Ecovillage Design – An experts perspective

We are lucky to have some very talented folks presenting at this years Communities Conference.  In the coming days there will be several workshop highlighted on this blog.

If we are going to change the way relate to our environment, we are going to need to build new types of buildings and entire ecovillages.  Fred Oesch has been doing exactly this for years now.

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Charlottesville Ecovillage Design Proposal

 

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Acorn/SESE Seed Office design

This is the workshop Fred is offering at this years Communities Conference.

Ecovillage Design – Principles and Practices

Presented by Fred Oesch of Oesch Environmental Designs and Openworld Villages

We now have significant experience designing ecovillages both in rural and urban settings and this workshop will take stock of what has been learned over the last 30 years.  There are sustainability elements, aesthetic aspects and design components connected with high degrees of sharing which all go into making a high functioning ecovillage. In many cases these are not elements which are taught in architecture school.  We will explore conversions of existing non-ecovillages as well as designed from scratch solutions. The workshop will start with presentation and then go into question and answer.

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Fred Oesch – Architect/Ecovillage Designer

Fred Oesch is a licensed architect who designed the seed building at Acorn and lives in Schuyler VA.  He has also been involved in several ecovillage projects, both urban and rural as well as new builds and conversions.  He serves on the Ecovillage Charlottesville Board and throws a mean quarry party.

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Site of ecological design and excellent parties

Some of what is covered in the workshop is Principles of Regenerative Environmental Design:

1] Design as a Way of Life.

2] Reflection of Evolving Regional Society, Tradition, Culture, and Religion

3] Utilization of Indigenous Technology, Materials, and Labor Skills

4] Direct Response to Microclimate / Seamless Site Integration

5] Minimum Inventory / Maximum Diversity Systems

6] Direct Designer / Builder / Inhabitant Participation

7] Net Resource and Energy Production

8] Self-Regenerating ‘Living’ Systems

 

It is still possible to come and participate in the Twin Oaks Communities Conference on August 31st thru Sept 2.  You can RSVP here in Facebook.  Or simply register for the Communities Conference

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Acorn/SESE Seed Office Actual

 

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Ecovillage Design – An experts perspective

Call for Workshops: Twin Oaks Communities Conference

May is the month when the organizers for the Twin Oaks Communities Conference ask people to think about Labor Day weekend.  Specifically, we ask people what types of workshops they might be interested in offering at the Twin Oaks Communities Conference (TOCC).  These come in two broad types.

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Fixed Time Workshops:  This is the collection of 16 (or sometimes 20) workshops which are selected in advance and are all relating to intentional communities.  We are exploring different themes and it is likely we will choose a couple of them.  If you are interested in presenting on an intentional community related topic we would encourage you to submit this workshop proposal form.  The deadline for proposals is May 31st.  These workshops happen Saturday, Sept 1st and Sunday morning. Workshop presenters who are selected for these fixed time slots will get their registration fee waived.  And if you are coming from NYC metro area (or south of there) you might be able to come on our totally groovy bus.

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Open Space Technology Workshop:  There are way too many clever and interesting people at the TOCC to not provide a forum for them to demonstrate or propose their own workshop even if it has little or nothing to do with community.  The problem (from an organizers perspective) is which ones do you choose?  Fortunately, this problem has been well worked by others and there is a democratic, self selecting mechanism called Open Space Technology.  These workshops are giving Sunday (Sept 2) midday into the afternoon and typically we do between 10 and 20 workshops ranging in size from 25 participants (like at a urban squatting or polyamory workshop) to just a couple of excited participants (bird watching or Python blockchain programming).

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Even if you don’t want to offer any workshop there are three types of people who might want to come to this annual event, which often has over 150 participants and 40 plus communities represented:

  1. You want to find an intentional community to move into
  2. You are starting a community with friends
  3. You live in a community and are looking for new members

If any of these three things is true for you, then you can register for this event here.  If you want to see who is already coming and who is interested go to the Facebook event (35 attending and 215 interested so far (May 1), and we have just started our outreach).

Call for Workshops: Twin Oaks Communities Conference

Is Gossip the Fabric of Community?

By Paxus Calta-Star

I co-moderate a large diverse facebook group on intentional communities.  Recently someone posted:

Gossip gets embellished as it travels. Things heard second hand should be verified with the speaker. Beware words taken out of context, even if the context is the room next door. Good communities practice all that.

While this is true as far as it goes, it misses the tremendous complexity around the issue of gossip and how important it is to both the culture and success of a community venture.

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What is gossip?  It is certainly more than an opinion expressed about someone who is not in the room.  “Trump is a misogynist racist,” isn’t gossip, unless you are close to him.  It is just an opinion.  “Cindy is gifted at fixing cars,” almost certainly does not qualify either, as most people think gossip is a negative opinion.

“Paxus is a poor driver.” What if this is something I have said myself and you are simply repeating it?  Is it gossip if the target is the source?

 

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They did what?

Let me propose a harsher definition: Gossip is a critical judgment shared about a person or group, often in conspiratorial or secretive tones, while not directly communicating with the subject of the gossip.

Using this definition one might reasonably be concerned that gossip would have an acidic effect on the fabric of the community.  One of the common anti-gossip norms that exist in the communes is if you hear something critical about someone you could ask, “Have you told this to them?”  This is the antidote to gossip; being transparent with the subject of the rumor.

 

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Back in the 80s, as I was just becoming aware of community living, when I was making a critical comment about gossip, my dear friend and mentor Crystal replied “Gossip is the fabric of the community,” and it took me a couple of decades to understand what he was talking about.

Even when using the negative it turns out gossip is important for a community to be healthy.  Members need to confide in confidants about their frustration with others in the community.  Ideally, this is less about spreading rumors and more about seeking advice.  “How do I deal with this headachy circumstance?”  or “Do you understand their motivations for this strange behavior?” or “I was so upset and they were clueless, what is really happening here?”

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In the best light, gossip is the flow of self-critical and self-correcting messages which members share in the lead up to actually addressing the problems.  [Where the “self” here is the larger collective one, rather than the individual personal one.]  You talk about things which are on your mind with the people who you live with and they help you reflect back on what you should do about it.  Recognizing that if you are being critical of another member of your community, you are obligated to get back to them with your concern.

In this way, gossip within a community is different from what happens in the mainstream.  If I am being critical or concerned about another member, I have a larger obligation to do something about it than I do if it is a co-worker or random stranger.  If you have a substance abuse problem and we live collectively, not only can it blow back on me in a problematic way, but I have made some level of commitment to take care of you.  If we are part of the same intentional community and I am worried about your mental health, I can’t casually gripe about it to another member, we have to be considering what our course of action is regarding this problem.  Even less dramatic problems other members are experiencing a poor choice of romantic partners or headache with a boss are much more shared in a community setting than when living independently.  Gossip in community has more obligation to it.

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It is worth pointing out that Twin Oaks does not embrace this culture.  In my large commune, if you don’t want to deal with someone you can completely shut down communication with them.  This is terrible for clearing gossip but might make it possible for some people who really do not see eye to eye to be able to live together.  And because the community is so large these estranged members (including me) just try to avoid each other.

It is worth pointing out that when ex-Oakers founded Acorn with financial assistance from Twin Oaks, this was one of the most important things they wanted to do differently.  Acorn (and many other communes) have a communication covenant which makes it the community’s business when members are failing to communicate.  When you are designing communities one of the thorniest issues is when do you give power to the collective over the individual members.  And gossip is one of the few places you should seriously consider it.

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Is Gossip the Fabric of Community?

My Favorite Things

by Raven

Here are some recent photos from this blog of the joys of Communal Living:

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The folks at Kibbutz Mishol

If you look carefully you can see god hiding

The pool at Cambia

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Working together at East Wind

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The Cotyledon crew

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Cooking at Le Manoir

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Saturnalia at Compersia

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The Twin Oaks Feminist Zine

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An overview of East Brook Community Farm

ChickensChickens at Acorn

And from communes yet to be:

DV Trees

The land at Donald’s View

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A map of possible land for Full Circle

My Favorite Things

Getting Beyond Two, Three, or Four Folks

  by Raven

 

These are the early days at Cotyledon, the income sharing community we are forming in NYC.  We are not even two months old.  There were four of us but one person decided to live somewhere else, so now we will be three.  This is not a good direction to go in.

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The building Cotyledon is in.

I helped build a commune in Cambridge, MA, in the nineties, that got up to six adults and two kids at one point.  It was after we dropped down to four adults that we fell apart.  A four person community is very vulnerable.  We lost two more folks and we were gone.  I’ve heard of at least one other community that fell apart for similar reasons.

As the manager of Commune Life, I’m hearing of a bunch of new communities–most at this point consist of three or four folks.  Many have a couple at their center.  I’ve written about how some communities with a couple at their center fail to work out.  I’ve noticed that some of these communities have different dynamics, some of which still may turn out to be problematic.

I’m, also acutely aware of the new communes that don’t work out, or are transitioning out of income sharing.  It’s hard to build these communities to last and, I think, growing them beyond a small number of people is an important part of the process.

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Acorn, now

I talked with someone at Acorn about how they survived.  They were down to six people at one point early in their history and down to two people at another.   I asked how they managed to get past that.   I was told there were two reasons for their survival.  One was Ira Wallace, a strong person, and the other was Twin Oaks, a strong community nearby.

And how did Twin Oaks survive?  In her book,   A Walden Two Experiment, Kat Kinkade wrote that in 1969 Twin Oaks was down to ten members and dropping.   They decided to get rid of the entrance-fee.  It meant that anyone could come and people started coming.

I find Kat Kinkade amazing.  She was part of starting three communes (Twin Oaks, Acorn, and East Wind) and all three are still going strong. Folks have told me that her philosophy was to build up communities fast and I figure that she knew something.

 

I don’t have an answer to this but I’m well aware that staying small is a barrier.   I’ve talked with GPaul at Compersia about this and they are working on growing.  They are up to six folks now.

I believe that having some openness and flexibility while remaining true to your basic principles is part of what is needed. It’s a balancing act but I think it’s what you need to do to get beyond being two, three, or four.

 

Getting Beyond Two, Three, or Four Folks

The Acorn Community

from MoonRaven’s Social Alchemy Blog, September 14, 2012

(Note, this is from my first visit to Acorn, five years ago.)

Acorn is at least three different things: an egalitarian community, a farm, and a business (Southern Exposure Seed Exchange).

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As a community it is an outgrowth of and sister to the Twin Oaks community (which I will visit in November) and they compare themselves to Twin Oaks a lot.  Some differences which were pointed out to me in my orientation here are that Acorn operates by consensus  (whereas Twin Oaks has a complicated Planner/Manager system) and Acorn members don’t need to fill out labor sheets–although visitors like me do.  Both Twin Oaks and Acorn require members and visitors to work 42 hours a week.

Here at Acorn work can be farm work in the gardens or with the animals (I’ve been doing some weeding), office work (I’ve spent a lot of time packing seeds for SESE), or house work (I’ve been doing some clean up after the meals and did the dishes once–which is a lot of dishes when it covers breakfast and lunch for around forty people).

As a farm, it has extensive plantings–plus chickens, rabbits, and goats.  However, most of the plantings are in support of the seed business–food is usually grown for the seeds rather than as food. Someone said that what was left after the plant reached the seed stage and had the seeds taken out was not thrilling food.  They buy most of their food from local farmers (and occasionally dumpster dive some).

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Acorn family portrait

The seed business is what keeps Acorn going–it’s the community’s work and they’re very serious about it.  Most of their seed is organic, as well as adapted to the area, and much of it is heirloom varieties.  They see this as righteous work, something they believe it, and it also makes quite a bit of money for the community.  They feel lucky to have something that can support them well that they also feel so good about.

Acorn is a spinoff from the Twin Oaks community (see my post on Communities of Communities, 6/9/12, for details) and has been around for nineteen years now.  At the moment they are so full that all the visitors are staying in tents in the woods on their property.  They tell folks that even if they are accepted for membership it may be at least six months before there could be an opening that allow moving in.  The place is full, the waiting list is long, and the people here work hard.  This is a community that’s working.

 

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Another Acorn group shot

Quote of the Day:  ” Our community encourages personal responsibility, supports queer and alternative lifestyles, and strives to create a stimulating social, political, feminist and intellectual environment….
“Remember, this stuff is hard! Living and working together, having fun and running a business, making decisions together and sharing income, are all challenging every day.” – from the Acorn Website

 

The Acorn Community

Back to the City!

by GPaul Blundell,  from Communities magazine,  Winter issue #177

There’s an abundance to the city, an almost overwhelming abundance. Today this abundance showed up as 20 rolls of sushi. A couple weeks ago it showed up as about 30 lbs. of filet mignon. Before that it was a gross of eggs (a dozen dozen) and a crate of organic grass-fed heavy cream and a case of fair trade black Himalayan chia seeds. All free. All pulled out of a dumpster in the middle of the night and brought back to the main house of Compersia, the commune I call home in Washington, DC.

As anyone who has moved to the country to pursue the simple life will tell you: the simple life is not so simple. The dream of rural abundance, of growing all your own food and fashioning all your own tools, is more often a reality of long hard work and making do with less. Unless you’re independently wealthy, there are not many places you can live where everything you might want comes easily and abundantly.

Fundamentally there is one difference that separates rural areas from urban ones: population density. Many communes and intentional communities settle in the country. Insofar as they desire to build a new world divorced from mainstream society this makes sense. With fewer people occupying the land there’s more room to build and more room between you and your opinionated neighbors. Over the decade that I lived at rural Acorn Community, in central Virginia, this is certainly the reality that I experienced. The abundance of space, both physical and cultural, provided a lot of room to grow a little utopia and keep it insulated from the corrosive effects the mainstream would have on it. However, there are abundances in many places if you can appreciate and cultivate them.

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When I first moved to Acorn in 2005 I came looking for proof that a better world was possible. My political blossoming in college, during the peak of the anti-corporate globalization movement and the run-up to the Iraq War, saw me immersing myself in the history and theory of anarchism. But in conversation after conversation my passionate insistence that we could, as a society, thrive without constantly brutalizing and dominating each other was met with skeptical requests to cough up the proof that my nice ideas could stand up to harsh reality. When I discovered Twin Oaks and then Acorn, all quite by accident, I knew immediately what I had stumbled upon and that the egalitarian communes movement was my life’s work.

And the communes did not disappoint. Acorn Community, an egalitarian income-sharing commune, member of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, and daughter of older larger commune Twin Oaks Community, was founded in 1993 and at the time of my joining listed “anarchist” as one of its self-applied labels. Acorn operates by consensus, runs a fairly complex and highly seasonal mail order garden seed business, and does it all with a minimum of formal structure. While there we saw the business quadruple in size (rising to over $1 million in revenue by the time I left), helped two other nearby communes to form, built a giant eco-groovy new headquarters for the business, and weathered an arson and a whole string of health, mental health, and interpersonal crises by various members. My time at Acorn and getting to know the other rural social laboratories of the FEC taught me or confirmed several important things:

● Prosperity and organization are possible without hierarchical domination of each other. People are, as it turns out, really good at managing complexity.

● Complex organizations can be run democratically with relatively small overhead. This is related to the above point but the distinction I’m making is that a business or organization can be both directed and managed in a non-hierarchical, democratic, and cooperative way.

● Motivation is available without individual or private reward, like wages. Human motivation is more complex. I found that people could be motivated to apply themselves to valuable labor by the prospect of collective enrichment as well as less tangible things like their values, personal curiosity, or simply love of a good challenge.

● Intense cooperation/communalization/socialization significantly boosts quality of life relative to cost of living. In short, a middle-class quality of life is achievable at sub-poverty levels of income. And it comes with a lighter and less rigid labor burden than is required by almost all full-time jobs! A corollary of this is that intense communalization brings ecological impact down to ballpark global sustainable levels with relative ease.

● The socialized economy of the communes provides a supportive healing space for people dealing with various forms of mental illness (from simple things like anxiety to more complex things like psychotic breaks) as well as being flexible enough to make mental differences that were a problem in the mainstream not a problem in the commune.

What I noticed about all these is that none of them seemed to be a result of the communes’ rural locations. In fact, for all the advantages of living in the country there were several glaring problems. The work that could be done in the country was generally pretty low wage. Low population density means commune life could feel isolating, particularly for minorities of any sort. Undeveloped land means that population growth is limited by the speed at which new residences can be built. Their remoteness made visiting them difficult for interested people. Perhaps most striking of all, though, is simply that there are a lot of people who want to live communally but do not want to live in the country.

Our society is run by the few at the expense of the many. It is consuming and degrading the environment we depend on. Inequalities of wealth and power are accelerating. The world is on fire. I thought I had found some ways to help put it out but now those tools needed to spread.

In the summer of 2014 I had the good fortune to be able to take a trip to Europe both for pleasure and discovery1. In Madrid, I visited the comrades of the Red de Colectivos Autogestionados2 (RCA). Most of the members of the RCA were also members of the CNT, Spain’s famous anarcho-syndicalist trade union which is remembered as the most successful anarchist organization in history, having fought off Franco’s fascist coup for several years and controlled large areas of Spain at their peak. After Franco died and his fascist regime was dismantled, membership in the formerly illegal CNT exploded. However, despite sky-high membership the CNT did not display the strength or resiliency that it had historically and had been fading ever since. The RCA arose out of a very material analysis of this situation. Spain has a long deep history of cooperatives, long predating the Rochdale Society in England and with a stunningly high and widespread membership. It was this community of cooperatives that provided the material base and support for the combative and often embattled CNT during the decades leading up to the fascist coup. By the time Franco died (peacefully in his bed) he had largely succeeded in co-opting the cooperative movement and cleansing it of its leftist politics. Looking at this history the comrades who started the RCA concluded that for the CNT to regain its power they needed to rebuild the network of radical cooperatives that had fed and supported it.

There’s an example of this closer to home and closer to now in the Movement for a New Society (MNS). A Quaker peace movement-derived organization that started in 1971 and lasted until 1988, MNS saw the world as being on the verge of a revolution and made it their mission to research, educate, train, and prepare the new society that could arise after the old one tumbled. To support their work and their activists they established a nationwide network of cooperatives and urban communal houses, often sharing income. In interviews I conducted with several veterans of MNS the value of the communes and cooperatives in supporting the work was reiterated again and again. This support came not only in the form of material support (to avoid bankruptcy) but also in social and emotional support (to avoid burnout) and as laboratories and testbeds for the ideas that MNS’ activists were developing.

So here we were. The world clearly needed changing. We had some proven strategies for building effective movements. The rural egalitarian communes had done good work but had also clearly shown their limitations. The need to develop a network of urban egalitarian communes to support radical social change work was clear. In the Fall of 2013 several fellow communards and co-conspirators and I decided to try to do just that by launching a project called Point A.

Of course, we are not the first ones to try such a thing or things like it. Specifically on the urban egalitarian communes question, since I first joined Acorn there’s been one or two urban communes in the FEC. When I first joined there was Emma Goldman Finishing School in Seattle, Washington, and a few years later they were joined by The Midden in Columbus, Ohio. Both shared the same general model and in the last two years both have devolved into simple group houses or co-ops and left the FEC. This is a sobering recent history but there are counterexamples if we widen our gaze a bit. Ganas, an intentional community with a smaller income- and asset-sharing commune at its core, has been thriving in New York City for 35 years. Over in Germany there are a bevy of income- and income- and asset-sharing communes located in major cities, some of which have been going for over 30 years3. In Spain (mostly) there’s Las Indias, a nomadic but very stable income-sharing commune that’s been going for 14 years. In Israel, a new generation of urban kibbutzim has arisen. In light of this, it’s easier to consider the dissolution of Emma Goldman Finishing School and The Midden as something peculiar to that model or an accident of circumstance.

Point A took on the mission of working to cultivate ambitious and engaged egalitarian income-sharing communes in the urban centers of the American East Coast. Ambitious and engaged—to connect them to the wider work for social justice and liberation. American East Coast—because that’s where the FEC has the most resources, and the FEC is a natural ally for this work. When we started working we went in every direction we could find at once: Researching examples of successful urban communes. Finding and forging contacts with collectives, cooperatives, and organizations that might make good allies. Conducting research into legal and tax options for urban communes. Conducting research into financing options for urban communes. Organizing public talks, workshops, and events. Building out a website and blog to point people to.

We started the work in one city: Washington, DC. This is the city in whose suburbs I grew up and where I had the densest network. It’s where I wanted to get a commune started. And it’s where I have stayed and worked, but the project didn’t stay there. Soon after starting in DC we were enticed to NYC by some exciting prospects, and other Point A organizers started working there. Then we got involved with some collectives in Baltimore that we thought might be interested in converting. Then we were contacted by a new, and sadly short-lived, commune in Richmond, Virginia. Then a collective house in Binghamton, New York. Various Point A organizers have tried various tactics in each of these cities.

In DC, meanwhile, the project, as I was organizing it, maintained a laser-like focus on getting a single commune started. The general strategy was to start by recruiting potentially interested people from our existing network. These people would start the conversation that is the first phase of any cooperative project. One caution we had heard again and again was that the people to start the conversation would likely not be the people to start the commune. Keeping this in mind, we thought of each phase as a sinking island, a platform we could find temporary purchase on but that, if we wanted to continue, we would need to be planning to move on from. That first meeting had about 20 people. Of those, 12 ended up coming to our monthly meetings. After a little less than a year, a group of eight likely founders had identified themselves. Together those founders, of whom I was one, finished hammering out what we hoped was the bare minimum of policy and structure that we needed to start and put each other through our newly designed membership process. Of those potential founders, five made the jump and actually started the commune: Compersia, the first egalitarian income-sharing commune in DC (in a while, at least).

After that I stepped back from Point A work. My fellow Compersians and I had a lot of work cut out for us continuing to build out the agreements and policies we didn’t have, figuring out how to live together, and figuring out how to run this urban commune we had created. Now, a year and a half in, we’re still around. We’re even growing! With any luck we’ll need a second house before long to fit all our members.

To learn more about Compersia visit compersia.community or better yet email contact [AT] compersia.community. To hook up with the Point A crew check out frompointa.org or send an email to info [AT] frompointa.org.

GPaul Blundell is a member of Compersia Community in DC and an enthusiast about egalitarian community. He enjoys long easy bike rides, nerdy board games, and building the new world in the shell of the old.

1 I visited a number of urban and suburban egalitarian communes in Europe and the results of my interviews, observations, and analyses eventually made it into a one-off podcast called “Income Sharing Across the Pond” available free on Soundcloud.

2 English translation: The Network of Self-Managed Collectives.

3 I personally visited Kommune Niederkaufungen in Kaufungen outside of Kassel and Villa Locomuna located in Kassel.

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the City!