Cohousing group in Bristol ready for pioneering purchasers

BRISTOL — Twenty-one years ago, Jim Mendell and Peg Kamens founded the Common Ground Center, a three-season retreat and recreation center that since 2004 has been located in Starksboro. Now the husband and wife team want to take many of the center’s ideas about diversity, cooperative decision-making and community, and create a new way of living year round with a “cohousing” project in the heart of Bristol.
“When people come to Common Ground and find out that it’s run cooperatively, they say, ‘Why can’t the world work this way?’ And that’s what we want to do with cohousing,” Mendell said.
He, Kamens and a group of like-minded individuals are developing Bristol Village Cohousing, a 14-unit intentional eco-village along North Street near Bristol’s historic downtown and town green.
They have already purchased the three properties. Mendell, Kamens and the core group of members behind Bristol Village Cohousing plan to assemble a minimum of five families to purchase units by Jan. 15, 2016. The next step will then be  to complete the process of securing bank financing (already under way) and begin construction and renovation in April. They expect the project to be completed so that families can move in starting next fall.
Bristol Village Cohousing will hold two information sessions for prospective members this Thursday in Bristol and Sunday in Middlebury, to communicate the plans, pricing and benefits of living in cohousing.
Cohousing, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States, is “an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space.” The 14 units that will make up Bristol Village Cohousing will each be privately owned, but community members will share a Common House for social events, gardens, a workshop space, and other amenities. The 14 units — a mix of standalone cottages and apartments — will face onto a common green.
Any number of aspects of the overall design encourage community interaction — down to small details like picking up mail in the common house or keeping parking to the perimeter. But the project carves out private space as well. The five standalone cottages, for example, will have both front porches that face the common green as well as screened-in porches along the side where one could claim private time.
“Cohousing is a perfect combination of having privacy plus community,” said Mendell. “Everyone has their own private space. They can have as much private time as they want. But there’s the opportunity to eat dinner together once a week, to maybe have one lawnmower instead of 14 lawnmowers or have a community garden so that everyone doesn’t have to go out and do all the work themselves. The idea is to have a really good mix of private and communal.”
The units will range in size from an 880-square-foot one-bedroom to a 1,530-square-foot three bedroom. The current home at 8 North St. will be converted into a duplex. The project will keep the facade of the current 12 North St. but due to extensive structural problems will replace the rest of the building with a new-built fourplex. A new triplex will be built on the site of the future 14 North St. Toward the back and sides of the 2.5-acre lot will be five standalone cottages, each with three bedrooms and each encompassing 1,344 square feet. There are two ground plans to choose from for the cottages, one with a ground-floor bedroom and two bedrooms upstairs, the other with all three bedrooms upstairs.
The historic Peake House at 16 North St. — with its high ceilings, tall windows, original plaster walls and elegantly curving staircase — will be renovated into the community’s common house. According to Kamens and Mendell, the project will keep the large, recently remodeled kitchen and dining area. As with most cohousing communities, there will be a central mail delivery room for all members. The upstairs bedrooms will become three guest rooms for community members’ visitors, along with a studio apartment for longer-term guests. The three main rooms in the downstairs will be renovated according to the wishes of the community and could become anything from a space for large gatherings to a music room, a library, a playroom, and so on.
“The homes can be compact and efficient because the common house has many large rooms for activities, guests and potluck dining,” said lead architect Jean Terwilliger, of Middlebury’s Vermont Integrated Architecture, in a press release.
The units range in price from $235,000 for a one-bedroom to $345,000 for a three-bedroom cottage. To encourage economic diversity and to attract young families, Bristol Village Cohousing plans to possibly rent or to provide down payment assistance for a handful of units. The venture is offering a $5,000 rebate to families who sign on to purchase by Jan. 15.
Especially important to Mendell and Kamens, all buildings are being built or renovated to top-performing energy standards. (The exception to this will be the Peake House, where historic preservation trumps more stringent energy savings.) All will be built or renovated to Efficiency Vermont’s “high performance” standard, its most stringent standard for energy-saving homes. Efficiency Vermont describes the high performance model as being homes that operate more like a thermos than a hotplate, by using insulation to maintain temperatures. All will have rooftop solar panels. And all will be net-zero ready, meaning that the homes will be built to use only as much energy over the course of a year as will be generated from all-renewable sources.
Kamens and Mendell estimate that the energy-efficient design will save homeowners around 38 percent a year compared to a conventionally built home. Typically, Vermont consumers spend $3,600 a year on energy, but the homes at Bristol Village Cohousing would use closer to $1,368 a year.
The couple believes the benefits of living in a cohousing community are many. For Mendell, especially, consensus building is at the core of the cohousing movement: creating communities that make decisions through a process that requires everyone’s buy-in as its end result rather than straight majority rule. And for him the consensus-building process at the heart of cohousing communities is an extension of what the couple has been building at Common Ground since 1994.
“Common Ground Center is like cohousing for a week,” said Mendell. “And it’s always been a cooperatively run nonprofit. Everyone has a say, and that’s why it’s prospered.”
Over the years, as their interest in cohousing communities has continued to grow, the couple has attended cohousing conferences and toured cohousing communities nationwide.
But Bristol Village Cohousing got sparked in part — in a way that brings a breath of whimsy into the strong mix of idealistic living — by Peg Kamens’s love of old houses.
“I always wanted a Victorian,” said Kamens, who laughs that, even better, she now has a Civil War era Italianate mansion to share with fellow cohousing members.
When the Peake House went on the market, the couple eyed it for several years but didn’t feel that they wanted such a large home for themselves alone. Then in 2013, two adjacent properties came on the market, the historic Tomasi House, built in 1817, at 8 North St., and another large multi-unit house at 12 North St. Mendell and Kamens bought all three properties in April 2013 and immediately began turning Bristol Village Cohousing from a dream into a reality.
In 2013 and 2014, they began working with the local planning commission and selectboard to secure permits. They began reaching out to like-minded individuals to form a core Bristol Village Cohousing membership group. They turned to their long-time attorney Liam Murphy to draft the association agreement needed to get bank financing. As the project progressed, they assembled a team of local designers who understood the concepts behind cohousing and who had a track record for designing sustainable buildings. Landscape architect Katie Raycroft Meyer, of Raycroft Meyer Landscape Architects, lives literally across the street from the cluster of North Street houses that are soon to become Bristol Village Cohousing. Vermont Integrated Architecture in Middlebury specializes in sustainable and energy-efficient designs.
This past April and July, the group held meetings at which Terwilliger and Raycroft Meyer could present their designs and get feedback from the larger membership group.
Mendell and Kamens believe that although the cohousing movement has been around for decades, it has been experiencing a surge since the economic crisis of 2008 and as more people want to downsize their lifestyle and live more sustainably.
Bristol Village Cohousing is among a number of new cohousing communities being created across the state. Putney, Huntington and Guilford also have cohousing communities in progress. The two cohousing communities longest operating in Vermont are the 10 Stones community in Charlotte and Cobb Hill in Hartland, which both began in 2002. Burlington’s Cohousing East Village began in 2007, and Montpelier’s White Pine Cohousing Community began in 2010.
For Peg Kamens, the true benefit of cohousing comes down to a deeper sense of community.
“You pick up your mail in the common house, your kid sees another kid, they play together. Maybe you see a friend in the common house kitchen, and you say, ‘Oh, you’re making cookies, I want to make cookies, let’s do it together,’” she said. “It provides easy ways to have a casual connection that can lead to a deeper connection.
“In a lot of cohousing communities, people watch each other’s pets when they go away or they’ll share childcare or there’s car pooling because there’s so much opportunity for interaction and getting to know people. It’s easy to do things for other people to make their lives that much better.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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