Whole Village

(Whole Village Website)


We were a little later getting to Whole Village than we planned, but our host Brenda met us and they had a big spread of cookies and brownies and banana bread they had made for us, so we had some of that and some of the food we had brought with us, then sat in the large common room of the house by the fireplace and she told us a bit about the creation of the community. She said it started in the late 1990s with a Rudolf Steiner-influenced community north of the area, and they looked at the farm site but many of the original group didn’t want to be too far from the Waldorf school, so a few couples split off and eventually bought the farm in 2002.

They started building the house in 2004 and moved in in 2006, but before that they ran into an issue with the township, their neighbours were afraid they were going to build a huge complex or be a cult or something — someone made the mistake of saying they were thinking they might have as many as 100 people. So the community fought them and the township wouldn’t agree to the zoning, one councillor supported them but wouldn’t say so publicly. Finally a planner they met said that he knew the plan they had was legal, so they fought it in court and eventually won — the key was that none of the suites have stoves that are wired in. They have sinks and fridges but only hot plates for cooking, and apparently that meant it was considered a single family dwelling.

The common house was large and slightly L-shaped, centred on a large air-tight fireplace with the eleven living units branching off the Common House. Each unit had its own adjacent garden with separate entrance and unique private view. Ten of the suites have bedrooms, a sitting room, bathroom and kitchenette with no stove. The 11th larger unit also includes a stove. The common house has a large kitchen and prep area, and areas for dining, lounging, laundry, a library, and games room. The design is most accommodating to meetings, smaller groups, with lots of light, and a low-cost heating system.

The physical structure was quite nice.  The common house was very spacious, with dining and living areas that were quite comfortable and welcoming.  The masonry heater was striking, and also apparently very effective, heating the whole common area all day and night long with once daily two hour burns.  The kitchen was large and looked easy to work in. The main kitchen area was nicely finished with granite countertops, though the pantry and working area were a bit institutional.  The games room was clearly kid-oriented and actively used, and the mechanical room was certainly well-used, but very cluttered. There was no basement, so a large portion of the common space was for the mechanical room.  The design allowed all units to have easy and quick access to the common area and their own private patio and garden area, but did mean that many were north-facing, and there were lots of narrow hallways and complex paths to get from one place to another.  

The units were surprisingly large and felt much like real apartments, though the designs varied a great deal.  Some had quite large kitchen and living areas, others seemed to have these squeezed into corners. The bedrooms were all good-sized, and the many skylights meant that there was lots of light.  The pod structure did also mean windows on multiple sides. Weirdly, there were no closets in any of the units, instead lots of free-standing storage units, which looked somewhat messy. The bamboo and cork flooring was mostly very attractive, but some of the cork had separated rather badly.  Twelve years after completion, there were a number of structural issues with the sustainable building materials they had used, including some serious leaking in the roof.

In general, the living quarters (common and individual) were appealing and seemed sufficiently spacious, as well as being sustainably built.  The easy access to the common area from all units was nice, but does that translate into value when you consider the sprawling footprint, and the disparity in desirable unit orientations?

Before they bought the land they got a conservancy easement on it, so it is held in trust for 999 years — that allowed the owner to claim a tax deduction and she passed some of the savings on. There are two 100-acre lots, 28 acres is tax free because they protect it and it helps protect the watershed of the river. They pooled their money and got a $560,000 mortgage which has since been paid off. It cost $2.4M to build the house. They talked to TD but wound up getting a collective mortgage from their credit union, so if someone can’t make the payments then the rest are on the hook for it. You can rent or sell your unit, but the community has to agree to accept the renter or owner.

They did a lot of it themselves, until they got out of their depth. One member was an architect and he designed the house but made some mistakes or bad choices, so the roof leaks because the material used didn’t last, and some of the skylights leak. The common area is 6500 square feet, which some people think is bigger than they need. Brenda’s one-bedroom suite is 600 square feet, everyone pays for their unit plus a share of the common areas and a share of the farm. The house took two and a half years to build, which Brenda felt was way too long. Right now they have half and half ownership and rentals, some people are renting because they are trying to sell. You have to rent for a year before you can buy as a trial to see if the community wants you; a two bedroom is $1200 and that includes the common areas and a share of the farm.

Whole Village Property Co-op Inc is the parent, technically a for-profit, under that is Greenhaven Co-op, which is a non-profit, both share a board of directors. They started as a corporation and then became a co-op. They use CT Butler’s consensus process for decision making, renters get same rights as owners but only owners can block a decision. They have a series of committees or mandate groups like legal, financial, communications, education, community dynamics, farm/land stewardship etc. There are three levels of membership: you can be an associate member and pay $10 a month, or you can become a provisional member for a year at $50 a month, and then full members pay dues for heating and electrical etc as well as maintenance and taxes for the barn. Brenda pays $321 a month in dues and maintenance and $300 a month for the farm.

In order to be a full member you have to be assigned a mentor, read certain books, come to events, you can then do a three month trial or an intensive trial where you live there for two weeks.  Next you write a biography and attend two interviews, one informal and one formal, and fill out a questionnaire. You then have to rent for a year before you can buy, as a trial to see if the community wants you and you are happy there.  In the past there was one couple that they had to ask to leave, another guy who, when presented with evidence from his past, decided to leave. The community then decided that they had to get to know people better; hence the lengthy and complex trial period.

Residents pay $115 a month for food basics and pay for common meals separately (the cooks work out the cost of a meal and then divide it by how many attend).  They used to do five meals a week when there were more retirees, but do maybe two or three a week now. Items that are not considered basics (nuts, meat, etc) can be purchased from the kitchen for an additional cost.

If you buy a unit you have to pay the owner $12,000 for the membership share, ($2000 is admin costs, so the owner only gets $10,000); $50,000 for a land share (the price of the land divided by 11) and then whatever price you negotiate with the owner or the suite.  Two bedroom suites are currently listed for between $200k and $300k.

They use geothermal heat with heat pumps, hot water pipes under the floor; some of it didn’t work out at first, and they had to add a separate hot water heater.  They have two septic tanks, wetland cells, leaching beds and composting toilets; a masonry fireplace heater heats the whole common space; there are 55 skylights but many of them leak so they’re covered with plastic; They have several fields that they work but they also rent out to local farmers, and they have a large garden and several pigs, two cows and a bunch of chickens. They get volunteers to help with the farm and do work bees for canning, making biochar, etc.

Mark, a young man who is doing a trial membership with his girlfriend, gave us a tour of the farm and the rest of the grounds (there is an old farmhouse they are renting out and renovating, and also a couple of small cabins they rent and use for volunteers). He said he is thinking about buying into the community if he is accepted, he likes working on the farm (he is an arborist) but he did say that there was a certain power difference between the older members and owners and renters like himself. All the members commit to doing nine hours of work per week, either in the house or on the farm, and there are sign-up sheets in the kitchen. Some people do a lot of farm work and no housework and some do the opposite.

It appears that the people who are there share a strong and focused vision – sustainable living, and farming, and learning how to do both.  This is probably their greatest strength. Their passion for that common goal is quite clear, and I suspect that is what keeps the community going.  The members are a diverse group of all ages and backgrounds, and this shared enthusiasm is their glue. In this, they differ from most cohousing communities, in that they are also running a business together.  While that unites them, it probably also creates more opportunity for conflict.

Their zoning struggle and building problems are certainly instructive.  Getting municipal councils and neighbours on board is obviously critical.  Sadly, we have heard stories about similar zoning struggles from many of the cohousing communities we have visited.  It appears to be a hurdle that comes with doing something a bit different. We can hope that attitudes towards cohousing are changing and those issues will be less in the future.  The structural issues do seem to stem partly from being very much on the bleeding edge of sustainable building materials, but also allowing one member to dictate the design, and perhaps doing too much of the work themselves and not relying more on outside experts.

Questions raised:

The pod design is interesting, but has both pros and cons.  What do we think of it?

Sustainable building materials can be great, or disastrous.  How do we avoid their mistakes?

Does this size of community (eleven units, with a fair bit of current vacancy) seem like a reasonable size?

How do we feel about the lengthy orientation and trial rental period for new members?  What are the options?

They have a collective mortgage because that is what they were offered.  Is this a reasonable option?

Is the kitchen without stoves/single family dwelling model an option if we have similar zoning problems?

See also:

Many Parts Make a Whole Village