Co-housing: an island example

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Written by Claire McCall

The proposed co-housing development in Grey Lynn (see cohaus.co.nz) is a vision for urban living that includes less reliance on cars and features shared facilities such as a common room and laundry. With a focus on community, a central courtyard is integral to the masterplan.

At Box™, we’re ever on the lookout for ways of designing that will create better houses but also enhance wellbeing and we believe that the co-housing model addresses some of these societal needs. Pooling your funds with a likeminded group of people can make building your own home more attainable. More importantly, it captures something that is all but lost to us in modern age – a sense of community. But co-housing is by no means a new concept.  On a recent trip to Fiji, I learnt a thing or two about connection, co-operation and kinship.

Most view Fiji as a resort destination, a cocktail escape. But, for travellers who enjoy gleaning more insight into a country and its people when they visit, there’s another option: trekking in the highlands of the main island, Viti Levu.

When I signed up on Talanoa Treks’ ‘Full Monty’, a five-day, four-night journey, I didn’t read the fine print. So while the hike up Mount Tomaniivi, where our guide had to machete his way ahead of us on a steep, muddy ‘track’, was something of an unexpected challenge, the cultural immersion made it all worthwhile. Keen trampers will be interested in the statistics of the trip: a sweet little 3k walk to Nabalesere waterfall on the first day (followed by a much-needed swim in the crystal-cool waters), the rude awakening of the mountain summit (up 1324 metres) on the second, a picturesque 12km hike through grasslands between the villages of Naga and Nubutautau on the third, a strenuous but spectacular 21km, 7-hour walk on the penultimate day, with a gentle stroll around the village of Navala in the Ba highlands to round off the trek on day five.

Undoubtedly the highlight of this experience was living like a local. Behind the friendly ‘bulas’ is a culture rich in tradition, ritual and resourcefulness. Before arrival into each village, we wrapped our sulus around us (with both men and women it’s considered rude to show your knees), took off our hats and headed into the heart of the experience.

Staying in remote villages where the tribes still practise subsistence farming (the men plant and harvest while the women keep house and cook) was an eye opener. At each stop our party was welcomed with a sevusevu ceremony (where it’s imperative to drink the first cup of kava offered but you can suggest ‘low tide’ if the murky waters aren’t your tipple). The women all contributed to the meal, which is eaten communally seated on the floor in the village hall. The spread was mainly vegetarian, and astounding in that most of the fare was grown on the land. There were burgers made from taro leaves, roti wraps, cassava chips, chicken curry, aubergine and tomato dishes, wild asparagus and spinach salads, to name but a few all washed down with a refreshing and delicious tea made from lemon leaves steeped in hot water.

Most nights we ate and slept in the hall but it was a real privilege to be able to put our heads down one night in a traditional Fijian bure. While many village homes now use concrete and corrugated iron in their material make-up, the bure is still revered for its link to ancestral history and is a good example of eco-conscious design in action. Box™ advocates using locally sourced materials where possible – and you can’t get more local than looking in your backyard. The hardwood for the posts and ceiling beams is dragged out of nearby forests; these are lashed together with rope hand-made from coconut fibres. The wall panels are woven from sliced bamboo; the floors are earthen and covered with packed grasses and woven mats, which, I can attest, form a wonderfully spongy surface that is soft enough to sit cross-legged for hours on.

Cross-ventilation is provided by locating doors at opposite ends of the rectangular structure while the soaring roof is a feature that keeps the interior cool in the blistering year-round heat. It is thatched using a reed called sina and at the top is a black post, the balabala, made from a ponga fern trunk which is sometimes decorated with white shells to signify a chiefly status. Otherwise, decoration is simple in the form of tapa cloth tacked around the perimeter of the single room.

Bures are built around a central common area – and they’re built communally, of course, with members of the extended family all on hand to help. In the picture-postcard village of Navala, we saw a bure roof being replaced following the devastating floods brought about by Cyclone Josie in April this year. The teamwork was jovial as two craftsmen straddled the apex of the roof ‘sewing’ the final layer of thatch in place, others worked inside the bure, pulling the ‘needle’ through and poking it back out to their compatriots. Still more men were giving the thatch a haircut, neatening up the edges while three or four formed a chain-gang handing-up bundles of straw from the ground to the ridge. All seemed happy in their work.

In fact, such collaboration, the village layout and its clear yet co-operative structure, is the glue of these rural societies. One guide we spoke to told of how he was actually born and grew up in Suva but as a young man returned to farm in his mother’s village when he felt his city life soul-less and starting to go off the track. Now he is proud to be a guide who shows travellers a slice of village life and the local landscape. He instinctively knew what many are now only learning: village life creates strong communities. He feels a sense of belonging.

Yet, here in New Zealand, most of us cling fiercely to the notion of independence –the idea of sharing and caring for our neighbours seems a little unpalatable. In Scandinavia, where the first co-housing development was built in the 1970s, purportedly by a Danish architect and a psychologist, the model is entrenched as a real option. So could private homes around common spaces be the middle ground that offers us affordable home ownership and ties us together to live healthier, happier lives? Perhaps the rural Fijians know a thing or two that we would do well to take note of.