Divine House Cooperative
2014-2016. The house I lived in was a cooperative: 20 of us shared a single household and the responsibilities for managing and growing as a residential community. After moving into the house, I conducted both formal and informal research on the challenges I and my housemates faced in operating as a household and as a communal group. In conversation and co-development with them, I developed procedural and physical responses to help address challenges in membership recruitment, accountability to house commitments, mutual support, compost management, group meals, budgeting, bedbug control, landlord relations, storage and workspace needs.
Cook/Clean Sign-up Calendar
The calendar through which we sign up for our two regular cook and clean shifts used to be a page from a spreadsheet printed every five weeks and taped to the wall. It was hard to read and harder to tell whether everyone was participating—an empty dinner table was often the only way to note a gap in participation. I designed a more visual calendar that balances more clarity and accountability with celebration of housemates (whose beautiful portraits are featured in the magnetic photo frames during their birthdays or special occasions). When a housemate has signed up for their shifts in a given cycle, they flip over the magnets beside their name label from red to green (the name label is itself a whiteboard magnet, to accommodate a shifting house population). The vibrant visual indicator helps remind housemates to sign up and makes them more accountable to the rest of the house.
The dining table we shared sat 10 people at an absolute maximum—half the residents of the house. Housemates were eating in shifts or in separate rooms and were wary of bringing friends to dinner for fear of crowding. I surveyed the space and the different needs and constraints for the table—meetings, meals, projects, parties, daily clean-up—and proposed some options for a new, custom table. Since the proposal was for a much larger table than before, I made a paper prototype and placed it on the ground for housemates to maneuver around and weigh in on. The final design we developed—built by a carpenter friend—can be separated into two halves to add additional table space, and easily bolted back together. The inside legs of both halves are inset so as to allow comfortable seating at either of the short ends.
The house struggled for almost two years with questions of how to hold people accountable for their house commitments. Accountability checks dragged down weekly meetings, created resentments and did not address root causes of non-participation. Housemates were feeling alienated from one another by having the only house forum be a somewhat-impersonal 20-person meeting.
I proposed that we form 5 four-person groups of housemates called Pit Crews: groups whose job is to check in and do necessary maintenance on each other’s house membership. Pit crewmates could check in one-on-one with each other or as a group (say, over beers or out to dinner) about how they are feeling about the house, if there is support that one another need in the house, and if they are upholding the house commitments. Once a house member is behind in some house commitments by a requisite amount, a meeting facilitator could urge a Pit Crew to meet and, within a certain amount of time, come back with a Commitment Plan for the member in question. The Pit Crew (including the member in question) would then also be responsible for holding the member accountable for that plan. If no Commitment Plan was devised or the member was not successful in meeting the plan by a certain time, the Pit Crew could then be charged with conducting a Membership Review of the member and reporting back about its confidence in that membership, at which point the house could discuss it further.
The proposal was very well received, and we adopted the policy after a couple of months' discussion with housemates in various forums. It has been very popular thusfar.
House Commitments Tracker
Accountability for house commitments is tricky—housemates want to be held accountable for their commitments but also don't want to police or feel policed by one another. For the first year of the house, participation in the various agreed-upon house commitments was being tracked in multiple ways--some rigorously in spreadsheets, some in meeting minutes only, some not at all. The cumulative effect was for some housemates to feel that they were always behind, and for some to speculate that others weren't pulling their weight. To help cultivate a greater sense of clarity, transparency and accountability, I compiled all of the tracking into one Google Sheet, arraying it in a series of tabs into which each bottom-liner or individual housemate can track completion of commitments. A front, summary tab pulls from the other tabs and automatically highlights any shortfalls, providing an overview for each housemate and their Pit Crew (which can then offer support to housemates who are falling behind). The document lives in a shared Google Drive for the house.
After eight months of using the Commitment Tracker and collecting data on commitment completion, it was clear that a tracking system was not the solution to our commitment challenges. With help from other housemates, I outlined some major questions around accountability to discuss in a house meeting, and facilitated some small group conversations to get to some deeper understanding of house perspective on accountability. I then conducted a survey of all housemates in which they indicated their willingness or ability to meet existing house commitments as well as how happy they were with the existing accountability system for each commitment.
After processing the survey feedback, I led a series of conversations in house meetings to digest the feedback and make proposals for adjusted commitments and new modes of accountability. For the house's chore system, I mocked up a chore board, to mirror the cook/clean board, which allowed for self-monitored accountability around chores; a clear and judgment-neutral venue for feedback; and more flexibility in accounting for different ways of contributing to the house that might not be otherwise recognized.
After soliciting input via conversation and online discussion, I revised the design to feature more clearly what chores each housemate had actually committed to doing.
We worked with a paper prototype of the final board for 2 months, to assess its effectiveness and viability.
The bedrooms in our house vary widely in size, noise, privacy and various amenities. Room pricing had initially been spitballed, with rooms of similar size grouped in rental tiers. Two years later, various housemates voiced complaints about the prices of their rooms relative to other people's. Concern for equity prompted me to initiate a process through which we could more democratically arrive at rents for individual spaces in the house.
The first step was a house-wide audit—allowing all housemates to evaluate each bedroom along a set of common, vetted criteria. Along with their audit forms, housemates filled out a form indicating the weight they wished to give each of these criteria.
I averaged all housemates' inputs for weighted priority of criteria and used these relative weights to divide up the monthly rent proportionally, to understand how much we should be paying in total for each criterion.
I tabulated average ratings for each person's bedroom on the various criteria, and used these average ratings and the weighted priorities to calculate a rent for each bedroom based on the survey data.
I offered the house a variety of ways to interpret the survey data and to calculate rent, in order to start a conversation about how the room rates might be adjusted. After several months of group conversation and further refinement, the proposed rates were adopted.