The Consensus Process

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.

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. 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.  
  4. 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.

Decision Making Card used by Richmond Cohousing (see references below)

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 consensus and 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!)!


Decision Card text adapted from: Don Wells Consulting, with thanks to the Partnership for Health, Inc.

Decision Card graphics adapted from:

Working Together Builds Community

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.

The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design in Richmond, VA

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!


Community Roundtable – April 21, 2016

Join The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design and Richmond Cohousing for a lively round table discussion on the concept and design principles of cohousing and their role in reshaping modern domestic spaces. Cohousing communities are intentional, collaborative neighborhoods where residents actively participate in the design and management of their neighborhoods. 

By rethinking architectural space around the shared use of common facilities, cohousing is a design solution that seeks to lessen the impact on our environment while increasing positive social connectivity among neighbors.

Invited guest speakers will share their experiences designing, building, and living in these innovative communities. Members of Richmond Cohousing will share their compelling vision for cohousing in Richmond.

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.

Looking Ahead: Microgrid Possibilities in a Connected Community

One advantage of cohousing is that it is much easier as a community to install projects that save energy and increase community independence by combining resources. Generally, community members are already oriented toward cooperative action. Cohousing communities also have decision-making structures and practices in place and experience in using them, so the decisions around community projects can move forward more rapidly and smoothly than in a situation that involves a city council or neighborhood association.

alt energy
Image from Alt Energy

The creation of a microgrid is one such project. A microgrid is a portion of the larger electrical grid that has its own power-generating capacity. This generation could be from wind turbines, solar PV panels, gas generators, or any other method of generating power a community can live with. Living Energy Farm, a forming community 50 miles west of Richmond in Louisa County, has even experimented with household-level biogas generation.

The microgrid connects to the main electrical grid through a switch. In ordinary circumstances microgrid generation feeds into the grid, and microgrid owners (such as cohousers) can sell that generation to a larger utility like Dominion that runs the main grid. When the main grid goes down, as during an ice storm, hurricane, or thunderstorm, the switch can be cut off, and the microgrid can continue to function for its owners to distribute power within the community. The US Department of Energy has more information on microgrids and the Berkeley Lab Grid Integration Group gives examples of microgrids from around the world. The Sendai microgrid, while larger than what we would need in Richmond Cohousing, is especially notable for functioning in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that produced the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Mesa del Sol microgrid powers a mixed-use commercial-residential community in Albuquerque, New Mexico that is similar in size to Richmond Cohousing’s plans.

Richmond Cohousing plans a community of twenty to thirty households, with dwelling sizes ranging from 800-1600 square-feet, and a large common house. While our development has not yet been fully planned out, it is likely that we will have roof space for 150-200 kW of solar PV panels if all households participate. This likely would result in an average of 600-800 kW per day of electricity generated, translating to 218-292 SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) generated, which are worth $55-60 each to Pennsylvania utilities. That could bring $12,000 to $17,500 in revenue to the development, distributing $400 to $875 in benefits to each household each year.

We could form a co-op with the help of a group

Image from Solar Solution

called VA SUN, a project of the Center for Community Energy out of Mt. Pleasant, Maryland which has already helped co-ops in Harrisonburg and Rockbridge County join for bulk purchases and volume discounts on installation. VA SUN estimates savings of 20-33% off the typical single-home price ($9000 to $40000 per home depending on the size and circumstances of the system) and each household, or the LLC as a whole, could take an additional 30% federal tax credit on top of that, making the installation cost per household as little as 46% of retail value.

A microgrid is the kind of unique, groundbreaking project perfectly suited to cohousing communities like Richmond Cohousing. Our values include environmental stewardship, and a microgrid could be a great way to meet this value for a minimal additional cost. One more thing to think about as we move towards site and dwelling design!

While we continue to work towards a design for Richmond Cohousing, John uses his computation skills daily as a math teacher. You’ll see him commuting to work via bike throughout the year. According to him – the colder, the better for a bike ride!


Cohousing is for Introverts, too!

At a recent Richmond Cohousing event, I found myself in the kitchen with another member acknowledging our discomfort with the large number of people assembled. We joked about staying busy in the kitchen together, then ventured out among the crowd. This was not the first time I’d met a fellow cohousing member in the kitchen regrouping, recharging, and voicing social anxiety. I was surprised to find that studies of cohousing communities show that individuals in these intentional, people-filled neighborhoods actually tend to share the personality aspect of introversion.

I am an introvert. I process things internally and rarely think about making plans for social activities. I love talking with people, especially one on one, but then I need time to be alone and recharge. Most of my introverted life I have lived with other people – my family of origin, group houses, intentional communities, partners and children, visiting friends. Despite my need for alone time, I have come to the conclusion that living with others is essential to my happiness. It brings me joy to prepare meals and eat together, chat as we come and go in our lives, participate in household chores, share stories, laugh, and care about each other. Living with others draws me out of my internal dialogue and into the present.

I joined Richmond Cohousing to ensure that my future will include both abundant connections to others, and private space to recharge. One of the fundamental principles of cohousing design is to include ample spaces for spontaneous interaction between neighbors along pedestrian walkways, gardens, and in the common house, but also to have private spaces where someone can be alone.

In addition, cohousing communities consciously plan social activities – something I am reluctant to do on my own. The Richmond Cohousing vision statement includes: “We are committed to creating a supportive and enriching community that fosters connection with each other and the larger community. We will embrace opportunities to work and play together. We will host regular common meals, community celebrations and social gatherings. We will support each other through life’s challenges and joys and will work together to care for our land and shared facilities.”

My life is already enriched by working with others to create Richmond Cohousing. The appeal of living in cohousing goes beyond my desire to share resources and live more sustainably. Cohousing is a simple and elegant way for me to have an active social life and meaningful relationships.

Kathryn generously hosts many Richmond Cohousing events at her home. You’ll meet her, and plenty of other introverts (and extroverts, too!), at our events. Be sure to check the kitchen!

Finding Cohousing – Anne’s Journey

For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamed about living in a community where individuals work together and actively choose to live their lives together. It started as a child. I was raised in an Army family that moved a lot, and while we didn’t live near our family we always had support from the surrounding military community. We had “overseas family”. Many of those families are still friends of my parents, even 20 or more years later.

While I didn’t want to continue a military life myself as an adult, I’ve found myself moving every few years for work anyways. Feeling the isolation of our current culture, my husband and I have missed the connection and pull of community over the years. After having kids we really wanted to put down roots and become a part of a living, thriving community.

Not long after moving to Richmond and finding a neighborhood we loved, I heard about cohousing. I love our neighborhood, we have great neighbors who are involved and committed to the larger community, but we aren’t as close nor as cooperative as we could be. After hearing about cohousing something instantly clicked. I learned about what the group in Richmond was doing and read more about cohousing in the national and international scene and realized that the thing I’ve always dreamed about for myself actually had a name and was already being done.

Joining Richmond Cohousing was not an immediate thing for us. We came to a lot of meetings and events. I got involved in a committee and even attended the national conference before deciding to commit to the project in Richmond. During that time, I got to know the existing members of Richmond Cohousing and decided for my family whether or not their goals and community values aligned with my own. I was invited to participate and dream with them.

Jocelyn and Winnie getting ready for a meeting. Food and childcare are readily found during Richmond Cohousing meetings!

It wasn’t a big step, paying the membership fee and committing. But joining and participating has been a whole bunch of small steps. One event at a time, one meeting at a time, one decision here, one phone call there, one retreat in the woods, more phone calls, a few face to face meetings, and several lovely shared meals all have added up to a bunch of small steps that have helped get the group to where we are now.

Maybe you’re curious about cohousing or what Richmond Cohousing is doing. Maybe you too have felt a missing connection to the world you live in. Right now is an exciting time for Richmond Cohousing. If you are at all interested in what we are doing, I would invite you to come to one of our events and meet with us.

Anne and Matt have worked in restaurants around the country (including a stint in Alaska so remote that their patrons often arrived by plane). Now, Anne is a driving force in getting our Community Meals policy off the ground and showing us that it is possible to gracefully and thoughtfully cook for a large group.

Building a Gingerbread Community

Richmond Cohousing wants to be a family friendly community. We envision a whole neighborhood watching out for kids, like it used to be in the olden days. But having children can be a lot of work and parents who might benefit from cohousing often have very little extra time to share for meetings – even if we provide free babysitting!

In an effort to reach out to families, our Marketing & Membership committee decided to host family friendly programs to appeal to both parents and children. We just completed a Gingerbread House program and we hope to have future family programs with themes involving Legos, bubbles, and maybe even yoga!

A gingerbread community – complete with common house, solar panels, and homes ready to be decorated!

As a former children’s library worker, I’ve given quite a few family and children’s programs in my time. But few have been as important to me as the ones I have lead for Richmond Cohousing. After all, these are children and parents whom I hope will be my neighbors – and I’d like to make good impression!

Having worked in libraries, I knew that where family programs are concerned, it’s either feast or famine. You have many, many people come to your program or not a single soul. Imagine how happy I was when 5 additional adult volunteers came to help at the Gingerbread House program. Thank you Adele, John, Anne, L, and Lala! We couldn’t have hosted as many families without your help. The company of my fellow cohousers made me feel much more relaxed about being on stage as the primary presenter for a program I’d never done before.

And thank you to the 29 kids and parents who came to learn about cohousing and, of course, build candy houses! I wonder if Santa Claus was on the kids minds as the children were absolute angels. There were no fights and no crying, only laughter and the sounds of children learning and crafting houses.

Beth Morris and the Richmond Public Library did a wonderful job of promoting our program and even printed and distributed our Gingerbread fliers throughout the library system. Crafts are not my forte so I was very pleased and grateful to Beth, she took the Gingerbread House building project in hand so I wouldn’t have to. Thank you, Ms. Beth!

And while it helped that we were following up on a popular library program which books up every single year, our committee member Meg got the event posted all over the virtual world. Thank you, Meg!

Two Richmond Cohousing families brought their children to the event. Every time that I asked for help relating an aspect of cohousing, they piped up and participated in presenting. Their participation got the children looking around and listening to more than one person. And I was particularly grateful when L asked the kids what solar panels are when we checked out the Gingerbread Common House. I’d forgotten to ask that question and it needed asking. And even their kids helped by dishing out the candy and unwrapping plastic. They had fun interacting and getting to know other children that frequent the Main library.

And last but not least, many thanks to Kathryn. She volunteered herself and her kitchen for over 8 hours of gingerbread house construction. Who knew prefabbed houses could take so long to build! It was Kathryn who helped construct the Common Gingerbread House and made sure it held together. She installed the solar panels, too!

Building a cohousing community is a big project – one that takes a a lot of help and hands. Thank you everyone who helped with this event and with the Richmond Cohousing project. It may be a lot of work now, but when we are finished it will be as sweet as a gingerbread house!

Caroline is a long time resident of Oregon Hill, vegan cheesemaker, and gingerbread planner extraordinaire. She is also one of the founding members of Richmond Cohousing – if you’d like to hear about how our group came to be, she’s a great one to ask!