Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Here, Hold My Baby — Arielle Bywater

There are many ways in which living in cohousing challenges contemporary American norms: smaller-than-average homes, shared resources, making decisions by consensus, community meals. But I think perhaps the most subversive, radical and wonderful thing about cohousing is its potential for a truly intergenerational living experience... and the opportunity to put the adage “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” into practice.

In the urban and suburban experiences I’ve had growing up and into adulthood, I rarely get an opportunity to have meaningful relationships with anyone other than my own family and my peer group. I don’t really hang out with people who are much older than I am, nor do I often have ongoing interactions with children other than my own. Actually, even finding time to hang out with family, or with friends my own age is hard, since everyone is so spread out, and so busy with their work and families!

So I relish the opportunity cohousing gives me to form lasting intergenerational bonds. In our own community, there’s so much to enjoy from the folks from previous generations: I hope to learn to knit and hook rugs from Coleen and Marion, talk long into the night with Jeffrey, contradance with Jim and Edie. And I’m excited to sit around chatting with Maya or Pia or Soren or the other kids, each so different from one another and from my own, and to watch them become the adults they’re going to become. This seems like an enormous gift to me, to know these families almost as deeply as I know my own. (And maybe next time I’ll write about how cohousing also lets me to have actual friendships with men other than my partner... another rarity in our culture!)

Lovely visions to ponder, right? But I promise you, they’re real, and they come true every time our community gets together. I already have had Coleen help me knit, and Marion lent me a rug-hooking frame. I’ve colored with Pia and talked about colleges with Maya. We haven’t even broken ground yet, and already I feel invested in these people, these up-until-recently strangers, in a way that fills my life with meaning and richness.

I have a four and a half year old and a baby, which could make it hard for me to fully participate in cohousing meetings—goodness knows it makes it hard for me to fully participate in nearly everything else in life! But because cohousing values the kind of interconnectedness and shared life I’ve described here, not to mention how our group values small children, it isn’t hard. Various people take turns holding my baby, passing him toys, making sure he doesn’t tip over or chew on something he shouldn’t. Meanwhile, my daughter runs off to play with the other children and the teenage babysitters as soon as we arrive at a meeting. I love to imagine how, once we’re living in our community, my children might spend time reading, or sledding, or stargazing, or cooking, with another adult in the community, talking about things they want to discuss with a grown-up but do not want to discuss with their own parents, or just getting a different kind of attention and energy than they could from us. I never had that as a kid: I’d love it to exist for them.

Does any of this call to you the way it does to me? If so, I urge you to become an Exploring Member now: we’re filling up quickly, with a spring deadline. Coming to our meetings is the best way to get to know our group and whether or not this life is for you. At the meetings, you will see first-hand how everyone holds my baby and the other babies: the grandparents, the other young parents, the kids, the folks who have not had their own babies. Babies represent all that is good in the world, all that is hopeful and fresh. The way people care for them, or don’t, says a lot about a culture. And so the way babies get passed around at our meetings is truly one of the most beautiful things about our group, in my opinion. And if you want, you can hold my baby, too.

Arielle Bywater

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What Makes A Healthy Home? — Alan Gibson

Once at a building conference I heard about the results of a study on air quality. The study said the air quality inside the average new home in rural Wisconsin was 8 times worse than the air quality outdoors in New York City. This blew my mind. How could that be true? And then I heard more and read more about how toxins and pollutants can build up inside a home and, if there’s poor ventilation, reach unsafe levels in the air. Rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases have been on the rise in this country, and while industrial pollution is certainly a factor, the way houses are built and furnished is probably a bigger factor in the decline of respiratory health. As part of the team designing and building the homes for Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, I’m working to ensure all the homes are as healthy to live in as possible.

How can a home be less toxic? Conceptually it’s very simple—reduce the nasty stuff inside and bring in plenty of fresh air. Practically, though, it’s not that simple. On the material side, builders have gotten away from good old-fashioned building materials like solid wood, plaster and stone, and for some good reasons: they’re expensive and poorly insulating. But when these materials are replaced with particle board, fiberglass, vinyl and synthetic carpets, the home buyer is spending less money and probably using less energy for heating, but at the same time a lot of volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, and other toxins have been introduced to the interior air. And in an effort to reduce energy use, builders have been trying to make buildings more air-tight and less drafty, which improves comfort as well as the utility bill. However, the combination of the tighter envelope and the off-gassing interior finishes is what leads to sick people in Wisconsin (and other places). So now we’re back to turning the conditions around, being aware of what we put in the house and making sure we ventilate properly. It is now relatively easy to find out if a building material is air-quality friendly. Several ratings agencies exist to test and determine the safety of various materials; an architect can specify formaldehyde-free or low-voc plywood and paints; natural linoleum is available as an alternative to vinyl flooring; people should know better than to put carpeting in a damp basement. On the ventilation side, agencies such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers studies indoor air quality and issues standards for rates of ventilation. They have formulas for determining how much fresh air to bring into the house over time to ensure proper fresh air supply.

More specifically, in the homes G•O Logic builds, we install a complete, ducted ventilation system that delivers fresh air to bedrooms and living spaces and removes stale air from the kitchen and bathrooms. The incoming air passes through a heat-recovery unit that transfers almost all the heat form the outgoing air to the incoming air, which means there’s very little energy penalty for the healthy ventilation. We determine the proper ventilation rate based on accepted standards. For example, in the 1500 square-foot model home, we will ventilate at a rate of 70 cubic feet of air per minute, continuously. This means the entire volume of air in the house will be changed once every 3 ½ hours, ensuring healthy air quality for a family of 4 or 5. And on the material side, we specify only low or no-voc materials and finishes. The floors are either polished concrete or solid wood; cabinets are formaldehyde-free. The building is incredibly air-tight, which helps tremendously in the energy-efficiency and comfort of the home, and when coupled with the ventilation system, results in a home that’s both super-efficient and healthy to be in.

Alan Gibson