultant and group facilitator and occasionally a photographer, artist, and writer. She lives and laughs with her daughter in the Boston area and they travel to exotic lands.

Rob Sandelin lives with family and friends at the Sharingwood Cohousing community. You can reach him at floriferous [at] msn [dot] com.

Dana Snyder-Grant is a social worker and a freelance writer. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1981. Snyder-Grant lives at New View Cohousing in Acton, Massachusetts. She can be contacted at danasg [at] newview [dot] org.

Liz Stevenson is a founding member of one of the oldest cohousing communities in North America, Southside Park Cohousing, and still finds ample reason to question her sanity for that long-ago decision. It’s like democracy: it’s the worst way to live, except for all the others. She has her husband have two children, of whom she is sure will thank her later, and teaches computer graphics programs in the computer lab of her local community college.

Sharon Villines is editor and publisher of Building Community: A Newsletter on Coops, Condos, Cohousing, and Other New Neighborhoods, which is designed to help communities self-manage their facilities, convert buildings to communities, and develop inclusive, transparent governance systems. She lives in Takoma Village Cohousing in Washington, D.C.

David Wann is a writer, editor, filmmaker, and speaker about sustainable lifestyles. His books include Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, and The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West: Tips, Tools, and Techniques. Documentaries about reinventing community include Designing a Great Neighborhood, Creating Communities That Work, Smart Growth, Placemakers, and Building Livable Communities. He can be reached at 303-216-1281.

Deborah Warshaw, once a landscape architect, is now a high school teacher at PIONEER School for Expeditionary Learning in Fort Collins, Colorado. She lives at Greyrock Cohousing community where she gardens—when she has the time—with her husband, John, and two daughters, Maya and Hannah.

Matt Worswick of Synergy Design specializes in energy efficient and environmentally responsible residential design. He has designed or codesigned six cohousing communities in Colorado and is a founding member and “burning soul in residence” at the award-winning Harmony Village. He can be reached at 303-278-1880 or Matt [at] synergydesignco [dot] com. The Synergy Design Web site is synergydesignco.com.

Related pages:
Considering Cohousing