Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Neighborhoods at Earthaven Ecovillage

While Earthaven Ecovillage is, in fact, a single community, it is composed of multiple neighborhood clusters that distinguish themselves spatially, socially, and structurally. On the mid-May afternoon that I arrived at Earthaven, I was surprised at how few dwellings I could see standing at what was, quite obviously, the community center. Indeed, the geography and foliage of the place allow each neighborhood to hide behind riparian buffers, on top of hills, and even deep in the woods. These neighborhoods are officially recognized entities with Earthaven, and offer eating and dwelling arrangements that suit the diversity of Earthaven inhabitants. Although my research is far from making clear conclusions, my observation is that Earthaven is currently experiencing a lull in home construction. While I believe the reasons for this lull are various and multi-scalar (some economic, some social ) I believe construction has slowed, in part, because the diversity of housing at Earthaven allows for individuals and families to change housing as their life conditions change. With ample and diverse housing, a growing family (or fragmenting family) has many potential alternatives if their existing housing arrangement is less than ideal.

Below, I highlight four of Earthaven’s built neighborhoods. The community has fourteen designated neighborhoods, several of which remain in the planning/dreaming/still forested stages. To read more details about these neighborhoods and the neighborhoods I have not covered below, please visit Earthaven’s neighborhood webpage.

The “Gateway” Neighborhood

I’ll begin at the beginning—my residence for the summer—Gateway Farm. Gateway lies at what I would consider the “outskirts” of the community. In fact, on my daily walk into the community center, I actually have leave Earthaven property and re-enter the community through the front “gate” (actually, a rusted gate that is never closed). Gateway’s structures consist of three buildings: Brian Love’s (my host) home, the “Micro Hut” and the Gateway Barn. After clearing the formerly forested land and processing the timber into lumber, Brian and his business partner constructed the barn and their respective dwellings from said lumber. Today, the “house” and the Micro Hut overlook a field of sheep circumscribed by a creek and a wooded hill. Energy for all structures are provided by solar photovoltaics mounted on the south face of the Barn, and all water is fed, by gravity, from nearby springs. In later posts, I’ll describe some of the more detailed features of Love’s house.

Above: A souther view of the Gateway neighborhood. I'm currently inhabiting the attic in Brian Love's house (left). The Micro Hut (right) is a 11' x 11' home with a full kitchen, bedroom, office, and den. Yes, it can be done, and not uncomfortably.

Above: The southern face of the Gateway barn boasts an impressive PV array.

The Hut Hamlet

The Hut Hamlet is Earthaven’s oldest neighborhood and home to the community’s first built structures. In the mid-nineties when the Earthaven property was nearly all forest, the founding members began to experiment with natural building in what is currently a thriving, family-filled, and fully functional neighborhood. Originally intended to serve as temporary housing for aspiring full members of the community, the “Hamlet” has attracted several young families with every intention of staying in place as well as new young members that prefer the privacy of individual dwellings to other communal options. The Hamlet is striking in its structural diversity, consisting of straw bale cabins, a cob “mud hut”, several elevated yurts (the inhabitants of which have experimented with different permanent and semi-permanent yurt coverings), one “experimental” multi-unit structure, a wooden hexagonal cabin (the “hex hut”), and other passive-solar structures insulated by straw-clay mix. The neighborhood clusters around a shared kitchen/bathhouse, several gardens, and a playground for children.

Above: A small home and garden in the Hut Hamlet currently serves as a young family of three.

Medicine Wheel

Originally called the A&A (Armstrong & Allison) after its builders, the Medicine Wheel house is the one of the community’s communal living arrangements. The house is currently inhabited by about a dozen men and women ranging from long-time full members to young work-exchangers. The house hosts group dinners, community seminars (I just attended a community sexuality seminar), musical jams, permaculture workshops, and probably other events that I haven’t heard of or witnessed. The structure is made of—yes—recycled apple cider crates and you can still see the original industrial apple cider labels when you descend the stairs. The house is a giant permaculture experiment, and is enclosed in its own garden from which residents eat directly.

Above: A permacultural paradise! Medicine Wheel house is seen in the distance. It's an enormous, three-story, Texas style house surrounded by gardens.

Village Terrace

Village Terrace, or “VT” is a neighborhood of “common wall” structures, or what urban planners might call “multi-family” units. The neighborhood currently consists of two dwelling structures, the V.T. common house and a duplex called “Pokeberry,” one of the community’s newest homes. The buildings are powered by large solar photovoltaic arrays and irrigated by both spring water and well water. The neighborhood is home to community members of various ages and experiences: families with young children, individuals working for the businesses within VT, and some elder couples. Village Terrace also hosts several economic enterprises including a large community garden, Imani Farm, and Red Moon Herbs, one of several businesses inside Earthaven with a clientele that extends far beyond the region. Imani Farm, which lines the northern edge of VT is home to pigs, honey bees, chickens, and one of the most chill dairy cows I’ve encountered. There is one woman who apparently used to take the cow on walks around the community, and for all I know this is not uncommon.

Above: The Village Terrace buildings. The VT common house is in the foreground, Pokeberry is in the distance.

(Thanks again, Klara, for the camera!)

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Earthaven Ecovillage Community Center (Photos Included!)

Hello friends,

Having taken a relatively long hiatus from posting to the blog, it would be easy to assume that I’ve neglected my blogmaster duties altogether. Yet, I’m happy to announce that I’ve been saving up, and that blog postings in the coming weeks will be plentiful, indeed! I’ll be releasing photos and thoughts of and on Earthaven Ecovillage in five different installments devoted to 1) the community center and Council Hall, 2) my current dwelling (Brian Love’s house); 3) Earthaven’s natural beauty; and 4) community infrastructure and other impressive innovations; 5) the community as it presents itself to the “outside world”. Of course, I’ll be devoting time to social conventions and community governance in later blog postings, but due to the overwhelming request for pictures and the relative complexity of community governance, this will come later. Also-a special thanks to Klara Wengman, who supplied the camera.

Upon entering Earthaven Ecovillage property, a quarter-mile journey will usher you to what is quite prominently the community center. It is to this integral, multi-purpose, and ever-developing, corner of the community that I will focus this blog entry. The center of the community consists of the Village Green, the Council Hall, the Council Hall Plaza, a mail shack, and children’s play area. If you’ve read my previous posting about the Beltane celebration in late may, you’ve already been exposed to the community’s Village Green, an open lawn that I’ve seen used as a play field, performance space, ritual observance space, picnic area, and meeting spot—and all in just one month. The oval-shaped lawn is elevated several free from the road, and rimmed by a wall of young trees and a threatening swale of poison ivy (watch out!). Both the subtle elevation and the living plant wall serve to define the space well. It’s simple, elegant landscape architecture. Last night, a group of Earthaven members, guests, and I performed a solstice ritual that began in the Village Green with a meditation circle, and later moved to another “sacred” wooded space in the community. The details of this event will have to wait for a later post, however.

(Above: The Village Green and Maypole)

The Council Hall

Just uphill and to the west of the Village Green lies what I perceive as the most sacred, human-constructed space in the community: the Council Hall (CH). As I write, I’m beginning to realize the extent to which the Council Hall lies at the physical, spiritual, legal, and social convergence of Earthaven Ecovillage. Many of the community’s most inspiring successes (e.g. hydroelectric power) and on-going tensions (e.g. the desirability and/or legal status of flush toilets) manifest physically at this building. In my first several days living at Earthaven, it was to the Council Hall that I would wander in an attempt to integrate myself into community events, and while the space is currently the most accessible building to visitors, it has also witnessed the community’s most private conversations. Within a week of my time here, I was instructed to avoid the Council Hall for an afternoon as community members “threshed” through a private internal controversy. The simultaneous private and public nature of the building yields a layered social complexity unlike any other community building.

(Above: The southern wall of the Council Hall, plus the Council Hall plaza including a covered pavilion for outdoor meals and activities.)

Like most projects at Earthaven the Council Hall is an ongoing experiment, but its initial construction began in 1998, four years after the official founding of the community. The building serves as a meeting space for larger and small groups, an entertainment space (having just hosted an amazing concert by Chikomo Marimba Band), a yoga studio, a communal eating space, the Earthaven office, an internet portal, a DVD/board game/council minutes library, and offers a small kitchen for community events.

The building is principally circular, accommodating an open wooden floor encircled by off-white tulip poplar trunks. Tulip popular is one of the most common trees in the region and boasts a hand-shaped leaf, the likes of which I had not seen prior to my arrival. The wooden floor is a shoe-free zone and generally vacant of furniture when not in active use. Just inside the tulip popular perimeter sits rocking chairs, benches, and other assorted seats that are rearranged for council meetings that take place every Sunday. At the north side of the circle sits two large white boards, one of which bears the community calendar and to which meeting agendas are posted so participants can keep track of time.

The circle is capped by a yurt-style roof (there is a technical name for this, I’m sure) and the bottom rim of the roof is decorated with colorful reminders of the community’s mission statements. They include, for example, “Practice fair, participatory, and effective self governance” and “Shift from wasteful to regenerative use of resources.”

(Above: The Council Hall ceiling)

(Above: Thirteen banners on the Council Hall walls remind inhabitants of the community's mission.)

Passive and active temperature regulation

The exterior of the building is protected by white plaster, which, according to one source, has been neglected and is in need of repair. The white plaster, however, reflects sunlight away during the summer, keeping the building relatively cool while its vast, south-facing windows allow sunlight to illuminate the open Council Hall floor. The wall on the northern half of the building uses straw bale construction while the southern wall is filled with a clay-straw mix. Straw bale serves as an insulator, a temperature barrier, while clay-straw mix serves both as an insulator and as thermal mass, storing and releasing heat over time. So while the building’s southern wall is constantly absorbing and releasing solar energy, the northern wall traps it inside.

(Above: The plaster finish of the Council Hall sustaining some patchwork.)

The south-facing windows of the Council Hall were designed to allow for passive solar heating during the winter, but the community found that passive heating alone was insufficient. They’ve therefore invested in a wood-fired radiant heat system that resides beneath the wooden floorboards. The same wood burning system that fuels the radiant heat also heats the water in the kitchen, which lies on the north side of the building. According to one tour guide, the new wood burning stove has, “revolutionized” life at Earthaven.

Living roof experiment

I’ve arrived at Earthaven just in time to see the beginning construction stages of the living roof experiment atop the Council Hall. These first steps are the culmination of a decade of discussion and debate surrounding the wisdom of a living roof in a completely pavement-free place. My understanding, however, is that the opposing sides have agreed to move forward with a one-year long pilot project that applies a living roof to one-fourth of the Council Hall roof. I had the privilege of helping to apply layer one: used carpeting. The carpet was recovered from the hallway of an old apartment building, and smells like a year’s worth of accumulated mildew, but after we cover it in sifted dirt and sedums, the smell won’t much matter.

Stay tuned for more postings on Earthaven buildings, foliage, and community governance!