As the American economy recovers, the average new home size has reached an all-time high of 2,300 square feet. This is part of a cultural shift where many Americans are shying away from children sharing bedrooms, and bathrooms are becoming more plentiful and sophisticated. Homes have more than doubled in size since the 1950s, meanwhile vegetable gardens and close relationships with neighbors have declined.
I’ve noticed friends and family raise an eyebrow when I announce that my family of four (with a boy and a girl) is purchasing a two-bedroom, 900-square-foot home next month in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BC&E)—a multi-generational community in Midcoast Maine, located just 2½ miles from the center of town and the Penobscot Bay. We are drawn in large part to the simplicity of a small home, shared resources and social activities with the other 35 households.
Sarah Lozanova's kids play with a toy borrowed from Nessa Dertnig, a member of BC&E and a mother of two. Photo By Jeffrey Mabee.
Cohousing is a collaborative neighborhood where residents actively participate in the design and operation. BC&E will soon be a 36-unit community with private kitchens and bathrooms on 42 acres. More than half of the homes are complete and inhabited, some are still under construction, and just three remain unsold. We are also breaking ground on an approximately 4,000-square-foot common house with a shared dining room, commercial kitchen, laundry room, guest bedroom, playroom, offices and root cellar.
“The idea is that everyone’s home is just small enough that they will make use of the common house,” says BC&E cofounder Sanna McKim. “If the homes were too large, nobody would make use of our wonderful shared spaces.”
By design, cohousing helps encourage both modest homes and a high standard of living, while dedicating fewer resources and time for each household to maintain them. Social gatherings and impromptu interactions reduce the need to drive and make carpooling simple. The common house will help offset having a smaller home by providing a setting for activities such as entertaining large groups, teaching a yoga class, hosting overnight guests, and storing canned foods.
Living small inside will not cause us to do the same outside. Garden space is plentiful and there are plans to create a rustic playground. My husband is building a low hoop house for fall and winter greens, and we’re planting fruit trees soon. Harvesting fresh produce as needed will help offset the need for large home food storage spaces.
The houses are all located in 2, 3, and 4-unit buildings, reducing the heating load and keeping the footprint smaller. The shared land has clustered homes, plenty of open space, limited automobile access, individual gardens, and a small CSA farm. Residents have access to many acres, yet are only responsible for maintaining a small yard and optional nearby garden space. A few acres is currently dedicated to Little River Community Farm, a worker share CSA that many community members participate in. A weekly harvest brings neighbors together to share the bounty and learn from each other.
This layout stands in contrast to most new neighborhoods in the U.S. that are largely automobile-centered, thus significantly reducing contact with neighbors. “I know a lot of people who live in houses with attached garages and they have never even seen their neighbors,” says Dan Capwell, a member of BC&E. “All they see is a car enter the garage in the evening and a car leave in the morning.”
Limiting automobile access does have its advantage and drawbacks. I’ll certainly feel safer when my children are playing outside, but unloading groceries will take longer, especially with a toddler.
Living in cohousing can reduce resource consumption and save money. Toys, children’s clothes, furniture and books are commonly passed from member to member. A least a dozen people met us to help unload our moving truck when we arrived from Wisconsin and the opportunities to share belongings are plentiful.
“We have thought about the fact that not everyone would have to own their own rototiller, hoe or snow plow,” says Nessa Dertnig, a member of BC&E and a mother of two. “We also have just one car and we’ve thought of car sharing in the future. There are all kinds of ways we can share resources and time and it is all so convenient.”
Despite plentiful shared spaces and resources, living in a 900-square-foot home will require us to keep clutter to a minimum and make good use of our space. We’re purchasing a combo washer and dryer (all in the same unit), so we have room for a small chest freezer. We’re buying a dishdrawer (instead of a full dishwasher) and bunk beds for the kids. We’ve already downsized our toy collection. When I’ve done that in the past, my children invent new games with found objects, such as pinecones and bark. It’s a good reminder to take pleasure in simple joys.
Sarah Lozanova is a mother of two, a holistic parenting coach, and a freelance environmental writer. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and has an MBA in sustainable development.