The Case Against Personal Shelters

[Update:  Please read the comments at the end of this post for the proper history of what has happened at East Wind Community in Missouri regarding Personal Shelters. They are the ones who have pioneered it, and the story i have in this post is slightly wrong.  I will fix it in the coming days. Paxus]

Egalitarianism is tricky.  It starts out tricky because we don’t even have a common definition of it in the income sharing communities where I spend most of my time.  The relevant parts of the principals from the Federation of Egalitarian Communities which describe it are:

  • Hold land, labor, income and other resources in common.
  • Assumes responsibility for the needs of its members, receiving the products of their labor and distributing these and all other goods equally, or according to need.
  • Uses decision making which gives members an equal opportunity to participate, either through consensus, direct vote, or right of appeal or overrule.
  • Works to establish the equality of all people and does not permit discrimination on the basis of race, class, creed, ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

[There are other FEC principals, like non-violence and sustainability, but these are not the core of egalitarianism.]

Should we try to be equal?

Should we try to be equal?

So what is missing from this important list?  For starters the idea that all work is evaluated as equally worthy.  An hour of my time spent writing a blog about communities is worth the same as an hour spent making a hammock or cooking a meal for many members.

One aspect of egalitarianism (that is touched upon in the second point above, but some FEC communities take much further than others) is that we are trying to avoid envy.  We do this in part by avoiding the uneven distribution of our collective resources, except in agreed cases of need (for example golf carts for people with mobility problems at Twin Oaks is a needs based intentional unequal distribution).

Which brings me to the controversial idea of personal shelters.  The FEC communities provide housing for our members. In several cases these communities are located on pieces of land large enough for members to build their own housing separate from typical dorm-based housing.  We call these usually small buildings “personal shelters”.

The Love Shack "tree house" at Acorn - not quite a personal shelter

The Love Shack “tree house” at Acorn – not quite a personal shelter

Quite some years ago East Wind community (on over 1,000 acres in the Ozarks) decided to permit their members to build personal shelters.  This resulted in some handy/artistic folks building some really beautiful places.  The problem is that these structures created envy.  The bigger problem was when the original builder/owners left, they created a fairness problem.  Members who had not been involved in the work of creating these shelters could potentially end up in housing that felt much nicer than what most people living in the community had access to.

The problem this created ultimately lead to East Wind banning the creation of more new personal shelters.  Twin Oaks has never permitted them, largely because of East Winds’ experience.  Acorn wrestles with permitting them and so far has not allowed them. Some Acorners who were really excited about the idea left to form new communities where such things are possible.

The arguments against personal shelters which GPaul outlined to me, late one night while we were driving back from a Point A gathering in NYC are:

  1. Energy Use/Carbon Footprint
  2. Fairness
  3. Psychic Space

One of the things income sharing communities do especially well is minimize their ecological impact.  The dormitory style buildings we have share kitchens, bathrooms, living space and meals.  This low impact living is very hard to achieve without a lot of people under the same roof.  Personal shelters are usually just one or two persons under a roof.

Where can we cut back?

Where can we cut back?

The fairness issue is covered.

The issue I had never heard before was one of psychic space.  In a regular community residence dorm, you know you can stand in the hall in front of someone’s room and not worry that you are infringing on their space.  The same is not true of personal shelters.  The space they take up is much larger than the physical footprint of their construction.  Peoples don’t know how to behave around them and this can cause discomfort and confusion.

Do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?

[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

10 responses to “The Case Against Personal Shelters”

  1. Soma says :

    When I think “psychic space” I think of a person’s need to have a degree of psychic distance from other minds in order to sort through intra-personal matters. At any rate, I suspect that if the desire for personal shelters was strong enough within Acorn that you all could use the car-sharing system as a model. If you look at the car-sharing system in terms of giving an entire community the capacity to take personal control over a space (a car) for X amount of time, it could be conceivable to set up a kind of system where the community can individually allot themselves time in a personal shelter. Temporary personal shelter time. I fear I’m starting to sound like a timeshare agent.

  2. Gryphon says :

    It seems clear that individual housing, no matter how low-impact, is still higher impact than shared housing. The biggest argument I could see for it is in its potential to draw people who feel they need a great deal of privacy into an otherwise shared community life, people for whom lack of privacy would be a deal breaker. But that doesn’t mean it would make sense for a community such as Acorn to allow personal shelter building, because of the inequity it creates. Maybe it requires communities in which that is everyone’s mode of housing.

    In (most? all?) tribal cultures (as far as my reading has led me to understand) sharing is mandatory and there is deep shame associated with hoarding. I assume that would hold for personal space as well, unless the established culture is one of everyone having their own hut/teepee/whatever. Otherwise it would and ought to be shameful to leave the common lodge to build your own little space.

    Soma’s idea of a shared private space makes great sense, though. Many people need alone time and weather does not always permit wandering off into the woods to get it.

  3. Jonathan says :

    We are endeavoring to remove the unfairness aspect by using the same building size/type/ style for each cabin. And are attempting to mitigate the resource use by still heavily relying on common space (for kitchens, work space, hangout space)- leaving the cabins as not much more than bedrooms with hot plates and a sink.

  4. Jeremy Walker says :

    as a current east winder and having lived in a dorm and now a personal shelter here is my take on the situation as a whole first how east wind has lessened the problem of envy when it comes to a personal shelter When some one moves out of a personal shelter it goes up for roll (all interested parties roll dice the Co with the high roll wins the personal shelter) that is how we have lessened the envy aspect it seems to work The Psychic space aspect is complex I was not as comfortable in the dorm because of the lack of sound proofing in the dorm yet with the personal shelter I fee almost isolated . as far as the ecological aspect all of the personal shelters here would be considered part of the tiny house movement therefore using less materials and having a smaller ecological footprint over all I think it has worked well and when we have renovated rock bottom and built a new shower house I think the community will allow personal shelters to be built again

  5. jim says :

    Hey Pax — thanks for your thoughts. I enjoyed reading……

    You said “The problem this created ultimately lead to East Wind banning the creation of more new personal shelters.” I don’t know if that ever happened. When i got there in year 3, Truck Stop was there and Hector had a tiny sleeping shelter in a weedy patch. 3 or 4 years later, Lar (i think) built a shelter down below Truck Stop. And a man whose name i don’t remember brought his bus in. The Joe of Joe and Jacqui built a shelter near the Golden Valley. After I left, a dome was build where Shakti and her lover lived for a while. And you saw the photos of the shelters in my photos of the 40th. It seems to me that EWC has allowed shelters to be built right along. And as the photos show, there were some very artistic and nice living quarters made.

    I haven’t heard the kinds of complaints i heard at TO about the inequality of personal shelters. Nor did i hear comments about shelters being used as centers of upset about community the way — what was the small early sub-group at TO? Marion? Something else?

    East Wind seems to have always been more or less at peace with the individual shelters. When i was Trusterty Manager at EWC, we called ‘new room assigning” flips — which is to say, we flipped a coin (in reality, a coin is just a 2 sided die) instead of rolling a 6 or 10 sided die. The bigger dice streamline the room assigning process. There were no shelters which came up during my couple years of managing rooms, but we would have treated them just like other community rooms.

    And thanks for sharing, Jeremy. I remember the flips process (now rolling process) as being kind of tense, but before and after — all was peaceful. Like you say.

    Sunnyside and Fanshen have no soundproofing, and having noisy lovers one or two rooms down is — well, attention grabbing whether you want it or not. At least loud music can be complained about with results. That’s the psychic space i remember.

  6. Kiwi says :

    A significant reason I do not to live in an intentional community is this very issue. I’m pretty introverted and require high quality personal space. From having lived in multiple co-housing situations, I’ve found design and infrastructure (or lack thereof) makes an enormous difference in my ability to function. I too struggle with finding the balance Jeremy referenced between having enough space and being/feeling isolated. It also doesn’t help that I am an “emotional sponge”, as a good friend calls me, with a tendency to absorb others moods. I often need isolation to clear that energy out.

    Currently, I own a multi-unit home with my partner, and we live in one unit with cohorts renting the other units. We share some resources with each other and interact almost daily for meals and companionship. But, when I need to recharge I can go to my home unit while everyone else hangs out in a different unit. It is an old overbuilt house, so while not completely soundproof, it is usually quiet enough from unit to unit that I can sleep, meditate or read and write in peace. I can also spontaneously cook or work on art/diy projects without disrupting or imposing on anyone else. The idea of potentially imposing on someone else by doing something I wanted to do in a common space is, and has been, enough to keep me from doing things that keep me sane.

    While I dislike having ownership over the house and would definitely like to move towards sharing much more in terms of resources, this arrangement is the first one I see being able to stick with where my mental and emotional well being are concerned. Though, I have not ruled out living in a tiny house type community in the future. I think the idea of building cabins, as Jonathan puts it, that are equal in terms of design is a good one for reducing envy and resource use. Still probably not as much as dorm living, but far better than suburbia.

    • phil says :

      kiwi, amen! i empathize with you. as for me, i’m highly introverted, sometimes even reclusive, but always considered by my peers as a highly productive and valuable member of our circle(s), regardless of period of life or geographic location. most intentional communities have no conceptual space for people like me in their models. i also believe this to be the prime cause for the degeneration of most communities into the realm of serving only as catalysts for the spinning-off of new communities. Don’t lose hope!

  7. Reaper says :

    At the risk of sounding perverse… Noisy lovers a couple of doors down might cause its own form of envy. I agree that perhaps limiting the building of personal shelters in the areas of size, amount/cost of materials, and any artistic embellishments being able to be removed by the community in the event of the current tenant vacating to return the shelter to a plain state that is similar if not exactly the same as the others.

    Liken it to moving into a complex of apartments where they are all the same. Same floor plans, same amount of floor space, same sanitary white paint on the walls. One guy moves in and decorates all ultra modern, the other guy moves in and decorates with all southwestern themed art and furniture. Both places have aesthetic beauty in their own right, but take out the furniture and pull down the pictures and drapes, and both apartments look exactly the same. By doing this, you foster personal creativity and taste, while maintaining a certain standard of living that nobody need be envious of.

    Personally, I like the idea of a small round building. A yurt easily comes to mind. I can fit everything that I own into the back of a car if I have to, so a small 12′ yurt with a small rocket stove would more than satisfy my needs, and I could just pack it up and take it with me when I left, and then nobody needs to be jealous of who wins the flip when I’m gone.

    Naturally, a rocket stove tends to have a bit more impact on the environment, which makes me equally as much a fan of something like a small solar panel array, or using wind, water, or other forms of generating electricity, enough to power something like a small contained oil space heater. In a yurt that small, you wouldn’t need much more than that.

    On a side note, since the word anarchy literally translates to meaning “without law”, as soon as you start making rules and laws, you cease being an anarchy society and become something more like a republic.

    • wenamun says :

      I am swinging through this fascinating thread as I try to learn more about intentional communities. As an anarchist, I have a hard time ignoring misconceptions about what anarchism is. To be helpful, it doesn’t mean: “without law.” it means: “without rulers.” Anarchism can function quite happily by following simple rules ,arrived at by equals. It’s a misunderstanding to think anarchists are lawless chaotics. We’re opposed to illegitimate hierarchy, and in favor of mutual aid, cooperation, solidarity and other voluntary, non-coercive systems of personal power 🙂 Cheers!

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