History part 2

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History - continued from Part 1

Preconstruction 1999- 2000

We'd thought we'd been busy before, but now the project went into overdrive. With 5 people having invested significant money to pay the deposit, we were straight into significant time pressure. We had until November to settle the purchase of the land, and in that time we planned to do our design process, apply for Resource Consent, and finish working drawings in time to begin construction in March 2000.

The selection and hiring of the architect was the first priority and, due to different ways of working and different understandings within the group, became one of the most challenging and conflictual internal processes our group has ever had to face. Architect Bill Algie was eventually chosen to design our neighbourhood based on his previous work for the local Rudolf Steiner school, and his lovely feel for materials, space and light.

Conflict continued to play out in the group over the next year. The pressure to meet our development programme was intense, and real commitment of both time and money was required from members. We moved immediately into developing a comprehensive Design Brief, with four weekend hui to brainstorm, discuss and prioritise our site, house and common house design criteria. A parallel process refined our legal agreements for the Cohousing Agreement.

We very quickly realized that we needed one person from within the group to be the key contact and liaison person with all the outside professionals, a project driver familiar with the building industry who could champion our vision at every step. Robin Allison was engaged as Development Coordinator (DC) at a nominal fee, and a small focused Development Team (DT) was set up to work with and support her. Other members took on part-time positions: Cathy Angell to coordinate the legal and landscaping issues, Peter Scott to coordinate planning issues, and Gary Stewart as the financial coordinator. We also engaged professional project managers to guide us through this phase as this was a likely pre-condition to our obtaining a construction loan from a bank.

The second half of 1999 was a whirlwind of planning and organising, wrestling with timelines and budgets, continuing legal complexities, and decisions around building design, materials, and on-site services. Pressure was building and a huge amount of work was being done by the coordinators, and also by all members at evening meetings and the day-long hui every second weekend that we scheduled to the end of the year. On the 18th October 1999, 28 members signed the Cohousing Agreement, committing to loan various amounts to CNZL in order to complete the purchase of the land, pay for the up-front development costs and contribute sufficient equity to CNZL that we could later obtain a bank loan for construction. This agreement signified major emotional and financial commitments to the project, and ensured that we could proceed together with confidence.

The bruising pace continued in November. We were lining up all the money for settlement of the land, getting ready to take over the site, finalising concept plans for Resource Consent, planning, strategising, liaising, finalising budgets, endless meetings and hui. On 26 November 1999 we settled the land purchase and took possession of the site - a major milestone! We had a party in the concrete garage, with a cake made by one of our members in the shape of the land, with all the fruit trees showing in their proper places. We danced a bit, and talked about how it would be; we were exhilarated but exhausted.

We lodged the Resource Consent application just before Christmas. Several members set up tents amongst the trees after Christmas, spending more gentle time with each other and starting to learn the land. The route of the future figure-8 path was mown between the trees, and from that moment the land carried both shapes, the old shape of the orchard and the coming shape of the village. We established a fire pit on the future common green with large rocks from the Bethells quarry, and spent evenings talking, yarning and laughing. Together we saw in the new millennium.

Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood 2000

We continued working on the design details, the water systems, the costs and financing. The name Waitakere Eco-Neighbourhood Cohousing Project had always been a mouthful, and now that we had our land, we needed a new name. Several were proposed but "Earthsong" caught the imagination of many. For some it signified the sound the rammed earth makes when it reaches the desired density during ramming; others felt that our community would be the earth's song on that land. The addition of "Eco-Neighbourhood" was seen as an important descriptor of our community.

We were granted Resource Consent on 24 March, and had our first major Open Day on 26 March 2000. This was an important event. We invited a local kaumatua to give a blessing. Several MPs attended: Mark Goshe, Keith Locke, Nandor Tanczos, and Chris Carter. Mayor Bob Harvey arrived. We had speeches, songs, and a circle dance on the lawn in front of the old house that we called Tui House. There were displays and models in the tin garage, a pinata for the children, apple juice made from our own apples. Hundreds of people wandered around the orchard and imagined what it would become.

Earth building had been mooted as a construction method, so the group visited several houses by a rammed earth building company and liked what they saw. After verification from our quantity surveyor that their build costs were within our reach, we met with the two directors several times over that year to discuss their methods that allowed them to build cost effectively, and worked their construction details into the design.

The frenetic pace continued all year as we pulled the whole project together. Designs, costs and financial feasibilities were all refined over the course of the year, and several "chainsaw" budgets were required to get the projected build costs down to a level that met the expected valuations and potential house prices.

With the design, build cost and house prices firming up, it was time for buyers to choose their houses. First we spent a morning telling our stories of our involvement in the project. The afternoon was spent in wandering around the site, talking with each other, negotiating and thinking. We had a unit selection order based on the order of becoming a Full Group member, but we also wanted this to work out for as many people as possible. At the end of the day we gathered around the site plan and one-by-one, in our unit-selection order, we placed our names on our selected houses, discovering for the first time who our closest neighbours would be and taking another step towards the reality of our neighbourhood.

Only half of the houses were chosen at that time, however, and by August it was clear that we didn't have enough firm buyers to build the entire project at once. A decision was made to stage the construction and build only the first 17 houses as Stage 1. Negotiations continued with both the builder and the siteworks contractor over October & November, and negotiations started with a commercial bank for a construction loan.

Working bees drew members on the weekends, cutting down the fruit trees on the building platforms and some big macrocarpa from the site boundaries. The two large packing sheds and the little cottage were removed by contractors in October, and on the 29th October 2000, we had another pivotal event, Turning the First Sod. We didn't have Building Consent, agreed construction prices, enough buyers or a construction loan, but we knew we were going ahead! Many people came. We collected by the pear tree at the crossover of the path, said some speeches amidst a light blessing rain, and all dug our spades in the ground. This community was going to happen!

Stage I Construction 2001

By the end of November 2000 we had finally agreed on the scope of works and the construction prices, and negotiations were well advanced, but not finalised, with the bank for the construction loan. The siteworks began on 23rd November, stripping topsoil from the pond area and the main path, and stripping the building platforms. Metal was laid on the main path for the construction road, and the builders started on site on 14 December.

Just before Christmas we heard that we'd got a grant from Infrastructure Auckland of $93,400 to help with our overland stormwater system, and we also accepted the offer from the National Bank for $2.85 million development finance. We were under way!

Over that summer the orchard slowly transformed into the houses and paths that we had planned on paper. It was exciting and unbelievably gratifying to be under construction. Members would roam the site in the weekends, marvelling at the rammed earth wall panels that looked like remnants of some lost civilization, until the upper floor and walls went on and they became houses, high and light and beautiful!

We were working on the Unit Title plan, easements, and subdividing off the front of site. We were still trying to finalise a stormwater design that fulfilled permaculture design principles and was also acceptable to our engineer and council in volume calculations. We were still trying to sell the last Stage I house, still finalising prices and contracts with the builders, still working on legal agreements to go with the bank loan. It wasn't until the middle of March that we finalised the price with the builders and signed the building contracts. The first roof had gone on one of the buildings, so we combined the celebrations with the roof shout for the builders, another huge milestone. A few days later we had a major signing of documents by Earthsong members as security for our bank loan, to enable our first bank drawdown on the 20th March.

While efficient and fast with the rammed earth panels, delays started happening as the builders got into the carpentry. The building programme started slipping, mistakes in the construction were happening with increasing frequency, and stress levels were rising all round. Winter weather was slowing everything down, and it was clear the builders were struggling.

Despite the delays two of the buildings neared completion, and we scheduled a major Open Day for 8th July to launch Units 11 & 12 as Show Homes. There was frenzied activity for the weeks beforehand from both the builders and members to finish the houses, lay paving and shift topsoil, clean up, hang curtains and arrange furniture. The houses looked lovely. People arrived in droves on the day, walking around the paths and looking through the houses. TV1 News arrived to film the event, showing a segment on the main news that night. The day was a great success and a wonderful milestone.

Work continued on the houses. While 6 houses neared completion, the others were much further behind. Siteworks were also behind schedule, with trenches open and mud and slush everywhere. By the end of July only the two Show Homes were finished, and the rest were well behind schedule. The builders started telling us how much more it was costing them than they'd estimated. They were clearly in some trouble, and the last thing we wanted was for them to go under. We had already paid considerable money up front for materials and labour to assist with their cash flow, and were prepared to consider paying more, just to keep them afloat. But we needed proper documentation to substantiate their claims, both for the bank and for our own members to understand the increases, and none was produced. With every meeting, our realisation of the depth of the builders' financial troubles increased.

It all came to a head on 21st August, when the builders threw their gear into trucks and left the site without notice. One of our members who happened to be on site ended up blocking the drive with his little car, his young son in tow, to stop the plumbers removing four solar panels and cylinders that we'd already paid for. The word went out and other Earthsong members arrived, we got the locks changed on the garage where some of our materials were stored, but there was little else we could do at that time but huddle in shock. A few days later we heard that the builders were officially in liquidation.

We had 17 houses in 17 different stages of completion, from barely begun to all-but-finished. We had paid many thousands of dollars on materials that we never received. The interest on our construction loan was around $8000 per week at that stage. We desperately needed to complete the houses and get them sold to pay back the construction loan.

Robin and our project managers did a huge amount of work assessing the remaining work required to each house. The group agreed to a huge cost-cutting exercise with both the houses and the siteworks, cutting out just about everything that we didn't feel was absolutely essential to getting the houses finished. We took everything out of the siteworks contract that didn't have to be finished at that time.

We found a standard, run-of-the-mill building company, not skilled in natural materials or non-toxic construction, but willing to take on our large, unfinished and non-standard project, at a price. We still had a $200,000 shortfall between the money we had left in our budget and the cost to finish the houses; this was funded in the short term by a loan backed up by personal guarantees from over 40 family, friends and supporters, and paid for at the end by increasing the house prices of all the units.

Traumatic as this time was, the group remained incredibly strong. Everyone pulled together, and even though we were making painful decisions to cut many things out of the budget, we came through with little conflict. The support we also got at this time from many people only distantly associated with Earthsong was incredibly gratifying.

The new builders started on site on 23rd October, only 8 weeks after the others had left, though it felt like years. In the middle of December 2001, the first 3 households moved in, and Earthsong started to come alive as a neighbourhood.


Construction proceeded and the houses were gradually completed, though much more slowly than expected. It was a stressful time, with the cost of construction increasing with the delays, bank interest by now running at a horrendous rate, and several households in temporary accommodation until their houses were finished. Because we had pulled the final painting and oiling of houses out of the contract in order to reduce the costs, owners spent many weekends as their houses were finished completing this work.

By the end of March there were 11 households living on site. One family had been occupying the old homestead that we called Tui House, and with their move into their new home, Tui House became our interim common house. The wall between a bedroom and the living room was removed to create a space large enough for meetings and dinners. A communal laundry was set up in the concrete garage closest to the house, nominally sharing the space with an area for teens.

In June the last building in Stage I was finally finished enough for those residents to move in. The path lights had been installed and were fired up for the first time. On 22 June we had the Earthsong 7th birthday celebration dinner. 40 people were seated around 2 horseshoe tables in the Tui House large room, packed in like sardines and very happy. We had a lovely dinner. We saw photos of 7 years of Earthsong, and talked and danced into the night - we'd pulled it off, we'd built Stage I, the hardest part of all, with all the preparation and the major site works and the first houses. We'd arrived. We were elated and exhausted. It would take some time to sink in.

People settled into their houses and started their gardens. We lived with gravel paths and mud for a few more months until finally getting the paths concreted in the summer. With Stage I construction finished and the pressure off, we finally had time to catch up on years of deferred processing that we knew we had to do as a group. We had a series of sessions with an outside facilitator to talk about what we had been through, and to start to build community in a new way now that we were actually living together on the land.

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