Treehouse Village Goes Beyond Cohousing

The Nova Scotia Passive House project is called "ecohousing."

Common House Exterior

Treehouse Village Ecohousing

Treehouse Village Ecohousing is a new cohousing project proposed for Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, a community about an hours' drive from Halifax.

Cohousing started in Denmark in the late 1960s out of frustration with the available housing options. Katheryn McCamant and Charles Durrett described it in their book:

"Tired of the isolation and impracticalities of single-family houses and apartment units, they have built housing that combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living ... Although individual dwellings are designed to be self-sufficient and each has their own kitchen, the common facilities, and particularly common dinners, are an important aspect of community life both for social and practical reasons."

There are now hundreds of them in Denmark, and many similar projects in Germany called baugruppen. They are seen as an important part of the housing market, and the governments even make land and financing available to them. That's how wonderful projects like Vauban and R-50 got built.

It got off to a much slower start in North America, where the banks look at you funny and the municipalities think it's a cult. But as Treehouse Village notes in their "common cohousing myths and misconceptions," it is pretty straightforward and not at all scary. This actually describes their principles pretty clearly:

  1. We all wish to reduce our carbon footprint and live lighter on the earth.
  2. We all look forward to living in a walkable community with energy-efficient homes and bonus common amenities – all of which reduce energy and daily living costs.
  3. We all desire self-contained private homes, but look forward to having opportunities for social interaction when we want it, in spaces that belong to all of us collectively. No more scrambling to clean the house and prepare a meal to have our neighbours over, let’s meet in the lounge!
  4. We agree to be good neighbours, to make our neighbourhood a healthy place to live, and to work things out that come up.
  5. None of us, not one, have any interest in joining a cult!

The eco in the ecohousing is in their sustainability commitment.

"We believe in protecting our planet, and are building every aspect of our community around that belief. Building a sustainable community is part of our core vision, and one of a handful of important key drivers of the decisions we make as community members." 

They are building the project to the PHIUS (Passive House US) standard; according to David Stonham of Treehouse, the architect advises that it is "more sensitive to local climate conditions." The project has a reduced physical footprint, in a portion of their lovely wooded site that used to be a gravel pit.

Site plan with gravel pit

Treehouse Village

Even though they have a big site, they have chosen to build multiple-unit buildings with shared walls to reduce building materials and heating demand. The unit plans are interesting, all one level yet stacked in two-story buildings with exterior walkways, one to three bedrooms from 638 to 1264 square feet. Originally they were all supposed to be connected by bridges back to the elevator in the common house, but at this time only the building nearest will be connected. There was "careful consideration of building materials with a focus on low toxicity, a low carbon footprint, and low embodied carbon."

However, there is another aspect of sustainability that cohousing excels at – the sharing of resources, which can seriously reduce the amount of stuff a family needs. Some of the points I liked:

  • Shared tools, appliances, yard and gardening equipment, outdoor and recreation equipment helps community members cut down on the costs and space to keep their own and drastically reduces eventual landfill waste.
  • By working together to grow some of our own food, and buying food in bulk, we can reduce food waste and packaging. 
  • With a workshop on-site and a community of skilled residents, there’s bound to be someone to help you fix that wobbly chair or broken toaster. 
  • With the bonus of a large kitchen and dining room in the common house, members will have opportunities to prepare and share meals together as they wish. 
  • With a workshop on-site and a community of skilled residents, there’s bound to be someone to help you fix that wobbly chair or broken toaster. 

Treehouse Village Ecohousing

They also are "exploring the potential for members to share vehicles," which seems sensible, given that everything you need in town is within a twenty-minute walk.

Site Plan

Treehouse Village Ecohousing

When you look at the site plan, it seems to be dominated by parking and loading and truck turnarounds and about 40 parking spaces for 30 households. Then there is the "common green" between the buildings, with the big bit of paving between the common house and the greenhouse that looks suspiciously like a fire truck access route gone mad. David Stonham of Treehouse confirms that these were all required. I wonder what proportion of the costs and what design compromises have been made to accommodate what appear to be the usual suburban municipal requirements.

There is not a lot of help on the financial side either; the project is self-financed so far. In Europe, projects like Vauban have "sweat equity" mortgages to help people who can't do a downpayment; in North America, you are on your own. Treehouse Village has to explain to interested participants:

"While our pricing is comparable to new, energy-efficient quality construction in the South Shore; you are also purchasing access to shared amenities when you choose Treehouse Village. These are available in our common house, and include office space, a children’s playroom, a fitness room, a workshop and even guestrooms for your friends and family to stay."

They do save on developer profits since they are doing the project themselves but will have much higher upfront costs, paying for a lead architect (RHAD Architects) and an experienced cohousing architect (Caddis Collaborative).

But generally, cohousing projects only happen in North America if you have dedicated people willing to put a lot of money and years of time into making it happen. That's why Treehouse Village is the first cohousing project in Atlantic Canada; it's hard.

Common house interior

Treehouse Village

In an earlier post on cohousing in Treehugger, Josh Lew suggested that it could help solve America's loneliness epidemic, noting that it "leaves room for residents' privacy, but still fights isolation by facilitating interaction with other members of the community on a regular basis." The pandemic has created a new, more extreme loneliness crisis that makes the idea of a cohousing community look even more attractive. The way we work has changed as well; David Stonham tells Treehugger that the Common House will have a coworking space for those who no longer have to go to the office. Being an hour and a half away from the big city no longer matters as much as it used to.

When cohousing started in Denmark, another benefit was that it was a way of sharing childcare duties and lowering the cost of daycare by doing it cooperatively. After seeing so many images and articles of people working from home with children learning from home and babies everywhere, I wonder if it isn't time for a North American cohousing renaissance, with people having their own lives and spaces but having real neighbors to help out in a crisis. Treehouse Village Ecohousing is looking very attractive right now.