Is Cohousing “Green Enough”?

Is Cohousing “Green Enough”? The Paris climate summit is now over. And I am wondering – has it (or other climate news) inspired any new or existing cohousers to stretch a little further in the green direction?

We have heard about many new communities who are talking “passive house”, “net zero” and “net zero ready”. In fact, Village Hill Cohousing in Northampton, Massachusetts is designed to be net zero from the onset. Our firm, with the lead of Mary Kraus, has been walking a fine line to deliver this goal on budget, and as usual, it often comes down to small, attached, simple units. Luckily for us, cohousers generally embrace a lifestyle that is happy in exactly this – a comfortable small home within a lovely community.

Most of the older east coast communities that we have worked with or visited, chose to build beyond the energy codes of the times. As it turns out, those codes were pretty low bars, and what was excellent in 1995 is not sustainable in 2015. So what is a green cohouser to do to reduce their carbon footprint within their existing cohousing unit?

Fortunately, the well-built-for-1995 cohousing stock has proved to be very suitable for retrofit. Mary’s 2010 net zero renovation of her co-home has demonstrated this. This small, already-efficient duplex unit needed only targeted air sealing, some simple reductions in electricity use, and a solar array on its large south roof to bring it to net zero, producing enough energy over the course of the year to cover all energy needs for the home – including heating, ventilation, lighting, and appliances. With an estimated 9 year payback, followed by more decades without utility bills, this is definitely a win-win for both homeowner and environment.

I am currently spending my weekends supporting my husband (on the step ladder) as he air seals the rim joists around our basement ceiling. We are finally getting around to insulating our hot water pipes, replacing our exhaust-only ventilation with thru the wall Heat Recover Ventilation (HRV) units, and when each of the compact fluorescent light fixtures finally burn out, we intend to switch them to LEDS.

That is what I’ve done in my house. In terms of lifestyle, I bike and want to bike more, I’ve taken the bus a few times to my off-site meetings and into town for movies, and I’m gritting my teeth in contemplation of eating a lot less meat. I’ve taken to only eating vegetarian when I eat out. And for meat, I mostly just eat the broilers that I raised on our rural cohousing site. We have filled one of the rooms that our children vacated with a tenant – I know I’m reducing our carbon footprint by sharing our space and I enjoy the house being a little less empty.

In my professional capacity, I am beginning to gently decline the clients that just want kitchen and bathroom renovations , if they are not going to take the opportunity to do a deep energy retrofit at the same time.

As for my community Pioneer Valley Cohousing , we are growing more and more of our own food every year and I help in that effort by starting the seedlings in my house, fueling the grow lights with the PV panels that I’ve installed. We invested $20,000 a few years back on better insulation in our common house and I figured it had about an 8-year payback. We just invested another $15,000 in improving the insulation in our workshop and office buildings. Car sharing has been discussed, but we don’t yet have a “program”; in the meantime, informal borrowing has made it viable for some households to reduce their car ownership. Our bike room has 5 “zip bikes” – some of which are really well used. And one of our residents lobbied the local bus company to add a stop at our common doorstep, making bus transportation more available to everyone here.

Our buildings here at Pioneer Valley Cohousing were designed to anticipate future solar installations, with sufficient uninterrupted south roof area to power the entire community. More than 50% of our households have taken advantage of this to install photovoltaics or solar hot water. We have recently been exploring a community-wide strategy to cover the remaining available roof areas, which requires lobbying the State to force the utility company to allow us to do this.

And yet, I know this is not enough. As for the climate talks in Paris, I was thrilled to learn that one of the tenants in our community – a visiting professor at UMass – would be attending. I look forward to hearing his stories! Perhaps he will return with some helpful insights on what we as cohousers can do together to encourage our municipalities, states, and country to make the needed changes at a larger level. I think back to the climate march, where our community brought a cohousing banner, and other cohousers coalesced around us. As communities, we can work together to be agents of change, not only on the personal level, but on the global level where it matters most.
Cohousers are leaders! Let’s lead this green revolution step by step!

Laura Fitch, AIA, LEED BD+C

Kraus Fitch Architects, Inc.


Category: Green Living

Tags: Design, Green, living in cohousing, sustainability

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