Heading north from Sirius community near Amherst into the undulating hills of densely forested and sparsely populated rural central Vermont in the Upper Valley region of the Connecticut River valley, I came across a picturesque and welcoming community – Cobb-Hill Co-Housing. Being welcomed with an ad-hoc community dinner (after one of the regular monthly community meetings) and put of for the night by one of the founding members, Marie, now in here eighties who has long-lived on one of two farms, which form part of the community land, got me into a very good and welcomed mood for exploring this community.
Cobb-Hill was started in around 1995 by a group of people, who eventually bought the 260 acres of land, which includes two farms, some 50 acres of rich pastures in a wide valley and surrounded by hills of diverse Oak and Maple forests. The land is owned through a community land trust and legally operated like a Condo (as I understand it is similar to Body corporate structure in Australia).
The design of the cohousing community is fully consensus based and included the design of the co-housing “village”, individual houses, shared infrastructure as well as the operation and maintenance of the place. The village was constructed between 2000 and 2002 and there are no plans to add any further houses in the forseeable future. All of the 23 houses (8 houses, 6 duplex, 3 apartments) were constructed to a similar design and standard, with concrete foundations/cellars (VT regulations), timber frames and timber cladding, and include a number of sustainability features, like orientation, triple glazed windows, solar hot water (with gas boosters for winter/cloudly periods), solar PV, good insulation, airtight construction, composting toilets, community wide central heating system for whole village through a wood fired furnace system using hydronic underfloor radiant heating utilising wood from own forests. Water is supplied from municipal system with own up-hill central header tank for all houses, and septic system for greywater.
A central feature of the village is the Community house, which constructed in same style and standard as other houses, includes a large kitchen for bi-weekly communal meals, large dining area, play room, library, laundry, meeting and gathering rooms, 3 apartments and guest rooms, root cellar, cool room (used to mature on-site produced cheese), storage etc.
The economic basis for Cobb-Hill consists of the two farms, which are operated separate from the co-housing by professional farmers, but with cooperation with the community (having 50 Jersey cows, 30 sheep, one Llama who guards the sheep, 4 Norwegian Fjord horses, 50 chickens, 240,000 honey-bees). They are small-scale dairy farms and milk is largely used for on-site cheese production in a small cheese factory and sold locally and regionally (I love that one!). Other enterprises include a CSA, working (by non-fossil fuel means) some 2 acres of land for production of veggies and fruit, partly for on-site consumption and for sale locally. The community also runs a number of coops, like a food coop (for bulk buying food), a mushroom coop, maple syrup and honey coop, a sustainable food lab and sustainable living institute, all of which either provide some products to the community and/or generate income for sale of products, services and training/education. However, all this does not necessarily provide sufficient income (however that is defined) for the community and many residents do work outside the community for salaries and wages. In that sense the village is a typical co-housing community, but also a hybrid community with quite a few community based income flows.
The houses within the community are owned by individual members of the community and need to be purchased upon acceptance as member and can be sold if and when members leave the community, with a defined new members acceptance process with input from the whole community, which is not too onerous if one is really keen to live in community and regularly contributes to the community with some hours of community work of choice per week. Houses go for $300 to $400k, which of course makes it only affordable for a certain segment of society, even though some houses are subsidised by the community to improved affordability, and hence diversity of the community. Nevertheless, it is dominated by white middle class, highly educated and well established group of people with a current age range from the teens into the eighties, but currently undergoing a bit of a generational change and currently close to 60 people live in the community including 18 children, who are either home schooled for attend nearby public or private schools.
The governance and decision-making of the community is consensus based and founded on some guiding principles (unity, beauty, community, equity, sustainability and synergy), and through one half day monthly meeting of the whole community (but additional meetings for other events, celebrations, talks, presentations, etc) for discussion, decision-making and strengthening of communal ties. The day-to-day operation of the community is managed through various standing committees, which have some delegated decision making powers and budgets, but are fully accountable to the whole community and community members can join various committees according to their interests. Also the community has developed a number of agreements and rules which cover the main aspects of day-to-day living together in community and create an as smooth arrangement as feasible, which of course also includes processes for dispute resolution, an inevitable part of living in any community.
The community has a very welcoming and relaxed and warm and heartfelt feel, which in the beautiful pleasant environment of the hills of Vermont appears like an enriching and fulfilling way to live, having community and rural country living (as well as farming if one wishes) at the doorstep. One interesting note is that this community was the vision of and was supported by and had involvement from Donella Meadows (well-known systems thinker and co-author of the original Club of Rome report “The Limits of Growth” published in 1972 a landmark publication which for the first time showed the physical limits of endless growth economics and a possible collapse of advanced industrial civilisations in the mid of the 21st century – and we are right on track with the predictions to come true verified by a number of follow-up studies since). Donella passed away in 2001 but her work and spirit lives on in Cobb Hill.