In a small town in southwestern New Hampshire a big idea is emerging. It’s a concept called cohousing and it’s beginning to break ground across America. Here, twenty-nine families live in a neighborhood of single-, double-, and quadruple-family homes that are clustered on a small portion of 113 acres of pasture, ponds and open land. The families will live independently of each other but share some important aspects of life including a farm, entertainment space and energy.
Nubanusit Neighborhood and Farm, located in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is made up of quality-built, environmentally-designed homes, a common house, professional office space, a working farm and woodlands with walking trails. The homes are clustered together to encourage interaction between neighbors and foster a real sense of community.
The concept of cohousing was attractive to Shelly and Robin Hulbert, founding partners, from early on.
“My husband and I had lived in an in-town neighborhood in Peterborough, when our children were young, that happened to be an inter-generational friendly group of folks where we had kind of a cohousing experience but we didn’t have a name to put on it,” says Hulbert, “and it was fabulous.” A desire to farm, however, moved the couple two miles out of town. But farming in isolation can be difficult, they realized.
“It’s hard to find someone to milk your cows when you go away,” Hulbert says with a grin. They also missed the community they had lost. So when they first learned about cohousing, people living together in a tight neighborhood, sharing the land, a farm, and common space, the idea was very intriguing.
The idea moved from concept to reality when the couple discovered that what was then called “The Salisberg Inn,” was going on the market. It was a beautiful old home with 113 acres of land bordering the Nubanusit river. Having once functioned as a farm, the land was rich in agricultural resources and history: in the mid-1800s it was the home of John Steele, who was Governor of New Hampshire from 1848-1849.
“Being Peterborough residents who care about open spaces in Peterborough, we didn’t want to see [the land] developed in a traditional way, which here would be 3-5 acre lots,” says Hulbert. It was at that point that the Hulberts approached Richard Pendelton and his wife about buying the land together and embarking on the development of an energy-efficient cohousing neighborhood.
Developers have integrated as many green features as possible without making the houses too costly, including high insulation levels, triple-glazed windows, airtight construction, and fresh air ventilation with heat recovery in order to dramatically reduce heating costs while achieving very comfortable living environments. Because of these features, the homes will receive LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Because the founders are building houses that should last over 100 years, the design of the buildings is simple, elegant and completely sustainable. “We wanted the houses to be as basic but as quality as possible,” says Hulbert. “Kind of in the Shaker mentality of beauty, health and permanence.”
They chose Cedar shakes for the exterior because they last for 75-100 years, and hard-wood flooring and tile on the interior because it’s easy to maintain.
Seven central pellet boilers that use locally produced biomass fuel from New England Wood Pellet will provide heat and hot water to all the homes. According to Hulbert, the array of boilers is the largest residential pellet heat system in the country. “An average family of 4 can expect to pay approximately $900 annually on heating and hot water,” says Hulbert. That’s a significant savings in New Hampshire where families can have annual heating costs that are more than twice that. Heat recovery on the warm wastewater also lowers hot water costs.
Richard Pendelton holds pellets in front of boiler #4 in the
Nubanusit Village and Farm central pellet boiler room.
The entire neighborhood uses pellets for heat and hot water.
The homes are all “roughed in” for solar hot water systems, too; however, the developers decided to let the homeowners themselves install the panels. “The fact of the matter is the U.S. Government doesn’t give you a lot of incentive to build green. The homeowner can get a $2000 rebate if they put solar hot water on themselves, but if we, as the developer, put it on we don’t get anything,” says Hulbert.
“Also,” says Pendelton, “it’s was the fact that it’s just cheaper not to have the general contractor do something that…we could just hire a Solar contractor to do.”
Wind power, micro-hydro and photovoltaics (PV) are also being explored. The developers are considering installing PV to power the barn, the common house and the offices, but since construction hasn’t begun on those buildings, it isn’t in place yet.
The common house is an important feature for cohousing. Nubanusit Neighborhood’s common house, which should be completed this summer, will feature a “great room” with a kitchen. Individuals can use the great room for parties or the entire community can get together there for group events. “There are guest rooms in the common house, there’s a playroom for young children, a rec room with ping pong and pool for older children and grown-ups,” explains Hulbert. In addition, there is one other multi-purpose room in the common house that could be used for workshops, yoga or “12-year old sleepovers,” says Hulbert. It will be used by the neighbors for whatever they need it for.
When people have a central place to entertain, it means that their houses can be smaller. The largest of the offerings in the neighborhood is a 4-bedroom house that’s less than 1800 square feet.
In addition to sharing a central house and a farm, neighbors share certain values, explains Hulbert. They all believe in community and in decreasing their footprint on the earth. She also thinks that many are attracted to the idea of participating on a farm; or at least living where farming is taking place and they can get a fresh supply of locally grown food.
Another aspect to the cohousing neighborhood is parking, which is set apart from the houses. There are, instead, pedestrian walkways linking the 16 homes. “It makes you use your car more consciously because it’s kind of a hassle to walk back to your car,” explains Hulbert.
Jeff Drake and Barbara Smith moved into the neighborhood from Lexington, Massachusetts. Smith says she likes not seeing her car or any cars from the house. “Having been a suburban mom for many years, I spent a lot of time driving around, so I’m really happy to have that more in the background,” she says.
The couple knew almost immediately that the Peterborough cohousing neighborhood was for them. “We heard about this on August second or maybe third and we sold our house by the end of September,” says Drake. “It was that attractive to us.”
While cost may be a significant deterrent for some potential residents (two-bedroom homes start around $345,000 and 4-bedroom houses are upwards of $600,000) the developers have tried to set up a grant that could be offered to assist families who may be interested in the neighborhood but can’t afford to buy in. Unfortunately, though, the grant is still tied up in red tape. “Ideally we want this to be not only an inter-generational community but we want it to be a mixed-income community,” says Hulbert.
Drake and Smith admit that the high costs were definitely a hurdle, but when they considered the surrounding land, a more sustainabie lifestyle and the energy efficiency aspects of the homes, the costs seemed much more reasonable. “You have to think longer term, knowing that there are going to be costs and affects that will be positive over the long term,” explains Drake.