Maine’s old-fashioned neighborhood of the future
By Ramona du Houx
May 23, 2010
G-O Logic passive solar house, the first in Maine, photo by Ramona du Houx
Tired of driving all over the place, getting dinner on the table while trying to fit in a word with your spouse, juggling kids’ play dates and work schedules, and hopefully, maybe, squeezing in a moment for yourself? This is the reality for many Maine families today, as decades of development and spending patterns have moved us away from simpler, traditional neighborhoods to increased sprawl and an overabundance of “stuff.”
In response, Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage is working to create an alternative for eco-conscious families by bringing together the best of two Maine worlds: a close-knit, rural community neighborhood on 30 acres of beautiful farmland — just a two-mile bike ride from all the amenities of one of the state’s charming downtowns.
Based on the Danish cohousing movement, brought to the U.S. in the 80s, this particular year-round, Belfast neighborhood is focused on families, farming, and making environmental sustainability both fun and attainable. Using the Passive House standards (www.passivehouse.us), the small and tightly clustered homes are designed to save 90 percent of home heating energy. But more importantly, to the 27 households planning to move in, it is “sharing made easy” and the multitude of friends next door that provide the real value. Like a college setting for an intergenerational mix of households, the hallmark weeknight meals at the common house are at the core of what makes cohousing and a busy young family’s life successful.
“The common house is essentially an extremely well-used community building or clubhouse — an extension of your living room, typically used every day by everyone,” says cofounder Sanna McKim. “It is the heart of the community — the place you pick up mail, find a friend to help you learn that new fiddle tune, gather to do art projects and plays, find grandparents who are staying in the guestrooms, and collect organic vegetables stored for the winter in the root cellar. I’m personally excited about cohousing, because it frees up time in my day to play with the kids, have a spontaneous glass of wine with a friend on the porch, and easily share meals and hobbies and resources — if we want. In fact, a friend who is moving into cohousing and I just bought a team of draft horses together for farming — something I just couldn’t have managed on my own right now.”
The concepts of “peak oil” and the end of cheap oil are important motivators behind this innovative project, says McKim. “When we really looked at our dependence on fossil fuels for practically everything needed to live comfortably in Maine — home heating, transportation to work and school, even getting Hannaford’s shelves restocked every five days — an ecologically-minded cohousing community seemed like one viable and attractive alternative. Perhaps even an exciting model for the rest of rural Maine.”
Located in Midcoast Maine, Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BCE) hopes to break ground this summer. By 2012, its members will be living in an old-fashioned neighborhood of tightly clustered houses on 30 acres surrounded by rolling farmland, just two miles from downtown Belfast. Residents will own their own homes and share with their neighbors a barn, wood shop, and large common house, as well as a community garden and as many shared resources as they want. The common house amenities include rooms for overnight guests, for teens, children and adults to socialize, a dining room and kitchen for regular (optional) community meals, laundry facilities and root cellar. It is legally structured as a condominium association and will be self-managed by an annually appointed board of directors.
Its mission: to be an environmentally sustainable, affordable, multigenerational cohousing community that is easily accessible to Belfast, includes land reserved for agricultural use and open space, and is an innovative development model for rural Maine.
In early 2007, four families sat down to start planning a cohousing community, spurred on by a beautiful and well-loved dairy farm on the market. Since then, the group has grown to 27 households, purchased 30 acres of the farm, and become a development LLC, working with a project manager- the design/build team of GO Logic, and have a community of 27 equity members. There is a list of others waiting to join. In March 2010, the project received preliminary site plan approval from the City of Belfast Planning Board and is on its way to breaking ground this summer.
Since 2007, it has held monthly workshops and public programs featuring a whole range of experts to speak and work with its members as well as with the general public. Among the list of nationally recognized cohousing presenters are Chuck Durrett (architect and founder of the cohousing movement in the United States), John Abrams (founder of Island Cohousing on Martha’s Vineyard and author of The Company We Keep), Diana Leafe Christian (author), Annie Russell (a former Fortune 500 company executive), and others.
Cohousing is the old-fashioned neighborhood of the future. First developed in Denmark especially for young families, cohousing is a way for people to own their own homes in an international community that shares values. The BCE group has no shared income and no religious affiliation, but they hold a common belief in trying to live cooperatively, consciously, and sustainably, with close ties to the land, in a way that is fun for all ages.
Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage is self-developed by its member families. Members do much of the work, and decisions about how this is accomplished are made by the membership. The community will be building 36 homes, and like other cohousing communities will have a common house where families can share meals, hang out (with designated kid and teen rooms), host guests, and enjoy activities together. The central space of the community will be pedestrian-only.
Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage is designed for all ages and currently has members ranging from infants to active folks in their mid 70s. While an intergenerational neighborhood is often attractive to all ages; growing children (and their parents!) especially thrive in a mixed-age, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, where people know each other well and have developed skills to communicate honestly and work things out together. In our transient society, where the extended family is often spread out over many states, intergenerational cohousing neighborhoods can play a role to bring out and appreciate the special attributes of all the generations.
Ecovillage homes will save up to 90 percent of the energy costs of an average home. The homes, designed by GO Logic, will be super-insulated to retain passive solar warmth and require minimal heating from fossil fuel, electric, or wood sources. The equivalent of a single hair dryer (or seven feet of baseboard heat) will heat an entire home in the new development. Also, thanks to solar panels on the roof, homeowners will never have to pay for heat or hot water, because the meters will spin backwards — the homes will generate more energy than they use. Homes like this, while available as a custom-built house, are out of reach for the typical homebuyer in the Belfast area. But in this community, because the group is buying in bulk, prices for these super-efficient buildings are expected to range from $170k for a one-bedroom home to $320k for a three-to-four bedroom home (complete with their share of common house, 30 acres, and more). This is comparable to a typical custom-built home in Maine. To hone their designs and the building science behind their high-performing structures, and to illustrate how the average consumer can opt never to have a heating or hot-water bill, GO Logic has built a prototype house just a mile from the community’s land.
Living in cohousing, families can easily share resources, reducing their overall impact on the environment, as well as saving money. Instead of heating a guestroom in your house, and heating that extra space all year long, BCE will have guest rooms in the common house that residents can reserve for their visiting friends and family.
Not every family needs to own and maintain their own lawnmower, tools, tractor, or wheelbarrows. Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage members plan to pool resources to build a community barn and purchase a community-owned solar-electric car, kayak, and bicycles, to name a few.
A Typical Day
You wake up and take a walk on the land before breakfast. You head down to the Little River to check on the fairy houses your kids were telling you about and find some great masterpieces. After watching the sun come up, you go back to the house to collect eggs from your chickens, and herbs from your kitchen garden to make breakfast. You get your kids ready for school, and you drop them off at the middle school, with a few neighboring kids too, before heading to work. After work you drive right home, the kids having been picked up by your neighbor and at the common house already, working on their homework with help from one of the teens. When getting mail at the common house, you checked out the evening’s dinner menu, and since your neighbors are making the kids’ favorite meal, you decide not to cook at home tonight but instead eat at the common house, giving you a chance to catch up with someone whose mother is ill. A few of you do dishes together, then head home with the family to settle down for the evening.
On the second Sunday of every month (2-4 p.m.), the community holds free, family-friendly events, open to the public, at their temporary common house — a farmhouse on neighboring land at 45 Edgecomb Road in Belfast. Events provide the opportunity to meet families involved in the project, see a slideshow about cohousing, and learn more about the particular goals, benefits, designs, and requirements for becoming members of this community. A handful of homes are still available. For more information, please contact Sanna McKim at 207-338-9200 and visit the Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage Web site at http://www.mainecohousing.org.