The idea for Cobb Hill began in the summer of 1996. A woman named Donella Meadows instigated the idea of a community with a common focus on living sustainably. Phil Rice explains that Donella set a vision and invited people to “join it and build it into reality.” Phil was among the many collaborators who came together to form what would become Cobb Hill. This community would be an experiment in sustainability, combining community and farm-related enterprises, and would be connected to the outside community.
Ahead of its Time
Four years later, in 2000, building began on two old farm properties that the group bought. Members pitched in money and gave loans along with a friend of the project who also gave the group a loan. The co-housing construction was completed in 2002 with an emphasis on energy efficiency and solar potential. Although a lot has changed since then in terms of what we consider sustainable construction, residents at Cobb Hill strive to consume more energy from renewable resources, including solar, wood, and cow poop, than the average Vermonter. As energy heroes go, Cobb Hill residents have been striving to stay ahead of the curve since 1996.
Cobb Hill is made up of 65 people living in 23 “households.” These households are comprised of 9 single homes, 6 duplexes and three apartments attached to the common house. All buildings are clustered on a gentle hillside in Hartland. Although it is not immediately apparent, all of the houses are angled within 15 degrees of South-facing. This way the solar panels on the roofs, for the homes’ solar hot water heaters, all get ample sunlight. Each house is well-insulated, with thick 2 x 8 walls (double the standard 2 x 4 used in construction, and providing a much higher R- value. The windows are triple glazed and have low e coatings, which means that they reduce the amount of heat and light energy that can transmit through to the outdoors.
Some other features of Cobb Hill homes include composting toilets, low-flow water fixtures (saving on energy from heating water), and liquid radiators for heating. As Phil Rice said, “when you put a house down it’s a consumer… why wouldn’t we look at a house as a giant appliance?” The bottom line is that Phil wants efficient, comfortable houses that consume less. The typical monthly fee for Cobb Hill residents is $375, which covers many things, including: electricity, heat, general maintenance, water and greywater system, solar hot water, roads and paths maintenance, landscaping, insurance taxes on the common land, farm building repairs, reserve funds, and an energy efficiency fund that Cobb Hill uses to make efficiency improvements.
Unusual Ways of Getting Electricity and Heat
Because Cobb Hill was created 16 years ago when solar was far less common, the homes’ electricity does not come from solar panels. Rather, each member pays a surcharge to Green Mountain Power to get Cow Power. Cow Power is energy produced by a cow manure to methane conversion. Methane can then be used to generate electricity. Each member pays roughly $20 a month extra for this type of energy.
Cobb Hill also heats its homes in an unconventional way. The houses are all clustered close to one another, which allows them to be connected under a central heating system that is supplied with heat by two wood gasifying boilers. Wood gasifying boilers are special because, unlike conventional wood burners, emitted wood gases are burned and not released into the atmosphere. Gasifying boilers have significantly fewer emissions and require less wood. Water-jackets around the boilers gather heat from the wood and are 85% efficient– each house consumes only 2 ¼ cords of wood per year. The average household using wood as a primary heating fuel burned 4.8 cords of wood during the 2014-2015 heating season, according to the Vermont Residential Fuel Assesment.
Efficiency Vermont gave Cobb Hill a $1,000 rebate on the second boiler, added in 2011. Although they are efficient, the wood boilers are a time commitment. In cold weather, each household takes turns feeding the boilers in two-hour shifts. This shows the residents’ commitment to sustainability, but is also a feature that would likely not be the first choice if Cobb Hill was built now, in 2016. Cobb Hill is currently looking into putting a solar array in.
The way Phil sees it, “the synergy of people working together makes projects possible.” This synergy makes Cobb Hill very special, and perfect for projects like Phil’s shitake mushroom growing venture. He, with help from community members, sells the mushrooms as part of Cobb Hill’s CSA. There are lots of personal gardens on the property, and extensive vegetable gardens to supply the CSA. As Phil said, “I don’t remember when I last bought a potato in a store.” By buying a large share of their groceries locally, they also cut back on carbon emissions embedded in food that comes from out of state.
Cobb Hill does a lot as a community and manages a community budget. There is a dairy on the property whree members can buy milk at a discount. They can also buy eggs at the chicken co-op, collectively managed by all. There are community meals twice weekly. Most important is the communal desire to consume less and live sustainably on the planet. “Everyone can be an energy hero by just moving in to Cobb Hill,” said Phil, but more than that, “you’re invited into the opportunity to learn more and use less.”
Homes at Cobb Hill sell for roughly $380,000 and come with access to barns and 270 acres of land. For more information visit http://www.cobbhill.org/