Community is the Secret Ingredient of Sustainability:
By Nick Meima with Neshama Abraham Paiss
According to Margaret Mead, the world-renowned cultural anthropologist, for 99% of human history, humans have lived in tribes, extended families and small villages. Given this fact, how can we continue to live in the fast-paced world of modern civilization and recreate a sense of village life that is both sustainable for ourselves and our environment? One solution being tried successfully in Ann Arbor is called "cohousing".
As a founding member, current resident and co-developer of the Sunward Cohousing Community at Little Lake Drive in Scio Township, I have found that my lifestyle has elements that offer a rich social life, an economic system for meals and community purchases, and a more environmentally friendly way of living on the land. Here are some glimpses into cohousing life at Sunward and what we hope to create at the Great Oak and Honey Creek cohousing neighborhoods currently under development adjacent to Sunward.
Cohousing communities are mainstream intentional neighborhoods created by and for the future residents. At Sunward, we met for four years to plan our community, which we moved into in 1998. However, even after construction was complete, we continued to meet and still do so monthly to make business decisions and manage our neighborhood. Our neighborhood is one of over 60 completed cohousing communities in the U.S.
Is cohousing more sustainable for people and for the environment? This is a question I am frequently asked, and I believe there are many reasons for a "yes!" answer...
1 How Cohousing Helps People
This is a defining characteristic of cohousing. For the Great Oak community, we have already held three weekend-long workshops that all future residents were invited to participate in. One was for site design, one for design of the Common House, or community building we use for meals, meetings and social events; and the third workshop was for the design of the individual homes. In comparison, for the Honey Creek community, we have only just started the design programming and just held the first workshop for site design.
Comparably Priced Homes
The cost to buy a new town home in a cohousing neighborhood is less than the purchase price of a new single detached home and slightly more than the cost of buying a town home in a condominium complex. A significant difference, however, is that with the purchase of a cohousing home, you get the added value of being an equal owner in all of the common land and the Common House, which you help design. The added land value can be significant. In Great Oak and Honey Creek, this lets a homeowner buy a house and also get six acres of open space and meadows to enjoy.
Even greater savings come into play once you move in and compare the ongoing costs of living in a cohousing community.
Savings on Energy Bills
Cohousing homes are typically built very "tight" with high quality windows and insulation and a passive solar design oriented to maximize heating during the winter. At Sunward, and at the next two cohousing communities, we use the townhouse model with extra thick walls which are very well insulated and highly energy efficient. As a result, our energy bills are considerably less than if we did not have the advantage of reduced exterior walls. In the Nyland Community in Lafayette, Colorado, for example, the utility bills were 50% less than in comparable size homes in nearby neighborhoods.
Reduced costs of daily living
At Sunward, each homeowner pays a monthly fee to the homeowners association (HOA), as one would in a typical condominium association. However, our HOA dues are considerably less than in a typical HOA because community members do the ground and lawn maintenance ourselves. We also clean and take care of our Common House instead of hiring a professional cleaning service. Plus, we schedule half-day work parties in the warm months where everyone who is available comes out to help. What would normally seem like a chore if done alone becomes a lot of fun when a group of people work together.
Savings on Community Meals
Another way we save money is by coming together for optional community suppers. At Sunward, we have community meals four nights a week, and on these evenings a team of two people do the shopping, cooking and cleanup. Our meals cost about $5 per person, which is much lower than what one would pay for a comparable meal in a restaurant. Plus, we have an agreement to use only healthy ingredients, resulting in meals that are not only delicious but good for you as well. I consider community meals to be one of the outstanding benefits of living in cohousing, as I get to spend extra playtime with my family and still have a home-cooked healthy dinner.
Raising children in community offers substantial benefits for parents. At Sunward, several families are home-schooling their children and get together regularly so their children can socialize together. We also have a preschool in one of our homes. And at Great Oak, one of the future residents, who is an educator, is also planning to have a preschool in her home. Parents in cohousing often take turns watching each other’s children and sometimes non-parents also get involved to help out. Parents find that it’s a huge advantage to have "built-in" playmates so they don’t need to drive somewhere or make numerous phone calls to coordinate play dates—these happen spontaneously in our neighborhood. The relaxed environment and central courtyard make spontaneous socializing easy for both the children and the adults.
2 How Cohousing Helps the Environment
I described above some examples of how, through shared resources and energy-efficient building design, cohousing offers a reduced cost of living. But is it sensitive to the environment and sustainable, i.e. is it something that if done repeatedly would be beneficial for the planet and people? Again, I believe it is, and here’s why.
One of the tenets that most cohousers share is to live more lightly on the land. To achieve this, many cohousers opt to have smaller homes. At the Honey Creek cohousing community, for example, we are building four one-bedroom homes, out of the 42 total, that will be under $100,000. Having a smaller house works well in cohousing because residents are shared owners in the Common House and can, for example, use the community guest room when they have an overnight guest. People also can do their laundry in the Common House and relax while reading the newspaper or having a cup of tea.
On the nights when we do community meals, we typically have only one stove cooking away to feed our 40-household neighborhood—instead of 40 stoves using up energy in each kitchen.
Increased Open Space
Another reason people are attracted to cohousing is to live in a comfortably sized home where as much of the land is preserved as possible. In a typical housing development in our neighborhood, 42 homes would be spread out over four acres. However, at Honey Creek and Great Oak, we are clustering the homes to create a much smaller footprint on the land so that we can preserve six acres as open space. And rather than residents needing to pay a premium price for private land, people are paying a reasonable price for their home and getting shared woodland and meadows for everyone to walk on and enjoy.
As a stepparent of two children, aged 14 and 16, I appreciate the strong relationship that they are forming, not just with the other kids who are growing up in our community, but with the other adults who have become an extended family. Often, other adults become mentors for the children and help teach them a specific skill that the parent may not possess. I also trust and know my neighbors well and know I could count on them in an emergency.
Shared Resources & Ideas
In cohousing it’s common to share toys and bikes, and to pass around clothing for the children, helping to save money for the families. My business partners and I have an office at Sunward for the Cohousing Development Company, and we make our copier available to other residents to use. Instead of 40 lawnmowers, we have one lawn mower that the landscape team uses. We share equally the cost of buying trees and flowers, again saving money on our landscaping. We also buy in bulk for community meals through a food co-op, so that meal costs are lower. Plus, because we live in close proximity, there are ongoing opportunities to share ideas, e.g. the wonderful book you just read, the movie you saw last night, the new healthcare practitioner in town, a new restaurant, etc.
Less Automobile Use
The central areas of a cohousing community are designed to be car-free with parking spaces placed on the periphery of the property. Once you park your car, you walk on a pedestrian path through a grassy courtyard to your home. Not only do cars have the least impact possible, but you have a chance to socialize on your way home. This is true for Sunward, and we are designing Great Oak and Honey Creek to be linked by pedestrian paths. A report produced for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant for the Nyland Cohousing Community, located about 30 miles north of Denver, found that cohousers tended to make 25% less auto trips as compared to a traditional 42-home neighborhood. At Sunward, when we do need to go to town, we sometimes share rides and several households have bought cars together.
Recyling and Composting
Most cohousers, if polled, would tell you they have a commitment to the environment. We have residents who handle our recycling and take extra items to the recycling center. We also have on-site composting for our food scraps. And by modeling composting and recycling, we are helping teach our children about protecting the environment and about how we give our food back to the earth and then the earth gives food back to us. We also have a community garden so residents have a chance to grow their own food and we use the vegetables from the garden for our community meals.
All in all, I feel very good about our decision to live in a cohousing community and am pleased to be able to help other cohousing neighborhoods come into being. If people want to learn more, readers are welcome to attend any of the free Informational Meetings for the two cohousing communities now being created in Ann Arbor. In March, informational meetings will take place on Thursday, March 7 and Monday, March 18, at 7pm, at Nicola’s Bookstore in the Westgate Shopping Center, corner of Jackson Road and Stadium. People are also welcome to call me at 734-663-5516 or contact me via email at email@example.com. You may also want to check out the Honey Creek website at www.ic.org/honeycreek.R
Nick Meima lives with his wife Allison Welles and her son and daughter at the Sunward Cohousing Community in Ann Arbor, where together they are helping to create two other cohousing neighborhoods in Ann Arbor: Great Oak and Honey Creek.
Neshama Abraham Paiss (303-413-8066) works professionally with cohousing groups and is a resident of the Nomad Cohousing Community in Boulder, CO.
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