Terra Firma: Cohousing and its impact on Old Ottawa East

By Theresa Wallace 

Over two decades ago, a cohousing group called Terra Firma (TF) bought six townhouses on Drummond Street, changing the lives of many and resulting in profound, long-lasting benefits to our community and our city.

Legend has it the TF dream was born when architect Anthony Leaning discovered a book about cohousing.

“That’s where the original seed of the idea came from: Anthony coming across a book on cohousing in an architecture bookstore he co-owned,” confirms Steve Fick, who in the early 1990s was responsible for maintaining the list of people who had expressed an interest in this cohousing initiative.

Fick, a counsellor and artist who for many years created innovative maps in Canadian Geographic magazine, says the first meeting occurred in 1992 and at one time there were 130 names on that list.

The group was split as to whether they wanted to be urban or rural. They bid on a property just outside Gatineau Park, but were unsuccessful, and scouted out central Ottawa properties. (Cohousing is quite different from co-operative housing, where co-op members most often rent rather than own their units.)

TF’s real estate agent found three townhouses on Drummond Street for sale by one owner. Luckily, the owner of another three townhouse units immediately south was willing to sell as well, so TF bought all six.

“In 1997, when we were ready to purchase the six units on Drummond Street, that was about how many families were ready and willing to buy,” Fick recalls.

Remarkably, 22 years later, none of the original six families has sold their townhouse.

Photo by Heather Weinrich

Photo by Heather Weinrich

The Common Area

Keith Shackleton and his partner Diane Ziegler were on that original list, but had bought their own home by the time TF purchased the six townhouses.

Seven years later they asked to buy in, and Leaning designed an infill in the driveway space between the two sets of townhouses that linked up the row with a seventh residence and a basement common area. Ziegler and Shackleton sold their home and for months lived in a tiny back bedroom of the townhouse owned by members Suzanne Gagnon and Fred Simpson while Shackleton, a social worker and sustainability activist, acted as the contractor on the new build.

The downstairs common room is where TF members have their Wednesday and Sunday dinners —families take turns making the meals — and where organizations such as refugee sponsorship groups that TF members are part of gather for meetings. The common area consists of a dining and living room, a washroom and a guest room.

Lucky Old Ottawa East

Almost immediately, OOE benefited from having such a capable, communityminded group in the neighbourhood. Shackleton was part of a team that started the community gardens behind Saint Paul University, and he was the gardens’ first coordinator. Sustainable Living Ottawa East (SLOE), which has garnered national attention for its sustainability initiatives, was born in the common room under the leadership of TF member Rebecca Aird and is responsible for the establishment of the farmers’ market on Main Street, the children’s garden at the corner of Main and Clegg, the Rideau River Nature Trail and other projects.

“That sign you see on the Greystone Developments property on Main Street that says it is Ontario’s first LEED community of a certain size,” says John Dance, former president of the OOE community association, “is all because of Rebecca and SLOE pushing for greener development.”

Keeping the Faith

When TF bought the six townhouses, they did so with one big mortgage. The six owners put in whatever they could afford for the down payment and how much they had to pay in total over time reflected that.

One of the six couples was away on sabbatical and bought in sight unseen. TF took down the fences separating their back yards so their kids could play together. At the time of the connecting infill, the seven units formed a condominium, but as more people sought affiliation, TF developed two kinds of members: condo members and non-condo members.

The latter have an arrangement with TF so they can be part of social activities. Engineer and sustainable energy expert Clara Kayser-Bril and her husband and two small children moved here from France. They are renting one of the original six units while the owners are away.

Kayser-Bril says, “We love being around like-minded, kind, caring people, especially when our families are so far away.” Fick says studies have shown the primary predictor of health and longevity is connection, and cohousing is about creating communities with shared values.

“Throughout history one thing that has destroyed such intentional communities is utopianism. We have avoided that. TF doesn’t need to be anyone’s ideal. We just want it to be as good as it can be.”

The Future

Ontario and Quebec groups wishing to establish cohousing often consult TF. Some succeed, many fail; financing is difficult to obtain from banks and when an ideal site is found it’s hard to outbid developers with much deeper pockets.

Whatever happens to the popularity and viability of cohousing in Canada, TF continues to thrive because it’s a place people want to be. The oldest members are eighty, the youngest is two.

Neighbours who live around the corner on Herridge and across the street on Drummond join in the meals and activities. Fick and his partner Signy Fridriksson’s three grown children and one grandchild are part of that expansion.

“They’ve gone away to university, travelled all over the world, and now all three have chosen to live close by,” Fick says.

Thoma Simpson, 26, was at TF from the beginning, and now he’s back too.

“Growing up, there were lots of parental figures to learn from, a sense of warmth and belonging, a soccer-field-sized back yard. I want to give my daughter the same sort of experience.”

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