Green Cohousing Communities — and Other Options

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Green Cohousing Communities — and Other Options

We need more than green homes; we need green neighborhoods

Posted on Sep 1 2017 by Martin Holladay
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The typical green home featured on GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com is a single-family home in a suburb or rural area. This type of development — often called “sprawl” — is decried by environmentalists and urban planners, who instead sing the praises of multifamily buildings in dense urban neighborhoods.

If you are a greenie who now lives in a suburb or rural area, where is the best place to move to? In this essay, I’ll examine several options.

Option 1: Stay put

You may decide to stay where you are, accepting the contradictions of life. All of us fall short of the ideal promoted by environmental purists, so it’s sometimes OK to accept our imperfections.

Even if you live in a single-family suburban home, you can still focus on lowering your energy use, including the amount of fuel used for transportation.

Option 2: You could move downtown

From an environmental perspective, the greenest place to live is in an urban area. If you can afford the rent, choose a small apartment in a multifamily residential building in a high-density neighborhood.

One of the main advantages of living in a city is that you can take advantage of public transit systems — subways or busses — or you can get around easily on a bicycle.

Option 3: Move to a “green” development

Many suburban developments claim to espouse green principles. Whether this represents a significant improvement over conventional suburban development or just amounts to greenwashingDissemination of misleading or false information designed to make an organization or product appear more environmentally friendly than it actually is. depends on your point of view and the specifics of the development.

An example of the type of development I’m talking about is the Serenbe development in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. Of course, there is no guarantee that homes in this type of development are affordable; recent home listings at Serenbe range from $359,000 to $849,000.

Even if a suburban development calls itself “green,” residents may still end up needing a car to get around — unless the development is near a bus or train stop. So while I’m listing this option here, I’m skeptical of its value.

Option 4: Move to a green cohousing community

Green cohousing communities have sprung up all over the country, especially in left-wing university towns like Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; and Burlington, Vermont.

To get a cohousing project off the ground, a group of 12 to 40 people usually meets regularly for several years. Unless you love meetings, this sounds like a fairly brutal process.

Once the cohousing community is up and running, though, it’s usually possible to buy a house from someone who has moved away or died. This is much easier than helping start a cohousing community from scratch.

For example, you can buy a house at the cohousing community in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for between $239,000 and $270,000. You can buy a house at the community in Hartland, Vermont, for $395,000. You can buy a house at the near Tucson, Arizona, for between $385,000 and $410,000. In addition to the purchase price, almost all cohousing communities require residents to pay a monthly condominium fee.

Although cohousing communities make sense for people who like potluck dinners and regular meetings, this lifestyle isn’t recommended for curmudgeons.

Cohousing communities vary in the level of community commitment they expect from residents. For an example of a community on the intense end of the spectrum, check out the web site of the in Colorado. Before being considered as potential members, applicants have to do homework (read certain books) and fill out lots of paperwork. New members have to sign a pledge to engage in “ongoing personal growth” and in “developing and maintaining positive interpersonal relationships.”

The web site includes detailed pages describing the community’s — just one of dozens of agreements (listed in full on the ). The web page notes, “Members are required to follow Agreements.”

Unfortunately, cohousing communities exacerbate a recent trend in American life: more and more, Americans are living in segregated communities. We end up segregated by race, segregated by political affiliation, and segregated by economic class. Those of us who join an intentional cohousing community often end up choosing neighbors with shared values. This may make potlucks more pleasant, but it does nothing to reverse the national trend toward self-segregation.

Option 5: An option for working-class families

Of course, most of the “green” living options listed so far aren’t available to working-class families or low-income Americans.

Perhaps the greenest option for those on a budget is to purchase a trailer or manufactured home in a trailer park. The quintessential trailer park reached its apogee in Florida; the best of these communities include common facilities like playgrounds or swimming pools. By now, this type of living arrangement can be found in almost every state in the country. Trailer park communities have many of the advantages of cohousing communities at a fraction of the cost. And since these homes are small, energy use is low.

So if your family can’t come up with the $300,000 needed to join a cohousing community, consider a trailer park. It offers high-density living, low energy bills, low environmental impact, and a ready-made community of neighbors. It’s “cohousing for the rest of us,” and it’s green.

We’re focusing on the wrong details

Most green building advice is focused on the wrong details, and GBA is not immune to this problem. Here at GBA, we love to discuss triple-glazed windows and air leakage rates, but when you get right down to it, what really matters from an environmental perspective is where you live, your usual modes of transportation, and how close you are to your neighbors.

No one wants to read a green building web site that endlessly repeats, “Move to a small apartment in an older building near the center of a city,” but that’s good green advice. There are other options, of course, but the best options don’t involve a single-family home on a quarter-acre lot.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Impressions of Ecuador.”


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  1. Program Realty

1.
Sep 1, 2017 9:13 PM ET

On the edge
by Mark Walker

Without a cutting edge, a sword is but a club.
GBA contributes to the betterment of all construction.
New houses will be built.
Houston now has an opportunity to rebuild itself much better than before.
A 1/4 acre is too small.


2.
Sep 2, 2017 6:32 AM ET

Edited Sep 2, 2017 6:33 AM ET.

A homeowner's perspective differs from that of a builder
by Martin Holladay

Mark,
This article is written from a homeowner's perspective -- specifically, from the perspective of a homeowner who wants to reduce his or her environmental footprint.

Builders have a different perspective, as you correctly point out. Builders who are on the cutting edge -- aiming to perfect low-energy designs -- benefit the construction industry, and GBA will continue to trumpet the accomplishments of cutting-edge builders.

Whether a family needs an acre, a half acre, a quarter acre, or much less land for a decent dwelling depends on many factors, as I'm sure you know.

I'm sure that your prediction that Houston will "rebuild itself" is correct. Even the neighborhoods that should rightly be abandoned will probably be rebuilt, for better or worse.


3.
Sep 6, 2017 5:53 AM ET

Aging trailer parks, in-place updating? / Cohousing example
by Andrew Bater

In State College PA two large manufactured housing communities closed down and the land now sits idle. Both of those trailer parks were near bus lines, shopping, etc. Here is an article about one:

Perhaps these communities could have been upgraded to "tiny houses" or newer more energy efficient trailers versus wholesale bulldozing? Are there precedents elsewhere for such an in-place redevelopment?

**

Chuckled at the discussion of green cohousing communities in "left-wing university towns". We have one in my township, Julian Woods. Yes, just 15 minutes from Julian Woods to Penn State's main University Park campus.

I still remember the first time I ventured into the Julian Woods community to visit a woodworker's shop. He assured me that it wasn't a mysterious "commune" as "we" (other local residents) kinda thought it was. A few years later I now know a few different families there, which has in turn connected me to other interesting and wonderful folk in our area. Wish I had gotten to know all earlier!


4.
Sep 6, 2017 6:07 AM ET

Response to Andrew Baker
by Martin Holladay

Andrew,
Everyone knows that old trailers (or old manufactured homes) are often leaky and poorly insulated. And everyone knows that old trailers are vulnerable to damage during a tornado.

But these homes are relatively small, so some residents of so-called "trailer parks" have lower utility bills than wealthy people who live in large, energy-efficient homes.

You're right that the "trailer park" model can potentially be adapted to more energy-efficient types of housing.


5.
Sep 6, 2017 11:06 AM ET

Cohousing
by user-6818734

If you want to learn more about cohousing go to . There is a good definition on their site and they also have a great list of many of the built and forming communities in their directory (sorted by region). As someone who specializes in the design of cohousing communities and has lived in one for 24 years, I found Martin's claim that cohousing exacerbates segregation a little simplistic. Our community has regular public concerts and events and if you look at who we bring in through outreach, friends, guests, and extended families, we are not so different than the demographic of our diverse university town. And we even have some curmudgeons. Cohousing specifically designs for privacy within the home and community at the doorstep.


6.
Sep 6, 2017 12:18 PM ET

Living in an Earthship in the desert and other paradoxes
by Ethan T ; Climate Zone 5A ; ~6000HDD

I was confronted by your main point first hand when I went out to New Mexico for a while and found myself living "off the grid" in the middle of the desert. I then found myself driving 30 miles each way to work (or to do anything else) and suddenly realized that while my house was "off the grid" I was very much a consumer of oil, and that being "off grid" necessarily implied a level of inconvenience that necessitated copious driving. Upon realizing this, I found a reasonably sized Rastra block attached condominium, from which I could walk everywhere I needed to go on a daily basis. Though I have never done the calculations, I believe that I used a fraction of the fossil energy on a per diem basis than I had been previously. Moving hunks of metal around is quite energy intensive.


7.
Sep 6, 2017 12:32 PM ET

Edited Sep 6, 2017 12:35 PM ET.

Response to User-6818734 (Comment #5)
by Martin Holladay

User-6818734,
Thanks for sharing your direct experience of co-housing communities. I'm glad to hear that there is room for curmudgeons in such places!


8.
Sep 6, 2017 12:34 PM ET

Response to Ethan T (Comment #6)
by Martin Holladay

Ethan,
You are right that many Americans consume more energy for transportation than they do in their homes. For more information on this issue, see Houses Versus Cars.


9.
Sep 14, 2017 2:44 PM ET

Trailer Park / Modular Homes
by Bill Burke

This is a company producing very low energy and zero net cost homes in California. I have no connection to the company, just citing it as an example of how we might imagine a ZNE trailer park.


10.
Sep 14, 2017 4:42 PM ET

Zero net cost?
by Charlie Sullivan

Bill, I assume you mean zero net energy. Zero net cost would be an option that I think many people would be interested in as well, if there is a way to do that.


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