RareBirds take flight

Housing co-operative envisions fresh approach to living in community within an existing neighbourhood

"Our dream and our project," a blog archive excitedly declares as it traces the evolution of new way of living in Kamloops.

Hatched two years ago, the RareBirds Housing Co-operative is set to take flight as its residential project above Guerin Creek heads for a public hearing on March 26.

The co-op is a legally constituted society founded on principals that members see as adaptations to a changing world. They are goals shaped by social and environmental awareness - living co-operatively, achieving more financial freedom and emotional enrichment, reducing environmental impacts and achieving common goals through consensus.

Yet how do those ideals hold up in the western world after generations of independent, suburban-style habitation? How can a dozen adults cohabitate without stepping on one another's toes?

The Daily News sat down with co-op members to learn how they've made this journey from dream to blueprint. Imagine the prospect of moving in with your friends, permanently. As they described it, the housing co-op has come a long way since the era of tie-dye and free love.

"In some ways, humans are more suited to this kind of existence than to suburban living," said Dan Hines, one of eight members.

"Most of the world lives and survives this way because they can live interdependently," said Val MacKay-Greer. "I think it's a positive model that maybe we're coming around to again - thinking of how we can live interdependently, share resources and use less resources."

"It has been batted about with different people for 15 years, but it sort of never took off," said Mary Jordan.

HOW TO BOIL A FROG

The idea had its genesis in a documentary, a Canadian eco-comedy called How to Boil a Frog, Hines said. The film offers practical strategies for preserving the planet's habitability and profiles communities living co-dependently. He and his wife, Robyn, circulated emails within their social network to generate discussion about the idea.

"We had a retreat earlier on and talked about our vision, what we wanted to look at," said Robyn Hines.

"The big decision was to live as a community," Dan said. Some co-ops offer common areas to members who otherwise dwell separately, he noted.

Initially, the group considered renovating an existing residential property, feeling that approach would serve their goal of environmental sustainability. As they surveyed potential homes, though, they found that the cost of retrofitting too high and it would not approach the efficiency and sustainability of a new-build.

"With a lot of older existing homes, we wouldn't be talking net-zero (energy consumption)," Glen Burgoyne said. "These things sometimes are hard to retrofit."

"Certainly one of our objectives is to build as green as possible."

As well, newer large homes that might afford the space are limited by design with, for example, one large master bedroom and en suite. They wanted equity of space.

They also wanted to locate within walking distance of downtown, since that would allow them to reduce their environmental footprint. A vacant lot at the end of West Battle, overlooking Guerin Creek with views of the valley, offers proximity to services.

DROPPING THE TAILGATE

Having fixed their sights, they didn't waste any time letting the neighbourhood know of their plans.

"Within a week of buying the property, we had a tailgate party," Robyn said. "So we did hear some concerns and were able to give people some information at that first meeting."

"We gave them an opportunity to ask questions and we explained what it was all about. Most said, 'OK, that's kind of cool.' "

The project would require some site-specific zoning, since the cooperative doesn't' fit the bylaw definition of a family. They found City planning staff helpful in identifying the issues they might expect to encounter through the process.

"I think planning and City council, their interest is piqued by this," Burgoyne said.

And they hired two reputable names, Kevin Ryan of BlueGreen Architecture and builder Tim Pache, to develop their vision.

Developing a carefully structured approach to handling co-op affairs has been part of the process.

Through their research, they knew the essential importance of defining the structure of the cooperative and adopted what's known as "a modified circles practice."

The three components of this are speaking with intention, listening with attention and contributing to the wellbeing of the group, Jordan said. At each co-op meeting, they assign a "guardian timekeeper" who monitors the tone of the discussion, a referee of sorts.

"The idea is, there is a lot of meeting discussions around ideas and decision-making, but we need to step back and be mindful of everyone in the group. It's really important so that you don't leave the meeting with a lot of angst."

CONSENSUS TAKES TIME

They use a consensus model to arrive at decisions.

"What makes co-op living successful? One of the things that comes up consistently is the issue of having good rules around consensus," said Dan Hines. We felt pretty solid about that because we spent a lot of time working through the issues."

"Consensus always takes more time, but with some of the bigger decisions we make, people are comfortable with that."

At present there are five membership shares held (a couple or an individual can represent one share) with capacity for one more shareholder. There could be up to 12 members if there were six couples.

"That could affect the guest policy," someone joked, provoking laughter around the circle.

Each share represents an investment of $200,000 for a total project cost of $1.2 million. Half a dozen others have expressed interest in joining.

With the public hearing date approaching, they've canvassed the neighbourhood and dropped flyers to keep residents in the know.

Three members have already sold their homes in anticipation of the project proceeding this spring once zoning has been addressed. Some are house-sitting for absent snowbirds returning soon.

"The RareBirds will be displaced by the snowbirds."

Their advice to others who may consider a similar move?

"Build a community first before you build a house," Dan Hines said.

"And talk to the community first. It was helpful for us and I think people can see a different way of living in community," MacKay-Greer said.

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