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.

T-minus 3 – 2 – 1 – NET ZERO!

Cohousing’s commitment to energy efficiency and sustainability

That’s right. Bozeman Cohousing has officially declared net zero carbon intentions. We’ve set aside $400,000 of our budget to equip our whole community with solar panels on homes and/or garages. The exact placement will be determined by comparing sun load at each location. This proposal was approved unanimously.

What does Net Zero mean? 

“Net zero” refers to the balance between carbon emissions produced and carbon emissions taken out of the atmosphere. In order to halt climate change The Paris Agreement sets forth the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming target by mid-century. And to get there the IPCC reports that CO2 emissions must fall to zero. This doesn’t mean that CO2 cannot be emitted ever again, but we must balance our output and our input, and ideally have negative emissions. 

Why did we do it?

Bozeman Cohousing recognizes the reality of climate change and the necessity of humans working together to combat this crisis. Since the industrial revolution, the influence of human activities – primarily burning coal, oil, and gas – have caused excess greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere, thus amplifying our atmosphere’s natural ‘greenhouse effect’ which warms the earth, the oceans, and increases climate instability (floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes). We’re changing the chemical makeup of our atmosphere and our oceans. This is a global crisis.

Our vision states: “Our community is designed and constructed with an emphasis on sustainability, which our lifestyles reflect.”  We believe that to set our community up for success to achieve the goal of net zero carbon required an adjustment to our budget and designs to include solar arrays from the start.

Our community is designed and constructed with an emphasis on sustainability, which our lifestyles reflect.

–from Bozeman Cohousing Visions Statement

What was our thought process?

Proposal: Include in the budget the cost of sufficient solar photovoltaic arrays (solar panels) to reach the project’s Net Zero Carbon goal.  

Questions raised by the community

  1. How will this impact the cost of homes? 

Studio Co+hab estimated the size of the solar array needed to be ~200kW or about $400,000 total based on Cadius’ Solar Division’s cost of solar installations. This analysis was presented at the Private House Workshop. The cost of the solar installation would be distributed like other construction costs on a per-square-foot basis averaging to about $8,500 to $16,000 per household. (Energy use scales relatively linearly with home size.) There is a 30% federal tax credit available for renewable energy purchases, which is already factored into the price.

  1. How would this impact HOA dues? 

It would lower the cost of occupancy by ~$750 per household per year. That would likely be a reduction in energy bills, rather than a change in HOA dues, however that structure has not been determined at this time. Based on installation costs and avoided energy costs the estimated payback is approximately 13 years. 

  1. How would the systems be owned? 

A: Unknown at this time. There may be an advantage to commercial (HOA) ownership for some or all of the solar. It may also make sense to have the arrays tied to each home at their electrical meters.  In Cadius’ South Rows project, each array is owned by each unit. This is a question that would need to be investigated as a solar array design moves forward.

  1. What are the benefits of doing solar now vs later?

Solar Now

+ Climate change is an immediate issue now, not later
+ We can use being net zero for marketing
+ We get to live our values at move-in
+ Some money may be saved through economies of scale
+ Less hassle, administrative time, and cost doing it during construction
+ The project will have a single array type, so maintenance is simpler/consistent
+ Roof life is extended under solar panels, often more leak-proof fasteners and roof penetrations can be used during initial construction
+ NW Energy is trying to make the net metering agreement far worse; now would likely grandfather the project’s solar metering structure
+ Energy prices may/will likely go up in the future making an investment in solar now increase in value over time
+ Investments in solar can historically be recouped at the time of home sale
+ It will not look hodgepodge
Home prices increase by an average of $10k
Debt buyers have to qualify for a larger loan and pay interest on it

Solar Later

+ Lower initial home prices
+ A homeowner could have more flexibility in the size of array
+ Solar technology is slowly and continuously improving while costs are slowly decreasing over time
+ Perhaps better state or federal solar rebates/tax credits will exist. The opposite is also a possibility. (The current administration has worked to try to end the federal tax credit, though ultimately the authority rests with Congress, which does not appear likely to act on this issue).
+ Solar rental companies may exist in Montana in the future, eliminating the need for large cash outlay
The opposite of most positives in the “now” category

The members discussed the impact of changing tax credit over the next several years and brought up whether purchase would be community-wide vs. individual units. Ownership is still to be determined. 

Decision:  Unanimously approved.