Molly, who first met us at Earth Day 2010, took us on a tour of five East Portland cohousing communities with eco-friendly features. It was all packed into one day (October 2, 2010), but we learned a lot. Here are Ben's notes:
- Description: Two regular houses, a two-story Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) behind one of them, and a smaller one-room ADU behind the other.
- History: Established in 2002. Three friends lived in the two houses, one of which was rented, but they got the owner to sell while working on the smaller ADU in the other house's backyard. The larger ADU was completed in May 2010.
- Current population: About 12 people.
- Legal arrangements: Three of the residents are homeowners, all others are renters. The two lots are technically still separate properties. Ultimately, they would like to establish a collective ownership model, possibly a trust, which would keep the model intact even after all current members are gone.
- Sharing: There is one outdoor trash can and one Internet account, and they're planning a shared Zipcar membership. We didn't ask about shared meals.
- Decision making and conflict resolution: We didn't find out what their system is. Conflicts have included some renters wanting to become homeowners and other residents choosing not to work.
- Relations with neighbors: They "don't get us" but haven't had any issues except for one problem with a beehive: the Fosterville resident(s) who were keeping bees didn't provide them enough water, so they all swarmed over to someone else's property to drink.
- Eco-friendly features: The big ADU has both types of solar panel (photovoltaic and water heating), mostly cob walls, and under-floor radiant heat with four thermostats for different areas. The small ADU has a green roof. Construction was done using materials from the Rebuilding Center and "waste" from construction of the MAX Green Line, as well as reused material from a garage on site that was demolished. There is an extensive garden with some food plants, though apparently even if it were extended to the whole property, it could only feed three people; mostly it's intended as habitat for wild species. There is a rainwater collection system used to water the garden, though it doesn't last very long in the dry season. There are also bike racks.
- Projects and plans: There is an occasional cob-building workshop onsite, and plans to bring back some bees (providing them with a water supply this time!)
- Description: Three two-story condo buildings with a total of 37 units, linked to a small farm with a farmhouse.
- History: Established in 2008. Joe and Pam Leitch, who had owned the farm since 2004, gathered a group of interested people and bought the adjacent apartment complex. Some renovations have been done since then. The website has more details.
- Current population: 63 people, including 13 children.
- Legal arrangements: Almost all residents are condo owners, though a few owners are absent and rent out their units to others. There is a homeowners' association with a nine-member board that owns all common lands and facilities, meaning that each condo unit owns 1/37 of the commons, including a garden plot on the farm and an optional storage unit (which you have to apply for), as well as use of the guest rooms in the farmhouse for up to 20 nights per year. There is a flexible 8-hours-a-month work requirement for all adult residents, with work parties every Saturday morning.
- Sharing: Common facilities including the farmhouse, a large storage building, and one condo that was converted into a laundry room and meeting space. Use of the storage units requires an application. There is a large shared supply of tools, mostly donated by the residents when they moved in; there's even a portable wood mill. In addition to the individual garden plots, there is a common garden area whose food produce goes toward common meals, of which there are three per week. One of these is always a potluck; if no one signs up to cook for one of the others, it automatically becomes a potluck as well. There are chickens and bees, managed by a "chicken club" and "bee team" that sell the eggs and honey to the other residents.
- Decision making and conflict resolution: A consensus process with facilitated discussion is used to make decisions. The website has more information.
- Relations with neighbors: Unknown.
- Eco-friendly features: There is a system of large rainwater-collection cisterns to water the garden plots, partly pump-driven and partly gravity-fed. The farmhouse has a root cellar. There is also onsite bike parking. The website has a section with more info.
- Projects and plans: This young community has many ambitious plans, including an onsite preschool and a new dining hall (the common eating space in the farmhouse is too cramped).
- Description: Similar to Fosterville, with two regular houses, each with an ADU, plus a tiny cob-built guesthouse. The outdoor space is quite small.
- History: Started as a single house with separate garage, which was remodeled into an ADU, and an adjacent vacant lot where the other three buildings were built. Village Building Convergence helped complete the guesthouse. Construction was finished in 2006.
- Current population: 8 people, with one unit vacant (two new people are expected to move in soon).
- Legal arrangements: The property is a four-unit condo, one unit per building (not counting the guesthouse). There is a well-defined turnover process that requires anyone moving out to give 60-day notice, so the community has time to find a suitable replacement.
- Sharing: Residents share trash pickup, a newspaper, internet service (using Meraki wireless retransmitters), tools, cooking supplies, clotheslines, compost, and storage (in the basement of the newer house). Everyone has keys to all the buildings. There is one common meal per week, with the location rotating among the four units. The community has two plots in a nearby community garden, and an arrangement with a next-door neighbor who didn't want to care for her chickens full-time: she and some of the Sabin Green residents trade off weeks caring for the chickens, and whoever is doing so at any given time gets to keep the eggs.
- Decision making and conflict resolution: There is a formal consensus process, but it is used very rarely. Conflicts have arisen over the pet policy and the turnover process. A book often referenced in such situations is Creating a Life Together: practical tools to grow ecovillages and intentional communities by Diana Leafe Christian.
- Relations with neighbors: The neighbor on one side (the one with the chickens) and the one in back of the property are on good terms with Sabin Green, and there are gates in the fences. The neighbor on the other side has complained about noise (though he lives on a heavily trafficked main road), and has built a rather impressive wall between his property and Sabin Green.
- Eco-friendly features: The newer house has solar thermal and PV panels on the roof, combined with a gas-fired flash water heating system, plus in-floor radiant heating. There is a system to vent radon from under the house. Construction used "Advanced Framing Technique," which reduced the amount of lumber required. The guesthouse has a green roof. There is also a bike storage shed, and some habitat designed for mason bees.
- Projects and plans: Unknown.
- Description: A neighborhood revitalization project diffusing out from a single intersection (SE Sherrett and 9th), which has a huge mural painted on the asphalt and a small structure on each corner, including a bench and a tea station. We saw one pair of houses with a shared backyard space, containing an ADU and a cob outbuilding.
- History: Established in 1996. There was a teahouse on one corner of the intersection, which had been there for a year and had hundreds of visitors every Monday, but the city finally noticed it and ordered it torn down. Shortly thereafter, residents built the structures that are now on the corners, and moved them all into place in a single day, during which they also painted the intersection for the first time. This event is bound up with the origins of City Repair and its Village Building Convergence (VBC) projects. The intersection is now repainted with a different design every year.
- Current population: Hard to define, though 20 locals participated in planning for the latest VBC. Only one of the corner houses at the intersection is home to a non-participant.
- Legal arrangements: One of the houses we visited has a cohousing arrangement where two people own it and three others also live there. We didn't learn of any legal relationship among the wider community.
- Sharing: One house in the community has a common dinner every week. There are some such meals in other houses as well. Other excuses to get together include the annual VBCs and an apple-harvest festival. There is a shared-use cob sweat lodge in a backyard, which we did not get to see. The tea station is kept supplied by a communal arrangement of some kind.
- Decision making and conflict resolution: Despite the unequal legal arrangement in the five-person communal house, all decisions are usually fully mutual. In the wider community, there is perhaps not enough of a formal process. One result is that when many community members got together to convert a vacant lot into a meadow, two other residents who didn't like it simply tore it out.
- Relations with neighbors: See above. (Because of the community's fuzzy boundaries, there seems to be little separation between internal and external relations.)
- Eco-friendly features: The tea station is advertised as "solar," though in practice this just means the tea out is kept hot in a vacuum flask. The communal house has rainwater collection barrels.
- Projects and plans: The community would benefit from more common meals. The founder of City Repair, who lives in one of the houses we visited, has many construction and art projects in progress, as a result of which the house and backyard are in considerable disarray (knocked out walls, a makeshift ramp in place of front steps, piles of lumber, etc).
2823 SE 20th (The Compound)
- Description: Two regular houses with a connecting covered walkway, plus a cob outbuilding.
- History: Established around 1990, when construction began on the second house. The original house, built in 1904, has since been lifted off its foundation to make room for a full-height basement (it used to be a crawlspace).
- Current population: Four, all of whom are members of City Repair. It looks like it can support a few more after the current renovations are complete.
- Legal arrangements: The whole property is a single large lot, and the two houses are considered to be a single structure because of the covered walkway. It was possible to build a second house because the original house was built right against one edge of the property. There is one owner and all other residents are renters.
- Sharing: Unknown.
- Decision making and conflict resolution: Unknown.
- Relations with neighbors: Unknown. (We didn't spend much time here because Sequoia was fussy.)
- Eco-friendly features: A table in the older house was made with wood from a bowling alley. The outbuilding has a green roof.
- Projects and plans: The older house's basement is still in progress (though the other two stories are very finished and nice-looking), and the newer house is being renovated. The covered walkway also has a piece that needs to be rebuilt due to the older house having been lifted.
General things we learned
- Eco-villagers really like chickens. There were chickens at all five sites we visited.
- Small, usually round cob buildings are also popular.
- ADU development fees (usually around $14,000) are waived through 2011, something to keep in mind if we want to add one to the SolSeedVillage. Also, unlike an outbuilding, you can tie an ADU into an existing sewer line.
- Some other places we might look into: Tryon Farm, River House.
- Things we like:
- Neighborliness ... a neat collection of homes where everyone can go anywhere and borrow stuff
- Nicely finished living spaces
- Rarity of governance meetings
- Selecting for emotional maturity and people not on drugs
- Things we don't like
- Permanent construction sites
- Nickel-and-diming people on their work hours