On secluded Racine Avenue in the Twin Hills, a stately old home is beginning its ninth year of housing a social experiment worthy of Berkeley in the mid ’60s. Since 2004, three unrelated professional women, all longtime Mt. Lebanon residents, have been joint owners of “Birchwood,” a five-bedroom, 3H-bath red brick colonial set astride a generous and lovingly landscaped lot. Twin gryphon statues flank the front door and the American flag flies over the entry.
Birchwood’s owners, Louise Machinist, Jean McQuillin and Karen Bush, met at Sunnyhill on Washington Road. They shared the social outlook and moral values espoused by the Unitarian congregation and had similar political leanings. Their backgrounds, in counseling, nursing and consulting respectively, nicely complemented each other. Simply put, they got along well. Eight years ago, the three then 50-somethings found themselves living single lives and wondering how things would work out as retirement approached. Would they manage OK living alone?
Louise, divorced for six years, wondered about future expenses if she stayed in the home on Inglewood where she had raised her now-grown son and daughter. Jean, a mother and grandmother amicably divorced after 39 years, already had downsized from her house on Bower Hill Road. Karen, who describes herself as “long-married, long-divorced,” traveled extensively for work, leaving her scant time to enjoy the wee Sears catalog cottage home she had painstakingly renovated on Spruceton. She also needed cat care for her beloved Beardsley when she was gone, and Louise had willingly provided him a second home.
The three women began thinking about some sort of future shared living arrangement. They had done a little research, kicked around some ground rules and checked out a few open houses, when a “For Sale By Owner” sign caught their eye. The house turned out to be perfect for their collective needs and desires. So their daydreaming became real, and their timetable became now.
What the friends had expected to be a leisurely exploration of possibilities turned into a whirlwind of legal documents, moving trucks and organized chaos. When the dust settled, they had bought a house—together. In their research, they had never come across the precise living arrangement they ended up creating, which they call a “cooperative household.” They had to figure out from scratch how to merge multiple lives and households, from financial planning to family parties, food preferences to furniture placement, fix-up projects to flower bed prep, writing the book as they went along.
Fast forward to today, and they literally have written the book.
My House, Our House chronicles Louise, Jean and Karen’s eight-years-and-counting journey, giving the kind of advice the women wish had been available when they started out. Subtitled Living Better for Far Less in a Cooperative Household, the book covers expectations, money matters, space sharing, chores and upkeep, entertaining, resolving conflicts, survival strategies and more. There is even a multiple-choice quiz to help people to decide if they have the temperament suited to a cooperative household. The women list personal habits or circumstances that might be deal-breakers (for them, one is smoking) and emphasize the need for establishing boundaries to avoid conflict. Their house rules and accommodations are a study in blending lifestyles while simultaneously preserving individuality.
Stepping into the foyer of Birchwood, visitors are welcomed by Jean’s ceramic bird, Karen’s secretary desk and Louise’s barn painting. The commingling of possessions continues throughout the first floor. “Our combined possessions create a pleasing effect in the common areas, and I often find myself moving things to find the sweet spot,” says Jean. “As often as not, someone else moves it back; such is life in a community.” The overall effect is a homey, inviting mix with places of honor for Louise’s piano and Karen’s evocative photographs, taken on her world travels.
Any warm evening will find one or more of the women, likely in the company of Kali, their lively black cat, enjoying a glass of wine on the side porch or the back patio or in the secluded grotto in the far reaches of the yard. Much-loved Kali is successor to much-loved Beardsley, who lived to be 19 and cemented the decision that there would always be a cat at Birchwood.
With or without a pet, many residents want to live in Mt. Lebanon indefinitely, as did Jean, Karen and Louise, and their chosen way might appeal to others. The 2010 census revealed that there are 4,739 one-person households in Mt. Lebanon—fully one-third of all households. Odds are that a few of those singles—alone for whatever reason—are wondering if a different living arrangement would serve them better.
Karen says there are other homes in Mt. Lebanon that could lend themselves to cooperative householding. The women agree that for a home to be suitable, personal private space is key, including a bedroom and bathroom for each person and preferably an additional one for overnight guests. “Our private spaces are part of the magic here,” says Jean, who is thrilled with her two bedrooms (one her office) and bath under the eaves at the top of the house. Similarly, Karen claims her bedroom, an office and the main second floor bath as her private domain. Louise in no way feels slighted, as she does not need a home office and the remaining master bedroom is by far the largest, with its own adjoining bath. Each woman’s private space is just that, open to the others by express permission only.
The financial benefits for the Birchwood trio have been impressive. Splitting a mortgage three ways gives them a large amount of house for a small amount of money. Utilities cost each woman about half of what she paid when she lived alone, even with the inclusion of air conditioning, which none previously had. The savings are such that they can now easily have previously unaffordable lawn and cleaning services. They pay household expenses, including food, out of a common checking account, to which each contributes equally. Says Karen, “I love knowing that once I put in my share, my bills except for my [personal] credit card are paid for the month!”
Routine maintenance also comes out of the household budget, as do any repairs or major improvements. Currently they are considering updating the kitchen. But before hiring contractors or service people, the women first consider whether they can accomplish the task themselves. Louise is proud of figuring out how to change the mantles on the outdoor gaslights (and relieved that Jean and Karen are there to steady the ladder as she works).
Equally important are the intangible benefits of the cooperative household, both social and psychological. Karen, Louise and Jean are strong, independent women who do not need someone to have their backs; still, they admit, it sure feels good that two someones do. Chores can take less time and be more fun. Louise has learned to be “less clutter-y,” Karen to be less neat, and they both are sensitive to anything Jean objects to, because Jean is the most go-with-the-flow of the three; they know an objection from her reflects a deeply felt opinion and they hasten to be accommodating. Everyone’s horizons expand as odd selections show up in the fridge or in the Netflix queue. And at Birchwood, “extended family” takes on additional meaning.
The women’s busy lifestyles keep them from feeling crowded. “We are rarely home at the same time due to our work schedules,” says Louise, “We are not together enough to get on each other’s nerves.” All three are home for dinner only about twice a month. When any two are around at mealtime, they consult each other and may or may not end up eating together. Yet a late night straggler home is likely to find welcome leftovers waiting to be warmed up; as Karen notes, “It’s easier to cook for two or three than to cook for one.” Karen and Jean do much of the cooking, with Louise on clean-up duty. When one has friends or family over, the others are often behind the scenes, starting a load of dishes as they pass through the kitchen or otherwise lightening the after-party chores.
From paying bills, to bringing home groceries, to calling dibs on the garage space when a snowstorm is looming, the women are remarkably low-key and seem almost baffled that anyone would consider such topics to be potential issues. Everyone pitches in, and it all gets done. The most pressing household problem–requiring ongoing monitoring—is keeping track of who has fed the cat, and when; 4-year-old Kali, it seems, is unreliable in self-reporting and will eat everything offered as if it’s her first meal in days.
Louise suggests that the secret of their success lies in what they are not: they are not a marriage or a family, and because of that, they are less inclined to argue with or yell at one another. “I am nicer,” she says. “We don’t take anything or anyone for granted. This situation is too good to risk messing up.” Each woman in her own way does more than her share, bending over backwards to be more than fair. One of the best testaments to their success came when Karen’s consulting job took her to Spain for nine months and Jean and Louise flew over for a visit!
In addition to My House, Our House, which is available on www.amazon.com, the women have committed to other forms of outreach to those interested in cooperative living. They have a website and blog at www.myhouseourhouse.com. They were featured on KDKA’s Sunday Business Page with local commentator Jon Delano, and they offer free, one-hour, informational seminars cosponsored by Howard Hanna’s Mt. Lebanon office. The trio will be speaking at Mt. Lebanon Library on Thursday, July 19, at 7 p.m.
Over the years, the women have found the right mixture of compromise and acceptance of imperfection—in themselves and the others—to forge a lifestyle they all say is vastly preferable to any they would have faced alone. They have blazed a trail and set an example for others looking for new living arrangements. Right here in Lebo, they are doing Berkeley one better.