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Co-housing project rethinks residential energy use with shared walls, amenities

Photo by: Marie Pulito / Rocky Corner / Courtesy - The Rocky Corner common house.

Written by: Lisa Prevost

 

The living concept originated in Denmark and is often paired with a commitment to minimizing environmental impact.

Connecticut’s first co-housing community is nearing completion on a former dairy farm in Bethany, after more than a decade of effort by a handful of committed organizers. 

Called Rocky Corner, the community is designed around conservation and sustainability, with collaborative living as its core focus. Residents of the development’s 30 energy-efficient homes will have access to a 4,500-square-foot common house with commercial-grade kitchen facilities, a dining room, a woodworking shop, maker spaces, and a laundry room.

Bringing the unusual community to fruition was an uphill battle for organizers, who encountered zoning and building code obstacles as well as numerous bureaucratic holdups. Although the coronavirus pandemic may now potentially delay what they hoped would be a late spring opening, Rocky Corner is finally emerging in the property’s old cow pastures. 

“It’s been a really long journey — a lot of us say we probably wouldn’t do it again,” said Marie Pulito, a nurse who, with her spouse, has been involved with planning the community since 2006. “But the result is going to be wonderful. It’s just going to be terrific.” 

One of the Rocky Corner homes. (photo courtesy of Marie Pulito / Rocky Corner)

Co-housing is a living concept that originated in Denmark. The developments are structured in a way that is intended to foster community and collaboration. Some are also focused on minimizing impact on the environment. There are about 165 co-housing communities in the U.S., according to the website of the Cohousing Association of the United States. 

Residents own their own homes (with full kitchens) and share common spaces, which in Rocky Corner’s case will also include a community garden and a barn to house farming equipment, chickens and at least two alpacas. 

The buildings are clustered on seven of the property’s 33 acres. There are no garages — cars must be parked on the periphery.

All but seven of the modestly sized homes are spoken for, including 13 being sold at below-market rates for income-qualified buyers. The remaining homes are priced from about $360,000 for an 810-square-foot one-bedroom to $480,000 for a 1,200-square-foot three-bedroom, Pulito said. 

That’s higher than organizers had originally hoped, but the long timeline and unexpected expenses pushed up the project’s costs. (A $2.6 million grant from the state subsidized construction of the affordables.) Reduced energy expenses should help compensate, at what they estimate will be around $1,000 a year per home, said Dick Margulis, another organizer who works as a book editor. 

The vinyl-sided homes are all electric, with air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling.

The homes are designed to be as efficient as possible within the group’s very modest budget, said Jim Childress, a principal at Centerbrook Architects and the project’s lead architect. For example, the insulation exceeds building code requirements but is not at passive-house level. The foundation slabs are heavily insulated. And arranging the houses in triplexes and duplexes adds to efficiency because of the shared walls, he said. 

Front windows are south-facing, and the roofs are suitable for the addition of solar panels, should owners choose to add them. 

“There’s nothing really sexy and exciting about the design,” he said. “It was just dogged hard work on their part to try and get the absolute best insulation, the absolute best windows and so on within that modest budget.”

Pulito said a company has approached them about leasing a portion of the land for a shared solar installation, but she said they are reluctant to give up the six or seven acres.

The homes are expected to qualify for Energy Star certification. The resulting rebates, from the state’s energy efficiency fund, will likely total around $2,000 to $2,500 per home, according to Peter Harding, a vice president of MaGrann Associates, an energy consulting company. 

The barn-red common house will be heated with the help of a large soapstone masonry stove from Quebec, Pulito said.

“It’s a really efficient wood-burning stove,” she said. “You fire them up twice a day and they radiate heat for hours and hours. This one also has a baking oven so we will be able to do bread and pizza in there.”

So far, most of the residents who have signed on to Rocky Corner are over 55, and many are single women, she said. Young people have expressed interest, but the prices are a hurdle. Rental possibilities are being discussed.

“We older people are the ones who have enough money to buy — we have homes we can sell and reinvest,” she said. “But we may yet attract families with young kids. There is a Montessori school within walking distance.”

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