|Terrain Magazine article on cohousing (full text)||<– Date –> <– Thread –>|
|From: Fred H Olson (fholsontcfreenet.org)|
|Date: Wed, 15 May 2002 09:21:29 -0600 (MDT)|
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Terrain magazine, published by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California. 510-548-2220 or http://www.ecologycenter.org Group Ecology, Cohousing Communities Lighten the Load By Carol Hunter At a Pleasant Hill Cohousing open house, a crowd of people mills around the 32-unit complex in suburban northern California. The common house, still mostly bare and smelling of new wood and paint, is being inaugurated after four years of planning. Handmade signs foretell a craft room, a teen room, children's play area, home offices, and guest rooms. Outside, a group of children digs happily in the sandbox. "Now that we're living here, the community has definitely met our expectations, which were quite high after all that planning," says resident Mark Goehring, his new two-bedroom unit behind him, his 8-month-old daughter Indigo bouncing happily on his chest. "We spent thousands of hours with these people in the planning process, but the advantage is that we know everyone very well." That sense of a working neighborhood is exactly what draws some people to cohousing experiments like Pleasant Hill's. Cohousing, a Danish concept first introduced to the United States in the late 80s by Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant, is a relatively new type of intentional community. Such communities, which also include cooperatives, group houses, ecovillages, communes (where residents pool financial resources), and ashrams, all have members living together based on explicit common values. Many arrangements, including cohousing, share common living space - and some sort of consensus decision-making, often intense and time-consuming. Cohousing projects are pedestrian-friendly, usually secular, and mostly urban or suburban. But unlike in some communities, cohousing residents also own their own homes, complete with kitchens. "It's one of the fastest moving segments of the community movement," said Laird Schaub, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, a clearinghouse based in Rutledge, Missouri. "About 150 projects are in various stages of development, with about 60 already done." Six of those are in the East Bay alone. "It's tapping into a dissatisfaction in the mainstream [with] isolation and alienation. At the surface, cohousing looks familiar." But it's not accessible to everyone. "It's the upper end," said Schaub. "In cohousing, you're paying above-market rates because you're also buying access to a common house." At a cost of more than $6 million, with with no subsidized low-income units, the Pleasant Hill complex attracted mostly white middle class residents; the flats, townhouses, and houses went for $180,000 to $400,000. Apart from any other cultural obstacles, money poses a problem. And securing subsidies for cohousing units can hit a snag: Public agencies generally decline to subsidize the large amount of common space involved in cohousing, perceiving it as "extraneous," said Rick Lewis of the Northern California Land Trust, which advises collective households and cooperatives. "That is one impediment to the mixed-class composition of cohousing." Most cohousing is instigated by prospective home buyers - who can afford market rates. But the cohousing model, minus the private ownership, can also extend to nonprofit developers, who can choose low-income residents. In Santa Clara, said Durrett, Catholic Charities Housing used cohousing as the inspiration for 25 units of new transitional housing for single mothers who had endured spousal abuse. "You strive to not warehouse people," he said. "Housing needs to facilitate relationships." Because of its level of resource use and minimal sharing, the community movement's leaders do not view private cohousing groups as ecological "shining light[s]," said Schaub, who touted ecovillage cooperatives like the Dancing Rabbit in Rutlege, Missouri, with its off-the-grid energy and biodiesel-based car co-op. "[Cohousing residents] still want individual homes, with relatively modest sharing." But that attracts many people who consider other intentional communities "a fringe element, too exotic," said Schaub. "[Cohousing is] touching a population that did not see themselves in intentional communities." >From the rehabilitated factory of Emeryville's Doyle Street Cohousing to the suburban N Street Cohousing in Davis, where neighbors removed fences and created a common yard and building, intentional communities are only as environmentally conscious as their inhabitants choose, or can afford, to be. But as with other communities, cohousing can facilitate conservation. "Ecological sustainability was part of our original mission statement," says Tom Prince, a resident and founding member at Temescal Commons Cohousing, a nine-unit complex in Oakland, "to be good stewards of creation - what that means as to how to build and use energy efficiently." In planning their new living quarters, residents at Temescal Commons designed the three new buildings with north/south orientation to take advantage of passive solar heating. The buildings averaged only 1000 square feet, 50% less than the Bay Area's average for single-family homes. The group invested in wet-blown cellulose insulation - made from recycled newspaper and cardboard and exceeding state energy standards by a considerable margin. They chose sustainably harvested wood, advanced framing that reduces the house-frame lumber by 25%, energy efficient appliances, compact fluorescents, active photovoltaics on the roofs, and "on-demand" water heaters; switched on, they'll heat domestic water - and, in this case, flow to hydronic (water-heated) coils under "radiant" floors. All told, Temescal Commons units use one-seventh the electricity of the average local home, and less than half the gas. Sharing resources can also provide greater design options - and ecological benefits. At Pleasant Hill Cohousing, for example, residents decided to forgo central air conditioning in their homes - a significant sacrifice where summer temperatures can reach 110 F. Instead, they installed central air conditioning in the common house only, saving an anticipated $50 to $70 a month in each household's summer energy bills. The group trusted design elements including three-foot eaves, trellises, and shade trees to cool their homes, then invested in hydronic baseboard heating. At Doyle Street, on-demand water heating helped cut average household energy bills more than 65%, from $125 to $40 a month. "Cost is always a factor in design decisions," says McCamant, whose Berkeley-based CoHousing Company facilitates new projects. "Green building almost always comes up as one of the top goals of a cohousing community, but some of the most innovative green techniques are extremely expensive and beyond the scope of cohousing." Temescal Commons, one of the more ecologically sensitive communities in the East Bay, had a separate $40,000 budget from a few families and a private foundation to use exclusively for eco-design, a luxury not available to every cohousing group. At Swan's Market, a 20-unit complex in downtown Oakland, the group had to forgo wool for nylon carpeting as construction costs mounted. In any definition of "community," the devil is in the details, which often reveal themselves well after the planning and purchase. According to Goehring, one early member at Pleasant Hill Cohousing protested the amount of waste caused by new construction. She also maintained that other residents did not share her passion for lifestyle choices, including organic food. She eventually left. Ecologically minded individuals who do stay in cohousing, however, can have a powerful effect on more mainstream members. "In almost every cohousing group, there are people who come in for the community only, while others are very excited about this opportunity to be green," says McCamant. "They can fertilize each other." As she says often in her presentations to new cohousing groups: "You only need a couple solar nerds for the whole community. The rest of us don't need to worry about it." In a 1996 study, Australian architect Dr. Graham Meltzer examined the social and environmental sustainability of 18 American cohousing communities. Meltzer found that, overall, cohousing residents owned fewer cars than they did before living in cohousing, and were more actively involved in recycling and composting. Residents of most communities eat together several times a week, saving energy and allowing the purchase of bulk food. They also participate in informal childcare, tool sharing, and other resource-reducing activities. According to a US EPA-funded study of the Nyland cohousing community in Colorado, residents made 25% fewer car trips per household than the residents of adjacent condominiums and single-family houses. In the East Bay, Temescal Creek and Pleasant Hill have car-sharing systems, Swan's Market owns a shared electric car, and Temescal Commons is planning to buy one and charge it with the community's rooftop photovoltaics. "We were always interested in [sustainable] practices, but did not have much knowledge and little time to learn," one resident told Meltzer about the Nyland community, where fliers circulated on recycling, composting, gardening, and vegetarianism. "Here it was easy." Community living can help motivate people to take actions they might not take otherwise. "It's easy to be an environmentalist," as another Nyland resident put it, "when all [those] around you are also." Info: o The Cohousing Network, http://www.cohousing.org o Fellowship for Intentional Community, (660) 883-5545, http://fic.ic.org o Northern California Land Trust, (510) 548-7878, http://www.nclt.org o Cohousing Research and Education (Graham Meltzer) via Cohousing Australia http://www.cohousing.org.au o CoHousing Company - Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant http://www.cohousingco.com/ o Terrain magazine / the Ecology Center 510-548-2220 or http://www.ecologycenter.org
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