Tightly Knit

A decade in, a Belfast cohousing community is going—and growing—strong

Mike and Margie Shannon were strolling through the dusty grass of the Common Ground Country Fair in late September of 2007 when they came across an intriguing table. A few middle-aged folks in jeans and t-shirts were offering information about a cohousing community in Belfast, and the retired couple found their curiosity piqued. Mike had worked for the National Audubon Society for most of his adult life, and as a result, they had spent years living in provided housing on Audubon lands. “As we were getting older, we began to think about how to get back to a more communal housing space,” Mike says. “My mother, who died at the age of 103, once told me, ‘Always stay in the company of young minds.’ And that’s what we have tried to do.”

The couple signed up to receive more information about the cohousing project. Slowly, as it developed, they became more and more involved. Now, a decade later, they are living the dream— for the most part. “There’s a role for us here, where we can be the elders of the community,” says Mike. “We’re still transitioning into it,” Margie adds. “It takes a long time to become a community, but we’re getting there.”

Mike admits that some of his friends have wondered about their decision. “They ask us, ‘Why in the world would you spend years of your life going to meetings and discussions at your age?’” he remembers. “I thought about it for some time and the answer that keeps coming to me is simple: it’s the right thing to do.” For this lifelong environmentalist, the idea of sharing resources, reducing waste, and building a radical earth-friendly community that could act as a model for others in the United States—well, that was an opportunity too important to pass up.

The residents at the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage are open about the difficulties of building a community from scratch. It requires work and compromise, social skills and sacrifice. It’s a complicated trade-off. But living in a structured community can be extremely rewarding. What you give up in privacy and personal space you gain in connections, companionship, and convenience.

Sanna McKim played an instrumental role in forming the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, and while she no longer lives on the premises, she still believes in the model. “I grew up in Denmark, where this is a much more common practice,” she says. “While the houses in Belfast are a little bit more spread out than they would be in Denmark, they are still what I like to call ‘slipper distance’ from each other.” Like its European counterparts, the Maine cohousing community was designed holistically. Each family house is smaller than your average home (some are as small as 500 square feet, while others are 1,600) but as McKim explains, “the individual homes are not stand-alone homes.” Everyone in the community (which now numbers 60, including children) shares access to the Common House, where they have laundry facilities, a kids’ playroom, a meeting space, library, large kitchen, guest rooms, and a root cellar. Residents can share meals at the Common House, if they like. (Often, meals are planned ahead of time and residents can choose how they want to be involved, whether it’s through cooking, buying ingredients, or chipping in with clean up.) “You can afford to build the individual houses much smaller because you have a Common House, which is an extension of your living room,” McKim says. “Then, because you built small, you can put your money into design features like air sealing and quality.” The result is a cluster of elegantly simple gabled houses with standing-seam metal roofs built on heat-saving concrete slabs with super insulated walls, triple-glazed windows imported from Germany, and mechanical ventilation systems with heat recovery. The houses feature eastern white cedar shingle siding and spacious porches—a feature beloved by their outdoorsy residents.

When Alan Gibson of Belfast-based GOLogic began designing the homes, he used the Passive House concept from Germany as his jumping-off point. His business partner, Matt O’Malia, worked on the architecture of the homes (he wanted them to look like “fairly traditional New England farmhouses updated with contemporary details,” Gibson explains), while Gibson focused on the ecological aspects of the construction. “Because of the density of the homes—they are clustered together on the land—it means you are preserving a lot of natural resources,” he says. “Plus, when you share services as a community, you need to use less.” He adds that the houses are “extremely comfortable.” (A fact that residents confirm time and again in conversation.) “You don’t feel drafts in these houses, because they are so airtight,” he says. “But the air is always fresh because of the ventilation system. They are very quiet because of the thick insulation, and they stay moderately cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”

As an example, Mike Shannon shares an anecdote from when he and his wife first moved in. “The power failed and the temperature outside was well below zero,” he recalls. “We had no power, no electricity, no heat and no water for five days. But even without any of those amenities, none of our houses fell below 55 degrees. We were able to stay in them, and be comfortable. That’s a testament to how they were built.”

The built environment extends beyond the walls of each individual home and into the shared space, which is crisscrossed with footpaths—not tire tracks. No cars are allowed within the community (the members share a parking area and walk from home to home). McKim notes that this makes the Belfast community particularly safe for older residents, as well as those with disabilities. Sarah and Bill Smith moved into their ecohouse in July 2014. Sarah, 69, has been blind since the late 1970s. “It’s a great place to live as a blind person, because I can always count on my neighbors for rides into town, or for help if I need it,” says Sarah. “I can do most everything else, but I can’t drive.” When we spoke, she had just finished her weekly read aloud group. “It’s a wonderful thing,” she says. “I get to choose the books because I can’t read, but I have this lovely group of friends who come by at eight in the morning to read a book together.” They’ve read everything from the classic children’s tale The Wind in the Willows to quirky adult novel The Milagro Beanfield War. “Finding groups where you can do things together isn’t easy,” says Sarah. “But it is easier here.”

According to a survey commissioned by the AARP, loneliness is a major problem for Americans over the age of 45. Over one-third of older Americans consider themselves lonely, and loneliness is a significant predictor for poor health. In addition to being ecologically stable, the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage provides a solution to this disease of modern life, bringing people of various backgrounds and histories together in a small, tightly knit and well-designed community. As residents settle into their houses, they also settle into their roles. Naturalist Mike likes to share his knowledge of the Maine landscape with others. Margie is good with people, and she often helps organize events, like burrito night or knitting group. Bill is a former woodworker, so he contributes mightily to the upkeep and maintenance of their built environment. And Sarah is a good listener who enjoys helping her neighbors get along. “That’s my forte,” she says. “I try to be wise, and I have patience to hear about other people’s problems.”

In addition to the community meals, concerts, talks, and events, there’s another thing that holds this group together. “Our community is beginning to feel more and more like a family,” says Bill. “It helps that, in our first year, we had three or four births. I think there must have been something in the water!” While growing old together is a beautiful thing, so is sharing a lifetime’s worth of wisdom with the next generation. “Children act as a kind of glue—the Common House is one kind of glue, and kids are another,” says Bill. Bound together by a common goal, shared values, and a well-trod network of footpaths, these Belfast residents are in it for the long haul.