BUILDING AN ECOMMUNITY
A Symbiotic Design for Living
~ Villatopia ~
I am convinced that us human beings must evolve and transform, like caterpillars become butterflies, and very soon before we perish. We must prepare cocoons with loving nurture and create a safe haven to birth the slumbering truth of our grander human potential, a new humanity of loving unity in a field of delightful diversity. Until we do, our crotchety old "civilization", stuck together precariously with bonds of fear and insecurity, will continue to cannibalize our own Mother Earth in its insatiable hunger for fulfillment.
I seek my tribe, my family of loving friends and coconspirators to found a radically new society, a close community of cooperation, trust and service, one designed to heal ourselves and the surrounding community, where all aspects of living are thoughtfully and elegantly integrated into an organic whole. I want to live and work in concert with like-minded souls, to discover how much richer life can be when we discover a common vision and strive to realize it. I want to be part of a global village network, where fellow Gaia-nauts connect in larger purpose and we feel our intimate kinship in the family of (wo)man. Without community I am powerless to accomplish this grandiose yet imperative dream.
This dream is not mine alone. I only write it down to help gather the tribe. The specific forms of the ideas presented here are not important; the underlying principles, values and goals are.
Let us plan a work-residence community. Include, perhaps, a symbiotic selection of cooperative businesses, where each worker is an owner, consensus decision making the norm, and a local employment trading system replaces most of the internal money transactions. Experiment with bold new approaches to mutual support, sharing of resources and investing in the future. Adopt a cohousing approach to the residential area, sharing of facilities, a land-trust approach to ownership, while at the same time encouraging individual initiative and uniqueness. . .
‘Unity in Diversity’
‘E Pluribus Unum’
Let us explore new frontiers of communication, architecture and the arts. Build an inspirational and efficiently designed center for meetings, conferences, communication, recreation and entertainment.
Incorporate a broad cross-section of the healing arts along with organic farming and new approaches to waste disposal, alternative energy, building design and group dynamics.
Assist each other and the outside world in becoming whole, creative, loving embodiments of our divine potential, to be joyful instruments in the transformation of the earth into a symphony of harmonious life.
The community scene
A good starting point for discussion is the Cohousing model. Pioneered in Denmark, this housing option is spreading in popularity throughout Northern Europe and now also in the U.S., initiated by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. Much of the information presented here is derived from their excellent book, Cohousing, A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, 1988, Habitat Press.
Planned with the extensive participation of the residents themselves, cohousing combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of shared facilities and community living. A modest private home (with small kitchen and other private areas) is augmented with extensive common facilities shared with the larger group -- kitchen & dining hall, children's playrooms, workshops, guest rooms, laundry facilities, office space, media room, game room, music room, storage spaces, photographic darkroom, etc..
Outdoor spaces are also utilized much more efficiently. Instead of having 20 separate lawns, gardens and play areas, the dwellings are usually clustered around a central commons where neighbors can socialize while the children play in the playground, protected from traffic and outside interference. There is often a large covered area for the children to play in during inclement weather and a large community garden, secluded orchard or other spaces. These are all made possible by thoughtful planning of the community as a whole , in contrast to our present happenstance collection of isolated and expensive single-family houses on postage-stamp lots.
Such a village-like atmosphere fosters a strong sense of community and naturally results in mutual undertakings such as ride-sharing, child care and community projects. Families with children have found the close "village" setting particularly attractive.
In Denmark, the common kitchen has become an important institution in all cohousing communities. In the dining hall the community really gets to know each other, and a strong sense of cooperation and camaraderie is developed. The onerous responsibility of preparing and cleaning up after 90 meals a month is delightfully relieved. One only needs to cook and clean up a few days a month at most; the rest of the time can be spent relaxing and enjoying the company! Food is purchased in bulk with substantial savings for the community. A buying coop is a convenient and economical extension of the food procurement activities.
The invitation to get involved in meaningful community projects is ever-present, from kitchen and grounds duty to planning the garden, organizing the shop or participating in a work party. It is an ideal remedy for the all-too-typical American problem of alienation.
In his book, The Different Drum, Community making and Peace, M. Scott Peck says, “On my lecture tours across the country, the one constant I have found wherever I go - the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, or West Coast - is the lack of, and the thirst for, community.” Trapped in our tradition of rugged individualism, we are an extraordinarily lonely people. It does not have to be that way. Yet many ~ most ~ know no other way. Children have grown up in cohousing communities for many years now, and they know a different way. They and their parents express an overwhelming enthusiasm for that environment.
"Home" comes from the Greek word Kome, meaning Village. Home is not an isolated house, it is being intimately involved with a larger social group. The elderly in traditional communities serve important roles in family and village life. The interaction of age and youth is crucial to the wholeness, the wellness of a society. A full spectrum of ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds would add richness and balance to our cohousing community.
Another segment of our society we must provide for is the growing numbers who rent rather than purchase their own home. The practice of changing jobs and residences every five years is normal in our mobile society. Buying a house is a long-term commitment that many people, especially the quarter of our adult population who are single or single parents, do not wish to or cannot make. Burdensome loans, Realtor fees, closing costs, and property taxes that put high demands on time and finances are not realistic alternatives for many in our society. The average Seattle renter pays a third of their income for rent, while the poorest third pay two-thirds of their income for a roof over their heads. We must provide for these "functionally homeless" citizens of ours. They especially need to feel "at home" in a close community.
Cohousing communities in Denmark are increasingly providing rental units as part of the scheme, because they have found that, contrary to expectations, renters not only make just as good and responsible neighbors as owners, but they appreciate the social setting so much that they move even less frequently than the owners!
Temporary housing for workshop participants and visitors from other walks of life, other intentional communities, other cultures may also be provided. The resulting stimulating interchanges of diverse perspectives can rejuvenate both sides and add fresh new energy to ongoing endeavors.
Energy, pollution and recycling can be addressed in an elegant fashion through the cohousing model. First, the dwellings can be built to require very little heat, with super-insulated outside walls and fully sound-proofed common walls. Costs of construction and maintenance are considerably reduced when housing is clustered, especially where insulation, plumbing, wiring, foundations, exterior protection from the elements, and heating are considered.
The Danish experience has shown 15 to 35 cohousing units to be an optimum size range for effective group interaction. This would also provide a good core group for a complementary collection of cooperative businesses.
Offering opportunities for employment in the immediate community can considerably improve the quality of life for the residents. The tension, expense and pollution of distant commuting is avoided, and numerous economic and social benefits are also realized. A stronger sense of community and a more locally responsible citizenry is developed. Children get more time with their parents and the family is strengthened.
Employment at home is becoming increasingly popular, especially where computers are involved. One Danish governmental report sees cohousing as a model for the future as technology allows more people to work in the home.
Our cohousing community could include office facilities for the tenants' businesses, where equipment such as printers, plotters, scanners, fax and computers could be shared. Such a vibrant hub of activity for the larger surrounding community would be a natural site for meeting rooms, a day-care center, recreation facilities, a store to sell the products of the community -- all could be planned for where they would be most convenient, to improve the quality of life in the whole neighborhood.
Alternative communities throughout history have proven over and over again that new approaches to human interactions must take root in the surrounding community or they will perish. The new community must interact with and serve a valuable function in the "host" society. Our intentional community is no exception.
Recycling Energy Center
A recycling/energy center for the surrounding neighborhood could be central to the economy and service of the community. At the core would be a highly efficient biomass waste gasification/combustion/energy system, developed by Larry Dobson and his company, Northern Light Research & Development. It will burn household refuse and biomass waste more cleanly and efficiently than most residential and commercial heating systems. A prototype has been tested by Bonneville/DOE to burn cleaner than any wood burning system yet tested.
When trees and biomass crops are planted to replace the burned fuel, the carbon dioxide and water emitted from combustion is again turned into plant matter and stored solar energy, so there is no net gain in greenhouse gases, no pollution from the energy cycle.
This technology can be incorporated into the community energy system and serve as a recycling center for the larger community, providing jobs for some of the residents. The central furnace can be fueled with locally available paper and wood waste not otherwise recyclable, tree trimmings from local tree trimmers, even the most common household refuse, including plastics, can be burned with virtually no emissions other than carbon dioxide and steam. A chipper could be part of the recycling center to process neighborhood prunings and windfall trees and branches into fuel, but logs and whole branches can be stuffed into the latest design. Recycled aluminum and glass could be melted down and turned into useful products.
In Germany, where tile roofs last several hundred years (rather than the 15 to 25-year life-span of our asphalt and wood roofs), glass tiles are interspersed between the clay ones for light. These glass tiles last indefinitely and would be a useful and profitable product from our glutted recycled glass market. Other new recycled products, such as lightweight foamed glass roofing tiles and building insulation from recycled glass could be developed by the community to provide income and important directions for other recycling endeavors throughout the world.
This inexpensive source of high temperature heat could support other manufacturing and employment opportunities. Glass-blowing, pottery kilns, a bronze foundry and wrought-iron facilities could be incorporated into the plan, as well as other low-level heat needs such as processing steam, curing and drying facilities. A steam or heat engine could produce direct shaft power to replace electric motor power for operations such as pottery wheels, public washing-machines, clothes dryers, fans, grinders, saws, drills, etc.
Dobson’s furnaces have been coupled with advanced Stirling cycle external heat engine electric generators to provide all the electricity, hot water, space heating, cooking, drying and waste disposal needs of a household. The integrated components of the system can be fully automated to provide efficiencies several times that of separate stand-alone units. The community could continue the development of this technology.
With second and third-level heat cycling, all the heating, hot water and laundry needs of the larger community could be efficiently met. Other businesses serving the surrounding community could take advantage of the available heat in such facilities as a sauna, steam-bath, heated pool, aquaculture ponds and greenhouses. Food processing from the extensive community gardens, as well as the surrounding community, could take advantage of this free heat for canning, blanching, drying and other activities.
By integrating the energy needs of the whole system, unparalleled efficiencies many times better than presently available could be easily realized. This is a primary key to success in making our businesses profitable, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels (and the consequent greenhouse gas buildup) and making our lives more elegantly simple.
Health, in the fundamental senses of "Whole" and "Heal" is absolutely essential to the nuclear community as well as their interactions with the outside world. We should have a variety of facilities for developing strong, balanced and rhythmical bodies and integrate a healthy variety of activities and quiet into our daily lives. We need group members skilled in a variety of healing arts such as herbal medicine, nutrition, massage, homeopathic, naturpathic and chiropractic medicine, yoga, meditation, dance, psychodrama, physical education, conflict-resolution, etc.
Providing facilities for the outside community and offering a variety of workshops will make the ideal affordable. Incorporated into the heating system could be a steam bath, sauna, shower & laundry facilities, year-round heated swimming pool with massage room, etc.. (The infra-red heat radiating directly from wood combustion through ceramic has the finest therapeutic properties of the Native American sweat lodge.) We could have a playground for all ages, with swings, trapezes, tree houses, nets, trampoline, balance & workout equipment.
Having multiple opportunities & services grouped together would be most attractive to outsiders as well. They could bring the whole family, with recyclables and laundry, while various members played, bathed, swam, attended a concert or drum circle, yoga, pottery or glassblowing workshop, browsed through the community store, worked in the community garden, or availed themselves of the many services provided by the community.
A large multipurpose hall should be planned into the facilities, with emphasis on music, dance and theater. This would compliment the emphasis on holistic living and service to the outside community, affording the opportunity to host visiting cultural events, sponsor events like weekly dances, exercise classes, public meetings, conferences, etc.. If well designed for acoustics, lighting, ventilation and aesthetics, with large openings to incorporate an outside courtyard/garden into the space, it could be a very important hub of activity and provide significant income for the community.
Nature's dance is a study in interdependence of specialized organisms. Our community should emulate this model, both in our interactions with the outside world and internally. Yet there is also wisdom in striving for local self-sufficiency, in creating a totally balanced ecosystem where all the links in the food chain and basic pieces in the puzzle of human needs are provided for. Farming, livestock, beekeeping, aquaculture, and silviculture are important ingredients in our integrated community, integrating concepts of Permaculture, Biodynamics and other subtle energy modalities. Through such involvement with nature we come to understand the weather, the seasons, the sacredness of food and the interdependencies of life. We know where our food comes from -- we know it is wholesome, and we also provide for the larger community.
A large herb garden can supply healing herbs for the community and its resident healers and stock the store for outsiders. The central energy system can heat large greenhouses with waste heat for a highly profitable business. Likewise, waste heat can be cycled through baking ovens, food-drying cabinets, and canning facilities to give an additional economic advantage to the production of processed foods by a cooperative business.
The community kitchen could serve economical, highly nutritious fresh food, and even a bakery or restaurant could eventually be incorporated into the business mix.
Water & Waste
The world desperately needs new models of sewage and waste-water treatment. In addition to the recycling endeavors already mentioned, our community should boldly pursue alternative approaches to these problems, such as compost toilets, bio-gas generation, wastewater irrigation, biofiltration systems and other alternatives to sewers, septic tanks and landfills.
Machine Shop/R&D Facilities
To complement the emphasis on self-sufficiency and innovative elegant approaches to living, the community should include a fully equipped shop with the capacity to fabricate much of the equipment needed for the other businesses and facilities. In addition, it could serve ongoing research and development activities to develop new products for the recycling businesses and alternative life styles. Emphasis should be on simple, efficient, low energy technology designed to last and be easily repaired. This could produce a lucrative income to finance more ambitious undertakings.
Because a major focus of the community will be serving and providing a model for the surrounding populace, it may include a store to distribute the products of the local businesses. Items for sale might include fruit, vegetables, herbs, dried & prepared foods, honey, meat, fish, poultry & other farm products; products made from recycled glass, plastic & aluminum; handicraft items like art-glass, ceramics, wrought-iron works; recycled appliances fixed in the repair shop; etc.
Communications is an equally vital link in demonstrating this alternative society. The latest advances in computers, video, sound-recording, multimedia presentation, graphics, printing, publication and telecommunications should be pursued by the community to develop more powerful and effective ways of communicating that which the old paradigm cannot yet see. This business will also serve most effectively the advertising and communications needs of the other cooperative enterprises.
As long as money controls what we do and what resources we have at our disposal we will not fulfill our potential for a rich and cooperative society of productive individuals. This is a multi-million dollar dream, but if enough devoted workers join together in pursuit of it, the money will come. The values and efficiencies we build into the community model should help us free ourselves from poverty mentality and over-dependency on outside money. The community should investigate the numerous ways of achieving this goal. One promising approach to economics and job linking is a Local Employment Trading System (LETS). We already have one here on Whidbey Island, with the advent of the Whidbey Terra.
Additional Ideas and Ideals
* Design for the future, build to last and be improved upon for seven generations. Many public dwellings and residences in the world have been in continuous use for longer. Invest whatever it takes to do it right. Think in long-term economics.
* Build structures of Fundamental form: Move in the path of the Tao, cellular and molecular consciousness of physical reality. (This is a topic for another paper)
* Use earth and ferrocement in construction, with emphasis on underground with roof gardens, blending into landscape. This incorporates permanency, thermal and sound insulation.
* Include an underground cave for meditation and silent contemplation.
* For the playground we already have a ground-level trampoline, a giant stellated octagon swing & tumbling mats. Playground equipment should be designed for young and old alike, to develop coordination and rhythm in all parts of the body. Some equipment could facilitate group cooperation and synchronization.
* We are closer to the primates than we acknowledge, and we can benefit greatly from more swinging with our arms and tree climbing. We should include a treehouse community, with well-built structures that could be lived in full-time. The art of tree house construction has been perfected by supporting the tree house as an integral part of the host trees without harming them, where the support becomes stronger with age. Trapezes, swings and ropes could connect the dwellings, with long-lasting safety nets below.
These are only preliminary ideas, to be modified and added to by all who are seriously interested in forming such a community. If this includes you, contact:
~ Whidbey Island, WA ~