As Americans try to live greener lives, many are looking to buy or build more sustainable homes. Green-building now accounts for more than 10 percent of the country’s overall housing market, and that’s expected to double within the next 5 years.
The trend is also generating new interest in one eco-friendly housing concept that’s been around for decades. For our Next Green Thing series, reporter Shannon Mullen reports on a new community in Peterborough that’s based on the “co-housing” model. That’s short for “collective housing,” a group-living concept that originated in Denmark in the 1960s, and arrived in the U.S. in the ‘80s.
Peterborough’s new community is called Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm, and it’s about two-thirds complete. The homes there are insulated with seven inches of cellulose, made from recycled newsprint. They’re also wired for solar water heaters and powered by locally-processed wood pellets. They are chock-full of environmentally-friendly and energy-saving features, built to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy Environmental Design – or LEED standards – a universal rating system for green buildings.
Neighborhoods like Nubanusit also have communal facilities where residents can share group meals, throw parties, even put up overnight guests. That way their individual homes can be smaller, and thus more environmentally friendly.
Sustainability has always been at the core of co-housing, one of many reasons Nubanusit’s founders liked the idea. Now real estate developers are catching on, seeing the concept as a way to capitalize on the green building boom.
Craig Ragland runs the Co-housing Association of the United States. He says 20 years ago there were 40 of these communities nationwide, and that number has at least tripled in just the last decade.
Until now most co-housing communities were founded by small groups of people. But now real estate developers are playing a more prominent role as the green housing trend gains steam. Ragland says co-housing prices vary widely by geography, but also by community. And the ones that are more sustainable also cost more to buy into.
In the Nubanusit Neighborhood the cheapest unit is 346-thousand dollars – that’s for an 11-hundred square foot, 2 bedroom apartment. The highest-end home, also the largest and the greenest, is a 19-hundred square foot single-family for sale for 624-thousand dollars.
Nubanusit co-founder Shelly Goguen Hullbert acknowledges that some people are priced-out by the high cost of the homes, and she says that’s the hardest part of the project for her. But she points out that 45 percent of the price of a home covers co-housing’s other costs, like the neighborhood’s 70 acres of land, the planned organic farm and dairy, the common house, all the design and permitting, the infrastructure and its engineering. She says residents are trying to come up with a way to privately subsidize a couple of homes to bring the prices down.
That’s worked for some other co-housing communities in New England, including one in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. In Vermont, some residents of the Cobb Hill community paid more for their homes so lower-income families could pay less.
Some limit the sustainable features they design into their homes to keep them affordable, but that’s one corner Nubanusit residents refuse to cut. All the houses have either the highest or second highest LEED ratings possible.
Shelley adds that some of the neighborhood’s homes will only use $700 worth of heat and hot water for an entire year – an amazingly low figure – but owners have to be able to be in the financial position to put that money in up front, then reap the benefits over time.
When construction at the Nubanusit Neighborhood wraps up this fall, there’ll be 29 homes there. Half of them are already sold, and the new residents are anticipating their first winter in a long time with smaller heating bills.
Reporter Shannon Mullen visited the community in Peterborough. Click the “listen” button at the top of this story to hear her piece.
(Images from the Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm website)