Solterra Cohousing

IMG_7224 Solterra Garden sign
Solterra Homeowners Association is a co-housing community of thirty-seven member households located about twelve minutes by car out from downtown Durham.

A diverse community with respect to age, ethnicity, religion and lifestyle and with a good percentage of marriages in the community being same sex, the first member moved on site in 1997.

Just in the last three years there has been quite a bit of turnover. Some of this is due to marriages where the partner was not interested in cohousing and also some of the originals have recently gone on to assisted living. The turnover has enabled new families to move in resulting in a huge influx of kids including some newborns making altogether eighteen children. It’s great for kids being exposed to older and younger people who’ve been to many places in the world.

They have meals together twice a week as a community. Requiring two to prepare, they have a regular Cantina night and a pot luck on Sundays charging $3 or $4 US – and $2 for children – plus of course there are many additional celebrations. An eclectic group they tried to start vegan but now the food always has vegetarian, vegan and non-veg options.

The tour of Solterra started in the abundant garden of which the community can be obviously very proud. It has come up before in other communities visited how the garden can reflect the level of cooperation and coordination in a community. Our guide Maggie Thacker said here they are still all learning to get along and the garden is made up of community vegie beds and private ones.

They have created a Meditation garden too. They’ve raised money to create a Dog Park. And they make soil with compost and mulch. The orchard is on clay and needs raised beds. There is a lot of energy for this aspect of community and there is a Garden Working Group day every two weeks and they have a separate Weeding and Landscaping Group. Food produced provides for the Cantina night; potatoes, pumpkins and gourds go in the cool room and they also freeze and can produce for Winter. Every year they have a black-berry picking party. At this time of year the garden is flourishing.

IMG_7218 Soltarra Garden

The community is built on lots laid out for passive solar. Single-family, stand-alone dwellings all individually planned by the owners and their designers giving their owners wide latitude in the kind of house they build. They designed their own houses following the rules about fences, colours and not blocking solar access.

Recognised as a missed opportunity all the houses face the street and none face into the community. All have garages and people generally drive straight in providing almost no opportunity to greet your neighbours.

IMG_7231 groundsIMG_7242 Maggie's house

Solterra has twenty-two acres and lots of shared open space. There is enough space for seclusion of some houses and long pathways through the community. Everyone must have a doorway facing the Common House although many are some distance away from it.

They are already experiencing climate change with colder Winters and drier Spring-times. A couple of years ago they had solid rain for two months straight causing widespread flooding and damage. They have since done a major overhaul of their drainage including raising their pathways in anticipation of the next time. The long connecting path leading to the Common House is proving difficult to keep weed free and remains a contentious problem that has yet to be resolved. I think it looks nice as it is.

IMG_7238 The Contentious Path

“Every house has direct car access from a road that surrounds the developed area of the property. The houses are arranged in three groupings with each having access to a footpath that connects all the houses and the common spaces through the meadows and woods. The common areas include play spaces, picnic tables, a tree house, swings, a Common House and a large organic garden we call The Garden of Eatin’. Last summer was a highly successful year for our organic gardens.” Solterra website

The homes have passive solar cement slab floors, hydronic heating and some are off grid.The houses are very quiet, very well insulated, with rooftop hot water heating but no photo-voltaics. At least one house was a more conventional brick house.
IMG_7234 Internal - kitchenIMG_7230 two familiesIMG_7227 2 storey internal

Solterra is located in a boutique suburb and has few break-ins being a bit off the beaten track.

The Common House is an historical farmhouse that was moved. It has a large kitchen and dining area with additional covered veranda dining space. It has a library and a lounge-room with a television. It does not have any guest quarters.

IMG_7246 Common House kitchenIMG_7247 LoungeIMG_7252 CH KitchenIMG_7248 LibraryIMG_7259 Kitchen dining full of peopleIMG_7250 Deck area

The main room has acoustic tiles on the ceiling installed to help deal with noise levels – no doubt especially on popular Cantina Night. Olé!

IMG_7249 Ceiling tiles

To become a member you have to get to know the community, be willing to learn and go through consensus. Maggie said they have found consensus painful but also that it works. Only once had to take a decision to the vote

“Members also commit to community meals and activities. They have a Social Committee. There is no application process however and the members self-select. They have a Board and sub committees that meet frequently and some groups meet spontaneously as needed. Members are encouraged to go on the Board and be active in the organisation including in any surveys conducted, for example, canvassing residents regarding what they are wanting and willing to do in the community. Solterra has a website although finding time to maintain it is a challenge.”

The participation agreement is by expectation – if you come to live there you are “expected to participate”. There is a welcome email sent out and a Welcoming Committee to meet and help integrate new residents. Most already come to dinners and interact but there has been a lot of transition and there was a feeling expressed that they could do with some more intentional connection. The huge garden that has been created brings people together. People get their own raised bed plus seeds and seedlings and enjoy the shared resources of community.

“All decision are made through a collaborative process involving monthly community meetings and consensus decision-making. Four committees, in addition to the Board, prepare the groundwork for these decisions, organized around the common house, common lands, architectural review and social activities. The community is only as good as its members. Thus it is incumbent on everyone to contribute. Once a month we have a community workday in order to maintain the common house and the community lands.”
Solterra website

The Solterra Book belongs in the Common House and beautifully describes the early part of the journey.

IMG_7253 Solterra bookIMG_7258 bookIMG_7257 bookIMG_7256 bookIMG_7255 bookIMG_7254 book

A lovely piece of art work spotted on the tour.
IMG_7235 The painting

About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
This entry was posted in Cohousing, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s