In October 2011 in this part of Massachusetts, we had an unusual snowfall. Leaves were still on the trees, but big, fat flakes of wet snow fell from the sky. As the snow kept coming down, there was an increasing chance that snow-laden tree branches might fall on power lines and cause an outage. Now it just so happened that I wanted to thaw out a whole chicken that night to bake the next day. But I have an electric range (which, by the way, is what I recommend for good indoor air quality). My husband and I put our heads together, and decided that if we lost power, we could always bring the thawed chicken down to the common house, and bake it in the gas-fired oven in our common kitchen.
I no longer remember the moment the power went out, but sure enough, it did. It was a dramatic night, sitting on my bed in the dark with my 5-year-old daughter, looking out the window towards the woods behind our house. Every couple of minutes, it seemed, we heard the crack of a branch breaking off from the weight of the snow. Glowing flashes of eerie, greenish light lit up the night periodically, from exploding transformers.
Power was still out the following day, so we went ahead with our plan to bake chicken in the common house. We posted a sign on the common house door announcing a potluck. Neighbors congregated, bringing their potluck offerings and using the community kitchen. We cooked and dined by flashlight and candlelight.
Because it was only October, we didn’t need much in the way of heat. We gathered around the large masonry heater in the great room, knowing we had plenty of logs in the wood pile to keep us warm. Our homes are well-insulated and sun-tempered, so they stayed reasonably comfortable, at least for sleeping. The hearth in the great room gave us one more excuse to seek company in the common house instead of staying at home.
Someone organized a back-up power system for refrigerators and freezers. They loaded generators into truck beds and onto our community golf cart, and brought them from house to house on a rotating basis. They let us all know to hang an extension cord out of our house to indicate we had an appliance that needed power. That was a feature of the power outage time: trucks on the pedestrian loop, and orange extension cords draped from homes.
One of our IT-savvy neighbors figured out how to get internet access in our office building. A number of us gathered there to do needed business, huddled around the conference room table together on our laptops, in our hats and jackets. Even our individual business activities became social.
The power was out for four days, but we continued to make our lives work. In fact, the outage brought us together even more than usual. We solved problems together, we gathered together, we ate together, we helped each other – the typical neighborly connection we have in cohousing, only more so. Some people were thrilled when the power finally came back on, but many of us also enjoyed the deeper level of connection we acquired while it was off.
Of course, having a tight-knit community helped us weather the outage successfully. But there were also physical features that came into play. Because the common house was minimally independent from the electric grid – having a wood-fired heat source and gas for cooking – we had a central point where we could gather for warmth and food. Since that time, we have installed a generator to cover essential loads in the common house: pumps and ignition for the heating system, lighting in key rooms, refrigerator. Other strategies a community can use include setting up a microgrid (an electrical system configuration that can operate independently during an outage) and designing the common house for passive survivability, built to stay comfortable in the coldest and hottest weather without a heating or cooling system. And then, there are management strategies for being prepared both as individual homes and as a community. With weather-related emergencies of various kinds becoming more commonplace, resilience is a need all cohousing communities will want to address.