We moved to Richmond about 6 months ago – shortly after getting married – and began to imagine how we wanted our lives to look. We envisioned a community like the ones we grew up in – where it was normal to knock on the neighbor’s door to borrow a couple eggs or some flour, and where kids were able to spontaneously organize their own play time with other kids in the neighborhood, rather than parents scheduling play dates days or weeks in advance.
On top of the fact that we both have busy and irregular schedules working in healthcare, we realized that this type of neighborhood is simply not the norm anymore. We were so excited to discover cohousing, which has physical design that encourages interaction, but more importantly, it has a friendly, neighborly culture in which everyone wants to be involved in the community.
We chose cohousing because we both want to live in close community with our neighbors, and we want our kids to have other people around to learn from and play with. We want to support our older neighbors as they age in place, and are comforted knowing that our neighbors will help us in times of need. We look forward to eating dinner all together, to watching sunsets from the rooftop deck with a glass of wine, and perhaps throwing in a game of ping pong or Pictionary before heading to bed. We hope – and believe – that more people will choose to live this way as it becomes clear that human connection is the key to happiness.
You can get to know Richmond Cohousing members, including Rachel & Theo, on our “Meet Our Members” website page. Read more about your potential future neighbors and then come meet us at an upcoming event!
So, it turns out, audaciously building a cohousing community together—i.e., a new neighborhood essentially from scratch—is hard work and can take a long time. Who knew?
But Richmond Cohousing just passed an important milestone that’s suddenly brought our end goal into sharp focus: we’ve chosen a site, are planning to share a brand new 4-story condo building in Manchester, and are working out the details with our developer, Miller & Associates. We’re getting close now!
Anyone who’s followed our progress knows that we have been at this for some time. A few of our members joined the group as early as 2011 and 2012. Most came later, once we got better organized in late 2014.
And what a journey we’ve had! We’ve gathered for countless meetings and potluck dinners. We’ve sung, biked, played games, tabled at festivals, and volunteered together. We’ve eaten scrumptious community dinners in each other’s homes. We’ve read cohousing books together, attended cohousing conferences, visited cohousing communities in other cities, sent members of our group to facilitation trainings in neighboring states, and hosted facilitation trainings here, too.
We’ve articulated our core values and created agreements about processes and policies to govern the way we want to live together as a community. We’ve honed our meeting format to a fast-paced, no-nonsense structure that helps us accomplish a lot in the limited time we have together. We’ve developed spreadsheets and databases and circumnavigated the city to check out possible sites for our future home. We’ve pooled some funds and kept careful records. We’ve created our own website, logo, budgets, and bank accounts – the works. We’ve also laughed a lot—at almost every meeting. We’ve watched each other’s pets and younger children. We’ve helped out each other with some significant home projects and a few minor emergencies. Three babies have been born since we started. A new romance is blossoming, too.
Through it all, we’ve become a genuine community. In a word, we’ve gotten really close. So close, that we can’t wait to be moving in together in 2019.
And we can’t wait for more people to join us.
Our next Informational Session & Site Tour is Wednesday, September 19th at 5:30pm. This is a great time to get involved—we’ve laid the group foundation, now it’s time to build (membership and the structure)!
To get event announcements, project updates, and more details via e-mail, sign up for our e-mail list.
My first exposure to cooperative culture was participating in a Canadian young adult program called Katimavik. Katimavik (which means “gathering together” in the Inuktitut language) was created to develop youth and foster civic engagement through community service. We lived in communal houses with 10 to 20 other young volunteers from across Canada and served for nine months in three different communities. Our first community was Wolfville, Nova Scotia where 20 of us lived in a rambling farmhouse, between commercial pig and chicken barns, overlooking the picturesque Bay of Fundy’s extensive red mud flats. For most of us, Katimavik was a gap year between high school and whatever was next. Those not fluent in both of Canada’s official languages (the majority) awkwardly attempted to communicate. We tried to live well together with the counsel of coordinators who were only a few years older than ourselves. Planning, preparing, and eating meals were central to our communal life. The expectation was that we’d eat a healthy diet on a very low budget. Despite our limited experience with cooking, we learned to bake our own bread and prepare meals from scratch. We immersed ourselves in a slow-food diet using Laurel’s Kitchen, Diet for a Small Planet, Moosewood Cookbook, and the Tassajara Bread Book for guidance. Our Katimavik group belonged to the food co-op in Wolfville, a charming store with bulk food items in wooden bins with hand written signs, organic baked goods, local produce, honey, eggs, dairy, meat, and maple syrup. We did not frequent the store since most of our food was purchased in bulk from the co-op and delivered to us. However, members of the co-op hosted us in their homes, organized our community service projects, invited us to celebrations, contra dances, and into their lives. These people understood that production, distribution, and consumption of food were crucial to the well being of our planet. They were an idealistic, opinionated group of individuals choosing an alternative to the competitive culture that dominates mainstream society. In retrospect, I suppose they were matured east coast hippies. All I knew at the time was that I wanted to emulate them. Almost 40 years has past since I was in Katimavik. During that time, the globalization of food production has been accompanied by increased wealth disparities within and amongst countries, more fast food, and escalating rates of obesity. Most North Americans are increasingly disconnected from food production. Over the years, I’ve belonged to numerous food cooperatives. During university in Peterborough, Ontario, the co-op required volunteer service to be a member. At the intentional farming community I lived at near Scottsville, VA, Mountain Warehouse Cooperative delivered large quantities of rice, flour, dried beans, oil, and other staples of our diet. When I moved to Richmond in 1989, I joined Fair Share on Main Street. Fair Share closed in the early 1990’s, ending 20 years of incarnations of food co-ops in Richmond. These co-ops were community focused organizations which were instrumental in teaching cooperative culture, including providing training in consensus building.
When I heard about the Richmond Food Co-op, I joined. It is a member owned full service grocery store focused on local, sustainable, and affordable food. The Co-op will be opening summer of 2017 at 1200 Westover Hills Boulevard. It currently has greater than 1000 members. Each member has to opportunity to participate in the governance process. Ben Kusterer, the Membership Outreach Coordinator, describes the co-op as: “Made up of a community of engaged and active people working together, the Co-op is poised to create a brighter food future for Richmond. The Richmond Food Co-op will be a 100% locally owned, 100% locally governed grocery store focused 100% on supporting our local farmers, economy and community; not to mention increasing affordability of good food through a member/owner model”. Like Richmond Cohousing, the Richmond Food Co-op is striving to make a cultural shift from competition to cooperation. I hope we will serve our members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together and learning from each other. In my heart and mind, a food co-op is central to creating the sustainable community we desire. For more information about Richmond Food co-op, visit their website or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Growing, buying, and eating sustainable and local food is very near to the cohousing mission and members of Richmond Cohousing are excited to live in a city with such vibrant and innovative food choices! We often feel that no cohousing event is complete without food and sharing in community meals is a staple of cooperative living. Thanks to Kathryn for sharing her own experience with the cooperative food scene.
While all cohousing communities have a different journey, many share similar steps. This two part post shares an overview of how Richmond Cohousing is traversing the Cohousing Development Process. Part One explores how a few “burning souls” build a group structure, expand membership, and partner with a Developer, while this portion explains the process after site selection.
Site selection and acquisition can occur in any number of ways but typically the group defines a set of characteristics and works with development partners and other professionals to identify sites that meet those characteristics. Once a preferred site is selected by the group, the group and/or Development Partner secures an option on the property, conducts feasibility analyses, and determines whether they want to commit to that parcel or keep looking. Once the group has secured control of their selected site, the community design process can begin.
The process of land acquisition, community and home design, entitlements and public approvals and construction of the community typically takes somewhere between 1 and 3 years, although a number of factors can either speed-up or slow the process. Setbacks can be the result of national forces such as recessions or changes in regulations, or the result of local challenges such as getting needed entitlements and approvals or addressing resistance from surrounding communities. Many cohousing groups experience some setbacks along the way but the determination and creativity that comes from a well-organized and committed cohousing group is a powerful force for overcoming obstacles and reaching successful completion.
While the developer is at work managing the technical and construction aspects of the project, the group plays an important complementary role. They engage actively in a contributing to the community design process by giving input and approval to site design, common house design, and home designs. They also give input on other factors such as green and sustainable elements, aesthetics, efficiency, and cost-saving measures. Most groups have design charrettes (workshops) with the entire group, but also create a small team of trusted members who serve as a liaison between the group and developer, charged with keeping each side informed and passing key questions and information back and forth.
At this stage of the project the group continues the work of finding the future neighbors who will complete the community. This means marketing and outreach to raise awareness about the project and providing support and guidance for new members who need to be welcomed, engaged, and informed about their new community. New members will need support in learning about existing community practices, agreements, and governance. The group will also ensure that all potential full members are in a position to afford their future home; potential members should seek bank prequalification or preapproval (if they need one) early in the membership process.
As construction proceeds and the membership numbers grow, the group shifts more of its energy and attention to planning for life in the community after move-in. They will make decisions about community agreements and policies such as managing community meals, sharing work contributions, annual budgets and homeowner dues, conflict resolution norms, pets, establishing community traditions, using common lands, whether to have solar panels, chickens or a swimming pool, etc, etc. Working through these issues and possibilities creates fertile ground for getting to know one another better through community conversations, listening to different perspectives, and finding common ground and mutually acceptable solutions. The time the group puts into this work grows members’ capacities for working collaboratively for years to come.
The final step in the development process is moving in and beginning day-to-day life in cohousing with people who have become not just neighbors – but friends.
So how do we actually build a cohousing community? It’s a long process from a group of “burning souls” with a great idea to a physical and vibrant community. There’s so many things in between – establishing group norms and processes, agreeing on a common vision and how to get there, making sure there’s enough money to get the thing built (while dealing with site evaluation(s), zoning, and permits), and creating a group of neighbors from strangers. While all groups have a different journey, many share similar steps. This two part post shares an overview of how Richmond Cohousing is traversing the Cohousing Development Process.
Some cohousing projects are initiated by professional developers, but most, like Richmond Cohousing, most are initiated and driven by an early group of ‘burning souls’ who plan to live in the community they create. They are people willing to put in time, energy, effort, and funds to support the realization of their shared vision, through a process that will take many years. If the early group is able to effectively organize itself and develop a functional and collaborative group culture, they begin to turn their vision into a move-in ready cohousing community. They hope that their some-years-long project pays off in a many-years-vibrant cohousing neighborhood.
Along the way, the forming group begins expanding with new members who are drawn to the vision for the community and who are also willing and able to contribute energy, time, and money to the process. Existing members help newer members learn about the project and find ways to engage and contribute. All full members share equal power; earlier members do not have any special rights and have no more formal power or authority than newer members. Over time the goal is for every member of the community to share a deep sense of ownership, responsibility, and buy-in to the project and the community as a whole.
Most groups who have developed a functional process and a committed membership of between a third and a half of their eventual households move to engage qualified development professionals who can help turn their vision into a reality. There are many ways to do this, but the most common is for groups to seek an experienced developer who is willing to act as a fully engaged partner. This developer will work closely with the group to design the site, homes, and common house, manage the physical development of the community, and oversee approvals, permits, and construction. Ideally, the developer also helps with site selection and construction financing.
Real estate development – cohousing or traditional – is inherently risky and it is important for members to understand those risks and to work together to mitigate them where possible. Depending on the details of the formal agreement between the Cohousing group and their Development Partner, the group will typically have to put some “skin in the game” to show that they are committed to the process and will not back out on a whim, leaving the Development Partner high and dry. This means that the group membership usually invests significant funds in the project, often in the form some portion of members’ home down-payments which are contributed prior to the start of construction. This can be up to 20% of the sale price of the home, which is applied to members’ home purchases upon completion.
In the case of Richmond Cohousing, members earn discounts on the final price of their home by loaning funds to the project. Early loans earn higher discounts than those made later in the process to reflect the higher risk earlier in the process. These member loan funds may be used to purchase a site and/or to cover pre-development work (e.g. site and architectural designs, permits and approvals, and professional and consultant services). Additionally, Richmond Cohousing may also seek interest-bearing loans from friends and family and members who have maximized their discounts but have additional funds to lend. Group-generated loan funds that are not used for site purchase or during the pre-development phase are applied to the construction phase. In addition to reducing risk, this reduces the amount of interest the group has to pay to a bank, keeping those dollars in the hands of community members, friends, and family instead.
Part Two will dive into more details around what happens after a potential site has been identified, and how we plan on getting from land acquisition to move-in. Stay tuned!
When I first heard about decision-making by consensus, I couldn’t figure out how something like that would work in a large group. I assumed it meant that everyone had to agree on every decision, which seems totally implausible. Experiencing it for myself changed my mind.
Making decisions by consensus doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees on everything. Rather, it is a formal process that allows differing viewpoints to be heard and considered when making proposals that affect the group. We gather information about how group members feel about a given topic, and the information is then consolidated into a coherent proposal that the group can discuss and decide to adopt. Everyone doesn’t get their way all of the time, but a good proposal is a compromise that captures the overall tone of the group while also addressing individual concerns and needs.
Richmond Cohousing has adopted a consensus decision making process that contains several specific steps.
Any individual or committee can propose a topic for discussion. These topics can be anything that may be of concern or interest to the group, ranging from pets to the group budget. The topic is presented at a plenary (full group) meeting for an initial structured discussion. Typically we use a “diverge-converge” approach, dividing into small groups and discussing the issue and then sharing that discussion with the larger group.
The individual or committee then creates a first written draft of a proposal related to the topic, taking into account what was shared during the discussion. We have a template that makes it easy to write a proposal, making sure it includes evaluation criteria and possible alternatives.
When the written proposal is ready, it is presented to the group at another plenary for discussion. The group gives feedback at the meeting and a deadline is set for giving additional feedback after the meeting.
The responsible party revises the proposal, taking into consideration the group’s feedback, and later presents it back to the group for a vote. If the proposal passes, we adopt it, but, if the proposal is blocked or fails, it goes back for another round of revisions.
We don’t operate as a simple democracy, though! Voting is done with the “5 Fingers” method. Each full member household has 5 votes that they can cast for the proposal, with 1 “finger” being minimum support of the policy (e.g. I can tolerate it but won’t help) and 5 being full support. The total number of votes cast must exceed 75% of the total possible votes without any blocks, so a proposal must have enthusiastic support in order to pass. A single member can block a decision if they believe that it is not in the best interest of the whole group to adopt the proposal. But, anyone who blocks is then responsible for working to find a mutually agreeable solution for the entire group.
For those of us who are used to the types of decision-making used in our government, many workplaces, and other venues, consensus decision-making can take some getting used to. It’s a whole new way of thinking about group decisions and dynamics. Now that we have been using our decision-making process for about a year, most of the members have become familiar with it and have found it to work very well so far. We have used it to agree on policies such as a pet policy, a common meal policy, and a shared values statement.
Through my own experience with this decision-making process, I have been trying out modified consensus approaches in other settings in my personal life, including work and at home. It has been interesting to present a challenge to the status quo which usually tells us “the majority rules” or “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Traditional approaches may work in some settings, but they can also create alienation and disempowerment which have their own consequences.
Richmond Cohousing seeks to respect and consider the voices of all of its members in making decisions that affect the group. If you are like I was and are skeptical of the idea of consensus decision-making, I invite you to read more about consensusand to consider the benefits of living in a community where decisions are made with equanimity, compassion, and consideration for all.
Thanks to L for both writing about consensus and being a willing and strong facilitator to guide our group through the decision making process. And we’ve got a lot of decisions up ahead (land purchase! architectural style! paint color!)!
An exciting cohousing event is happening in Richmond, VA this week – Richmond Cohousing and The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design are hosting a roundtable discussion on the concept and design principles of cohousing and their role in reshaping modern domestic spaces. “Discover Cohousing: Sustainable Community Living” will be a great opportunity for the public, museum members, architects, designers, and all those interested in how design principles can impact community, to learn about cohousing. But the story behind the event also shows the connections and intentions it often takes to make these opportunities to happen.
In the summer of 2014, as Richmond Cohousing was just starting to look for land, members met with John Zeugner, a friend and longtime fellow Sierra Club member, of one of our members, Adele. John has many interests, including architecture and philanthropy, and is a planner by profession. At a group dinner, John shared his idea of bringing his inspiring and exuberant friend, Greg Ramsey of Village Habitat Design to Richmond for an educational forum on cohousing. In the Fall of 2015, John met with Adele and our cohousing consultant, Lisa Poley, suggesting that the event be held at the Branch Museum. We thought this was a grand idea since the Branch is a fascinating building, a great venue, and we desire interaction with Richmond’s architectural/design community. In the New Year, John got the approval of Helene Dreiling, Executive Director, and Craig Reynolds, Museum Director, and the date was set for April 21st. On February 29th, John, Craig Reynolds, and several members of our Membership and Marketing Committee met to articulate our objectives and formulate a plan.
We did not have much time to prepare! Fortunately, amazing people with expertise in cohousing generously offered to be on the panel: Greg Ramsey principal and chief designer of Village Habitat Design; Sandra Leibowitz founder and managing principal of Sustainable Design Consulting; Dene Peterson founder and developer of ElderSpirit Community; and Lisa Poley an early member of Shadowlake Village who served as their project coordinator and now acts as a cohousing consultant.
We were additionally blessed as Richmond Cohousing members stepped forward with their talents and energy to take on this opportunity: Meg worked on publicity with the Branch Museum staff; Anne, a culinary school graduate, organized the food preparation; John and Caroline put up posters and did a radio interview with our local WRIR station; David agreed to be the moderator of the round table; and many members agreed to set up, greet people, prepare food, serve, clean up, chauffeur and provide hospitality for panelists.
It has been an experience of a community coming together. This is what I love about building our community. It’s the enjoyment of working with others towards a common goal, noticing and appreciating each other’s strengths and capabilities in the process. And, if you are in the Central Virginia area, we’d love to have you join us at the event!
Discover Cohousing: Sustainable Community Living
Thursday, April 21
Social hour from 5-6 pm. Program will begin at 6 pm.
Light refreshments and non-alcoholic beverages served.
The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design
2501 Monument Avenue, Richmond, VA
Parking is available at the First Baptist Church lot at Monument and Robinson.
FREE event, but RSVP is recommended as space is limited. Register Now!