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Optimum household size  RSS feed

 
                                
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So, following on from Paul's suggestion on the 20-people thread, here is a new thread.

First, about our situation. We live in inner-city London in a 5-bedroom terraced house, built in about 1900, which we've owned for 20 years or so. When we first bought it, we needed the rent from lodgers to be able to afford the mortgage payments. Now, that's not so much of an issue, but we like the company so we keep the house full. Besides, it's a much more efficient use of space, heat etc. 

Three out of five of the rooms have tiny ensuite showers, which removes one shared-living bone of contention. We eat our meals together and share all the food and drink. We don't have rules, as such, but a few principles: if you cook, you cook for whoever is hungry. If you make tea, make a pot. Being in London, everyone works and pays rent. We pay a cleaner to come in for two hours twice a week to clean the shared space.

Mostly, our lodgers stay for two or three years, and then move on - usually, they couple up with someone and start nesting.  We've got a cohort of "grandchildren" as a result (we don't have children ourselves).  Mostly, they move out to live close by, and we keep on seeing them; we've got a large community of friends as a result. Quite a few of them have started similar shared houses. One consequence of this is that a bunch of us often rent a big house for a week or two in the country for a holiday. Because everyone is used to doing stuff together, it just works. People who don't know us are amazed that we can fix up a big meal for twenty or so without dramas. But that twenty or so is for a holiday, over in two weeks, and there is usually a small team of earth-mothers managing things behind the scenes while the men drink beer. So probably not sustainable for much longer...

Do we have rows? Heck yes. But they blow over; we sit down round the kitchen table and talk about them. Moods, strops, whatever are part of the human condition; no one is ever blamed for saying bad things during a row.  We've never had to ask anyone to leave; if anyone doesn't fit in, they will make their own mind up to leave. This is an advantage of the landlord/tenant relationship; it could get a lot stickier if everyone had an equal stake.

The size of our household is determined by the size of the house. We've always been between four and six people; five is better than four, and six is better than five but with six we don't have a guest room.  I've often thought I'd like to buy the house next door and knock the two of them together to make a ten-bedroomed house, but there are two problems: it's not for sale, and if it were, we couldn't afford it. It would be good to have children in the house, too: it's a great arrangement for sharing childcare. The dynamic always changes, as different characters come and go. Twenty years ago, we were our lodgers' peers; now, we are Mum and Dad to a bunch of twenty-somethings.  Ideally, I think there should be a full range of ages - if everyone is the same age, it's a frat house or an eventide home. But inevitably the economics of our present situation mean that we have younger people living with us.



 
Joel Hollingsworth
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ejoftheweb wrote:I've often thought I'd like to buy the house next door and knock the two of them together to make a ten-bedroomed house, but there are two problems: it's not for sale, and if it were, we couldn't afford it.


I could imagine banding together with similar groups in your neighborhood, and founding a cooperative where things more suited to a small scale of ownership (mortgage, toothbrush) are more individually-owned, but things that a larger group might buy into (lawnmower, pressure canner) are the property of a super-household.
 
                  
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Location: Missoula, MT
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It sounds like you are living in a very good situation and lots of love to you for providing that! 

I agree with Joel. Here in Missoula, Montana, United States there is a group of houses on the west side that have banded together into a sort of cooperative. From conversations I've had with a couple of members, they share food from their gardens, help eachother out with household work and things like that. Not sure about this next statement, but I think they are also the founding members of a little store called the Missoula Community Food Co-op. As I said, not sure about that last statement, but in any case the houses seem to work together nicely by maintaining everyone's autonomy while giving them the benefits of shared responsibility.
 
paul wheaton
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When you have a couple living in a one or two bedroom house, there is a certain dynamic.  And an eco footprint.  A certain amount of cooking and community.  And, yes, one can form really good relationships with neighbors.

And then I really like what ejoftheweb describes.  So I guess we are talking about six people in a house that is larger, but, I suspect, that the number of square feet per person is much smaller.  Shared kitchen, living room, etc.  Therefore shared heat, shared kitchen tools, shared couch, etc.  Fewer couches-per-person are purchased.  Fewer kitchen tools are purchased.  People get more home cooked meals and do less cooking. 

The fist step is:  to get along!  I think this is a story of hope! Just knowing that your home exists and how smooth it operates is a poster child for this style of living!

And now, to the topic at hand:  what is the optimal size for this style of living.  It seems that damanhur has settled on 20.    Perhaps another approach at answering the question would be:  how is 20 too many?


 
                  
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Location: Missoula, MT
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Oops, didn't mean to say that all those banded together houses should only have one or two occupants. My own ideal is that most of the houses would be full and work as small community families within a larger neighborhood community. About two years ago, when my children and I shared a two bedroom house with my friend and her children, I really learned to appreciate roles. This next example is going to sound like I mean traditional gender roles, but what I really mean is that some people have certain strengths or tendencies and working with those tendencies... works! My friend and I were doing pretty well keeping the house up ourselves, but then we got a washer and dryer. Things we just were not equipped to deal with ourselves. So we got our kids' dads to bring them in for us and I tell you what, I realized right then that as happy as we were, our lives would be even more complete with someone who's strengths were actual strength. We're not weak. I love manual labor myself. Still, lots of things, like moving heavy washing machines, would be a lot easier for someone who is not me. Realizing this made me recognize and appreciate all the things that I could contribute to a living situation as well. That was great because then I could focus on getting very good at those things. I had a set of roles I could fill and that made me feel confident and eager to help even more.

As far as Optimum household size, I think there should be a limit on the size of the house itself! Once you get too large, the bedrooms might start to feel more like hotel rooms without quite the same bonded feeling that naturally leads into all those other great benefits of shared living, such as common goals and abundant dinners.  Case in point, the friend I used to stay with now lives in a two story building that pretty much looks like a house on the inside. With a communal kitchen/living room on each floor, five bathrooms and right around twenty people, maybe even one or two more; most of the time it feels empty. The people there seem to feel all the tension of living with other people and yet rarely pursue the opportunities that come with that. In my own opinion that is caused by two major factors. One is that there is a dearth of children; their presence is discouraged. The second is that everyone has their own rooms laid out in narrow hallways. Therefore they are "free" to remain isolated from the rest of the people in the house, coming out only to make quick meals and sneak away with their dishes left in the sink for some of the more domestically minded lodgers to grow resentful over. Why would they grow resentful when I, who avoid dishes like the plague, would gladly wash everything in the sink after a dinner party when my friend and I lived together? Well, because I felt like I was part of a small family community and was glad to do my part. Unfortunately, the people who live in this large house don't seem to get a whole lot of that. I mean, they are all nice people, but the bond isn't there and all I can pin it on is the preserved isolation.

On that note, I like Paul's idea of the 20 person household because mine is similar. The largest household size I have lived in was 18. The most cramped was when my brother's electricity went out and he brought his wife and seven children to stay in my tiny two bedroom student housing apartment. That was the same week my sister decided to show up for a visit with her boyfriend and son. Did I mention I have two kids? I wouldn't reccomend that, though it was tolerable right up until about the fifth day and might have remained tolerable a little longer if there had been any sort of intention to the whole situation.

So far I think the most perfect size combo of house and people was 16-18 in my mom's five bedroom house, plus the conversion of the large laundry room for kidspace. 20 might be possible, but I can't say if it would be optimal because I've never tried it and at 18 it felt like we were at just the right level. There were also a few key points that made it a lot easier to have that many people in the house. First of all, it was Summer during these large influxes of family. That makes a difference here in Montana. There were plenty of times that the house was empty enough to sit down in the living room and read or just feel peaceful. Yes, that alone time is important, especially when you have to interact with people all day, even people you love. Also, if you felt like getting out of the house, there was always some yardwork or play to take up your time. People were inspired to start projects that added happiness for everyone; the firepit for cooking outside (another upshot of summer), fences around certain patches of "garden", and the like. It would be a lot more difficult (though not impossible) to sustain that many people through the bitter 30 below days of winter, when outside work can be sincerely dangerous to life and limb. Perhaps if everyone had lots of stuff to keep them busy.

Point two is there was that full range of ages and familial relationships that was mentioned here and in Paul's original post. My adult siblings and their boyfriends or girlfriends were visiting with babies and young children, my sister and I were the adolescents, and my parents were the older people. This made it a heck of a lot easier, not necessarily to "get along", but to hold onto a connection after serious disagreements. I suppose you don't have to be blood related to everyone you live with, but you do need to be able to maintain a sense of mutual dependence and support, and even a sort of love.

Other than that, the whole arrangement could have been just a little more organized, but I don't think it would necessarily require rules so much as roles. As long as everyone has a common goal, let's say providing as much happiness as possible for all members of the household, then I think everyone will feel a greater sense of responsibility because they feel a greater sense of support. In that environment it's a lot easier to decide to clean the toilet or wash the dishes without anyone having to tell you. It can even make those tasks enjoyable. At least, this is the conclusion I've come to after my variety of experiences.
 
Kevin EarthSoul
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I am an Organizational Leadership major, with a Psychology minor.

In studying groups and organization, optimal group size is around 6-12, with a median of around 9. 15 is about the maximum that is considered sustainable organizationally, as humans have a tendency to divide into factions beyond that number.

Just my $0.02
 
Dillon Nichols
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6-12 reminds me of Paul's statement about a minimum of 6 WOOFers being preferable, as that is sufficient for a separate social group to form, vs closely integrating them into the existing social order on a farm. Though it was also so there would be some chance of people finding someone to bone, to prevent flight from boredom...

Kevin, what sort of age-range is generally present in these groups? Would they generally be comprised of working-age adults, or this broader research?

I'm wondering if a broader age range expands the number that would be workable. If you have 16 people, and 6 are under 16, is this likely to function like an all adult group of 10, or an all adult group of 16, or ...? Got any data?

I suppose the next question is how best to organize multiple small groups...
 
Kevin EarthSoul
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Dillon Nichols wrote:6-12 reminds me of Paul's statement about a minimum of 6 WOOFers being preferable, as that is sufficient for a separate social group to form, vs closely integrating them into the existing social order on a farm. Though it was also so there would be some chance of people finding someone to bone, to prevent flight from boredom...

Kevin, what sort of age-range is generally present in these groups? Would they generally be comprised of working-age adults, or this broader research?

I'm wondering if a broader age range expands the number that would be workable. If you have 16 people, and 6 are under 16, is this likely to function like an all adult group of 10, or an all adult group of 16, or ...? Got any data?

I suppose the next question is how best to organize multiple small groups...


When considering this group size, I take it to mean "decision makers". At what age do you let your children have a voice/vote in the household? So, I usually phrase it as 6-12 adults, plus attendant children. That might actually reach 20 people, depending on a number of factors.

As far as the age-range of adults, I think it's advantageous to have a multi-generational home. You gain further resilience when you have a cluster of such homes. Humans naturally organize themselves into "bands", as well, which is a cluster of family units. Bands tend to be around 40-60 people, so if you have 5-6 households with and average 9 adults, you are looking at right about optimum size. There can be some shuffling and migration between these households if personalities clash, or if one household gets too many children to be manageable, or other reasons. A "band" like this can also engage in projects that a single household might find difficult, such as engaging in commercial-scale agricultural operations (operating a CSA for example) or running a communal home-school (that many adults will have a diverse array of knowledge and expertise to share with the children, without overburdening individual adults in the educational activities). The diversity of the group adds a lot of cross-fertilization of knowledge, as well.

There is a third tier of group size, which I call "the clan", which peaks out somewhere between 140-180 adults. Beyond that, and "Dunbar's Number" kicks in. Dunbar's Number is the maximum number of human relationships the human mind can keep track of. Organizations rarely scale beyond that number without introducing hierarchies that create distance between people in such a way as to seriously diminish the feelings of connectedness and compassion which humans, as a social species, are capable of feeling. So, 3 or so bands coming together to form a clan can do even more. With that many adults working together, with their diverse skills and interests, you create a super-resilient tribal structure which can accomplish complete autonomy from the global political and economic systems which keep us trapped.

This is a part of the "invisible structures" of Permaculture, which I am developing my own expertise in.
 
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