Family cottage as a commons?

It’s summer vacation and I am visiting friends who recently purchased a slice of pristine ocean front property in eastern Canada to design and build their dream cottage. Knowing the consciousness and caring that these friends embody every day, I am curious to see how this cottage project will be different than a typical one. I am hopeful for three reasons:

  1. The project is collectively owned. A family of four and their in-laws, from both sides together own this land and the home under construction.
  2. The architect, my dear friend Colleen Lashuk, is a participatory architect. This means that the design decisions are made with non-architects. (Colleen and I met while studying cultural anthropology and we still connect today on issues of collaborative processes and agency)
  3. The building is itself a bold gesture, built from 7 shipping containers.

And with this in mind, I, with my family in tow, turn up to a busy construction site, the first guests to be welcomed within this intriguing project. We arrive with machinery digging alongside the house; the septic system was almost connected before our stay. All five adult owners and two children are present. Workers are tapping cedar shingles onto the exterior walls. The kids all run off to play, more interested in the freedom of space and the joy of rock and beach, than the house itself. We go for a quick tour of the site. Interestingly enough, it seems anyone is capable of giving the tour, not just the architect holds the knowledge of this site.


I am suddenly hit with how gracious they are to welcome us given the crazy amount of work that remains to be done and the little time they have on the site. But living in a way that blends the lightness of summer vacation and the seriousness of the daily challenges of a complex building site is something the group seems to have figured out. And so, someone sets to cleaning out the bunkhouse container to host its first guests, the four children. Others busy themselves putting together the newly arrived BBQ and others organically merge to the dinner preparation.


The well has just been turned on for the first time. Quite naturally we seize the opportunity to chill the bubbly.



Later, on the beach edge as we admire a nearby heron, Colleen shares a genuine concern, revealing the deep respect underlying this project

The real challenge is less the building itself, than how not to ruin this beautiful place.


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The next morning after breakfast, the site continues its forward movement despite our presence (thankfully so!). Two grandmas apply a second coat of painting on the golden bathtub, only to be called into the group decision making meeting.


I love how this is managed. We are informed of the meeting, a “scrum” of sorts, for those into agile, in which the decisions of the day can be made together. Unfortunately, I was unable to listen in because my own little one insisted on us having our own meeting at the same time, to address our agenda “Emotions and feelings about this house”.

After our respective meetings, the flow of shared leisure and work resumed. Beach walks, tidal exploration, while some set off on errands including purchasing the fridge, stove and washing machine. Yes, the house is off the grid, and the solar panels will power the fridge and washing machine while the stove runs on gas.


If you want to know if the flow is present just watch at the children. Night two and sleeping arrangements shifted. One child takes up his personal challenge of sleeping on his own in a tent for the first time. Two others are invited into grandma’s room/container for the night and another chooses his parents container.

With all those containers there are multiple options for sleeping arrangements, there are three container bedrooms and an 8 person dormitory. The next day, my husband asks the thorny question to the Colleen’s husband. Who gets which room? This question is loaded with everything our culture takes for granted about individual ownership and property. The answer is music to my ears.

Well, we are thinking of taking a needs based approach. That means that you can be bumped from the room you are in if someone else arrives with a greater need for that room.

I am hearing adaptive governance. For myself I think the key to the success of such an open and shared cottage is the capacity of people to be frank and honest communicators and to have fairness for all at the centre. The basis of good collaboration.


I take in new experiences with the awareness of the commons, a community who cares for a shared resource in a way that enables accessibility and sustainability.I find myself making sense of this project through the eight principles for successful commons from the economist and Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom in her landmark book, Governing the commons. This community, for example will need to establish boundaries around this ressource/cottage and, explicit rules of usage they will invariably need to evolve over time.

On returning to Montreal, I was eager to visit the Tiny House festival in Lantier, Quebec. What I saw reminded me that although “Colleen’s” house was no tiny house, there is overlap. Both initiatives are about facilitating our accessibility to housing, land and quality of living through collaboration with others. The more we hone our collective ownership and collective decision making skills it is uncanny what becomes possible.

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