In part one of “The Slow Homes Manifesto,” I describe why we need a movement to slow down the building and selling of homes—and in the process create homes which are nodes, not islands, that connect people to nature and to each other.
Today, I propose six goals for the slow homes movement.
1. Housing that facilitates interaction, community, and sharing
After more than a half century of single-family dwellings, single-family expectations, and single-family ways of life, transitioning to a more sharing society will take some thought and design.
Sharing, cooperation, and building relationships are organic phenomena—there is no formula for making them happen, and they can’t be imposed on people. Rather, people will choose to share when it is convenient, when it benefits them, and when they connect with the right people. There is a certain chemistry—a certain je ne sais quoi—that makes it work.
The most we can do to make sharing happen is create fertile ground for it, design communities where sharing can happen naturally and conveniently. I’ve heard people say time and again: It’s design. Design. Design. Design.
Communities facilitate interaction when they are built around central common areas, face pedestrian pathways instead of streets, or incorporate shared spaces. The right design creates space for magic to happen: residents sharing meals, gardening together, caring for elders and one another’s children, helping each other around the house, taking part in modern “barnraisings,” and generally being there to support each other.
There are thousands of cohousing communities, ecovillages, and intentional communities that have achieved this magic. And there is a movement to take our urban neighborhoods and suburbs and retrofit them to incorporate community-oriented design. This might involve taking down fences, closing off roads to through traffic, and creating shared, co-owned, and community-owned spaces.
It also seems that many people are ready to question our long-held notion that each family needs is own kitchen, its own yard spaces, and its own utility and work spaces. Increasingly, people are renovating their single-family homes to create space for two or more households. The single-family home can be essentially transformed into a duplex with common spaces, such as a shared kitchen, laundry room, yard, and so on.
The benefits of sharing add up, and residents discover that many household tasks are better accomplished cooperatively, such as home repair, gardening, and cooking.
While sharing brings countless benefits, a community-oriented design should also create spaces for privacy, solitude, and sanctuary. We will always need to strike a balance between togetherness and separateness. If we can fully meet our personal needs for space and privacy, then we are likely to be open to sharing.
The ultimate goal should be to not just reduce the ecological impact of our housing, not just mitigate our impact, but make our homes part of a regenerative system that allows nature to thrive and restore itself.
We already have a wealth of knowledge in the field of ecological building, and we continue to find new ways to use renewable, recycled, and local materials, generate renewable energy, and employ non-toxic and non-destructive building techniques. Increasingly, we are learning the value of removing asphalt, planting gardens on our roofs, clustering housing to preserve open space, and so on.
As residents, we have a role to play in this process every day, and the design of a home can greatly impact our behavior to these ends. For example, if a home is designed to make hanging laundry convenient, we are more likely to hang laundry. If a home is designed with attractive outdoor spaces, we are more likely to get outdoors.
And it’s good for the world when we feel connected to and care for what is around us—outdoor spaces, neighbors, and the surrounding community.
3. Homes that are co-created, efficient, and adaptable
Co-production—the idea that we should all be involved in growing and preparing our food—is essential to the slow foods movement. I think that a similar concept is crucial to the slow homes movement—to the extent possible, we should take part in designing and building our homes. The design of our homes can greatly impact our lifestyles, but a better scenario is to allow our lifestyles to influence the design of our homes.
When we take part in the creation of our homes, we also understand our homes better. Making repairs, tinking with plumbing, and maintaining our composting toilets and grey water systems really are important life skills. Taking part in these activities, and teaching them to our children, can deepen our appreciation for our homes as well. Doing these activities in groups—through neighborhood home repair groups, for example—can deepen both our understanding of and the fun we have in interacting with our homes, as well as with our communities.
Our homes should also be efficient. They should make the best use of what the environment has to offer, including natural light, natural heat, and natural cooling. Today, we maintain so much space as storage for things we rarely use—and that's a good example of how homes are not efficient.
Communities that have tool lending libraries, networks for borrowing and lending goods, and neighbors who share things can help us avoid our tendencies to accumulate stuff. An efficient home ensures that no space goes to waste.
Adaptability of our homes is a key element of efficiency, and of sustainability and live-ability. For example, the Lifecycle Building program encourages design of buildings that can be disassembled and reconstructed, reusing materials to the greatest extent possible. In challenging the notion that buildings are static entities, these ideas open up a whole world of possibility for rethinking homes.
We should also explore ways of using simple mobile structures, temporary structures, short-term housing, and longer term hostels and campgrounds. Such accommodations allow us to move around as necessary, live in comfortable homes during transitions, and lessen our impact on places we live.
4. Homes that provide comfortable, healthy, and beautiful environments for residents
Lighting, indoor air quality, ventilation, heating, cooling, and soundproofing are just some of the considerations in building a healthy home. I recently learned of the Institute for Bau-Biologie and Ecology, which seeks to understand and improve the biological health of homes. That's a great concept. We all know the value of healthy eating. How about healthy housing?
And in the same way that we might taste wines, cheeses, and chocolates—with a discerning and appreciative tongue—we should taste our homes, savor them, breathe them, feel them, experience them, take them in, and love them. If we are going to be there to cook, eat, sleep, socialize, bathe, rest, relax, and daydream, our homes should facilitate enjoyable experiences. If we pay attention to light, air, space, design, craftsmanship, and to the blending and complimenting of surrounding environments—the feng shui—our homes can nurture us, even inspire us.
There's a bonus to carefully crafting our homes and in creating inspired designs: we create jobs for designers, builders and artisans who really care about the craft of building.
5. A fair housing industry and market
We should also rethink our notions of “fair” housing.
Traditionally, “fair housing” refers to the idea that one should not be denied housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status.
Unfortunately, there is more than simple discrimination to unfair housing. It is unfair that improvements in a neighborhood drive up the rental market rates and price out low-income residents, resulting in gentrification and displacement of communities. It is unfair that there is an enormous gap in wealth between renters and owners; homeownership is generally seen as the gateway to financial stability, but it is reserved only for those who can make large down payments.
It is also unfair that banks reap enormous profits from predatory lending, and that millions of consumers have been tricked into living far beyond their means. And it is unfair that the health of our entire economy has been so intricately tied to this financing machine.
In a slow homes movement, and a just world, there should be ways to simultaneously improve communities and keep longstanding residents in place. There should be ways to provide homeownership opportunities for people of low or fixed incomes. There should be ways to pay for homes using local and humane sources of finance. There should be ways to stabilize the market so that we aren’t victims of its sharp rises and falls.
Cooperative housing, shared housing, and subsidized housing are all partial solutions. But a more systemic change could involve removing significant portions of housing from the speculative market so that our cost of living isn’t so driven by market forces.
Community land trusts have been successful in this endeavor on small scales. Limited equity housing, for example, is a model that land trusts have used to sell residents “ownership” interests in housing (often in the form of 99-year-leases) that the residents may later resell. To keep the housing affordable, residents may not resell the units for more than the purchase price plus a fixed rate of return (often no more than 10 percent, or a rate that is correlated to prevailing interest rates). This means that owners won’t “make a killing” on their investment, but they will at least recoup the money they have paid for their housing and, if they wish, pay for new housing on a similar scale.
Finally, we need to figure out how our laws and community planning mechanisms can adapt to slow homes.
A city planner recently told me that changes in city bureaucracy and to zoning ordinances happen very SLOWLY. In this case, slow is not a good thing. Many cities have adopted goals of reducing carbon emissions by the year 2050. Yet, our zoning ordinances still make it hard to share housing or to cluster housing to preserve open space.
They also tend to require that households pave a certain number of parking spots, even if the residents have no cars. This is definitely not the time to be tearing out gardens and encouraging car ownership. All of this leaves us with lots of room to rethink how we plan our communities, to make them more walkable, shareable, and sustainable, and to grow our local economies.
We must also develop clear and easy-to-use legal mechanisms for sharing housing and creating community space. My clients are people who buy land together and build ecovillages, retrofit neighborhoods to create cohousing, or share ownership of houses. With each unique client, I find unique legal hurdles. It’s definitely not easy working in a legal framework that privileges single-family households.
But in this economic climate, sharing is a crucial solution. Many people have decided that sharing homeownership is preferable to losing homeownership in foreclosure. And they are increasingly realizing that sharing costs, responsibilities, and enjoyment of homeownership is far more preferable to, and more fun than, single-family homes, single-family mortgages, and single-family everything.
Let's Start the Slow Homes Conversation
Now it’s your turn. What does a slow homes movement look like? How do we make it happen?
How can we unite our slow movements, so that our slow homes will be financed by slow money, create space to grow our slow food locally, and help us enjoy slow lives?
Make yourself at home, share your ideas, post your comments. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!
All images courtesy of CoHousing Partners.