WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘This place is a lot like summer camp,’ David McAuley, prominent and (not quite) retired Guelph architect, tells me, ‘except we’re all grown-ups and there are no counselors.’ I smile – recalling my own summers at camp. The friendships. The freedom. The fun. ‘If there are no counselors,’ I ask, having fun with David’s analogy, ‘then who’s in charge?’ Without hesitation, he replies: ‘We’re all in charge – together. That’s the whole point.’ I nod – even though I’m not quite sure I grasp what he’s getting at. But that’s why I’m here, in David ’s open concept living space at the brand new cohousing build by Guelph builder Eric Small and his team at SL Builders Group, on the corner of the Royal City’s Mont and Woolwich Streets. It’s the dream of ‘living in community’ David has held for years that has been realized in this building, which is an expression of both David and Eric’s compatible and collaborative visions for life- giving community-building within a sustainable environment.
It’s late June on a hot and humid (and hazy – thanks to those pesky wildfires) afternoon, and I’m seated with David and Eric in David and his wife Cynthia’s main floor apartment. The lights are off. The windows are closed. The HVAC unit is dormant. And yet the whole place seems perfectly lit and wonderfully cool and comfortable. I ask David how this can be. He tells me: ‘This place was designed and built to use as little energy as possible. In fact, at peak usage in the middle of winter this apartment uses only two dollars of energy a day.’ For lighting, heating, cooking, and hot water. He continues: ‘And some units in this building use only about a dollar a day.’ Impressive. But what exactly is this building, anyway?
‘Over a decade ago,’ David tells me, ‘I began thinking about what I wanted to do in retirement – where I wanted to live. Too often, when folks get older, they’re moved out of the neighbourhoods where they’ve been living for years – decades – to senior living residences or long-term care homes on the outskirts of town, or even in other cities.’ Where they might be able to interact with one or two people they know, if they’re lucky. But mostly with strangers. ‘I wanted to figure out a solution that would enable me to continue to live here, to age in place,’ David continues, ‘in the neighbourhood where I’d raised my children and built my career. And with a community of friends who wanted to do the same.’ And so he began looking into the idea of cohousing.
The concept (on the surface, at least) is simple: a community of people invest equally in the construction of a multi-unit build where they will all live in apartments next to each other – in community. ‘In a cohousing build,’ David explains, ‘residents – the community – share almost everything: gardens, tools, food, artwork, common areas and, perhaps most important of all, values.’ For the Watershed Cohousing community at 1 Mont, these values seem to revolve primarily around environmental sustainability. Indeed, two of the building’s investors and future residents, partners Christine and Sally, are founders of Transition Guelph and long-time environmentalists. David, too, is a long-time advocate for green solutions – having designed more than his fair share of environmentally-friendly buildings all across Ontario throughout his illustrious career. And Eric Small, the project’s general contractor, is highly regarded as a green builder.
It’s Eric who tells me that sustainability has been designed and built into the very fabric of the building. ‘The entire structure is built to last,’ Eric tells me. ‘It’s extremely-well insulated and air tight. It utilizes robust thermal barriers throughout, too, so that in the winter, for instance, the concrete balcony slabs don’t transfer cold to interior slabs of the build.’ Commenting on the windows, he remarks that they are ‘high-efficiency models with European tilt-turn operations, for cross ventilation and ease of cleaning; and all window openings are shaded from the sun by robust overhangs and deep interior sills.’ Moreover, Eric observes: ‘Every unit’s HVAC unit is state-of-the-art – and everything in the building runs on renewable electricity.’ Most remarkable from my point of view is the fact that underneath the building is a four-thousand-gallon cistern ‘for rainwater harvesting.’ Eric explains: ‘The water that we collect in the cistern is used for watering the garden, and will in future be used to flush all of the building’s toilets.’ And there are also bike rooms designed into the build, an EV charger, and plans for carsharing. They seem to have thought of, and addressed, everything.
‘And the structure is an infill build, too – which aligns with the green philosophy of the project,’ David tells me. Specifically, 1 Mont has been built on an underutilized lot abutting David’s century home property (at Mont and Woolwich) the architect has owned for years. In fact, the cohousing structure is actually attached at one end to the century home – a feat that Eric and his small but mighty team handled wonderfully. While the new build includes all six units, as well as large shared balconies that span the structure from end to end, the century home has been adapted to provide shared office space, a maker space, and a guest bedroom. On top of everything (pun intended) is a large common room in the century home’s attic, featuring wonderful vaulted ceilings and an abundance of natural light.
And one more thing: in between the new and old sections of this cohousing wonder is a six- stop elevator. ‘That elevator was a hundred thousand dollar expense,’ David tells me, ‘but we all agreed that it is worth the investment.’ For aging in place, of course. But also for much more – from facilitating the moving of furniture to serving as a mobility solution, for example, should someone in the community roll an ankle.
The 1 Mont cohousing project is a fascinating initiative – and (almost) unique, too. Indeed, it’s only the second cohousing initiative in Ontario, and the first in these parts. When I ask David and Eric if they see the model itself as sustainable, David is quick to answer: ‘There’s a waiting list of sixty people for this building, and I’m actually already designing a second cohousing project (GrassRoutes) in another neighbourhood of the city.’ An indisputable success.
After taking my leave from these inspired and inspiring collaborators, Eric and David, and heading back out into the hazy afternoon, I find myself pausing to take in the whole project – both the realized dream and the expertly-executed material reality of the build. I try to imagine how elements of this vision might inform and enlarge my world. Surely we don’t have to wait until (near) retirement to envision how our lives together in the places we love right now might be made better.
SL BUILDERS GROUP