And not just for hippies
// Shawn Irving,

We are living in a time where the cost of life is rising. Tuition is up, food is up, and in Vancouver, housing is most definitely up. There are those who can afford to live on their own, and there are those who choose to live with roommates. Then, there are those who seek to create in their own homes a safe, almost familial environment; people who have decided to expand outside the structure of “roommates” and have changed their homes into miniature communities, with the intent of bringing people together and sharing resources.

Unlike a boarding house, where the intention is to get the most amount of people into a smaller space at a low cost, this is about establishing yourself within a household. The result is known as a communal house, a place where the private and public mesh easily. This article will explore some of the examples of this within our own city, and how they work.

The Vancouver Collective Housing Network
Whether organized through the Vancouver Collective Housing network, or evolved naturally through a group of acquaintances, communal houses are taking root in all corners of the city. The Vancouver Collective Housing network ( exists to connect these fledgling homes with established houses, organizing quarterly gatherings and potlucks. It also provides support and resources for those wishing to start their own group homes through workshops and social gatherings.

A prime example is the Graveley House, located in a quiet section of East Vancouver. It stands out in the neighbourhood, sporting a vibrant garden that extends all the way to the front sidewalk. Six people live in this seemingly small house, a number which can often seem like many more, as guests are always coming and going. The majority of the house has become what is essentially public space, and visitors from as far away as Poland were present during a short tour by Brennan Wauters, one of the founding members. Household activities often take place, jam sessions are a common occurrence, and occasionally group outings with temporary visitors are organized, such as bike rides or hiking.

Making decisions
The current residents of the Graveley House were brought together by common values within the household, like living a low-carbon life, conservation of energy and reduction of waste. “In the process of choosing who you're going to live with, you choose people who you can trust,” explains Brennan Wauters. “We're all supporting each other to make the right decisions.”

Decisions are made by means of group consensus through vote at prearranged meetings, where everyone is free to exercise veto power. That being said, it is not a necessity to always be present, provided you can accept the loss of your vote. “It's not always pragmatic; sometimes it's just a matter of [if] so-and-so can't be at the next meeting where we decide the next thing, they're just going to have to go along with it. If you're living communally, you've gotta learn to compromise quite a bit, because you can't be at all places at all times,” explains Wauters.

More permanent choices, however, are always made by full group consensus, like the addition of new members - everyone's input is vital, and the end result is a group that works and lives well together.

Private space and communication
The house is naturally a group environment, but every member has their own private space. “You still have to maintain a certain amount of privacy and respect for people in the house,” explains Wauters,“so you've got to get good at communicating... and saying exactly what you want at the moment that you need to say it. Don't hold it in, try and avoid being passive-aggressive.”

Gardens and chickens
A portion of the cultivated property at the Graveley House has been turned over to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) called Freshroots. In exchange for the use of the land at the Graveley house, Freshroots provides gardening knowledge and assistance to the household. In the garden, one can expect to find tomatoes, pumpkins, potatoes, and kale, amongst many other organic vegetables.

The house was also encouraged to raise chickens through an urban husbandry organization ( Their coop now houses four adult hens, which provide about a carton of eggs every week. “They're really almost pets,” says Wauters.

Sharing rent and food
The rent that each individual pays at the Graveley House is a flat rate that collectively pays the rent and utilities, while leaving an overflow used for food and other necessities. This is a distinct system within the communal-housing community, where rent tends to be scaled to personal income. Here, this does not appear to be an issue, since the high density of occupants keeps the rent low and the fridge healthily stocked.

Meals are shared, but not by any arrangement. While there's no obligation to be at a shared meal, “it just organically erupts,” describes Wauters. “A single meal almost feels like a potluck every single day.” Most nights feature a vegetarian menu, as the population is a split between vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore.

Division of Labour
Chores are done based on who takes the initiative to do them. Everyone has a responsibility to keep the kitchen and common spaces clean, a necessity when you have multiple people in one household. These are skills easily developed, explains Wauters. “You have to set your timing and your pacing differently when you're living in a communal house.”

Sustainability and waste-management
The skill-set this lifestyle encourages is not far beyond what one would hope any member of a household would have. Basics such as personal hygiene and respect for others lead naturally into traits like willingness to compromise for a better ecological result.

An example would be the gradual accumulation of clutter, which tends to be items queued for repairs. The household hopes that in reusing and repairing what it can, it can teach others that there need not be as much waste in the world.

Bikes are used instead of cars wherever possible, with one member of the household biking all the way to classes at Simon Fraser University. Plastic bags are washed, cans and bottles are recycled, and many things are composted. The household also offers their composts to the neighbouring houses when they have grass clippings. The house has also decided on an aggressive recycling system, which includes always recycling and reusing plastic bags.

Some readers may at this point be thinking communal living only an option for those of a certain ecological mindset. The reality is that anyone can start up a group home, provided they have people they can trust. The Lodge in Coquitlam is another example of a community house.

This is a mid-sized home in which space is divided between three tenants. The majority of the home is common space, with the kitchen, dining and recreational areas taking up the entirety of the second floor.

Unlike other houses, meals are dealt with on a more individual basis, and while group dinners do occur, they tend to be spontaneous. There is an understanding among the house members that work and school schedules may not always pair nicely.

“You're there, you notice the other guy's not eating, you can offer him say, bacon and eggs. Guy might say no,” explains Justin Garbasauskas. “Sometimes, you're just not hungry at the same time.” To the members of this house, the key to maintaining a healthy communal relationship is respect - as long as there is respect, the time apart doesn't upset anyone.

Rules and agreements
Within this mindset, the rules are simple: guests may come and go as they please, provided there is advance warning of their arrival. As well, everyone is responsible for keeping the kitchen clean in preparation for the next person.

“You can't just come into the kitchen, make a mess, then rush off. You always have to consider who's coming behind you. Do unto others what you'd have done unto you is the rule of the house,” explains Craig Hallgren, one of the tenants.

Chores are delegated through a rotating list, they recycle and save where they can, and food is dealt with on a semi-personal level, with each member selecting their own food, but expecting to share. The rules forbid starting or finishing another member's dishes, to prevent a planned meal from being disrupted, but beyond that, everyone is given free reign across the kitchen.

Paying bills
“Right now Justin is signed onto the lease as the main guy,” explains Craig Hallgren.

“As far as rank goes, that's the easiest way,” says Justin Garbasauskas, “so people don't go nuts. A lot of people screw up a relationship by going 'you take care of the phone, I'll take care of cable…' Everything. One guy controls it, divides everything by three.”

Common values
There is one other important value at the Lodge: maintaining a relaxed atmosphere at home. The three tenants may not see each other much at home, but they make sure they are not forgotten about. “Even if that includes pranks. I replaced the white eggs Craig has in the fridge with brown eggs last night. You can't really put a price on the mental instability,” teases Justin Garbasuaskas. Shared activities can be hectic and loud, ranging between prearranged softball games to a white-knuckle race for a Mariokart track record.

For students and individuals alike, these can be more than just places to live. Through the focus on community, these homes also become places to socialize and network. Sharing of resources and space emphasizes that everyone is in it together, while at the same time easing the burden on each individual. Whether passing through or settling down, a communal home is a viable and welcoming alternative in these increasingly individualistic times.

// Shawn Irving

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: