It's a sunny day in Roberts Creek, and Kurt Grimm is helping landscape the new common house. He takes off his gloves to shake hands, then heads to a conical pile of fresh topsoil and sits down on the dirt. An associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Grimm doesn't miss a beat when asked what drew him to Roberts Creek Cohousing (RCC).
"Climate change and ecosystem collapse are a symptom of a deeper social problem," he says, squinting into the sun. "The highly individuated lifestyle we're leading is driving the problem. It's the huge-footprint lifestyle of the wealthy north, and we moved here to get away from it, toward authentic rather than material fulfilment."
He considers for a moment, then smiles. "Of course, that's not what everyone would say we're doing. My wife would say we're doing this because it's great for us and our kids."
If phrases such as "authentic fulfilment" sound like a throwback, Mr. Grimm is unconcerned. "I'm not a noble savage, back-to-the-good-old-days type. But if we're going to find a new way of living together that works, this is very close."
The Grimm family is one of 31 at RCC, an intentional community in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast. It's the first rural co-housing project in Canada, and one of about 40 such communities established in North America. Completed in December of 2004, RCC is also one of the newest developments.
Co-housing began in Denmark - under a name considerably more difficult to pronounce - more than 30 years ago. By clustering homes around shared gathering areas, it attempts to overcome the isolation of single-family housing, use less land and resources, and return village-like interaction to urban and suburban life. It was introduced to North America in 1988 by architects and authors Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett.
As a rural development on 20 acres, RCC is something of a co-housing rarity. But in terms of structure, it's mainline orthodox, with all the defining attributes set out by Ms. McCamant and Mr. Durrett. With the help of several architects and consultants, residents made all design decisions.
Homes are clustered to encourage personal interaction, in this case on 35- by 98-foot lots around a 2,900-square-foot central common house (with a kitchen, children's room, guest suite, office, laundry and - last but not least - a movie room with a big-screen projector). Decisions are made by consensus, and houses are privately owned in a bare-land strata, fee-simple arrangement.
The homes themselves vary from one to four bedrooms, and customization was kept to a minimum. They are small by North American standards: two-bedroom homes are 860 square feet, three-bedrooms run to 1,300 square feet.
Most are less than 15 feet apart. In addition to promoting community, clustering enabled savings on sewage, water and underground telephone infrastructure. It also allowed five acres of forest to be preserved in a land trust.
Aside from Hardiplank fly-ash cladding and non-toxic interior paints, RCC is fairly light on ecological architecture (which "smacked right up against affordability" in the words of a resident). The development was planned for minimal impact on the trees, however, so that only 20 per cent had to be cut down to make room for the homes. Porch railings, stairs and eave supports were milled on site from the 150 cedars that were cut down.
Along the six-year road to completion, a core group of six to 15 pioneers had to form a corporation and endure a gruelling series of public meetings to justify zoning variances. They also had to convince the surrounding Roberts Creek community they weren't real estate profiteers or the leading edge of a wave of suburban gentry.
"It was a torturous process at times," says Gary Kent, an instructor at Inside Passage, a fine woodworking school based in Roberts Creek. Natives of the Sunshine Coast for close to 30 years, Mr. Kent and his partner Stacia Leech were the originators of the RCC project.
"Roberts Creek sees itself as countercultural, back to the land, and co-housing is seen as urban and middle class. There's a tendency to want to close the gates. But eventually there was a terrifically positive feeling toward the project."
Mr. Kent and Ms. Leech learned about co-housing from Alan Carpenter of Windsong, a community in Langley, B.C. With the help of Ronaye Matthews of Cohousing Development Consulting, the core members - the "burning souls," as Mr. Kent puts it, with a dash of self-parody - slowly gathered community support, a financially feasible development plan and a critical mass of committed investors.
"It's been a long exercise in determination, perseverance, sticking to one's ideals, and the ability to sit through endless meetings - all day, every Saturday, for two years," said one member with a mixture of pride and disbelief.
And now, says Mr. Kent, the real work is beginning. "We thought once we had everything built, the hard work was behind us. But the real big job is sustaining the community, so it doesn't fall back into that abyss of just a bunch of houses and folks not communicating. It takes work."
The central neighbourhood lane is mandated as car-free, and on this weekend afternoon is alive with people wielding shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows, as well as kids returning from the Sunday hockey game in the lower cul-de-sac. While the presence of neighbours is delightful, says Mr. Kent, it can be challenging.
"The balance of individual and community is always in your face here. We used to live on a property by ourselves, so it was a challenge to adjust, looking out our front window seeing people all the time. It's not for everyone; it's quite cheek by jowl."
Dave and Kate Barratt moved to RCC from their home in New York. After a year and a half, they've moved out and put their co-housing home on the market. "I work full time and I travel a lot," says Ms. Barratt, "so when I got back, I'd want to relax. But we're so close to each other, you see people all the time and you're never really alone - I just didn't feel I could relax. There was no private place for me to be."
Interpersonal issues were also a major challenge. "There are a lot of people who bring their unhappy childhoods and emotional stuff to the community meetings. I liked working together with people, and being able to walk out of your house and have ready-made friends. But I guess the emotional healing people wanted to happen, I just wasn't there for it."
In addition to unwanted emotional intensity, the small-footprint houses were a downside for Mr. Barratt.
"We moved from a larger house and had to downsize. Nothing we owned fit in the house, and we felt very crammed and temporary in the space. It didn't feel right for us from the time we moved in."
Mr. Kent guides me up a path along Clack Creek, part of the mature second-growth cedar forest that has been preserved in trust. Considering the idea of privacy, he confides that he takes this path to the common woodworking shop at the back of the property when he doesn't want to see anyone. "If I walk up the main street, it can take me two hours to get to the shop," he says with a laugh. "People come out of their houses and we end up talking or I end up helping them with some electrical or plumbing problem."
Ms. Leech agrees that living in co-housing is not always a picnic, but is confident the work will pay off. "People are dealing with the major stress of moving and coming into an alien community. It really skews the first couple of years. But we're beginning to see the potential now that those ripples are settling out. The rewards are as intense as the challenges. That's what keeps me here, and keeps me in community."
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