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Co-housing – dream to reality June 19, 2010

Posted by Amanda in Uncategorized.
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Welcome to my old dead blog. Maybe I should resurrect it. Thanks to Kathleen, Pete and Memily for giving me something to post even if it is three years old.

This is an article I wrote about co-housing. Since the article was written I’m not sure how much has changed, but I know Sarah and Brian are still there and recently had a baby. As far as I know it’s going well.

Last September, nine people, two cats and four chickens moved into a block of flats with a vision not just to live next door to one another, but to share their lives and resources. This suburban street in Annerley is the site of one of Brisbane’s newest co-operative housing experiments.

There are a growing number of these urban “intentional communities” springing up around Australia. Many see communal housing as a viable option to combat the increasing loneliness of urban societies and to positively impact the wider community.

For the Annerley group, the decision to share a space came out of many years of dreaming and an earlier co-owned house that didn’t allow for expansion. In the end it came down to the tenacity of Sarah Eastwell who doggedly searched for the perfect place for her utopian dream.  The block of four flats was eventually purchased by five of the current residents.

The large back yard is strewn with play tents, swings and toys as well as a complex chicken run and the remains of a demolished BBQ.  It serves as the communal area for the residents who congregate around rickety wooden tables and tell tales of impromptu night gardening sessions after work.

Eastwell says that she was motivated by the realisation that her social circle was shrinking.

“As we got older, our friends had children and moved to the suburbs and we didn’t see one another anymore,” she says.

Eastwell’s partner Brian Murphy lives in the community as a non-owner and describes her as the ‘burning soul’ who brought the project together.

“Sarah is the key instigator, the catalyst, the chairman, the banker. It really did take one visionary,” he says.

Sarah has always enjoyed share-housing and the informal interactions that come from having other people around.  She says their flats allow all participants to have their own space but still have the social advantages of a share house. She finds the idea of a nuclear family isolating.

She says that this model takes the pressure off her relationship because she is not reliant on her partner for company and it allows her to spend more time with her sister and her niece who also live in the community.

“This is almost like a chosen family, which can work so much better because you have similar ideals and values which you don’t always share with your own family. It makes the concept of family a bit broader,” she says.

Dr Bill Metcalf started exploring communal living after the Aquarius festival at Nimbin in 1973. Over the last 20 years he has lived in a variety of intentional communities and as a social historian, he has spent more than 20 years studying them. He is currently researching the history of communal living in Australia. He says that communal living has changed since the stereotypical communes of the 1960s and 1970s.

“People have a vision of somebody at Nimbin smoking dope and wearing gumboots but there are many other options,” he says.

Metcalf says one of these options is a movement termed ‘co-housing’. He says it is the way of the future for communal living. Co-housing involves urban developments of inter-connected townhouses or apartments. Each family or resident has their own living space, but relationships are developed through shared facilities such as kitchens, dining rooms and child care facilities. Members maintain a level of privacy but are encouraged to participate in community meals and other activities.

Metcalf says that a shared vision and communal meals are the keys to successful communities. He believes that the sharing of meals is fundamental to communal living as it encourages communication and cooperation between the members of a cooperative.

Shared visions may be religious beliefs, environmental concern or simply a desire to stay connected with others, He says that the vision must include a conviction that sharing is good and is a moral responsibility.

Metcalf says that communal living is like any important close relationship,

“If you think you can be in a relationship and it will all be roses. It ain’t like that, you have to put energy in and you have the downs and the ups,” he says.

One of the greatest challenges faced by residents of intentional communities is the establishment of appropriate boundaries between personal and communal spaces.

Boundaries have been a cause of tension for marketing academics Terry and Rosie Gatfield who, along with their daughter Emma, son-in-law Steve Lamar and their three children, moved to adjoining houses on a hillside at the Gap four years ago.

The Gatfields had long had a vision of a “clan house” for their extended family where they could live communally. The project stems from a Christian faith that says everything should be shared and family is central to this vision.

Terry has found that community living is a place of growth and great pain. He says that pain comes from letting go of the expectations that he had about community living that are not shared by those around him.

“You start off with an unwritten contract that I had firm in my own mind but it doesn’t get realised in other people’s minds,” he says.

Terry had expected that boundaries would be looser and that the space would be shared more freely.

“If boundaries are that important, you should not go down that path,” says Terry.

But, psychologist son-in-law Steve says that he still feels some need to protect the identity of his nuclear family and he has struggled with the open attitude of his wife’s father.

“For Terry it is relatively boundary-less, your space is my space, my time is your time, it comes from his Christian framework, he is very idealistic about that,” he says.

The children who are a part of this experiment have adjusted to community living well and at times have shown their parents and grandparents the way.

“ Children work out community in the most natural way of all of us, they just buzz in and out. As a result of that, on a Saturday morning, the three kids might disappear and we discover they are watching TV in Terry and Rosie’s bedroom.  For our kids, they see Terry and Rosie’s house as much their house as our house”, says Steve.

His wife Emma, an artist, says her children have a much closer relationship with their grandparents.

She says, “When you are family, it naturally kicks over into community in lots of ways. For example (my son) Toby has breakfast there almost every day”.

Grandmother Rosie says that western societies have lost something, now that having an extended family close by is no longer common.

” Reclaiming something beyond the nuclear family is just wonderful. People are giving that up now and they don’t know what they are giving up. This is not abnormal in a lot of communities, it is normal,” she says.

There are plans to refurbish an empty house on the property for use by other family members, one of whom is expected to move there later this year. Terry has visions of spiritual retreats and artistic endeavours in the surrounding bushland.

Terry and Rosie say they hope to remain in the ‘clan house’ until they die, and they would hope that the house would never be sold to someone outside the family.

Dr Metcalf says that for those who do not have the connections of a family, communal living can be a more than adequate substitute,

In his opinion, people are hard wired to be social beings and current trends of single person households are dangerous to mental health, He says that communal living is a positive force for the individual and the wider community.

“The benefits to the individual are quite basic. It helps with loneliness, it helps with psychiatric problems, it helps develop social skills, it gives you a place, it gives you a home, it gives you a sense of belonging.”

There are financial benefits to living communally with shared resources and facilities, but Dr Metcalf along with the residents of the Annerley house agree that this cannot be the primary motive for developing an intentional community.

“You have to want the communal aspect because there is a lot of negotiation and there is a lot of decision making, and it can be really hard,” says Sarah Eastwell.

The main benefits to the wider society are environmental.  A group that lives communally has been shown to consume one third less energy than someone living on their own.

Communal groups also often resolve conflicts and problems without the use of outside groups like social workers and psychologists through mutual support.

Dr Metcalf believes the future of communal housing is looking bright. He says that although there is no hard data, anecdotally, intentional communities are on the rise and that most Australians could imagine themselves living in a co-housing arrangement.

At Annerley, the household believes that the group dynamic facilitates creativity and working together. The group plans to build a sewing room and a permaculture garden.

They are looking forward to establishing a communal area under the building that will allow for more interaction between all the residents. They also have plans for an outside eating area.  Sarah speaks admiringly of another co-housing project that has its own home brewery maintained by the community.

“You can create something bigger than if you are on your own. You can have a shared vision and work together. You can do ordinary, everyday activities but in a social environment,” says Sarah.

Sarah says that she often wakes up in the morning, wanders out to the verandah she shares with other community members and is overjoyed that she has achieved her goal.

“I see myself here forever, I see it as a nest, somewhere to come back to.  I can’t think of anywhere I would prefer to live.”