What We Learned at Space Camp

October 9, 2017

We’re told that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, that cohousing has been done before, there’s a program or template we can adapt for our purposes, and I know it’s true. There’s at least forty years of experience in Denmark, where cohousing started. There are cohousing communities in the United States that have been around since the 1990s, or even earlier. Experts have written books, given lectures and posted videos on YouTube. Their advice is readily available and often enthusiastically offered. We don’t have to start from scratch.

 

All this is true. And yet, it remains the case that no existing template that we have found applies precisely to our situation. We’re convinced—well, I’m convinced—that we’re unique. Our circumstances make us different. Every time we meet it seems like we’re having to invent the process that will work for us. Our wheel, while round, is different.

 

Partly it’s the objective circumstances that set us apart. Property where we want to build is very, perhaps prohibitively, expensive, and our means are relatively modest. Municipal zoning laws are inimical to the kind of medium-density, multi-unit housing we have in mind. (The disposition among city planners is to push for high-density development in urban areas.) Meanwhile, provincial laws regulating condominiums are an awkward fit when it comes to the kind of self-governing community we have in mind.

 

For the most part, costs and regulations appear to have been less of a barrier in other jurisdictions. Maybe not so much in ultra-pricey Vancouver, where Gary Morrison of Livewell Cohousing has guided cohousing groups to a successful outcome. But still, Kitchener-Waterloo-Guelph is a hot real estate market. Cohousing is a novelty here. And municipal bureaucracy tends to be intrusive and slow to adapt to an unfamiliar model.

 

Quite apart from the objective circumstances that tend to make us unlike others, there’s the perennial, personal problem of community. What is it? How do we know when we’ve got it? Everyone says we need it. But as far as achieving it goes, the advice tends to begin and end with the word “potluck.”

 

Do things together. And bring food.

 

So much is background to Space Camp, which we did together. And brought food.

 

Space Camp is our own invention. At the very least, it’s a creative variation on something that already exists. That thing is the “Get It Built Workshop.”

 

A number of consultants offer this workshop. In the iterations we’ve looked at, the consultants propose to cover just about everything, from recruiting members, adopting a decision-making procedure and agreeing on property-selection criteria, to hiring professionals, and explaining the nuts-and-bolts of property development, corporate financing and working with contractors. Typically, the workshop takes up a weekend. It seems to me that it’s a singularly ambitious enterprise, a multi-course meal in a fast-food format, that’s apt to leave participants with a case of mental indigestion. Or, at least, feeling too full.

 

And besides, we’ve done ourselves much of what Get It Built is designed to achieve. We’ve been gathering (and shedding) members for more than a year and a half. We have visited existing communities. We’ve done workshops on non-violent communication, sociocracy (our decision-making process) and visioning. We have a functioning website and hold regular meetings. By our own estimate, we’re about halfway through Get It Built through our own efforts. We envisioned Space Camp as a next step, an opportunity to refine our plans for living together, with the emphasis on the actual buildings and grounds. It went pretty well.

 

Michele divided us into three circles, one each for the site, the common house and the individual units. Remarkably, there appeared to be very little disagreement among the participants.

 

The site circle came up with a plan that assumed we had a two-acre property to work with. About two-thirds of the twenty-odd units were townhouses; the balance were eight-or-so 600-square-foot units in a multi-storey building. At their center was a 3,000-square-foot common house, plus a garden and playground. Parking was on the periphery.

 

The common house circle talked about ways to use the space efficiently, making sure each room could be adapted to different purposes. They sought to keep quiet and noisy zones separate and discussed the importance of adequate storage space. Their plan allowed for a guest room, washroom, mailroom, plus quiet corners for conversation. It included a corporate office as well as space for group activity, such as yoga and musical jam sessions. It was agreed that an industrial kitchen and large dining room were the heart of the common house and that they should be warm and welcoming. On the subject of shared laundry facilities, often a thorny topic in cohousing communities, there was disagreement, the discussion deferred.

 

 

The unit circle drew up a flexible design for an open-plan home with one-, two- and three-bedroom options. They agreed on the importance of sustainability (green tech, durable materials, small footprint), accessibility (wide doors, some single-floor units, allowance for aging in place), and privacy (soundproofing, a small backyard or deck). They also noted the importance of universal design with respect especially to the bathroom and kitchen—costs soar when owners demand customized accoutrements. We'll choose triple-glazing rather than marble countertops, solar heating over jacuzzi-equipped bathrooms. We’re prepping for a post-climate change world.

 

On this and much else there was broad agreement. While eating lunch we even agreed on the number of meals we’d aim to share each week—three—although Liz is holding out for twenty-one. Who knows? Perhaps the lack of dissension reflects the degree to which we have achieved community? It would be nice to think so.

 

In any event, we’re now in a position to give a provisional answer to the question architects, developers and other consultants invariably ask us, which is: "What exactly do you want to build?" Not that we’ve filled in all the details—nor do we have to. In the end, we’re the client, not the architect or builder. But the subject has been broached. We’ve made more than a beginning. We’re on the way (we’d like to think) to Getting It Built.

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