My Home is Yours: The Sustainability of Intentional Communities

In the sustainable housing movement, we hear a lot about sexy trends like the popular “tiny house” movement or living in yurts. People are retrofitting containers and living in pre-fab rail cars. Whatever floats your eco-houseboat, right? While it may seem counterintuitive to the sustainability of well-insulated tiny houses that are uber energy efficient, sustainability can also come in a giant, drafty, ten-bedroom Victorian house in the heart of Mid-City Los Angeles.

One hundred years old and immensely large, with fussy pipes and sometimes-vindictive electrical wiring, the Sugar Shack, as we lovingly refer to her, has been my home for nearly a year. For the eleven years that it’s been known as the Sugar Shack, it’s most often referred to as an intentional community or an artists’ collective. With those labels come a lot of expectations and misconceptions.

If we simply referred to the Sugar Shack as our home with a dozen or so roommates, we might avoid some of the stereotypes. Community living (in this case, anyway) is not like the Paul Rudd/Jennifer Anniston movie “Wanderlust” would suggest—a big, freaky orgy fest. Although, we do sometimes hug each other. We are not a commune. We have (mostly) locking doors on all of our bathrooms. Ayahuasca-induced tripped-out tree-climbing episodes? Totally. Optional. There is no leader, no guru running the Sugar Shack, except perhaps for the wise-beyond-their-years 11 and 14-year old siblings who have lived here for more than a decade.

Credit: Image by Sheri Giblin.

image: bedroom

What we do offer, however—what the house was founded upon—is the opportunity to live comfortably instead of working tirelessly to pay exorbitant rent or high interest mortgages while precious time flies by faster and faster. How is that sustainable, exactly? Efforts to make this planet a healthier place is next to impossible if we’re all exhausted, broke and miserable while barricaded off from the world, save our time spent scrolling through Facebook. Typical American homes have more than doubled in size since the 1950s—mortgages and other costs of home owning have also followed that trend. Cohabitating makes rent more manageable. It allows community members the opportunity to explore creative expression, personal growth and development. There’s no question that our own personal sustainability is paramount to the sustainability of the planet. 

Whether it’s real, practical support (like moving furniture or relocating giant spiders) or casual conversations about the state of the world, living with other invested community members is an invitation to being our best selves and working together to address, or at least, ponder, the important issues our world is currently facing. These are critical elements in developing our ability to be more kind, more patient and more compassionate—not just with others, but with ourselves, too. Like Gandhi said, the world changes when we change.

Credit: Image by Sheri Giblin.

image: mailbox entryway

The Sugar Shack has a community gathering room for events, and a communal workspace, too—a warehouse where our artistic community members, whether they live here or not, can afford to spend time on self-expression without the expense of studio space. Less work and more art, is for many of us, a critical component to creating a more sustainable and cooperative planet.

While we don’t often cook family meals because of schedules and diets—we do now grow some of our own food. We reduce other costs, too, by purchasing certain items in bulk. We compost. And leftovers can always be left about for other hungry community members to enjoy. (Forty percent of edible food is wasted in this country.) We’re not off the grid in Los Angeles, yet, but we talk about making it a reality. By sharing spaces, we already reduce our power and electrical use.

Credit: Image by Sheri Giblin.

image: community room

Living in community is not without its challenges. Some house members don’t keep up on their chores while others do more than their share. A 100-year old house brings its own issues, too. (Several community members spent Saturday cleaning up a busted hose on the water heater.) These challenges are addressed in weekly house meetings to keep the Sugar Shack a transparent and balanced community. Being able to discuss the needs of the house and how we all fit into that is an important practice in keeping this community model sustainable. It takes effort. It requires intention and sacrifice. And commitment. But what effective community doesn’t?

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All images by Jill Ettinger