Treading lightly on the earth is very important to my new neighbors, Sandra and Abe. When they were looking for their retirement home, Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BCE) in midcoast Maine jumped out at them. Our 36-unit multigenerational community is on 42 shared acres and features a 4,900-square-foot common house, a worker-share CSA farm and a communal fruit orchard. Automobile access is limited to the north side of the property, and a pedestrian path, not a road, connects the homes. Two-thirds of the units are solar powered and they are all built to the Passive House Standard, a rigorous German standard for energy efficiency.
Houses That Heat Themselves
“When we were researching the community, I found videos on how the homes were built from the ground up,” explains Abe. “I had heard of the Passive House Standard but didn’t realize just how energy efficient the homes are. In addition, every unit is optimally designed to make the best use of solar panels. Personally, reducing our carbon footprint is very important to us, and the community offers that to everyone living here. Our carbon footprint is much less than if Sandra and I had a place of our own.”
Despite being located in a cold climate, the homes are largely heated by the sun, occupants and waste heat from appliances. All the houses have a solar orientation, triple-pane windows and doors, generous amounts of insulation, and virtually airtight construction. Every unit has a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system that brings in fresh, filtered air and exhausts stale, contaminated air. These units are more than 90 percent efficient in transferring heat from the exhaust air to the intake air, saving energy.
Living Lightly on the Planet
Living in harmony with the natural world has been important to Sandra and Abe for years. Sandra is a research ecologist, and the couple drives an electric car. They strive to purchase food from local farmers and keep invasive species from choking out local ones.
Sandra and Abe purchased their sunny one-bedroom unit last year. The couple is now working on installing an electric vehicle charging station for communal use and a solar system on their unit. Sandra is also a member of the sustainability committee for the community that is exploring a variety of ways to make the neighborhood more environmentally friendly, including restoring wildlife habitat, improving water and resource waste reduction, and using more renewable energy.
Downsizing and Shared Spaces
Despite already embracing voluntary simplicity before moving to BCE, the couple did downsize when they moved. “We had to adjust our thinking to living in a smaller place,” Sandra says. “We looked at what we needed. Even though we have a small unit, we have the common house and the property that we share, so we aren’t just limited to our little spot. There are a lot of shared spaces and resources that add to the value and the attraction.”
The common house features a large dining room, a kitchen, two guest bedrooms, a playroom, a root cellar and a living room. There are optional shared dinners and a variety of social and environmental events. Guided bird walks, herbal remedy workshops and house concerts are relatively commonplace.
A Sense of Community
“When we were living in Massachusetts, we didn’t feel like we were part of a community,” Sandra says. “More and more, we wanted a neighborhood where we had people who wanted to interact and do things together.”
Moving to BCE was an adjustment for both Sandra and Abe. They weren’t used to living in such an interactive neighborhood and, like most Americans, were accustomed to thinking about what was best for their family as opposed to what is collectively best for the community. Abe admits that he is still adjusting.
However, the couple appreciates living among people with shared values and the opportunities that such a situation creates. “We might have different ideas on how things should be done or the costs, but we are all on board in wanting to have a smaller footprint and contribute to the health of the land and water,” Sandra says.
Even if you don’t live in a cohousing community, Sandra urges people to look for opportunities to apply cohousing principles in their own neighborhoods. “Wherever you live,” she says, “connect with efforts that you are passionate about to live in harmony and understanding with the natural world.”