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Housing a Village

Published April 26th, 2016 in Community Perspectives

Peter MoreBy Peter Moore, Business Director

We all need housing. From city centers to Wildland-Urban Interfaces (WUI: it’s pronounced ‘woo-ee’) like Breitenbush, everyone needs a place to live. And because humans are so inventive and adaptive, our species has come up with a lot of ways to provide for this need. At Breitenbush, housing for workers has changed over the decades since our community was founded. When I got here in 1978, I could have had two houses, one on either side of the river, because there were no guests and lots of empty cabins. Since opening to serve the public more than 30 years ago our staff numbers have grown to keep up with burgeoning guest occupancy, and pressure for housing is greater now than ever before.

Although the “Tiny House” movement has been gaining momentum for well over a decade in the USA, Breitenbush has been doing the tiny house thing much longer. By conventional 21st Century “First World” standards, we’re positively 19th Century “Old West Frontier Village” in our approach to housing. On average, each community member has 250 square feet of private living space. To put a positive spin on this, we’re living within the carrying capacity of the co-op in terms of the built environment, available utilities, and land dedicated to human habitat—which is the right thing to do.

Breitenbush is a “gated community”, a worker-owned company town in which only staff (and immediate family members) are allowed to live. Currently, we house some 65 workers in 50 structures (about half of all structures on the land). What we have found in nearly 40 years of Breitenbush community life is that people who want to live and work here somehow make themselves comfortable inhabiting unconventional spaces, so long as basic human needs are met. Because Breitenbush cabins rarely include a toilet, shower or kitchen, most residents share such utilities in detached buildings some distance from where they live and sleep.

In 2010, we got approval from Marion County to re-zone and build on a portion of our property we call the Highlands. In many ways it makes sense to place new housing up there as this area is well above the floodway of the Breitenbush River, and has roads, domestic water, solar gain for electricity production, and a view of the local volcano. Deciding to build on the Highlands was the easy part, but after our Co-op Membership voted to build housing there, important vision-and-values questions asserted themselves. After all, we live in a world of finite resources, like everyone else on Planet Earth. From that point of view, how “green” will this housing be in terms of materials used? How energy-efficient? In the end, we voted to build a six worker multi-housing unit. The idea is to develop a new generation of housing that meets the needs of our workers, addresses finite energy resources, and expresses our environmental principles through our building practices. It’s a tall order, as we do not yet have utilities (geo heat, electricity, septic) established on the Highlands and bringing them there is a massively expensive project (for us), as is building a multiple-person structure that satisfies our enviro-principles. This is where we are at now.

In our Credo, we state, “It is our hope that the thriving community which we create will be an inspiration to others … and commit ourselves to being socially, spiritually, politically, and environmentally responsible.” Applying such values to our housing conundrum means doing the right thing as measured by principles of human comfort, eco-friendly sustainability, energy conservation and fiscal responsibility. Living by our principles is one of the defining attributes of living in an intentional community. If we’re successful with this endeavor some of the “unconventional spaces” (referenced above) we’ve gotten used to will disappear and everyone will be more comfortable. Stay tuned….

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