Marc and I visited Hundredfold Farm in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania on Dec 14, 2016. Spent a couple of hours talking to Linda Miller, who joined the group in the second wave, around 2003. They were originally a group of about 12 families that purchased an 80 acre tree farm in about 1998. They then discovered that there wasn’t enough water for their planned development – they drilled wells, but most were dry (they are on a hill, with a great view, but far from groundwater).
The county insisted that they then build an elaborate and innovative water treatment facility (a large greenhouse full of plants is used to filter the water), which is fascinating, and works, but takes a lot of effort, requires regular, costly inspections, and provides far more reclaimed water than they can use in their toilets – the only allowable use for it. They must still rely on wells for laundry, garden watering, etc, as well as drinking and bathing.
The cost of this, plus putting in a road up the hill, bringing natural gas line up the hill, etc, cost an extra $850k and took years – they were unable to build until about 2006.
Some families dropped out because of the long wait, some a bit later because of the 2008 housing crisis, unable to sell their existing homes. Only 4 original members and 3 who joined in the second wave continued to the building phase. These 7 members are all cosigners on a still large loan, and are worried about the financial obligation. There are 18 lots available, but only 10 homes were ever built, and the later arrivals (and any future additions) are not on the hook for the loan.
Presumably the monthly fees ($225, according to ic.org, the Intentional Community database) cover the interest costs, but they need to sell more lots to reduce the loan. Buying a lot costs about $150k, and then you have to build your house for an additional cost, and pay the monthly fees. They each have individual gas furnaces and solar water heaters, and presumably pay for their own utilities, taxes and home insurance in addition to the monthly community fees (every house had a large bank of solar panels for electricity and hot water, and those seemed to work very well).
There are rules about what the outside of your house can look like (you must choose from a specific colour palette, for instance) rules about what you can do on your own lot (cutting down a tree requires committee and then general group approval), rules about only walking dogs on leashes and not letting cats outside, and very few cohousing benefits from the monthly fee and the rules.
The houses are all built facing each other, but are all large, detached homes, spread widely apart (partly because almost half of the lots are empty). There is no sense that these are small cohousing homes, sharing common facilities or shared walls, so there is no building or energy saving from the design of the place. The roadway in between the homes is wide, gravel, and has no pedestrian features. It looks like a subdivision, but not a community.
The common house is the original (old) farmhouse, which is significantly further away, down the hill, and has minimal features – a small, single home sized kitchen, dining area, living room, laundry room with one set of machines. Upstairs are 4 bedrooms available for visitors, and a really nice wrap-around deck with a view down to a pond. They only turn the heat on for planned events and visitors, so the house is rarely used in the cold months, and isn’t a place for a spontaneous gathering.
They only do common dinners about once a month, though they might increase that during the winter, and they do a Saturday evening movie night in the cramped living room in the winters as well.
Linda felt that her neighbours were wonderful, especially in the way they helped her out when her mother was old, senile, and then dying. We stopped and chatted with the two people we saw, and they were friendly, but doing their own thing. They carpool for trips to the grocery store, and get together to go out to local events and dinner out. She agreed that they do more community things outside the community than inside it, and she regretted that there was no common facilities that encouraged interaction.
She had no problem with the rural location and the fact that it took 30 minutes to get to anywhere, but said that she had grown up with that. It did appear that the distance from stores and entertainment venues might, in fact, have encouraged the carpooling, shared shopping trips and planned excursions that were one of the few obvious strengths of the community.
The financial issues, and the disparity between early and late arrivals on their financial obligations has led to tensions. Linda would have liked more guidelines and less rules, but backs away from conflict, and there is definite conflict on these and other issues. There doesn’t appear to be any plan to build a better common house, nor any designated central location for it.
They have had difficulty attracting new members, and this didn’t seem surprising to us – there is very little that I would call cohousing in this community. The current members are all getting older, to the point where they no longer have the energy to run the tree farm, and are challenged to put together work parties to maintain the common grounds and build new gardens, etc. The place isn’t well suited to seniors (steep hill, long distance to common house, large, multi-storey homes with front steps, no mobility-friendly features) but also has no family-friendly features such as a playground (and there are no children living there).
Despite all this, Linda said she was glad to be there and a part of the community. For us, this was almost entirely a cautionary tale.
We also visited Liberty Village in Union Bridge Maryland on December 14th, 2016, and spent a couple of hours talking to Tom Lofft, and had dinner with the group (about 20 adults and 10 kids). They are located in a rural area, a mile from tiny Libertytown (population 950) and 25 minutes from the city of Frederick. The 18 homes (and an additional 10 empty lots) are built on 8 acres of land. There is another 15 acres of land that is used for gardening, chicken coops, orchards and open meadows, giving the place a great, wide open feel. It also feels noticeably like a cohousing community, with the parking lot at the periphery, and the houses fairly close together and facing each other.
The roadway between the homes has a barrier discouraging car traffic (though it is allowed for delivery and grocery drop-off) and is designed to be very pedestrian-oriented and encourage interaction, with bonfire pits, benches, gardens, kids playgrounds, etc. Kids were laughing and playing in the street as we strolled around, and we stopped and chatted with the adults we met on our walk. The sense of community that derives from the design is noticeable, and a marked contrast to Hundredfold.
They had started building at a time when solar technology didn’t seem sufficiently advanced to justify the cost, but they used geothermal ground source heating – every home had their own heat exchangers (many of which now have to be replaced, at the 20 year mark), but it was unclear if they all had individual ground sources or shared one large one. They also had their own community septic collection and grinder system, which fed into the county’s sewage system. The cost of servicing all of the lots was substantial, and required the group to take out a large loan.
Being on county septic and water had many advantages (compared to Hundredfold, for instance), but did cause problems when the EPA changed their guidelines in 2003 and no longer allowed new connections to the existing municipal sewage system until it was upgraded by the county – which took 6 years. By then, 2009, the country was in its housing crisis.
As a result, there was a lull in community growth, as no new houses were built for a number of years, but they are now looking at selling 10 more (duplex) lots. It doesn’t appear that they have buyers or a waiting list for these new units, but the existing 18 homes are almost all occupied, though many have been rented out to tenants, or owners have taken in boarders. This has increased the number of children dramatically, and the place definitely has a kid-friendly vibe.
Almost all of the 18 homes are duplexes. There are three basic models that make up half of a duplex home – one has a single finished storey (975 sqft), the other two are two storeys with bedrooms upstairs (at 1300 or 2000 sqft; the larger has far more personal living space, the other two models are classic cohousing small house designs); all have unfinished basements and attics. Many people have customized the designs, changing porches to sunrooms or enclosing them entirely, for instance. And some appear to have merged the two halves into a single 4 bedroom home.
Many homes are partially rented out. New houses can be one of these models (with a standard price from their builder) or new members are free to design their own plan. The smallest model, the Redbud, is 975 sqft, 2 bed/1bath, with unfinished basement and second floor, for $214,000, including heat pump system. You also pay separately for the lot, and given the duplex model, I assume that you either wait for someone else who wants to buy half a lot and half a duplex, or else you pay for both and either have a large house or rent out half. While buying half a lot and house made sense in the initial stage, from an economic and environmental perspective, I’m not sure how well that will work now, when they are trying to attract new people for the remaining lots. Perhaps the corporation could buy the other half, and sell or rent it out.
As with Hundredfold, it was once again true that they didn’t have a purpose-built common house. They had an active common house, but it was a personal unit that had become vacant (due to a death), and the community was renting it, and had subdivided it to rent out the upstairs bedrooms to two tenants, while the downstairs served as the common kitchen, dining area and living room. This worked, but was tiny and minimal – the kitchen was so small that most cooks made their common dinner contributions in their own homes and brought them over to serve; the front room was used as a buffet serving area, but meant people lining up along the hall, and the dining room was too small for the whole group, so tables were set up in the living room (in warmer weather, the large porch is a good alternative, or outdoor dining).
Meetings were held here and there are scheduled group activities for both adults and kids in the common house, but there didn’t appear to be too many options for entertainment, games, fitness, or just hanging out in a spontaneous gathering because the space didn’t have all those features. There is a plan for a future common house, but how far in the future is unclear.
It was never clear why the common house wasn’t built as part of the original plan, but one assumes that they intended to add it in the second wave, which was stymied by septic and housing crisis issues (they are currently discussing buying another vacant house, which is larger, to become the next common house). Either way, it was the main deficiency, but it didn’t seem to detract that much from the sense of community.
Tom showed us the communal gardens, orchards, the recently built chicken coop that had been a group project, the playground they had bought second-hand and installed, etc. Members had plans for goats, more and different gardens, lots of uses for the land, and they did seem to be enthusiastic about working together. It looked liked most of them came to the common dinner, and chatted happily with everyone else.
At the common dinner, we got the definite sense of a real community, where everyone knew each other, at least reasonably well, and some were very close friends. The renters may or may not have been engaged in the group activities; I got the impression that this was an individual choice, and that some participated (making and eating common dinners, for instance) but that some were not really part of the community. I wonder if that has or will have an impact on the dynamic.
The initial group had included a city planner (Tom), a civil engineer and an architect. They had the expertise to move the project forward. They put in an offer on one piece of land but were unable to close the deal and it fell through. The current property is 23 acres, backing onto a 100 acre park, with a controlled wetland in between. The previous owners were going through a nasty divorce, which meant they had trouble agreeing on anything, which was helpful when it took 2 years to get the rezoning approval.
Unlike the Hundredfold group, they didn’t purchase the land outright until they had the approvals in hand – that’s why they lost the first property, and they were fortunate to hold onto the second one for the two years that the process took. Definitely the safer course, but with the risk of losing a great property. They were able to get the property for around $400k, and then severed and sold the existing large farmhouse and a small lot for $300k, which gave them an amazing net cost of $100k.
It appears that they built the 18 homes over a few years (1999-2003); not slow, but not all at once, and we didn’t really probe why – did they not have 18 committed owners when they moved forward? It definitely appears that, at least with these two groups we met, the “burning souls” were the 2 or 3 people that moved the thing forward, and others followed along later. This wasn’t true for Harbourside in BC, which got full occupancy commitments before moving forward, but I wonder if it is a common issue.
However, here at Liberty, they were able to get things moving well enough to get a real community within a few years, which is what matters in the end (except perhaps that this may be the reason for the lack of a common house). They have plans to keep moving forward, and it feels like they will make it work.
They were also a somewhat rural community, but far less isolated-feeling than Hundredfold, partly because all of Maryland seems to be a spread-out bedroom community for DC. There was a subdivision across the road, and county water and sewage was already in place. However, they definitely got the big, wide open spaces, great sunset, and private feel that seems essential to me. They too carpooled and coordinated trips to the city that was half an hour away, and seemed to basically feel that the distance was not their preference, but the location was worth it.
The common dinner was interesting. It’s optional, but for everyone that signs up, a scheduler chooses 4 people to do each meal. These are held every 6 days. The four people get together, decide on the menu, but then usually just split up the dishes and do their share in their own kitchens – understandable given the limitations of their current common house, but not ideal as a bonding experience. Dishes are then laid out buffet style. This means that if someone is a terrible cook or always makes mac and cheese, there are always other choices. No one keeps track of expenses, and no one is charged for meals – you just take your turn cooking.
This is wonderfully simple, but may mean that the meals are fairly basic and low budget. The one we ate consisted of lentils, chopped sausages, roasted root vegetables, a cabbage dish, plain mesclun salad with store-bought dressings, frozen mixed veggies, store-bought whole-grain bread and homemade brownies. The beverage choices were water and apple juice – no alcohol. It was all fine, but not exactly innovative or very tasty. Maybe feeding all the kids has something to do with it, but I do wonder if the non-reimbursement policy discourages fancy forays. I would like to try something similar but encourage people to bring their A game.