2. Working Together

Fred Lanphear
Working together as a community is an important part of life at Songaia. It became an aspect of our community culture during the development stage and has continued to be both a necessary and rewarding part of our lives. Following move-in after construction was complete, we continued working on “off-mortgage” projects. These were projects that we did as a community rather than including them as part of the construction costs; kitchen cupboards in the Common House, exit doors in the dining room, and French doors for the living room. In order to obtain an occupancy permit these projects needed to be finished quickly as they impacted our use of the Common House. Workdays were orchestrated to accomplish these tasks. In order to get as many involved as possible, the project manager would list the tasks on the board after a meeting and ask folks to volunteer for the various tasks. Tasks generally included something for everyone, with folks preparing lunch, clean-up, painting, building, supplying childcare, etc.

A major project was to re-install our underground well-water system to the gardens and to each duplex. Since the well project required digging trenches to each duplex we decided to install an underground LAN system at the same time. We rented a trencher for a day and one team kept it going during the daylight hours and into the evening until it became impossible to see. After the trench was dug, another team came along and installed 1” PVC piping as well as risers with hose bibs. Another installed the conduit through which the internet cable was threaded as each length of conduit was connected. All was accomplished in one weekend; working two full days. This project contributed to long-term savings in the use of municipal water and internet access costs.

Another community project was to create a public plaza in front of the Common House. We had about Six thousand dollars in the “Abundance Fund” that represented early development advances, donated to Songaia by former members. We announced a design workshop for all those who were interested in the project and seven came. We walked the area and began to imagine a circulation pattern focused on the front door. There were 4’x4’ exposed aggregate slabs going from the front door stoop to our dining room. We decided to relocate them and create two approaches to the front door, one coming from the residences and the other from the guest parking area. This front entry became our Peace Garden as it already had a Peace Pole from an earlier commissioning.

A landscape plan for the Peace Garden was designed and presented to the community along with a plan to use a portion of the existing “Abundance Fund”. The project was approved – on to implementation! A weekend was chosen in which we would have many strong people present since brute strength was needed. It was during the spring of the year when we would normally rent a tractor to rototill the garden and since the tractor also has a front-end loader, we used it to move the slabs. The job was completed in the weekend we had the tractor, with only one toe smashed during the total endeavor. It was one of our more challenging projects as it required a team effort to maneuver the huge slabs into place. There was a great sense of accomplishment when the task was completed.

The next phase of the project was brought on by the needs of the children. An old wooden jungle gym had been placed behind the Common House outside the playroom, because we thought this would be where the kids would choose to play. Wrong! … the kids wanted to be where other folks congregated. So, it was decided to include the gym/swings in the plaza design. A team took on the task of adding an A-frame with three swings and a monkey bar to the gym set. The kids were so excited! The day the gym was moved and enlarged our twelve kids were all over it, swings, slide, monkey bars and all! It certainly is great to make decisions that work!

A final feature suggested to complete the plaza was a trellis and planter boxes that would provide soil for planting espaliered fruit trees and grape vines. This area in front of the barn had been a gravel parking lot, so without adding top-soil, plant growth was limited. The trellis would define an enclosure for the plaza and provide an attractive setting for the guest parking area. It also allowed for flowering plants to be grown in the planter boxes, which also served as a sitting bench.

After doing these types of post-construction projects for two to three years, we discovered that it was becoming more difficult to recruit folks for work-days. A shift was taking place in the community’s readiness towards taking on projects. The Facilities Committee suggested a slow down on projects, partly because new projects tend to create future maintenance and partly because folks were tired of working every other weekend.

Although folks were getting burned out on big projects, there were still many upkeep and maintenance projects that had to get done. Unlike condominium associations and some cohousing communities that hire out most of their grounds and facilities maintenance, Songaia members see this as community work, an opportunity for being more self sufficient and sustainable. The Facilities team closely monitors the need for repairs and/or improvements. There are three to four on this team that divide the types of jobs among themselves based on their particular skill levels and passions. The jobs tend to sort themselves into carpentry, mechanical, and electrical. Sometimes the jobs become more complex and a professional technician is called in, but in general, most jobs are handled by our own team.

Another of area of work that requires continual expenditure of energy is maintaining our huge landscape. The primary task is mowing. There are two riding mowers that can be used for mowing the commons and area around the playground. The drain-field and orchard mowing is done with a brush mower. Mowing and caring for the community flower gardens is the responsibility of the Biogaians, but the actual work is done by others who have taken this on as a special passion.

Most of the community work does not have an assignment structure that assures it will get done. Instead, there is a “passion principle” that is the primary mode of encouraging folks to step up and take on the job(s) they most enjoy or for which they have a passion. No one keeps track of whether everyone is “doing there share”. We give “raves” to individuals whenever they take on a task, often at dinner but certainly at the monthly House Meetings where we make time for sharing “rants and raves”. A cultural norm exists that expects everyone to pick up some tasks without trying to structure it. In general, this works!

Getting everyone involved on a community task is often seen as a great challenge and accomplishment. One example is when there is need to do a purge of all the junk that accumulates in our open barn. Songaia folk believe they have discovered a new physical law – community abhors empty space and will fill it with junk. For the last purge of the barn, notices were posted almost daily for a week before the work-day, announcing the “great event” that folks would not want to miss. Our self-appointed cheerleader made announcements at meals and created such excitement around the event, that folks were afraid if they were not there, they would certainly miss out on the fun. Sure enough, when the day came, a least one member from each family unit was available and the task was completed with gusto.

One community task that is done by assignment is cleaning the Common House. This had been attempted on an ad hoc basis by the Community Works Committee, but it was very difficult to get it done in a timely manner. Finally, the committee proposed that a team of two people would sign up each month to keep the Common House clean. The committee put together a weekly and monthly set of chores in a 3-ring binder that could be checked off as it was accomplished. Sign-up is at the beginning of the calendar year. A couple of individuals who were not fond of cleaning arranged to pay someone else to take their slot or traded some other favor, such as child care. Chris, a 10-year old, saw this as an opportunity for making some money that he could use to pay for piano lessons. He has become one of our best cleaners, and the most enthusiastic!.

Doing the work of community is sometimes the source of great resentment. It raises the concern of inequity in regards to those may not be doing their fair share. In general, Songaia has not focused on coercing or requiring participation, since we do not feel this is a long-term solution. Instead, we have worked at creating excitement and satisfaction around doing the work and connecting community members with the kinds of tasks they enjoy, or are willing to do. The notion that the community facilities and landscape are an extension of your home, particularly if tours come through frequently, helps to give members a greater sense of purpose for doing the work. Acknowledgement and expressions of gratitude also help.

Fred