The Gaean Hearth is the fundamental unit of the Tribe of Gaea. It is an intentional family, all living together in the same housekeeping unit. By this, we mean that while individuals and couples enjoy a personal space for sleeping, intimacy, and quiet personal study or entertainment, all other household activities and spaces for such are shared. Kitchen, baths, laundry, children’s nursery and communal living space are all shared communally.
Hearths in Phase 2 are typically Urban or Suburban, and are considered “transitional housing” in the ecovillage model, allowing people the efficiency advantages of living communally, while “keeping their day-jobs” in the community. Transitional ecovillages convert existing construction into more environmentally-friendly and efficient communal homes.
Why a Hearth?
Why should people live this way? There are several good reasons. Let’s examine those:
Efficiency of Money
The first reason is perhaps the easiest to illustrate. The three or four largest budget categories in most families are:
- Housing (rent/mortgage plus insurance plus utilities, and maybe property taxes)
- Transportation (auto loan, insurance, fuel, maintenance)
- Food (especially eating out, ordering delivery, etc…)
- Childcare (where a grandparent or other free caregiver isn’t available)
Rent/Mortgage– Financial advisers often recommend that households spend no more than 25-30% on their housing costs. In practical terms, however, many Americans spend upward of 35-40% of their incomes on rent/mortgage, and this doesn’t even include utilities and property taxes.
Consider, however, how little use a typical home gets. How much does that family pay for space that they use only an hour or two per day (such as their living room). A Gaean Hearth allows for much higher usage of space and facilities (kitchen, bath, laundry) for much more efficiency. When I consider how many homes have kitchens that people don’t even use (because they don’t really know how to cook, or don’t have time to do so), I think of how much of a waste we make in America of these kinds of resources.
College dormitories are a great example of efficient living: students get a semi-private space (often only shared with a single room-mate), but enjoy communal living areas, kitchens, baths, etc…). The Hearth is a household where close friends live together communally, sharing resources, like in the TV sitcom “Friends”. But instead of a bunch of New York singles in early-adulthood, a Hearth is more family-oriented and inter-generational household.
We estimate that the per-individual cost of housing in a transitional Hearth would be $150-200/month. Even at $250/month, it’s a deal!
Utilities– Furthermore, electric, water, heating, sewer, sanitation, phone, cable or satellite TV and Internet utilities can be shared to one degree or another. Just using Internet as an example, instead of 5 households with 5 separate Internet access subscriptions, a single household can share a single connection, saving hundreds of dollars per month. (Example: think of a connection that costs $50/month – 5 households combined into one would save $200/month on Internet alone). Same with a “family plan” mobile phone subscription.
Vehicles– Also consider how much vehicles stay idle, sitting in a parking lot or garage. In many American homes, each adult resident has a personal vehicle. Some share one vehicle between two people (couples). The poor state of public transportation in many American cities has required this, where most household members have to commute to a workplace. That’s a LOT of money out the door in the form of auto loans and insurance, as well as up in smoke out of the tailpipe.
However, contemplate a household with 10 adults and maybe 4 vehicles. Two vehicles are highly fuel-efficient, and are used to carpool the working adults to and from work. One is a large vehicle for family transportation with lots of kids (the “school bus”), and one is a utility vehicle for those times when things need to be hauled, and is generously loaned out to neighbors as needed.
Food– in many homes, couples eat out often, because they are too tired to cook after a long day’s work, or because they are bored with the daily grind of cooking each and every day. In a Hearth, cooking and clean-up duties can be rotated, with two people assigned each day to cook for the Hearth, cooking duties come down to only once or twice per week. This saves a lot of money, while still offering some nice variety, as people come to the Hearth with different specialties.
Furthermore, bulk-buying can save money. Ideally, each Hearth will either have its own garden, or will be getting a lot of produce, and even eggs and meat, from a local CSA cooperative. Buying in larger amounts can translate to savings.
Childcare– Most single-parents, and many two-parent families require some form of childcare. Unless they are fortunate enough to have a capable family member nearby who can watch the child while the parent is at work, they are paying dearly for a stranger to watch their child. In a Hearth, there is often one parent or even an older, retired adult, or both, who can watch the children at home. Older adults can feel they are contributing valuable experience and wisdom through this activity, especially when there are structured home-school activities that can be done. How much money can be saved this way?
Living in a Hearth, the average person can live on as little as $800/month, and whatever additional income they generate is “butter”, although we recommend the Hearth work together to save up money to transition to Stage 3.
Efficiency of Time
Besides the money, an even more precious commodity is saved for everyone: time. Especially when it comes to activities like cooking, it doesn’t take a whole lot longer to cook for 10 than to cook for 2. Ideally, a spacious kitchen is handy for this, but if a large enough home is found to house the Hearth, those are usually equipped with a decent kitchen. If not, renovation is often an option. Typically, cooking would be assigned in pairs on any given evening, and on a rotating basis. If planned ahead of time, each meal can be planned for on a weekly shopping trip, which also saves time, since not everyone has to go shopping every week, so long as the shoppers have a list of ingredients to acquire.
In a single- or even two-parent home, an illness or injury to a major bread-winner can be devastating, especially in light of rapidly mounting medical bills and/or lack of disability insurance. In a communal home, illness or injury to one earner is not as dire a circumstance. After the Great Recession of 2008-2013, this may be one of the most compelling reasons to live communally.
In an earth-conscious Hearth, conservation of resources can be much more easily accomplished. Growing food, or buying from a local CSA saves a lot of carbon costs of transporting food across the country or even the globe. Ride-sharing saves a lot of carbon. The home can be equipped with efficient LED lighting, enhanced insulation (or even installing a “green roof”), passive solar water heating, PV panels, low-flow toilets and shower heads. Running dishwashers and clothes washers when full, and air-drying clothes saves a lot of energy. So long as the Hearth supports each other in creating a “culture of conservation”, they may even get down to the One Earth goal, instead of consuming 4 Earths’ worth of resources. Ideally, we’d get down to a fraction of an Earth, but in a transitional Hearth such as this, one Earth would be a great start.
Limits on Hearths
These transitional Hearths have practical limitations based on home sizes. Many areas have few houses with more than four bedrooms these days, although five and six bedroom houses aren’t unusual. Sometimes, seven or eight bedrooms can be found, but often at quite a high price.
One limitation to be wary of is that of “Occupancy Limits” in many municipal zoning laws. Non-related adults are often severely restricted, especially in college towns where “unofficial dormitories” are a fear of city planners. However, we firmly believe that because we are organized as a religious organization, with communal living being a fundamental principle of our religious life, we are exempt from arbitrary limits on occupancy, with only traffic and sanitation concerns being possibly relevant. However, because we believe in limiting car ownership and using bicycles, public transit, and ride-sharing as much as possible, traffic is less of an issue, and we also believe in limiting our sanitation footprint in various ways (low-flow toilets, composting toilets, garden composting of organic foodstuffs, and recycling of plastics, paper, and metal) we refute the notion that having many people living in one house is necessarily a burden on sanitation services.
Even so, we recommend 8-10 adults as optimal, with 12 as a maximum, plus any attendant children. Ideally, the adults will represent a variety of age groups, with no more than 2 or 3 couples having minor children.