As the U.S. economy recovers, the average new home size continues to climb, with the 2013 average reaching an all-time high of 2,600 square feet, according to the Census Bureau. This is indicative of a cultural shift, where few American children share bedrooms, and bathrooms are becoming more numerous and spacious. Homes have more than doubled in size since the 1950s, meanwhile vegetable gardens and close relationships with neighbors have declined. Is simple living the answer?

Living Large 

communitygardenI noticed friends and family raise an eyebrow when my family of four (with a boy and a girl) bought a two-bedroom, 900-square-foot home in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage —a multi-generational intentional community in Mid-coast Maine. We are drawn in large part to the simplicity of a small home, shared resources and social activities with the other 35 ecovillage households.

Cohousing is collaborative housing where residents actively participate in the design and operation of their neighborhood. Belfast Ecovillage is located on 42 acres and the 4,000-square-foot common house with a shared dining room, commercial kitchen, laundry room, guest bedroom, playroom, offices and root cellar is nearly complete.

“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. The common house is really a continuation of our living rooms.”

Sharing is caring

By design, cohousing encourages both modest-sized homes and a high standard of living, while consuming fewer resources and time for each household to maintain them. Social events and impromptu gatherings reduce the need to drive and make carpooling and sharing resources and time simpler. Because a pedestrian path connects all the homes, young children can safely walk from house to house to visit friends or play.

The common house contains what isn’t practical for each home to have independently, such as a guest bedroom and playroom and provides a setting for entertaining large groups, teaching a yoga class, hosting overnight guests, and storing food harvested from the garden.

Community garden

Belfast Ecovillage houses are all located in 2, 3, and 4-unit buildings, reducing the heating load and the size of the built area. Because the homes are clustered, there is plenty of open space for food production, recreation, and wildlife. Residents have access to many acres, yet are only responsible for maintaining their small yards and an optional vegetable garden. Currently three acres is dedicated to Little River Community Farm, a worker share CSA that community members can join.

The Belfast Ecovillage layout contrasts with most new neighborhoods in the U.S. that are largely automobile-centered, significantly 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 on the property has both advantages and drawbacks. It is certainly safer for young children, but unloading groceries takes longer.

It takes a village…

childsplayLiving in a cohousing community can also reduce resource consumption and makes is unnecessary to own as many things. Toys, children’s clothes, furniture and books are commonly passed from member to member. The community only has four lawnmowers and a handful of wheelbarrows. There are several one-car households with two adults, including a couple with children.

“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 Belfast Ecovillage 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 does require us to keep clutter to a minimum and make good use of our space. Upon moving in, we bought bunk beds for the kids and downsized their toy collection. This inspired my children to invent new games with found objects, such as pine cones and bark. It was a good reminder to find pleasure in simple things.

Images courtesy of Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.