This is a Hot Topic

Written by Charles Durrett

I know for a fact that if you have to have air conditioning, you have to have it—it’s a cultural thing.  It’s our habit or as cultural anthropologist Robert Bellah puts it, it’s a “Habit of the Heart”, and if your house is designed poorly, it’s physiological.  So, I’m not going to try to talk anyone out of air conditioning, we’ll do air conditioning if the group wants it—but I’m happy to report that most groups that don’t really need it have chosen to not have it installed and challenge us to accomplish cool houses through passive cooling (inherent in the building) which we embrace.

  A.C. contributes to climate change. In countries like Bangladesh (shown here) flash floods caused by climate change leave people displaced and without proper resources.

A.C. contributes to climate change. In countries like Bangladesh (shown here) flash floods caused by climate change leave people displaced and without proper resources.

Time magazine just reported that air conditioning has become the number one cause of global warming world-wide, greater than transportation, greater than house warming, greater than industry.  Ironically, of the 2.8 billion people along the equator, those that need it the most, only 8% have air conditioning.  The rest of us, in the U.S. and Japan, for example—about 90% have it.  The good news is that cohousing groups get to create their own houses and therefore respond to their own priorities.  That’s why those houses perform so well from a passive cooling point of view. 

We, for example, make sure to use enough mass so that if the night temperature gets down to 70 degrees Fahrenheit the house gets to 71 degrees Fahrenheit or 72 degrees Fahrenheit by morning and that the high temperatures of the day, even when it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside the interior of the house doesn’t get above 76 degrees Fahrenheit in the late afternoon.

 

There are hundreds of tricks to achieve passive cooling and we employ them all, because of all the clients that we work with, no one wants to walk their eco talk more than cohousers—to a point.  In other words, it has to work.  And if it doesn’t then there has to be a back-up like an entirely interior A.C. that you can put in your bedroom at night but keeps the white noise (a hum) internal to the house so that neighbors can simply keep their windows open (and uses less than 10% as much energy.)

Examples of passive cooling include sparse pavement/more lawn, shaded gathering nodes, shade trees, and porches with well-designed overhangs. All of these contribute to a more enjoyable experience in one's private home and the common space.

To give you some idea of how cultural it is, we rented a house while our current state-of-the-art, passively cooled cohousing was being built.  We didn’t turn on the air conditioning until our daughters 15th birthday party on August 2nd.  A dozen 14, 15, and 16-year old young ladies showed, so, we turned on the air conditioning.  Jessie, our daughter, said “Hey, I didn’t know we had an air conditioner”, the air conditioner went on every day after that, although she never complained about the heat before.  It’s so easy to flip a switch.  Before that we’d sit on the front porch in the evening, and let the rocking motion create a breeze, or the porch ceiling fan cooled us, amongst other things like a glass of iced tea.

 

I’ve yet to read an essay or any rationalization as to why it’s ok to cool our house to warm the planet.  Invariably someone will invoke the plight of the Bangladesh people and them standing in waist-high water in the downtown streets after a routine storm.  And, of course, the more the planet warms, the more that happens and the more we need A.C.  And it’s not just Bangladesh, it could be Quebec, where more than 70 heat related deaths have occurred this summer. 

 

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Our cohousing 34 houses were built with zero air conditioning (in a part of California where nothing is built without air conditioning).  But it’s not just a conscious design decision it is a series of conscious life style issues.  Passive cooling comes up at least once a week at common dinner in the summer.  When do I close my windows?  When do I close the shades? Which window shades?   When do I turn on the whole house fan?  For how long?  When do I use the ceiling fan (whenever you’re in the room)?  When do I turn it off (whenever you’re not in the room)?  Yes, it’s a topic, an easy one, which gets you in touch with your neighbor and your climate.  We do have air conditioning in the common house, and once (in 12 years) 21 folks spent the day there.  This was the year that a heat wave killed 35 Californians (2/3 of whom had air conditioning but were too fried to turn it on).  I know that it could possibly cramp your style to work and play in the common house for one day out of 12 years—but not if you can imagine what the rest of the world is giving up to make A.C. so convenient for us. 

 

I find that you can’t be righteous about this stuff, but that you don’t have to be.  When you watch cohousing groups work this stuff out, you believe that they are willing to imagine that it can be worked out and that’s the beginning of getting the job done. 

  Indirect lighting, efficient insulation, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to passive cooling in the Common House.

Indirect lighting, efficient insulation, high ceilings, and an open floor plan contribute to passive cooling in the Common House.

 

In some cases, groups don’t want to take the risk and put in a mini-split or similar, but I’m happy to report that many folks, like some in Fresno, California, say that they still haven’t used their air conditioning in ten years.  A.C. is an increasing problem, but I love working with people who want to be at least part of the solution.

  Large efficient windows let light in without heating the space.

Large efficient windows let light in without heating the space.

 

If we can’t get cohousers to scale back their air conditioning usage then we’re toast!  But my experience is that we can.

 

Katie's Insights on "The Cycle of Life" as seen through the lens of cohousing

From CoHousing Solutions' newsletter published Dec 2017.

 Advent Circle, Nevada City Cohousing

Advent Circle, Nevada City Cohousing

As we approach the Winter Solstice, I’ve been thinking of the full cycle of life we get to experience here in my intergenerational community, Nevada City Cohousing. I suspect that I am not the only one that finds this to be one of the more profound appreciations for living in community, for ourselves and for our children. 

The Winter Solstice Spiral is a beloved tradition at Nevada City Cohousing that inspires contemplation on every stage of life...

In the last weeks my community has been holding so much love for so many. For one neighbor who recently died, too young as she was just in her early 50’s, the community has been there to support her and her family in any way we can. And in return she shared and taught us so much. Another neighbor mentioned that her mother, who lives a few blocks away, had become close with this woman, and that sharing her passing has opened up an opportunity to talk with her mother about death. “What a gift (our neighbor) has given me,” she tells me. 

On a recent Saturday night, another neighbor held his 46th birthday party in the common house with a rock-and-roll band made up of his fellow junior high teachers. Softening us up, he fed the community tacos and his new home-brew, made from hops grown here and brewed in the common house. Can’t get much more local than that! And that also helped to soften any complaints about the rock and roll band later…good technique.

 Breaking bread together is at the heart of cohousing.

Breaking bread together is at the heart of cohousing.

And then Sunday afternoon, all the women of the community, from 3 to 80, gathered in the common house to celebrate another neighbor’s pregnancy. We are all so excited to have a new baby coming! We shared stories, wishes, cake and tea. One neighbor is coordinating our community quilt for the baby. Another neighbor is knitting blankets for the new baby, and the baby’s older brother, while she worries about her husband’s cancer returning. 

In cohousing, all of these major life events can happen at home with much more support from the community.

Written by Katie McCamant of CoHousing Solutions

Cohousing in Great Britain - a tipping point

Charles Durrett is a leading expert in cohousing, not only because he knows and understands the process, but because he has the experience to back it up. With over three decades of experience, Chuck lives the cohousing process and can work with others to realize it in themselves. His impact is worldwide, reaching far across the Big Pond, where cohousing is being embraced. 

Watch this video featuring OWCH.

In 2010, Chuck and Katie went to Britain and energized what is now a strong and supported cohousing movement. Old Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH). OWCH had been trying to get started for almost ten years and were dangerously close to giving up. Sarah Berger, and the UK Cohousing Network organized to have Katie and Chuck meet with OWCH and Hanover Housing Association, the involved parties. They worked through the nitty-gritty details—two hours of which was spent on trust alone—and in the end, they were able to move forward with the project, knowing that each side was going to uphold their side of the agreement. They walked up the ladder until finally a contract was signed, the project designed, and, at last, built.                                                                                           

In total, Katie and Chuck spent eight days in the UK, which included giving five public presentations. These presentations helped OWCH and other groups gather more members and move forward with their projects. The process that OWCH used and most of the new groups use is outlined in The Senior Cohousing Handbook: A Community Approach to Independent Living. Their efforts stimulated over 20 projects, to date, to be built in the UK, many with the support of a government and society who knows the value of community.

Since then, resources like SAGE Cohousing International (SCI) have been introduced to North America to provide resources to seniors interested in senior cohousing. SCI is a nonprofit organization whose board is comprised of experts in gerontology, cohousing, development, and team management. For more information on SCI, click below. 

OWCH members realized that they must be proactive about their future and what a bright future they have! It goes to show that, if you follow the cohousing process that is outlined already, getting your cohousing neighborhood designed and built is possible and much less work than reinventing the wheel. It is hard work, a thrilling ride, but the result is well worth the journey and it lasts for years to come.

The value of thinking about the "things"

Village Hearth Cohousing recently completed the Design Development and Prioritization Workshops (Workshops 5 and 6) with McCamant & Durrett Architects. Through the years, groups often ask me, “why do the workshops matter?” My answer is simple: Cohousing isn’t about reinventing the wheel. As you read on, you’ll see how the later workshops are just as important as the earlier ones and why each plays an integral role in the success of a cohousing community– in making it theirs, the one that fits like a glove, one that they own, emotionally. They are where trust it built. These participatory design workshops are where the community is built, not brick-by-brick but decision-by-decision.

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Design Development:

At the surface, the Design Development Workshop (Workshop 5) is focused on stuff: hundreds of commercial products. The details and even the “stuff” have a profound impact on the success of communities, right alongside large-scale decisions like the site plan and common house design.

For example, consider your windows. A typical homebuilder in your area might select one window brand, while we might select another. There are many other reasons we have selected this window, but ease of operation and clarity of view alone make it ideal for senior cohousing; as you walk home and see a neighbor at the sink doing some dishes, you can wave to them, they can easily and quickly open the window, and you can chat or make a date to meet up at the common house. Altogether, the ensemble of products will form a tapestry that makes your house and your community feel like home.

This workshop is also important for the success of a community in the context of the development process. The Design Development Workshop is not just about energy efficiency, but that’s a big part of it. The process we facilitate -- based on years of experience and researching specifics to your region -- will enable you as a group to arrive at high-quality decisions by making effective use of your time and effort.

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Prioritization:

This workshop is where costs that are perceived to be potentially above the budget are prioritized. Amenities are prioritized based on lifestyle, sustainability, facilitating community and all of the other goals and values of the group. Some amenities can be offered as options on a household-by-household basis (e.g. washing machines hook-ups, etc.) and others omitted completely (and others added.) The workshop process ensures that all members’ input is included and evaluated, at the same time, with all the necessary information on the table, using a very deliberate process.

The Prioritization Workshop is a very values-laden workshop. While reconciling little creature comforts, it will be important and sometimes challenging to keep the big picture in mind (community, cost, aesthetics). Though these little creature comforts are equally important because if we’re going to make community real, we have to make it even more comfortable than typical homes—which turns out to be very easy to do.

Both Design Development and Prioritization Workshops symbolize a huge step forward to getting a cohousing community built, including maintain a control on budget and finding what works for the entire community. This structured and intentional process allows groups to arrive at high-quality decisions in a matter of months, rather than other communities we have watched arrive at lower-quality decision after years of wasted time and energy, too much acrimony, and too many people dropping out of the group as a result.

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If you’re interested in learning more about how the design workshops can influence the creation of your community, let’s talk.