Consensus-Based Decision Making: What For and How?

As the pandemic restrictions ease and we come out of our year-long cocoons, we are all hungry for human contact. The members of Bozeman Cohousing are dreaming of when we live nearby and can conveniently and spontaneously socialize and enjoy each other’s company. This image is certainly motivating, but is just the tip of the intentional living iceberg. Let’s look at a big part of what’s under the surface.

Governance is a wonky, decidedly un-spontaneous, but nonetheless essential, part of living in cohousing. Simply put, it’s how we make decisions that benefit all of us. We Americans are used to a simple majority rule system, where the most votes for or against a proposal wins. But just because we’re used to it doesn’t mean it’s the best. It’s not at all hard to think of many situations both personal and on the public political scene where a majority vote has led to many flavors of alienation and discontent. In our small community, that could seriously harm our relationships and even the organization.

Enter the consensus paradigm. If majority voting rests on its simplicity, the crown jewel of consensus is that there are no winners and losers. And while feathers may still be ruffled, the consensus process strives to ensure that everyone is heard and that their needs are accounted for as best as they can. Honestly, coming to consensus can feel tedious and frustrating. But I’ve also experienced deep satisfaction when we’ve reached a conclusion that feels reasonable to everyone.

So how does this work exactly? Instead of a single yes/no vote, our consensus process runs in a spiral of “tests for consensus” to reach a decision. Each pass around the spiral, members are asked to express whether they “support it enthusiastically,” “can live with it,” or “no, it absolutely doesn’t work for me.” The gold standard is to have the entire group fully support the proposal. Depending on the issue, a few hesitations may have to remain. But even a single no vote is not just a residual minority view; it is a show-stopper. Everyone who expressed a concern is invited to share those concerns with the community. In turn, the community is invited to be both open and creative about how to address the concerns. The proposal must then be changed until everyone can at least live with it, or additional information may help the concerned person be ok with the proposal after all.

This can definitely be hard work. We each have our own preferences, experiences, and worries. But we all have also committed to the shared values of our Vision Statement, and as we consider our own votes, we are asked to consider how the proposal benefits the community as a whole and not just us. After several turns around the spiral, “it doesn’t work for me” is therefore something of a nuclear option that we are reminded only to use as a last resort.

Our group has been practicing the consensus process for just exactly two years now, incorporating more voices and perspectives as we grow. And like any skill that improves with practice, with every meeting, we are getting noticeably better at it. Just as we are working to build a physical environment out of sustainable materials and minimize ongoing resource use, our consensus process helps us make sustainable decisions that will endure and support us into the future. Now that is as exciting as sitting on the porch drinking coffee with friends.

Envisioning Life In Our Interior Spaces

We have a great big, beautiful Valentine for all of the current and future members of our community: After almost two months of review, discussion, and proposals on the Design Development process, we have agreed on all the refinements to the floor plans and finishes for the Bozeman Cohousing buildings. Studio Co+hab beautifully embodied the program priorities set by the group last year, so the final changes were largely tweaks and polishes based on our collective lived experience.

What began as an exercise in taking stock of how we currently live in our own spaces has crystalized into an exercise in imaging how we will eventually live in our new shared and personal spaces. And that vision of the future is tantalizing indeed.

Our family will be living in a second-floor flat next to the atrium. We’ll be able to bring things from the parking lot to the side door in our recumbent cargo trike. Then it’s up a covered flight of stairs made airy with a high clerestory and into our home. Muddy shoes and boots can stay just outside the door.

Since I’m the breakfast cook on weekdays, I’ll start out in our compact but full-featured all-electric kitchen. The marmoleum floor is soft and easily warms to my feet. The white cabinets and walls contribute to the sense of open light, as well as tease us to consider what more distinctive color we might want to paint them. From the sink in the central island, I can chop kale and onions for our morning scramble on the bamboo counter while I look out at the Bridgers through our living room window. Once she’s up, my wife can drink her tea in the sunny, open dining area, or in good weather, out on the deck, where she’s certain to be joined by our two cats.

On laundry day, we’ll be just a quick indoor walk to the shared washer/dryers in the common house, which will have all the power of high-capacity machines in a laundromat, but none of the bad feng shui. An outdoor drying rack will give our clothes that elusive sunshine freshness. While we wait for our laundry, we can go home, or we can make a cup of coffee in the common kitchen and visit with neighbors in the atrium even when it’s not terribly hospitable outside.

Friday night is our family movie night, and we can either enjoy our personal choice in our own living room, or join the group cinema experience in the common house dining room. Several members are musically inclined, and there will undoubtedly be talent shows and performances as the spirit moves.

Even though none of the private homes are all that far from the common house, other households have chosen to be a bit more away from the hustle and bustle. Some residents will stay warm with an optional wood stove. Options for carpet, marmoleum, and other hard flooring options will suit everyone’s desire for comfort and the realities of kids and pets. Folks living in the smaller homes won’t have to give up too much counter space, thanks to compact appliances just the right size for fewer people.

All told, the efficiently planned indoor spaces of our community will be so inviting, comfortable, and cozy that we may not feel like going anywhere else!

Design Details and the Net-Zero Vision for Bozeman Cohousing

It’s getting real, folks! Last week Bozeman Cohousing members convened for not one but two marathon “Design Development Workshops.” Our amazing architects from Studio Co+hab brought the details large and small into focus. The drawings are almost final, and we’ve reviewed their recommendations for everything from roof trusses to door handles–in all over a hundred separate components in the common house and private homes.

Studio Co+hab architects introduce the Design Development process

Now I can much more vividly imagine myself working in the kitchen of the common house, enjoying the glowing afternoon light. An induction stove begins heating water for the pasta the moment I turn it on. While we slice veggies at the bamboo-topped kitchen island, kids play in the room next door. When the meal is over, cleanup goes quickly as we feed dishes through the industrial sterilizer. We mop the Marmoleum floor and we’re done. Going home, the recycled carpet keeps our toes warm, and my wife, Jodi, can play her viola without disturbing our neighbors, thanks to a sound dampening system in the floors and extra insulation in the interior walls.

Show and tell gave us all the pertinent details and specs of recommended products and finishes

Underneath all these materials and finishes, the defining characteristic of our new neighborhood will be mostly invisible when we move in. That’s because state-of-the-art energy efficiency technologies and constructions methods permeate the entire design. The overall goal the community set was “Net-Zero,” which is a fancy way of saying, “We want our buildings to have the smallest possible carbon footprint, all the way down to none.” That is, after all the energy goes in and out, there is minimal ongoing fossil fuel use.

Four major aspects of the planned design and construction aim to get us as close to net-zero as we can given our necessarily finite budget.

First, the Bozeman Cohousing buildings will be all-electric. That’s right, no natural gas will be used or available in the future. Even though our utility provider, Northwestern Energy, is being slow to transition the 40% of its generation currently coming from fossil fuels (looking at you, Coalstrip), as the grid eventually and inevitably moves to all renewable energy, our energy use will become renewable instead of locked to a fossil fuel infrastructure. Not burning fossil fuels for heating and cooking can also significantly improve indoor air quality in our homes.

We want our buildings to have the smallest possible carbon footprint, all the way down to none.

Second, we expect to have full photovoltaic installations on all the buildings as part of initial construction. These solar arrays will be fed into the net-metering system that sells excess power back to the grid, and all of the homes will share the savings in power costs.

Third, the home designs fanatically reduce the need to consume energy to begin with, following  the Passive House standard, which defines how to make a home consume minimal energy for heating and cooling. Along with double pane windows and maximal insulation in the walls, floors, and ceilings, each building’s exterior envelope, or skin, will be completely sealed using the AeroBarrier system to prevent drafts. Just like spraying a sealant into your flat tire to patch the hole, AeroBarrier fills even the littlest gaps in the outer walls before the inside is finished.

Also, a thorough analysis of the natural light in every space helped the architects adjust window and solar tube placement to minimize dependence on artificial lighting during the daytime. When it is needed, all built-in lighting will be LED, using a fraction of the power and being much more durable than even compact fluorescent fixtures.

In-depth analysis provided insight into window placement and overall lighting strategy

Finally, the mechanical systems will also be as efficient as possible. Heating and cooling with heat pump technology is just the start. Even our clothes can be dried and our hot water can be heated with heat pumps. And a heat recovery ventilator will circulate fresh air from outside, but use the stale air leaving the house to heat or cool it as it leaves. What’s all this fuss about heat pumps? In essence, they move existing heat from one place to another — either from a hot place to cool it down, or into a cold place to warm it up — without burning additional fuel to generate more heat. We don’t just have to obey the laws of physics, we can take advantage of them, too, and it turns out this is extremely efficient.

Taken together, these thoughtful designs and sophisticated features will help us reduce our energy consumption to the bare minimum. When we’ve put that much effort into sustainable construction, why not be recognized with LEED certification? We decided that the time and money required to be formally LEED certified would be better used in actually making our homes efficient and sustainable, and Studio Co+hab has certainly delivered. The designs actually do incorporate several LEED standards around daylight, material choices, and indoor air quality. And of course the net-zero goal is an objective target rather than a vague aspiration.

Now we really can’t wait to move in.

Cohousing Is a Cure for Couch Potato Syndrome and Nature Deficit Disorder

Between the pandemic and winter coming on, it’s easy to find oneself feeling like one of the last remaining humans in Wall-E: living in an artificial space liner, riding around on a hover couch, and consuming all our calories through a straw.

Since when did going outside become a chore? What can cohousing do to help?

Even here in Bozeman, Montana, arguably the capital of extreme outdoor sports in the Northern Rockies, it seems like there are always plenty of excuses: “I’m tired — I don’t want to drive somewhere — I have to cook dinner.” And those excuses multiply for our children: “It’s too cold — my friends aren’t around — there’s no wifi — you’re not safe by yourself — there’s too much traffic.”

This litany is, according to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, a sure sign of a classic case of “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Our sense of emotional well-being and physical health suffer when we don’t spend enough time outside in an environment with other growing, living things. And for many American kids living in typical housing developments, the obstacles are real: There is no easy safe way to get to a park; there are too many cars on the street; parents are over-extended juggling work and chores.

What if we could magically live somewhere built from the ground up to remove most of these hurdles? Imagine a neighborhood where there are no cars driving between houses; where just outside your back door there are gardens and animals to be tended and enjoyed; where friends to play with are just a few doors away. That’s the reality of the physical design of our Cohousing homes.

Further, imagine living in a genuine community where connection is baked in; where someone else will cook us dinner several nights a week; where a child knows they can turn to any adult for help. This is what we envision for the shape of our lives in Bozeman Cohousing.

And finally, picture a location where a wildlife-friendly creek runs near your home; where you can get on your bike and be in a network of trails without crossing a single street. These are the blessings of the Bozeman Cohousing site.

Taken together, living in Cohousing means that just about the only excuse left for our kids when we tell them to go outside is “It’s too cold.” Then we can remind them that there is no bad weather, just bad preparation, so they should put on their coats.
For more on the proven benefits to kids (and grownups, actually) of spending more time outside, visit the Children and Nature Network.