This summer, 30 families will start moving into their new homes in Bridgewater, N.S. But this isn’t your typical family home. Treehouse Village Ecohousing is an environmentally responsible, multigenerational cohousing project, and the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada.
Treehouse was started by Cate and Leon de Vreede, who live in Bridgewater with their young son, Dylan. Cate is an environmental educator and Leon is a sustainability planner with the Town of Bridgewater. Cate said as newlyweds, she and Leon started dreaming about what kind of housing they wanted to live in and raise a family.
“We were daunted by the prospect of building an eco-friendly home and not seeing a lot in the landscape around Nova Scotia,” Cate de Vreede said during an interview on site at Treehouse in late April. “We got dreaming and thinking and came across this concept of cohousing and, actually, ecovillages first.”
That research led them to learning about intentional communities, which are created by a group of people with shared values and goals around community living.
Cohousing is one of the housing models that falls under the larger umbrella of intentional housing. Besides cohousing, there are co-ops, communes, ecovillages, and more.
“Often, but not always, they have an eco component,” de Vreede said. “Even if they don’t in their built form, they do in their community form because there are all these opportunities to share things. This community of 30 people, for instance, we won’t have 30 lawn mowers, or 30 dryers. We’ll be able to share things that make sense to share.”
Treehouse consists of four residential buildings with different sizes of apartments each named after a tree: one-bedroom units are Spruce or Fir; two-bedroom units are Maple or Pine; and the three-bedroom unit is called Oak. All the buildings were designed with the principles of universal design. They’re also incredibly energy efficient; de Vreede said it will cost less than $200 to heat one of the units each year.
Also on the site is a three-storey common building with a laundry room, two guest rooms, playroom, mudroom, and a large kitchen and dining area where residents can share a meal. The common space has an elevator for accessibility. Another separate building houses a workshop.
Treehouse’s six-hectare plot of land is located just off Pearl Street. There’s a forested area behind all the buildings where there will be treehouses for kids and trails for hiking. Between the residential homes is a common area with picnic tables and sandboxes where kids can play or people can just hang out and meet. All the doors open onto that space and the units’ kitchen windows face that area, too.
And the location is a short walking distance to just about everything in town. Treehouse has those distances marked out on a map: a 12-minute walk to the school; a 16-minute walk downtown; 16-minute walk along the trail to the community recreation centre; an 11-minute walk to the grocery store and post office. The property is also located just along the Rails to Trails.
Everyone has to ‘fully get behind the vision’
This wasn’t the first time the de Vreedes tried to build a cohousing project. They started looking into the idea about 12 years ago.
“We gave it a pretty good effort for what we knew at the time, but we were really lacking an understanding of development, I’d say,” Cate de Vreede said. “It was too amorphous. [People] didn’t really get it and we didn’t know what we were doing.”
So, the couple did more research and learning and tried again when Dylan was about six months old.
“When he was born, we said, ‘Wow, we really get that cliché about it takes a village to raise a child.’ We felt that,” de Vreede said. “Even though we have great family support locally and great friends, we were ready for more social support at close proximity.”
But that second attempt fizzled out when de Vreede got sick (she’s since recovered).
So, they put their ideas on hold for a few more years. When they decided to try again, they hired a cohousing consultant, Jasen Robillard, and worked with him for nine months before they hosted their first community meeting about the project. They hired other experts, too, including a lawyer and architect.
And they got more clear on what it was they wanted to do and how the project would look.
“We were the ones in the beginning that made a proposal to the world,” de Vreede said. “We called it ‘The Box.” What are the bounds of this dream, this vision? Those were things like, it’s going to be in Bridgewater, it’s going to be multigenerational, it’s going to be environmentally responsible with a high degree of energy efficiency.”
All of the 30 families in Treehouse are developers of the project and no one earns a profit. Units were sold at what it cost to build them.
To get financing for construction, de Vreede said at least 80% of the units had to be presold. They got to that threshold in the spring of 2021 and broke ground that summer.
The project is now full and there’s a wait list, and the current members come from across eight time zones. There are six different first languages amongst Treehouse’s membership.
“We have people with deep connections to Nova Scotia and we have people who have never been to Nova Scotia,” de Vreede said. “In order to be a part of this everyone has had to embrace and fully get behind the vision. So, we have a shared vision, we have a shared way we make decisions together. We have things we’re aiming for as a community. That’s a lot we have in common.”
“But I think the other thing we have in common is this interest in community, this interest in being socially connected to our immediate neighbours, while also having our private space, too. That’s the blend you get in cohousing.”
Hire help to get your project moving
Ronaye Matthew is the primary consultant with Cohousing Development Consulting in British Columbia. She got her start consulting on cohousing projects 27 years ago after working for years with conventional development companies.
In her consulting work, Matthew said she guides groups along the process of putting together cohousing projects, which are models that fall under the larger umbrella of what she calls community-led housing.
“You have a group of people who are really trying to create something for themselves rather than taking what the developer is creating for them. So, they’re really involved in the decision making around that,” Matthew said.
Matthew said there are a few steps groups can do on their own before hiring a consultant. First, find a group of like-minded people who share your interests and then create a clear objective about the project. The details can include what kind of building you want, like single family homes or apartment buildings.
“What is it you want? Really clearly define that,” Matthew said.
Second, find out where you’d like your cohousing project to be located. That “where” will depend on what kind of housing you want, too. Certain types of housing are only suitable for certain locations.
Then, go to the planning authority of that municipality to learn if your idea is even possible in that area. And also find out about the costs of other similar developments in the communty.
Matthew said a project can fall apart is when a group doesn’t have a clear objective. And Matthew said those objectives don’t need to include everyone.
“Having a clear objective identifies who will be attracted to your project,” she said. “If you find when you’re telling people about it, everybody is going, ‘I wouldn’t want that,’ you might want to change your objective a bit. At the end of the day, saying you’re doing 20 units, you need to be able to find 20 people to join in.”
‘They think it’s an old folks’ home and it’s not’
Cherie MacLeod has her cohousing vision, and now she’s looking for people to join in. MacLeod, 65, lives in Chester in a rental she moved into in 2020 after selling her “big old Victorian house” in the town that was becoming too much for her to manage on her own. She’s been researching a cohousing project for the South Shore.
“I’ve always been interested in it in principle,” MacLeod said.
MacLeod has a background as a custom home designer, a skill she learned when she went back to school in her early 50s.
She emailed Cate and Leon de Vreede and said they were “generous” with their time about Treehouse. But she’s looking at a different idea for her project.
“I believe the multi-generational thing is the way to go,” MacLeod said in an interview. “But at a certain point, I guess as seniors alone, do you really want the kids’ playground outside your window? It’s nice to see them around but maybe that proximity isn’t required at a certain point. People are a little bit selfish with their time when they get older. I am.”
Over the years, MacLeod has read numerous books about cohousing, including those by Charles Durrett and his former wife, Kathyn McCamant, who are the cofounders of the cohousing movement in North America. MacLeod has even taken courses to learn more.
Now, she’s working on an idea for an intentional community for people ages 55 and up (or between “55 and dead,” she said). She said it would be a place for folks to age in place in a supportive community without having to go to long-term care.
“Everyone loves the idea in theory… but they think it’s an old folks’ home and it’s not,” MacLeod said. “It’s a way to avoid the old folks’ home. It’s a way to stay involved, engaged, and physically active and socially active and to keep your shit together right to the bitter end.”
MacLeod said this kind of community is a way for people to help each other out, especially if a spouse needs care and you need respite or you lose your driver’s licence, but need someone to drive you to groceries or appointments.
“People are in denial,” she said. “They think [getting older] is never going to happen to them or it won’t happen to them for a long time, and whamo, they’re not organized to do something like this.”
She already has the details and a plot of land in mind that could work: it’s in Chester Basin where a former elementary school once stood. And on it, there would be small, accesible single-family dwellings. There would be a mix of rental and individually owned homes. She would also like to include affordable units as well.
Everyone’s house would have its own private back deck, but also on the land would be common spaces everyone shared: maybe an art studio, a big communal kitchen, a bicycle shed. There’d also be a community garden with raised beds. And, of course, plenty of neighbours around to travel with or to watch your home and pets when you’re away.
“All of the bells and whistles that 20 people can afford that one person cannot,” MacLeod said “That’s what is so beautiful about the cohousing model. You can have a lot.”
‘Efficiencies of scale are not there’
Matthew said another mistake people make when considering building cohousing is thinking it will save them money. She said subsidies are rare, so the group and the professionals they hire need to be the ones to find creative ways to achieve affordability.
“One of the mistakes groups make is thinking somehow, that because this is something everyone needs and wants, there should be special privileges and benefits you get. Free land, and that sort of thing,” Matthew said. “That is a real mistake to go with that attitude. If the municipality sees the benefits, there may be ways they can support the group to achieve greater affordability, but it is a mistake to rely on that being the case.”
Matthew said she worked on a project in North Vancouver that had a partnership with the city, and so got their municipal fees reduced by $1.5 million. The group then used that money to create units at 25% below the market rate.
“It didn’t cost the group anything,” Matthew said. “It meant the city was already getting some of the things it wanted because it wanted affordable housing in its community. It’s a matter of finding those synergies when you’re creating affordability.”
“It’s very difficult to do a small project at below-market, or even at market value, because the efficiencies of scale are not there.”
And she added people think they can save money by doing the entire project on their own.
“Paying for a good, quality consultant can save you money because you don’t go down paths of spending money that’s inappropriate,” she said.
At Treehouse, de Vreede said they were clear with members from the get-go about the cost.
“We have said from the beginning that this is not affordable housing,” de Vreede said. “There are many aspects of cohousing that are affordable, things like getting to share things that make sense to share. Also, these homes are extremely energy efficient, so it’s going to be less than $200 a year to heat each of these homes. Also, the durability of these homes that will last more than 200 years. So, there’s that long-term durability. But up front, costs of construction, in 2021, 2022, 2023, is really substantial. Even though we are selling them at cost, that cost is still prohibitive for a lot of people.”
Matthew said the cohousing lifestyle itself contributes to affordability. The sharing culture supports people to spend less on goods and services.
“I see it as being a lifestyle that allows people to live in a more affordable way. When you’re living in community, regardless of whether it’s below market, it can be more affordable because there are opportunities for sharing. You learn to share things. For example, many people who live in cohousing share motor vehicles. Cars are very expensive to own and operate.”
An introvert’s experience
It’s that sharing and social aspect that appeals to people interesting in cohousing.
Matthew, the cohousing consultant, lives in cohousing herself, Cranberry Commons in Burnaby, B.C. She said she joined the cohousing community for environmental sustainability; she moved from a larger single family home to a small three-bedroom home.
She said she was a “reluctant cohouser” at first, but now can’t imagine living any other way.
“I am not very social. I am an extreme introvert,” Matthew said. “Even though people don’t realize that when they know me and talk with me, I absolutely need alone time. I don’t want you knocking at my door. I have all of these rules. I am very delighted to say my community obeys them. I feel very comfortable and supported in that environment.”
MacLeod said as an introvert, she baulked at the idea of an intentional community at first, too, but she said it’s possible to create a community with a balance of private and shared spaces.
“If you work together with a group of people and you hone your design, by the time you actually get something built, you’re all pretty good friends,” MacLeod said. “The people who don’t fit have left. They’ve weeded themselves out. You have a pretty cohesive group.”
That’s been the experience of the members of Treehouse, who have all worked together and got to know each other over the past five years through 46 in-person and online sessions. And the members who can travel to the site now, even work on helping with construction.
“We’re not all signing up to be besties,” de Vreede said. “That’s not what it’s all about. But it’s this commitment to be good neighbours and share things that make sense to share and to really get behind the pillars of our vision, which are around being environmentally responsible, intentional community, strong social community.”
Still, everyone in a group won’t agree on every decision that needs to be made. So, many cohousing models include a governance model to help with those decisions. de Vreede said they use a model called “sociocracy” and created working groups they call circles. The collective group grants authority to each circle to make decisions on the group’s behalf.
There were a number of circles for the construction of the project itself. There was a circle for the design and construction, a circle that dealt with financial and legal matters, a circle for marketing, and another circle in charge of community life.
Now, that the build is almost complete, circles are moving from building the property to maintaining and living in it. So, there will be circles that take care of decisions around the community gardens, and circle that will plan the community meals in the kitchen in the common building, and so on.
There will also be bylaws and policies that apply to everyone, and members will pay condo fees to pay for upkeep on external parts of the buildings.
One of the aspects Matthew helps groups manage when working on a cohousing project is how to deal with conflicts and compromise. She encourages groups to use a consensus model to come to an answer on a decision. And that consensus doesn’t mean everyone has to agree.
“Consensus is really about making sure everyone has the opportunity to make sure they had the opportunity to say what they need to say, and that they are willing to go along with the final decision,” Matthew said. “If they’re not, and everybody else wants to, and there’s one that wants to stand aside, they need to choose whether they will move forward with the group.”
Matthew advises that groups have clear boundaries because you can’t keep talking about a project forever. Sometimes the conflicts, she said, are a difference in values among a group’s members.
“They need to either accept it or go on their way,” Matthew said. “When people commit financially to the process, they’re willing to say they need to go for the good of the group, for the will of the larger collective, and they will let go of their personal interests.”
She also encourages groups she works with to use a self-selection process rather than having the group choose to include a member or not.
“The group’s responsibility is to make sure I clearly know what I’m getting into,” Matthew said.” And if they don’t like what I’m doing to give me feedback so I know before I become a member of the group.”
The day the Examiner toured the Treehouse site with de Vreede, several of its members were also working on build. Katherine Harman now lives just outside of Antigonish and was looking at starting a cohousing project in Halifax when her daughter, who lives in Bridgewater, told her about Treehouse.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s rather perfect. Someone else already got it started,'” Harman said. “And it’s right close to where [my daughter] lives. What else could be better?”
Harman said it took her about week for her to decide to sign up.
Valentin Bourneuf and his wife and young child are coming to Treehouse from Montreal. Bourneuf said his family had also been considering alternative housing.
“Here is a perfect mix of, I would say, a community way of doing things,” Bourneuf said. “And we have our own spaces, a comfortable home, that was all the things we were looking for.”
Bourneuf and Harman have become friends over the last five years, and Harman said she’s looking forward to meeting Bourneuf’s young daughter, maybe just in time as she starts learning how to walk.
“I am in love with everyone,” Harman said. “That’s just the way it is. We attracted incredible humans to this project.”
‘I just have to find my people’
As for timelines, Matthew has worked with one project that took just 2.5 years from the first time she met them until it was complete. That group already had done a lot of the work before she got on board.
Still other projects, she said, take many years to become a reality. Timelines can also depend on other factors such as rezoning and development bylaws in a municipality.
Matthew and her colleague, Margaret Critchlow, are working on a book about cohousing that describes in detail what goes into making a project a reality. The book’s working title is, Community Led Housing: A Cohousing Approach.
“What I would like to see, as part of my legacy, is something that supports groups and professionals to know how to do this,” Matthew said. “It’s actually not that hard. It’s just you need to follow a particular pattern. If you don’t follow that particular pattern, you’re likely to fail. Someone needs to show you the path in the woods.”
As Treehouse heads for move-in day, de Vreede said she has to pinch herself that the project she and Leon first thought about a dozen years ago will soon be ready.
“I think if I had known it was going to be this big, I would have probably not started,” de Vreede said. “It would have been so intimidating. The amount of earth moving, the amount of materials, the amount of hours of labour. It’s really big for a group of people who are not developers. None of us have developed housing before and here we are working together to create a community, a neighbourhood we envision.”
Meanwhile, MacLeod continues to work on her cohousing vision. She sends out a newsletter to people she has on an email list who might eventually attend a community meeting to learn more. She said she knows there are people who have enough money for a mortgage, but maybe don’t want the same larger spaces and don’t want to live alone, but would rather remain active and social as they get older. She said this project could be a way for people to take charge of their lives now instead of waiting for their families to have to make the decisions for them.
“If they can put on their slippers and walk across the yard to a cocktail party or a bridge game, who knows?” MacLeod said. “People are supporting you, and they know you and care about you and know when you need support. Lots of people are fine on their own, but lots of people do better with support. It’s unfortunate that people don’t do that anymore.”
She’s also met with people in all three levels of government to learn how she can get her project started and what financial help might be out there.
“I am determined to make this happen,” MacLeod said. “I just have to find my people.”