Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Heartwood: cohousing in Durango -- by Dick Grossman

Cohousing is an attempt to establish old-fashioned community life. It started in Denmark. There are now about 100 projects in the USA. See cohousing.org. Ours is the largest: 250 acres in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains, including 65 acres of irrigated pasture, and woodland. The age range is from 3 to 70, and there have been several home births already. Some members are retired, some work from home, some commute about 20 miles into Durango.
Right now it smells of sage, and manure after rain. We have just put some aged manure on the garden. Real Colorado weather: about 17 inches of rain a year. Today, May 2, we woke up to a light dusting of snow. We are at 7000 feet. At Silverton, at 9500 feet, I've seen snow on the Fourth of July. We had a maypole yesterday on the village green, followed by brunch and a concert by Sally Shuffield, the director of Durango Nature Studies, with which Gail and I are very involved.

The common house
What we like most is that our actual home can be smaller, because many of the facilities are shared. We live independently, but with far more contact with our neighbors than in the average city. The individual homes are in a cluster, which saves on utility costs and leaves land free for green space, pasture, farming and wildlife. There is a common house that serves two meals and a potluck twice weekly, with a large kitchen and communal dining room, exercise room, two rooms for guests, and a store where Heartwood Farm food is sold. We have a greenhouse to grow food plants and flowers, and a wood workshop.
The yurt
We had a yurt which is used as a school. Some have lived there while building their own homes. Now it is also used for men's group ceremonies. We have a village green where a lot of ball games are played -- but we got tired of planting new sod and put in a tree. That doesn't interfere with a very nice ballpark

My wife loves to ride. She keeps two mares, Missy (a chestnut quarterhorse) and Shiloh (a half-Arab gray) in the pasture. Others keep llamas. Last year we started a greenhouse to grow organic vegetables, called Heartwood Farms.
The underlying principles are based on Quaker process. All decisions are made by consensus except in an emergency, If discussion gets heated, there is a silence to cool off and wait for inspiration. It is not specifically a religious group. We have no creed. I am the only Quaker member of the cohousing.

Gail is involved in the Choral Society, and (being a retired teacher) an early learning group. As a volunteer naturalist, she also leads children's nature trips, up into the mountains, into the valleys, and down into the plains. Durango nature studies has the curriculum online. They serve about 7000 kids a year. Because Our housing clusters leave room for other species, there are bears, cougars, mountain lions, bobcats, wild turkeys, deer and elk around us.

One of the Quaker testimonies is Community. I hadn't paid much attention to this but since living in Heartwood I have learned that cohousing requires you to interact and make group decisions. So it is really deepening my faith.

How did it get started? There were monthly get-togethers to recruit people. Gail suggested we go. I said fine, though I have no interest in joining -- because I write a monthly column for the Durango Herald. It turned out to be much more interesting than I thought. So we began to think that for ourselves. Usually we make decisions as a couple. But when we were in the hot springs with a friend, I found myself saying "we're joining", to my wife's great surprise.

The next step was to build a house. 20 years ago we decided not to build a home, because we have seen so many couples build and then divorce, so this was a big decision. We visited several cohousing projects in Denver and decided that our minimum was 1500 sq ft. There were nine plans available. Looking at plan C, I suddenly realized, "I've been in that house". From not being interested, here I was superintending the process. There were few decisions to make, because changes are expensive. All we needed to decide was the color of the carpet, the tiles in the kitchen, and one upstairs bath instead of two. Things went so well during construction that we were able to leave the country for five weeks, and ask neighbors to keep an eye on it.

strawbale passive solar duplex
We moved in about 10 years ago. 14 homes were constructed by Heartwood's contractor: some of packed straw clay, some straw bale, and one mixed the methods. One exception is of pumicrete with bamboo reinforcement. We have the only straw bale duplex in the USA. They are remarkably cool in summer and warm in winter. Kids love packing straw clay (an essential part of construction) because their feet fit in small spaces. We had bees and building parties.

We always had friends who lived as individuals, scattered across the suburbs. Now we have a close circle and visit together a lot, people we wouldn't have got to know otherwise -- a midwife, a very thoughtful and philosophical fridge repairman, the woman across the walkway who knows all the words from 1950s musicals, her new man who is a divorced Mormon who is a hard worker, plumber, builder, gardener, and instigated the farm project.

community brunch at the common house
Our greenhouse produces lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes. Last summer we employed WOOFs , and sold produce to restaurants and farmers markets. We didn't make money so this year we have all volunteers, and everybody is eating extremely well.

For more details see Heartwood cohousing.

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