Overcoming Consumerism Index

Hill House: A solution for the high cost of living with some advantages that money can't buy.

A great demonstration of the Alternate Economy in action.

 Have you ever been to a nice quiet party that lasts all afternoon and into the evening at a big comfortable house where people relax,

sit around talking, eat well, have a great time--then said to yourself --why can't I live like this everyday?

Every day can be like this if you create a living situation similar to the following:

Seven of us, (two couples and three individuals), live together in what might be considered an ideal living situation. We share a two-story 3000 square foot house in Oakland, California. Our per person cost for living very comfortably is incredibly inexpensive. (Less than $21 per day per person for housing, utilities and food--2011 prices-details below)

There is almost always someone at home so the house is cheery, active and secure. Before we installed our solar panels and solar hot water system, the cost of lighting and heating the home was divided seven ways. Now with the solar set up we are approaching zero cost for electricity. [That has changed, now two plug in hybrids are using all the electricity offsets from the solar panels-zero gas costs are more than worth it] We share a high speed cable modem connection through plug in and wireless network . (25 cents a day per person).

Potential areas of conflict, such as the use of the three bathrooms and large kitchen, are minimized because of differing schedules and a well coordinated routine that allows everyone privacy-yet utilizes the house and its contents to the maximum. The large kitchen has been converted into the communal living room since that's where everybody hangs out anyway. It has a large round table of oak planks, sofas and comfortable chairs. The floor is rugged hardwood planks on one end and bare structural plywood at the other-now waxed-that was revealed when the linoleum and old carpet was ripped up. The old "living room" is now a comfortable private living area and study for one couple.

In addition to the kitchen living area, there are private alcoves throughout the house and in various areas of the garden where one can just get away and be alone if you want. 

Sustainability

Built in the late 1950s, the structure, like most American homes, embodies a tremendous amount of lumber, concrete and natural resources. The even minimal-level of gas heat, lights, water and other resources required to make the house comfortable and keep the garden alive would be wasted with just one couple or even one family living alone in the house. (That's the situation that existed for 45 years before we arrived) . However, with seven people and their guests now enjoying the house everything is used to the maximum and costs are divided seven ways.

For example, the kitchen with its heavy duty range and high quality fixtures, all bought used from a restaurant supply house, is utilized almost nonstop throughout the day. It helps to heat the house in winter and there is the ever-present smell of baking and cooking. There is almost always a fire burning in the kitchen fireplace fueled by free construction wood or tree branches that people pick up. The large garden is worked by all who enjoy it and produces a substantial amount of produce. All seven people, or even more, could if they so chose, live from what the garden produces. See our Grow your own food page.

When anything is bought for the house it is heavy duty and of high quality for maximum service and enjoyment. Used items are always the first option. The sink hardly ever dries and the kitchen utensils are in constant use. It's counter intuitive, but when things get used frequently, and stored properly, they are easy to clean. With many people using the "public" areas of the house and cleaning up after themselves, these areas stay cleaner than if just a few people were living there and the dust bunnies accumulated. The Mac in the alcove by the kitchen is in use about 20 hours per day, every day, all for the price of a unit that would, in most people's home, sit unused most of the time. The keyboard is actually showing a wear pattern of staining on the keys. This machine came from an office and was free-and will be replaced at no cost with a better unit when that becomes available at no cost.

When things are shared this way their cost per-use plummets to almost nothing. When expenses are shared this way the time required for each person to work to pay for them is insignificant.

 If more people used homes and pooled their possessions this way there would be no housing shortage. People can save a tremendous amount of money and can live without the need to work two jobs just to afford a place to live and money to buy seldom used "necessities" that sit around unused most of the time.

Food.

The two couples and three individuals that share the house have their own period of time during the day when the kitchen is reserved for their exclusive use. Other time it's open to all. Communal meals at the large table are regularly scheduled several times a week. Sometimes a dish is prepared by someone who specializes in it. Other times everyone helps. It takes just about as much time and human and fossil energy to prepare a meal for 10 as it does for 2 and, it's a lot more fun because the cook gets more satisfaction and gratitude for their labor and does it less frequently than cooking for just themselves.

A community based agriculture farm delivers a large box of in-season organic produce weekly. (30 cents per person/day). Between this and the produce from the garden, most nondairy/non-protein food needs are met.

Most afternoons there is a pot of soup or stew simmering on the stove that receives vegetables from the garden. This is nutritious, quick and costs next to nothing. "Leftovers" don't get generated in the house. There is far more seasonal fruit from the yard than can be eaten, canned or juiced by any seven people. The surplus of apples, avocados, peaches, nectarines, oranges, Asian pears, lemons, plums, herbs etc. gets traded for other things such as bread from a local bakery, eggs from neighbors' chickens, finished laundry, dry-cleaning or coffee beans from a corner shop.

We put surplus fruit out on a bench on the sidewalk for passersby to pick up. This builds a lot of camaraderie in the neighborhood and gets folks into the spirit of giving and looking out for each other. The large rough teenagers up the block have been taking our surplus fruit home for a long time and look out for us. We are teaching them how to raise their own vegetables and do fruit grafting.

We have a moveable bottomless chicken coop on wheels where the birds clear and fertilize areas to be planted. More than enough fresh eggs in return.

Coffee is made at 7 and 9 in the morning and later at 4:30 and 5:30 in the evening. Everyone's friends know that they are welcome to drop in at these times. Often they bring food to share. One key to this arrangement is that several people have small refrigerators in their private area to supplement the large unit in the kitchen. (All retrieved for free at the end of the school year from frat houses). The first thing that was installed in the home when we moved in was a high-quality reverse-osmosis water purifier. The cost of the used restaurant unit was paid back quickly as coffee and cooking water are of the highest quality and no one ever needs to buy plastic bottles of water, rather they just refill them or pitchers from the purified water spigot behind the sink. 4 people agree to fill containers during the morning and the other three at night, this way the storage tank rarely runs dry. The non-potable-filter backwash water [about 3 gallons for every gallon of purified water] that is generated by the unit is diverted to a holding tank downstairs and is used to refill a toilet reservoir instead of water from the mains.

Cooking utensils are numerous and of high quality. Everything is hanging in the open on its own hook or on pegboard. The dishwasher is run twice a day on a regular schedule so that personal and communal dishes can be included.

Supplies/Services

3 cars and 4 bicycles : There are 4 nice bicycles (2 electric) to share and one person has a small electric pickup truck that anyone can use. Each couple has one car.

Gallon jugs of high quality shampoo, conditioner and hand soap are ordered by the case from the factory and shipped directly to the house. The washing machine runs 3 to 4 times a day with full loads. The washing machine, shower/bath and sink water is returned to the downhill garden to water fruit trees in the summer via a built in gray-water system thus offsetting the high water consumption. Where the washing machine water drains down the hill the trees and and vegetation are incredibly green and productive. During the day almost all water heating is taken care of by solar hot water panels placed on the roof. Showers are vented by a device that uses water pressure flowing to the shower head to turn a turbine that moves moist air out of the bathroom.

When our roof needed replacement we paid about 50% more for standing-seam steel nontoxic epoxy industrial roofing with a fifty year warranty. Composition shingles (read sand and toxic refinery waste compressed together that give off lead and mercury which are neurotoxins that build up in the soil), would have only lasted about 20 years and been cheaper but who wants to eat vegetables watered by rain running off that? After re-roofing we installed solar electric panels with a capacity of 7 kilowatts. The gap between the panels and roof prevents heat buildup in the summer.

We use annual net metering, means that surplus electricity that the sun produces above and beyond what the house uses is fed to the electric grid and spins our time-of-use meter backwards, giving us "expensive" daytime electricity credits for offsetting the "cheaper" nighttime electricity that we buy back from the grid. Because of recharging an electric pickup and several zap electric bicycles and the electricity used by seven persons we have nearly broken even this year on buying electricity. That is we are paying next to nothing for electricity and electric transportation. The true opportunity cost of the money we spent on the system is the loss of the paltry taxable interest that we could be making on the money that the solar system cost after the State rebate.

After we compost and recycle we often don't even fill one garbage can per pickup. Every week several hundred pounds of coffee grounds and vegetable waste are brought home for the compost heap from juice bars and coffee houses that we're going to anyway, so no extra fuel is used. Add the scrap firewood used in the winter and the house is actually a net importer of solid waste while it exports food and electricity.

Toilet paper and dishwashing soap are bought at Costco. All seven people share one membership. (1. 3 cents per day/person) 

A few negative things: It is difficult to just sit and be alone for hours in the house although there is a little teahouse retreat at the end of the garden. The water bill is rather high as the usage for seven people, guests and the drip irrigation for the garden raises the per gallon cost of much of the higher consumption into the second price level.

The boron-free laundry soap (Oasis brand) that must be used for reuse of the washing machine water in the garden greywater system is more expensive than normal detergent although the phosphates and other chemicals in the water plus the dirt from clothes act as an incredible fertilizer.

 The key to the harmony of the household.

Our Agreed upon rules and standards

*No resident or guest may smoke anywhere on the property.

*No music, radio or TV may be played after dark loud enough to be heard by any other resident or neighbor, nor may any be played during the day that is loud enough to be heard through a wall. Headphones really do work!

*There is a radio in the kitchen that may be tuned only to FM classical, jazz or public radio. Any person may turn the radio off for whatever reason without need for explanation if they feel like quiet when they are in the kitchen. Because of this power, people seem to become more accommodating and leave it on. There is no TV in the kitchen communal area. Only one person has a TV, and they rarely watch it anymore.

*Each person has a built-in plywood storage cubbyhole located in the kitchen. This is where all their non-communal kitchen-use personal property, tools,and papers must be stored (or in their room). This is sacrosanct. One may place somebody else's items in the proper cubby, such as their mail, but no one may remove them except the owner. It is agreed that any property left in the communal area outside of the cubbyhole may be used by anyone for any purpose within reason. No one leaves junk sitting around for this reason. There are similar cubbies in the garden.

*Each person has their own private 200 square foot patch of garden within which they may do anything they please as well as the enjoyment of the large communal garden with communal vegetable patches and fruit trees, The one ground rule: everything is organic-no sprays or slug baits or artificial fertilizers. Everyone uses the compost heap. Food items for compost that are generated in the kitchen are placed in a half -gallon milk carton with its top opened up. This is emptied every afternoon. We tried the fancy ceramic compost holders with lids and realized that the milk carton set up works better and doesn't break if you drop it.

*People are expected to immediately clean up after them self. This means no hair balls in the shower trap, no dirty dishes, and no messes on the floor etc.

* Everyone has their own private chair in the common area that they have rights to whenever they enter the room. This may seem silly but we found it to be a powerful thing. Anyone may use it when the "owner" is not there.

*One thing that makes life much easier in this house is that there are no children and only one dog.

* Everyone takes off their shoes upon entry and washes their hands in the little sink next to the door. Far fewer colds and flu this way.

Who gets to live here?

People rarely ever move from Hill House. All the residents have been found by word of mouth and are friends of other people. The actual method of selection is the old English club system: When it comes time to choose a new resident every one is given a white ball and a black ball. A container is passed around and people can secretly place a ball. If one or more black balls appears when the container is dumped out-the person under consideration is not accepted.

If a person is accepted they have three months probationary period during which time any person can vote them out anonymously by dropping a black ball in a locked voting bin. One can't fake personal habits for three months-the truth always comes out.

Some observations:

Communal living lends itself to wonderful interactions and at the same time can cause friction. This is why it is essential to have the above, or at least some, criteria and voting system to prevent obvious problems before they occur.

Problems that have been avoided at Hill House through the use of these criteria usually involve filthy bathrooms, dishes piled in sinks, barbaric overnight guests appearing at the breakfast table, disappearing stuff, skipped rent, long tales of woe when you just want to be left alone etc. Many of us have experience this in other room mate/shared living situations. We will not tolerate it again-so we're very careful about who gets in.

 

Here's some statements that gave us the willies and kept the applicants from even being considered:

"We're artists-and as artists do--we smoke sometimes". (What else can you get away with because you're artists?)

"I'm a single mom and I have three lovely children that need a village to raise them..." (While I'm staying at my boyfriend's?)

"I'm a Feng-Shui consultant. Can I trade my services for rent?" or the other fraud "Could I trade massage therapy for rent?"

"We are 2 women musicians, I have a 8 month old baby (read nonstop noise) and my "friend" has a dog who is very gentle and is completely human. (Oh? Will he pay rent?) He won't tear up the place and he just loves the baby." (Meaning he'll bite the crap out of anyone that gets too close to it?)

" im not into major drama (just minor?) im kinda sober but i don't care what my roommates do. im a pierced and tattooed rrriot girl. im kinda messy in my own room"(probably everywhere else too).

You get the idea. There are many infantilized adults out there that use counterculture as a lack of personal standards.

Those little red bars you're seeing on the green background are an optical illusion and they will go away. Bad house-mates never seem to go away -- that's why we're so selective about who gets to live here.

The beauty of the above set up is that the procedures of regulating who gets to move in can be used by anybody in any setting with different criteria.

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Our Monthly Expenses divided among all seven people:

$2720 Mortgage. Because owner gets all the tax advantages of interest write-off, she pays all property tax and insurance costs.

$70 water approximately

$60 garbage, includes recycling.

$60 cable Internet access...cable soon to go up, we're going to dump it and use neighbor's wifi with their permission. [No, that is not illegal. They chose to leave it open for others to share] Or, let the neighbor piggyback on ours with a little token payment.

$100 four land line phones. Will drop as some opt for own cell phone.

$60 monthly community agriculture vegetable delivery

$900 food for communal meals and sundry expenses. This is dropping. i.e. More neigbors trade their backyard chicken eggs for our fruit

Utilities, Gas- about $200 month in winter and $60 month in summer. averages $130 month. Electricity about $150 a month year round.

Total monthly costs $4410 shared by 7 people= $630 per person per month or about $ 21 per day per person for all housing and essential food costs.

You could probably live by yourself that cheaply- but it would be in a shack in the middle of nowhere and would not be in a convivial household in a major urban area near transportation, universities and the other features of the Bay Area.

What does "conventional living "cost in the Bay Area?-Oct. 2003 prices: $70,000.00 for family of four to "just get by"Dead link...

Their cost at Hill House would be: $30,240 per year. [4 people x $630 month x 12 months] 43% of the conventional cost.

There are no vacancies. But what's to stop you from setting up your own version of Hill House?

 

Please Note: For privacy reasons we no longer grant interviews or want publicity.

Why?

We had several inquiries from the media to do a story about Hillhouse. (Read "create news Filler Between Commercials").

Spent the whole day working with the people who were very nice, thought it would get the word out about what we're doing and then we saw that the final edited story was an inane short little snippet that showed nothing of the details enumerated above and discussed little of our philosophy and this was sandwiched in between a car commercial and a one for some kind of psychotropic drug.  

 

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Some other shared housing links

The Cohousing Association of the United States This is building planned houses that work together

N Street Community Cohousing, Davis

 Walnut Street Co-op, Eugene, Oregon.

Windward, an interesting website about a place and state of mind in Washington.