As the U.S. economy improves, the size of most new homes continues to expand. The average new home is now more than 2,600 square feet, compared to less than 1,000 square feet in 1950. Keep in mind that the average family size has shrunk considerably in recent decades.
This highlights a cultural shift, as many Americans are giving each child their own bedroom, and bathrooms are becoming more plentiful, sophisticated and spacious. Many families buy the largest house they can afford, which is encouraged by low interest rates. It is common for families to spend 1/3 to 1/2 of their income on housing. As homes become larger, the environmental impact typically expands as well, as more resources are needed to construct, maintain, heat, cool and furnish them. Is there a green living alternative?
Green living is living
There has been a green living, tiny house and small house movement underway since the 1970s driven by environmental, financial and time concerns related to the ever-expanding American dream house. Tiny homes are typically less than 400 square feet, while small homes are usually under 1,000.
Some of my friends and family raised an eyebrow when I announced that my family of four (with a son and daughter) were planning to downsize into a new two-bedroom, 900-square-foot home in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BC&E) — a multi-generational community and ecovillage in Midcoast Maine, located 2½ miles from the town center and the Penobscot Bay.
We believed that living in a cohousing community would make it easier to downsize. Two years later, I find that I enjoy the simplicity of a small home, sharing resources and joining social activities with the other 35 ecovillage households.
Cohousing is a collaborative neighborhood where residents actively participate in its design and operation. BC&E is a 36-unit community on 42 shared acres, where each home contains its own kitchens and bathrooms. We also have an approximately 4,000-square-foot common house with a shared dining room, commercial kitchen, laundry room, guest bedroom, playroom, offices and root cellar. It is located in the middle of the community, so it is within a couple minutes’ walk from all the homes.
The concept behind the common house is that it contains many of the rooms that people would want if they lived in a large house, but that might not be heavily used, such as a guest bedroom and a kids’ playroom. The common house helps 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 foods. Because the space is shared, it comes with a lower financial, time and environmental impact.
The idea is that everyone’s home is just small enough that they will make use of the common house,” says Belfast Ecovillage 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.
Living small inside does not cause us to do the same outside. Garden space is plentiful and there is a shared playset for children. Several households have low hoop houses for fall and winter greens, and we’ve planted numerous fruit trees around the property. Harvesting fresh produce as needed also helps offset the need for large home food storage spaces.
The ecovillage houses are all located in two-, three- and four-unit buildings, lowering their heating load and helping to preserve space. The shared land has clustered homes, plenty of open space, limited automobile access, individual gardens, a small CSA farm and walking paths. Residents have access to much of the 42 acres, yet are only responsible for maintaining a small yard and an optional nearby garden space.
A few acres is home 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 trade recipe ideas with each other.
The layout of Belfast Ecovillage stands in contrast to most new neighborhoods in the U.S. that are largely automobile-centered, thus dramatically reducing contact between 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 Belfast Ecovillage. “All they see is a car enter the garage in the evening and a car leave in the morning.”
Limiting automobile access at the ecovillage does have both advantage and drawbacks. I certainly feel safer when my young children are playing outside and less of our land is dedicated to roads and driveways, but unloading groceries is more difficult.
Living in an intentional community can reduce resource consumption while saving money. Toys, children’s clothes, furniture, garden tools and books are commonly passed from member to member. If someone would like to use a vegetable juicer, needs a ride to the auto mechanic or needs help with child care, there are many helpful neighbors around.
All the ecovillage homes were constructed to the Passive House standard, and use 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than the average code-built home. Because all the Belfast Ecovillage homes are under 2,000 square feet and highly efficient, a relatively modest solar system can power the home.
Now, 22 of 36 homes are near net zero, through the use of solar energy. The last 11 systems were installed through a community solar purchase with Capital City Renewables, where neighbors pooled their resources to buy the panels at wholesale prices and two community members were trained and helped install the systems.
“I think a community solar purchase was a great idea,” says Hans Hellstrom, a member of Belfast Ecovillage and a participant in the recent solar project. “Not only is it good for keeping the cost down, but there was also a feeling of camaraderie. It also really supports [the Belfast Ecovillage] mission, working toward sustainability.”
Despite plentiful shared spaces and resources, living in a 900-square-foot home requires us to keep clutter to a minimum and make good use of our space. For example:
- We’re purchasing a combo washer and dryer (all in the same unit) to make room for a small chest freezer.
- We have a small dishdrawer (instead of a full dishwasher) and bunk beds for the kids.
I downsized our toy collection when we moved, and donated many other items to the common house playroom. When I’ve reduced the amount of toys in our house in the past, my children invent games with found objects, such as pine cones and bark.
Green living is a good reminder to take pleasure in simple joys. The payoff can be bigger than you ever imagined.
Feature image credit: Denphumi / Shutterstock