On living together, doing the dishes and Dunbar-ish numbers: the Sidi Kaouki chronicles

Our Jedi Knight-like djellabas came in handy in the cold of Moroccan winter. Photo credits: Matteo Uguzzoni

As I moved in the OpenVillage House in Sidi Kaouki, in late January, I realized it was not the easiest place to live. Morocco was (and still is) undergoing a phase of exceptionally cold weather. We get plenty of sunshine, but it goes down to 6-10° during the night, and it’s always windy. Still quite good by European standards, but houses here have no heating. Also, the equipment and infrastructure could use more maintenance. In my two weeks in the House, we spent significant time and effort re-organizing the kitchen (everyone), chopping firewood (@matteo_uguzzoni, @AhmedMajdoub, @gregoiremarty and @SyMorin), fixing the bicycles (@matthias), uncluttering drains, and taking the washing machine apart (@johncoate for both). @hazem, housemaster, helped a lot with support and kindness.

I was only the third person to move in. With so much to do, frankly, we were struggling, and not much project work was getting done. Ahmed arrived after a few days, but that did not fundamentally alter the dynamics. But then Gregoire and Simon moved in. When we were six, things shifted.

Food got better. Now people wanted to outdo each other in preparing the best meal. As an Italian, I had a field advantage :wink:; but nobody wanted to be left behind. One evening that I was the main cook, Simon insisted in making dessert, and he ended up with something positively decadent: strawberries glazed in melted chocolate! This was the same effect we noticed in the unMonastery; if you can cook one meal out, say, four, and be served the other three, you try to reciprocate by making an effort when it’s your turn to cook. Additionally, both at the unMonastery and here cooking shifts consist of two people, so cooking turns out to be social and fun.

The cleaning got better, too. People who had not been cooking did not want to be seen as slacking, and so threw themselves at doing the dishes. People who had missed on that got busy sweeping, or cleaning the bathroom.

None of this was planned, and no one had to say anything. Simon and Gregoire left, but were replaced by John and Matteo. The same dynamics stayed – and in fact was enhanced, since both John and Matteo are handier than most. Maybe six is a kind of Dunbar number, but a minimum number for these dynamics to unlock. Maybe there are other Dunbar-ish numbers, and new things will emerge when, say, there are ten or fourteen people in the House. We’ll find out.

Matthias and I had a very interesting discussion reflecting on this. It went more or less like this:

ME: This is great. It’s not broken, don’t fix it. The informality works fine, and has zero overhead.

MATT: I worry that the less visible house tasks will go unappreciated. It would be more transparent if we maintained a task list [we have one now], told people to expect to spend 1.5 hours per day on house tasks and to go find something to do on the list.

In a way, this goes back to the old discussion about how introverts and extroverts run things, as introduced by @trythis. Matt has a valid point, and so do I. What do you think? Should we have formalized task lists or does informality work better?


So nice to read this. Definitely was that close to make a dashboard with the daily simple tasks that would enhance the art of living together. Small but important things. Details sometimes, that gather the energies, feed the hearts and bellies, and allows the social flows to stay healthy and joyful.

It was such a pleasure for a quite unused to the collective exercise bear but yet talkative bird, aka me, to share those days with you all.


It is very good to have the list and for everyone to know where it is. And it is very good for the work to be self-motivated to get things done so it maintains the friendly informality. The mutual respect is very strong with that level of conscious contributing. But Matt does carefully document all the issues and it is super useful to have it. Today I thought about what tasks I could next help with, and I went to the list and saw the top roof door issue, which I knew about already but it wasn’t top of mind. That door is a problem that is going to get worse and it is the kind of thing I am pretty good at dealing with. So that is another value to the very comprehensive list: you can find something that works with your skill set.

I assume there are no slackers in this outfit, but I also know that groups tend to have some who are more aggressive go-getters than others. I think it can stay informal as long as everyone pitches in consistently and attends to things that matter, which in what the list contains. So maybe I see a middle ground…


When @Ceylan goes in, she might have some ideas - the way I’ve seen they organise it at Wir Bauen Zukunft is through an analogue calendar (was it just for the kitchen?) that I assume gets discussed a week or two ahead just so roughly everyone knows what needs to be done and put their names there - agreeing or just jumping in.

With that in plain sight, it’s hard not to acknowledge the work of others.

I think you’re onto something, and the number is definitely from six upwards in terms of organisation. In our house 3-4 people invisibly fall into roles and no need for too much acknowledgement (Alberto caring for the guest room, Nadia doing big groceries every now and then, me with the cleaning logistics for Helena etc…). A lot of flexibility in between, because we can each cover a gap when the others are not home. For more people, it would need more structure too.

My point is actually the opposite: you need less structure as numbers go up (at these very modest scales), because people tend to contribute equally, so if you cook for them they will look for something to do. But it’s just a wild conjecture for now. Looking forward to any input from @Ceylan!

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Agreed here.
Doing things seems to be contagious. Even a small thing such as cleaning a room drives the whole community in a participative motion. The more this motion is completing little things, the less you need structure. :smiley:

Hmm nice discussion here, but let me stir it up a notch :slight_smile: I should probably elaborate a bit what Alberto mentioned about the points I made. I admit that the way it’s running right now in the House is “not broken”, but I am looking for a solution that would work (1) long-term and (2) generically in all kinds of OpenVillage Houses. Beyond the initial excitement of having such a House project, which admittedly makes it very simple to run a House, even to a nice standard.

And the current setup is not a valid candidate for that, for various reasons:

  1. There are never “no rules”. Informal organizing comes with its own rules, they are just not made explicit. People spend a lot of time trying to figure out what these rules are. (For example, I still don’t know if it’s acceptable to leave un-done dishes in the kitchen when you use one or two items in the evening and leave, as the last one.) All this beating around the bush is a waste of mental processing capacity and time, and the “failing on the safe side” approach to assume stricter rules if one is still unsure leads to doing work that could have been avoided. Which is contrary to simplicity, “the art of maximizing the amount of work not done”.

  2. Competing for household performance wastes valuable time. I am wondering why I am not getting any significant amount of work done here, and one reason is for sure the higher standard of household work. Now when the “informal organization” is set up in such a way that there is a built-in silent competition for better cleaning, better food etc. … everyone doing more work than they would need for themselves and more than they expect from others … how is this possibly a good thing? If this wastes only 2% of a person’s wake time that is still 19 minutes every day, 117 hours a year.

  3. Implicit rules breed divisions. This is not visible in the short term, but definitely in the longer term. Given that the (real or perceived) implicit rules deviate from personal standards, people tend to silently (re-)negotiate them by stretching them … without talking about them, because that is a well-accepted taboo in this “informal organization” style. The result is “unspoken conflict” by people with different ideas about what the rules should be.

  4. It leads to a lack of investment. Your standing in the group depends on your perceived share of the housework. If an informal mode of organization is in place, this “perceived share” means “when you see others at work”. Obviously, as there is simply no other (formal or explicit) way to observe who does what. This situation bends the choice of tasks more towards the visible ones, so especially towards cooking and cleaning, even to the degree of overdoing them. The alternative would be to use this “overdoing capacity” instead for less visible work that will pay off on the longer term, by reducing the very need for “daily chores”. In the case of (long-term) OpenVillage Houses this means things like:

    • removing little hazards and annoyances, creating small comforts (furniture fixes and improvements, …)
    • household automation (dishwasher, better washing machine, Internet connection failover etc.)
    • household organization (storage organization, trash management, …)
    • expense minimization (energy efficient devices, photovoltaics plant etc.)
    • documenting collective knowledge

That’s all I have to say about this at the moment. All not set it in stone and up for discussion of course … the sole purpose of this post actually :wink:


My bad. I had in mind more people, even more than 6-8 and up to a dozen.
But then again, reading Matt’s comment below makes me realize we do have simple default rules even in our small group- washing your dishes so that everyone finds the kitchen clean, whoever is last turns off the lights etc.

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A clean house is one level of consideration for one’s housemates and left undone makes the whole place unpleasant. But I agree that just focusing on keeping things clean is a sort of entry level that everyone understands. Taking on tasks that have longer-term benefits such as Matt describes should accompany standard household chores. I’m repeating myself but this is where the list is valuable. And it is very satisfying to do a task that has that longer term value. That said, I have not cooked dinner here and have certainly enjoyed the meals others have cooked. And there are some good cooks here. So I think if one is a better cook than I am and I am better at fixing things then that is a good division of labor, though I don’t think it should become a rigid set of roles.

I am pretty good at fixing things when there are few tools and materials around. So, when I see that someone is handling things in the kitchen, I feel a stronger obligation to make my contribution in that other area. I don’t totally depend on the list - I made the shower head work better and that was just something I noticed needed maintenance - but there is a pleasure in checking something off of that list as a problem now solved.

Also it should be noted, “who does the work calls the shots” applies for sure. I came here accepting and embracing that I am not leading here on a meta sense, but contributing with guidance and feedback from those who are the most responsible for the whole.


I am abit skeptical of finding one solution to fit all houses as people behaviour and habits are different so each group setting finds its own way… May be thats why informal knowledge is hardly documented?
Although as u mentioned unspoken rules tend not to see the quieter arguments ( for this the digital layer will help to write down the stuff that one tend not to say out loud …and in communities that dont. Use a lot of software a pen and a paper is a good way to start)

I am thinking out loud here… Probably during our stay we will find an in between solution but only to be edited or changed completely in the next versions

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This is both true and important. Explicit is good, up to a point. If there are explicit rules about everything, life can feel a little dreary. So explicit-ness also has diminishing returns, and should be treated as a scarce resource. The good news is that you can make things clear without going formal, by nudging or design.

Example of nudging. In Sidi Kaouki I also noticed the example, mentioned by Matt, of leaving a few dirty dishes in the sink. I personally don’t like it; at home, I never do it. What to do? At home, I wash any small stuff that I find in the sink, even if it’s not my own. Reason: I’m nudging. If people find an empty sink, they will tend to leave an empty sink, as per the broken windows theory. That works at home, but Kaouki is maybe too fluid a social environment for that, with people coming and going. Maybe a “your mom does not work here” sticker next to the sink will do the trick.

Example of design. On our shopping expeditions to Essaouira, I have been hellbent on finding a second rack to dry up the clean dishes (I eventually found it – and, @SyMorin, we recovered it from the taxi driver, so don’t worry!). Why? Because I had noticed that our one rack tended to be overfull with dishes. This means that, when you did the dishes, you had to start by unloading the rack and putting the clean stuff away. This is an unsolved “problem” (not a big deal, really) even at The Reef Brussels. I reasoned that, with two, you would have more slack in the system. At 90 Dirham, it was cheaper than wasting everyone’s time talking about this.

I can also live with a few dirty cups in the sink or an overflowing dish rack, it’s not that big a deal. That’s why the worst solution would be a massive debate about whether dirty cups in the sink are good or bad. Because these debates also consume processing power, and they have a potential for controversy and dreariness. Let the House not be remembered as a place where smart people spent time talking about this stuff. This is why we have a Master of the House, and that’s @hazem. What he says, goes.

Again I see middle ground. Back at the commune we didn’t have rules much per se, but had lots of what we called agreements. The difference being that agreements implies that you do talk about such things when necessary with erring on the side of more rather than less talk. But talking about stuff all the time is inefficient, I agree with you there. That chart above is a useful reminder of that. Still, if everything goes unspoken then that can be too much over to that side. The Buddha described his path as the “middle path.”


Let’s put it another way :slight_smile: “You make people feel bad in the process of trying to establish a new implicit rule.” The starting point was a situation where neither this rule nor its opposite existed, because the House and how to organize it was a blank slate when we arrived.

Right, and the same as my experience. This “feeling the obligation” is what I’m talking about above. And it’s a fuzzy sense of obligation: How much other work is needed to offset for not volunteering in the kitchen? There is never a proper sense of what is enough, and this ruins the experience. (Subjectively, and of course there will be people less susceptible to such social pressures and the informal system will work just fine for them. But that’s not everyone.)

I think I agree that there’s no “one size fits all”. OpenVillage Houses can be anything between a flat-sharing community and a large commune, and settings differ between those where nearly all common work is construction (say, if we had one of the abandoned houses in this area) and where nearly all common work is household maintenance (city life, e.g. as in Reef Brussels, where the informal way of organizing seems to work fine). It will also depend on size: small flat-sharing setups (≤5 people?) will probably naturally be organized “home-like” (informally), while larger setups may need more structure.

But that does not mean that we can’t find “The Solution”. There is overlap between what works in different settings, and expertise of developing something for a new setting. So it sounds like design patterns would be a proper way to structure and document “The Solution” as something to mix and match for different settings.

And lastly:

Of course. These are not really important issues. Which is why I’d never discuss this stuff had you not offered to start this high-level discussion because “it’s an interesting issue to analyze”. Having this discussion won’t pay off for the Sidi Kaouki House, which makes your point about time cost valid. But there is also the bigger picture of us wanting to find re-usable solutions, of wanting to solve an issue “once and for all time”. So within the whole OpenVillage Solutions ecosystem, this discussion may still pay off, if it all comes together as I hope it will …


Certainly as a baseline everyone in a Reef needs at all times to embrace that there are no passengers, only crew.

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Elegantly put! Yes, that’s the essence of nudging. With one small addition: you make people feel bad or good in the process of trying to establish a new implicit rule. Incentives work both ways. People might like to look at a tidy kitchen. In this example, I see it more as a positive incentive than a negative one.

I don’t know if it’s really the same thing but here.is.how.the things are working at my cheeseshop.

  • the things to do :
    There is a lot of things to do in a cheese shop, on various time scales.
    The monthly done stuff, weekly, and the stuff we have to do on a daily basis. They’re very different, and also depends on the planning of each member of the team, and the extras we have or not. Bit basically, every new comer receives a little cool briefing before anything.
  • how things are done :
    During this little brief, we explain when and how things have to be done. We obviously repeat any info if and when needed. Nothing is written, everything is transmitted from one to another. When everybody is on point with the workflow, the completing of the tasks kind of organise itself, led by the main members of the team and followed by the extras. For instance on the mornings I will clean and full my goat cheeses, while my colegue would slice enough Brie for the day. On the evenings when the day is ending, I would clean the dishes while an extra is cleaning the floor, and so on with no roles remaining the day after.
  • the natural rolling rule :
    If a natural rolling of roles and tasks is working 90% of the time, we all need some adjustments sometimes. Because of the variations in the team composition mainly. It is always a short oral brief reorganizing quickly who do what. Short term adjustments to improve the efficiency of the team at a specific moment, regarding a specific situation.
  • middle and long term adjustments :
    With the main team changing sometimes, and new people arriving not as extras but as employees, the briefs are deeper for a while, and become more and more discussions about hypothetical improvements as much as both the new comer and the rest of the team feel comfortable to do so.
  • slow transformations in processes and workflow :
    At some point, both workflow and processes are changing, with an adaptation to the characters in the team. Everything has to remain productive, but the way we are as individual eventually change from one to another.

So, as I write this, thinking out loud, I would say that there is no global schema of processes and workflows in a community with tasks. I.think we would fail at trying to map how things and tasks have to be completed.
It might be more about a schema of managing people, characters and fits in. And to me, the key is more related to a good inclusion than to anything else.

Would we be able to map what a good inclusion is? Definitively. They’re lot of examples in the comments of John and Alberto for instance, and I’m confident that, for the same purpose, studying these little inclusion markers would be more efficient than studying the completion of tasks.

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