Edited - Getting the work done
From: Charles R. Durrett (charles.durrettcohousingco.com)
Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2006 14:47:54 -0800 (PST)
Dear Cohousing ³L² -

An edited version of my previous essay.

Chuck Durrett

Getting the Work Done in Cohousing ­ An Essay

The first 2 years of living in Emeryville Cohousing, we had work days one
Saturday a month for 6 hours.  There were one or 2 coaches, and resident
volunteers could come or go fixing whatever the coach(es) had previously
decided needed to be fixed. It was completely voluntary, good cohousers
would come as they could. It was a total disaster.  Five people would show
up to paint the gate or patch the asphalt drive.  In the course of 6 hours,
other residents would leave their house, walk towards the parking lot, pass
people who were working and shyly state they were busy, and so sorry that
they couldn¹t help and feel guilty. Those left behind doing the work felt
righteous, used and pissed off.  It didn¹t work.  At some level multi-family
(even cohousing) feels like condos which means there is always someone else
to do the work.  There¹s always someone else, and I¹m always busy.  It¹s a
perfect storm quite deleterious to community.  There was plenty of acrimony
and accusations.  Seeing the dysfunctional community not-at-work, 2 women in
the community proposed a much better system.

It started with a survey of one question of all the adult residents.

         Q.  How many hours per month did you spend outside your previous

         house doing exterior maintenance including landscape maintenance

         (trimming trees and raking the leaves)?

         A.  The mean was 12 hours/month

OK, since our houses are new and tight and designed to be low maintenance
(and on much fewer acres of land), we¹ll start with every adult having to do
12 hours a year of maintenance on the exterior of the building.  Save the
shell, protect the real estate and all that.  This was consensed. The
workdays were shifted from 6 hours one Saturday a month to 4 hours one
Saturday a month from 9 AM to 1 PM. The coach(es) would have everything
ready to go and bagels, lox and cream cheese and lots of good, hot coffee.
The first 15 minutes were spent on project orientation.  If you came on
time, you got breakfast and you got to do the fun stuff. If you came late,
you mostly cleaned up after others.  If you didn¹t log 12 hours for the year
(the coaches logged your hours on the matrix ­ person, date, hours, etc), it
cost you $20/hour.  That money goes towards supplies.

Building Community

We soon discovered that the work days were a means of feeling considerable
collective satisfaction, effective means of building community, not to
mention getting necessary projects done. After the system was in place,
there was zero acrimony around work days ­ none.  Lots before, none after.
It was quite binary.  I was the head coach over both systems.  The system
created was about recognizing the difference between what was effective and
fair and systematizing a means to keep it that way.  It was not about

The Analysis

It seems like a panacea to hire work out.  It is not.  Our analysis showed
that It almost always takes more time to hire someone else to do the work
and by the time you show them where it is and let them in and negotiate a
contract, and correct their work, and show them how to do the work in the
first place, and have a dispute later, it took less people-hours to do the
work ourselves.  And as one of the two coaches for 12 1?2 years, I and a
couple of others seriously analyzed the yield of the market place compared
to the yield of the group. In almost every category, the group yielded more.
If the group painted a fence, they did the preparation 10 fold better,
primed 5 fold better and had about a 2 fold better coverage.  And if you
calculated the group members at $20/hr, it cost much less to do in money and
in aggravation.  

Try it.  Take a simple task. Count the people hours to bid it out.  Count
the people hours to do it yourself.  Compare the cost and the results. And
did I mention that most contractors don¹t want to work with homeowners
associations?  By the time you orient 5 different bidders, you could have
done it and done it better and had the satisfaction of having done something
with your own hands and helped build your community and made it stronger
physically and spiritually.

The only work that you want to hire out is that work which is dangerous. For
example, after cleaning out the gutters ourselves for many years, we finally
started hiring that out.

You Have to be Fair

I don¹t think that anyone moves into cohousing planning to take advantage of
the good intentions of their neighbors.  But if you let it, it will happen.
If you let them, you are a codependent (I love pop psychology).  But it is
detrimental to the community and therefore is not sustainable.  You wouldn¹t
take money out of another cohousers pocket, and you can¹t steal their time
either.  And if you don¹t do your share, that¹s exactly what you are doing.
In our culture, we¹re much clearer about money - you wouldn¹t imagine
expecting your neighbor to pay your HOA dues.

³Subtle² Communitarianism

Another thing that we had at Emeryville was 2 women (different women) and a
guy who would make it clear to any new person moving in, ³Look, if you don¹t
want to cooperate with your neighbor to get mutual responsibilities done (to
participate), then don¹t move in.²  ³There¹s an entire world out there for
folks who don¹t want to cooperate with their neighbors ­ go live there so
others can live here.²  They were very clear and matter of fact about these
important community issues.  Save this one place for folks who do want to.
This seems like it would be detrimental to selling houses.  The opposite is
true.  When a community is working, it¹s palpable.  When it¹s not, it¹s also
obvious.  Emeryville always had a very strong interest list (except for the
first 2 years) and sold quickly.  If people are going to move into
cohousing, they want to move into one that works. The same was true in
Denmark (read Cohousing:  A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves). And
the people who, once they were clear on the mutual responsibilities, were
the best communitarians you could ask for.

This level of pulling your own weight and being accountable for it is very
reminiscent of living in a small town.  Once when I was living in a small
town, we had to clean the sludge out of the municipal water way (ditch). If
you got water from it, you had to show up and help, but if you spent most of
your time leaning on your shovel, the organizer (³coach²) might decide that
you got none of the $10/hr allocated to those who helped. That got people¹s
attention in a hurry. I¹m not sure cohousers could live with that much
fairness.  But accountability pays - if you want others to be accountable -
³Oh, that means I have to be accountable as well.²  Also, I found that once
you get cohousers to show up, they are not slackers.

³Oh, But We¹re Different!²

³Emeryville must be made up of homeowners who were used to maintaining their
own home!²  Nope, mostly first time home buyers.  Remember they didn¹t have
their act together at first.  ³Oh, they must have a lot of men there!² Nope,
single moms, singe grandmoms (with live-in grand daughter) and plenty of
single women.  ³Young people!² Not really. Seventy-seven year old Margaret
was right in there with the rest of us making lunches and running errands.
She never made excuses.  You really come to the solution fastest if you
assume that there are no excuses, unless you¹re on your deathbed.  Anybody
who has had good experiences getting work done in this guilt free way, knows
how absolutely doable it is.  However, others are sometimes suspect.  Give
it  try.

In Conclusion

Getting the work done together can be effective, fair, fun and guilt free.
No one should feel guilty for not doing their share, and no one should be
used.  And there are always a few folks who physically can¹t do stuff.  But
they can sit at the common house phone and call paint suppliers, go get
stuff, make lunch, watch the kids, do paper work for the coach during the
workday or handle the boom box.  Include everyone ­ that¹s a community!


Chuck Durrett

(With grateful editing help from the sweet and thoughtful Ann Zabaldo.)



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