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.
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.
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
This Spring a team of colorful communard builders convened for a secular barn raising. Even though everyone came for different personal reasons, the shared goal was clear, make an old sheep barn more hospitable for commune members. One would assume that a simple, tangible goal would lead to a predictable week, but jumping to that conclusion would skip all the flying fish and cornucopia of magic that happened in-between.
Within the Federation for Egalitarian Communities (F.E.C.) this type of trip is called a LEX, and it’ as culturally far from the norm as East Brook is from any major city. With each turn down another unmarked country road, you are taking another deviation from the cultural norms around work, leadership, and purpose. Officially a LEX, short for Labor Exchange, is a time based currency used between participating members of the F.E.C. through which community members can help their fellow communities, and expect equitable hourly return of help at their own community Yet, the culture of LEX goes far beyond any quantifiable market exchange, and unlocks a culture of radical generosity that questions cultural norms most people take for granted.
While driving down Country Highway 22, the first intersection I had to make a turn at was “Construction projects need clear blueprints in order to be productive.” It seemed obvious that would be a right turn, but I was wrong. On the first day of the build, the travel weary crew was introduced to a small warehouse of materials and an even smaller dilapidated barn, with the general guiding principle being, “The more of these new building materials that we can refurbish the old dilapidated barn with, the closer we will be housing more communards.” One week later 1,000 square feet of insulated flooring was installed, two new walls were built, two doors were installed, and the ceiling was made watertight with a glistening new roof, and yet I didn’t see a single blueprint drawn. Not even a back of the envelope sketch was made. This whole project was a streaming interplay of experimentation, action, teaching and rethinking.
The next crossing on the road was across the train of thinking that says “successful projects need leaders”, which I expected to be a mandatory stopping point, but instead we rolled right passed it. While gaining labor credits through LEX was a periphery benefit to some of the builders, the majority of us came with the intention to gain more confidence in our building skills. Keenan and Nina have decades more building experience than the rest of us, but I’d be surprise if an observer would have been able to discern this. Both of them held space for learning in the egoless way a graceful mentor let’s you flourish in the skills you already have while opening the door for you to lean into your learning edge. It wasn’t that we were leaderless, but more accurately it was that each of us lead ourselves to show up the responsibilities we could fearlessly accomplish.
Now that the previous turns had lead me to unfamiliar territory I knew to turn the other direction when I arrived at the assumption that “efficient productivity needs schedules”. One of the experiences of commune culture that has profoundly changed my life is the experience of abundant food, beauty and friendship without the sweaty palm anxiety of fiscal scarcity putting you a couple paychecks away from being homeless. This separation of work from pure fiscal survival, to making work a voluntary choice to celebrate ones gifts within their chosen commune family, is rarely more alive than at a LEX build. From 6 a.m. till 7:30 p.m. there was a steady stream of workers gracefully picking up the hammer where the last person left off. Slipping away for a nap or meandering down to the stream to get lost in the glistening water where so common that announcing you were taking a break felt unnecessarily formal. We all trusted that everyone was giving as much as they felt called to, and our love for each other dwarfed the importance of renovating a barn, so we skipped planning our day in the morning, and instead celebrated our accomplishments in the evening.
I knew I was close to my destination when I was faced with the assumption that “hot tubs are expensive indulgences for wealthy people” and I turned the other direction to arrive at East Brook. Communes tend to be wealthy in “resource yards”, sometimes called junk piles by other Americans, which are often stocked with a variety of metal tubs. These bulky containers are as hard to find a use for as they are to get rid of, so they tend to become vernal pools for mosquitoes. However a few of us had experience turning these treasures into fire heated hot tubs, lovingly referred to as Hippy Stew pots. With juvenile enthusiasm we tinkered and toiled until the old barn was outfitted with the makings of a hot tub. Granted it took a few kettles of water boiled in the kitchen to nudge the temperature up to the point of indulgence, but the sensation of winning at life was authentic.
Now that all my assumptions on people’s relationship with work had been inverted, I was hardly surprised when fish began raining from the sky. We were cautiously enjoying a hot afternoon, after a couple days of snow in late April left us suspicious of the order of the seasons, when an epic toil of prehistoric ferocity began in the sky above us. An osprey resolutely clutching a fresh fish catch from the adjacent brook was blindsided by an eagle that mistook the osprey for a food delivery service. The two toiled hundreds of feet above the ground, claws and feathers rolling through the sky in defiance of gravity, until the still squirming fish slid out from the talons and came plummeting towards us. With a crash it landed gasping for water on the metal roof. Maximus and Rachael swiftly collected, gutted and fried it. That night I ate flying fish, and when I tasted it, I realized that to be abundantly wealthy is to be grateful for all that I have already been given.
One way to think about community is as an antidote to the problems of contemporary society. A strong case can be made that deep sharing mitigates mostclimate disruptioncontributors. We see that highly intentional community helps healsome people’s mental health challenges. But the real allure of community is something larger.
If we look at living together and sharing our lives as a long lever for creating culture, then isn’t it possible to design a community in which the members become well harmonized and deeply mutually supportive? Community asks the question “How might we come up with a way to live together in which amazing, healing and transformative things are accessible to the people who live this way? How could we develop a set of rituals and communication patterns which helps members of these communities manifest their dreams? And if this is possible, what do we know about these types of successful cultures already so we can experiment with them?”
One of the things we know for sure is we cannot be supportive without being communicative. And the more we can trust, the more we can share what we find to be true, the more profound our ability to advise and ally with people.
Cambia is reviewing how we dream and vision. The community is small and reforming and old traditions are being reconsidered by new members as well as founders with new eyes. For me, the piece of greatest interest is the exploration and manifestation of personal dreams. I believe this is a rich place for meme craft and hopefully deep personal satisfaction.
We are tinkering with the parameters of a dream alliance. The basic idea is simple, I tell you my dream and invite you to support it and then we switch roles. If you don’t have a dream, or it feels incompletely formulated (“i want more music in my life”) then your ally will guide you through an exploration to help refine and define it more.
If your dream is ambitious (“we need to deconstruct industrial capitalism”), your dream ally might help you identify the next piece (“let’s start a worker coop”). If your dream is sprawling (“i want to get people to think!”), then perhaps your ally makes you look on a focused part (“let’s start an inspiring book club”).
But more important than suggestions from your ally is a willingness to help manifest. “I would cook and drive for a local Food Not Bombs chapter, if that was your calling” or “You need to stop Trump, I will go door to door with you before the next election”. Or perhaps simple logistics “I’ll watch your kid while you meditate/exercise.”
I was excited about this thinking and I brought this rough idea to the Thursday night book club at Cambia. We are reading Charles Eisenstein’s “The More BeautifulWorld ourHearts Know is Possible”, one chapter each week and talking about it. And after my enthusiastic description of dream alliances, Craig was uninspired. “I am not excited about exploring people’s individualistic dreams, what would make this interesting to me is if we were seeking and building our shared dream.”
This is consistent with Eisenstein’s thinking. That we need to move past dualism and find a new story which connects everything. Craig gets this, which is why he has been pushing this book and the concept of InterBeing. InterBeing, as close as I can tell, is a sort of secular enlightenment, where you feel and react from a place of being connected with everything and seeking some type of harmony with it all.
I don’t get it. I am a dualist. This is slightly challenging to the book group I think. Perhaps it is a bit like having a libertarian in your anarchist discussion groups. You are all talking about getting rid of government, but with little agreement when it comes to what happens next.
And even though I don’t quite get it around Interbeing, Craig’s challenge feels like a friendly amendment. There is something very powerful about seeking our shared dream together. The alliance is richer when it is our dream instead of you supporting mine in exchange for me supporting yours.
And I am again grateful for Cambia which thinks these are the questions we should be pondering and energy well spent exploring and cultures worthy of our efforts to design them. I think a carefully constructed dream alliance could be supermemetic. And that is my personal holy grail.
Closing all of our building related permits gives us a moment to reflect and consider where we are going next. For the most part, we have done what we set out to do. We have built a small village that is extremely efficient, fairly cheap, and mostly operates without fossil fuel. The integrated solar systems we have connected to our main house and kitchen are working fantastically well. The farm has been developed to a point where it is economically viable, and we are doing good work growing open pollinated seeds. Our work is far from complete. The farm is not fully weaned off of gasoline machines just yet. Our cooking is still too reliant on firewood. But we are making progress on those fronts as well.
We are doing what we said we would do. We have created a model that we think is viable around the world, and we are looking for ways to spread that model. For us, the project has been both rewarding and, at times, fatiguing. Our “to do” list looks rather impossible at times. The reality is that, no matter how talented or dedicated a group of people may be, doing too many things means some projects are well executed and some are not.We are feeling the need to clarify and focus our project better.
Rosa and Pebbles the Duck. Nobody else can catch them!
Given that most of our major construction is done (we may still want to build a greenhouse or other outbuildings), our need for cash flow is reduced. Our thinking currently is that we will, in the future, focus our project more around education, outreach, and technology development. We will be bringing back our weekend intensives, and making them into an in-depth sustainability training program. (Dates to be announced.) We will likely put less of our energy into growing seeds or developing businesses to support the on-site community. We feel like this course is the wisest in terms of maximizing our impact (and our own personal sustainability and happiness in the project). The financial numbers look like they are at least minimally adequate for this new strategy. With the completion of our main house, we are again putting some more work into looking for partnership opportunities with other organizations that might be able to take the LEF model to other locations. We would love to have help with spreading our sustainable model.
LEF’s Nickel-Iron Battery Project
There’s a lot of buzz about batteries these days. Given the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy, effective batteries are critical to providing power if we are going to live without coal and nuclear power. Industrial scale lithium-ion batteries are now coming online. These batteries could, potentially, have a big impact on the round-the-clock viability of renewable energy.
We regularly get people sending us advice about a newer, better battery. The recent article in International Permaculture has prompted some communications about something called LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries. The field of battery research and development is technical, complex, and expensive far beyond LEF’s meager resources. As far as we can tell, all of the lithium variant batteries degrade with each charge cycle (meaning they have a limited productive life) including the aforementioned industrial scale batteries. The LiFePO4 batteries are destroyed if the voltage drops too low, which presents a problem in climates where solar or wind resources are inconsistent. NiFe batteries, by comparison, have low energy density (the batteries are large for the amount of power they can store). But they do not degrade on the charge cycle, nor are they damaged by full discharge. We have a 100 year old operational NiFe battery. The (now ancient) NiFe batteries made by Edison’s company are regularly cleaned out and used by modern NiFe enthusiasts. The bottom line is that none of the current lithium variant batteries have any hope of making it 100 years.
Even if they did, the rush to make better batteries risks becoming yet another attempt to address environmental problems from a supply-side approach. It is expensive, and ignores the root of the issue. The root of the issue is our lifestyle, and how it is woven together with the industrial, political, and military layers of our society. Even if industrial scale renewable energy systems succeed, they are so expensive and complex that the best we could hope for in decades to come is ever increasing class polarization: an elite class that lives supported by this complex infrastructure while the masses huddle around their smoky fires.
Approaching sustainability with social equity foremost in mind leads to other solutions. We stand by the low-density, homemade or village-made, NiFe batteries as the best option we have seen for providing cheap, durable, stationary, electricity storage for village use. Eddie has been continuing with his mason-jar NiFe project. He has increased the voltage and storage capacity of his units. Sometime this fall we will probably set some of these homemade batteries up at LEF and begin service testing them. Wish us luck.
First stage of batch water heater construction, stripping and cleaning a water heater tank.
The motivation for starting LEF is based in the fact that communities have the potential to be powerful models of sustainable living. You don’t have to worry about all the crazy expense and technology that goes into efficient automobiles if you don’t drive to work. Communities can share resources and integrate their systems of energy use and production in a way that radically changes how resources are used. One person can cook for others, making solar cooking viable. A source of energy, such as high voltage DC coming from PV panels, can be tied to numerous machines. At LEF, we are even building an air-conditioning system (not yet complete) that uses the irrigation water headed to the fields. The operational cost of this air-conditioning system is zero. The installation cost involves a few hundred dollars worth of pipe. You can only do things like that on a community level.
In conceiving of LEF, we were very clear that we did NOT want to be a technology development center. Developing effective new technologies can be very expensive and time consuming. Our intent was to simply put together the proper mix of tools that had been developed elsewhere. Our innovation was supposed to be in the integration of existing technologies in a community setting. We are dependent on these technologies, so we would be daily testing their real-world viability. Our basic residential design is working great. Our heating and integrated DC electrical systems are fantastic, and now we are hoping to support other communities, in the U.S. and abroad, put together similar systems.
Other aspects of our project have proven more challenging. We have learned that we simply cannot buy all of what we need to live without fossil fuel. Our cooking setup relies heavily on rocket stoves. That is not a great solution for Americans, or for people living in crowded cities around the world. We are hopeful that the aforementioned high temperature storage systems, perhaps combined with biogas or a small-scale boiler, represent a more widely applicable and attainable goal.
Other goals appear to be more difficult. Farm traction (tractors, draft animals) is proving to be something of a can of worms. Our woodgas is not working all that well just yet. Even if it does, it is not at all clear if we can make it as cheap, simple, and reliable as it would need to be if it is were to be widely adopted. We are learning more than we thought we would have to about internal combustion engines, and realizing that powering them with farm-grown fuels is a complex question — a question which we may or may not have the resources to answer. Ideally, we could work with other organizations seeking similar goals. We have been trying to do that. Apart from the fact that every organization has a different personality, very few share our goal of keeping things cheap and simple so that the results can be adopted by less advantaged people.
All of this begs the question, what are we doing? Raising our kids and taking care of our own community is a significant undertaking to which we have to give priority. Beyond that, we have to ask ourselves the question of what are our primary goals? Is our most important role advocating a sustainable lifestyle among our peers in the U.S., and providing a living model of what we are talking about? Or will we have more impact supporting people who are already living in villages outside of the U.S.? This former group is perhaps the most important in terms of their environmental impact, whereas the latter group might be more receptive (?) as they already share a village lifestyle. And how much time and resources should be put into improving technologies?
Our current plan is to keep doing what we are doing. We will be opening our doors more in the coming months for events for people to come and see first hand what living without fossil fuel is like. We will continue our outreach efforts abroad. That project is not moving quickly, but we will keep trying. We will certainly continue improving the technologies that we need that seem reasonably attainable (cooking, clothes washing). It is less clear what will happen with issues like farm traction. We need help with that one.
There are a number of devices and projects hanging about LEF waiting for skilled and motivated people to work on them. Eddie was a huge help to us in his time here. If you have skills and are willing to get involved, we would love to hear from you. It could be in the long run that we split off a technology development project from the LEF farm. In the meantime, we want to make sure our farm continues to prosper. The work we are doing with open pollinated seeds, food self-sufficiency, and growing naturally disease resistant fruits and nuts feels important too. If you feel like some of these various projects excite you, we would love to hear from you.
Zero Fossil FuelTransportation?
Sustainable transportation is an issue that a small community like ours cannot address alone. It is a wider societal choice to build good train and bus systems. But for local transport, we do have options. Do you have to have a minivan to carry
kids around? Not if you live at LEF! Check the photo.
We have continued to bring in new tools and organize our shop. We added a nice, old, heavy duty drill press, powered by direct drive high-voltage DC power as we like to do. We also added a winnowing fan and a heavy duty bench grinder to our collection of direct drive tools. We love our direct-drive! Just run a wire from a set of photovoltaic panels (in series to produce high voltage) straight to the motors, and you can do anything you want during daylight hours. It is a simple and cheap setup.
We have continued our research concerning a low-cost high-temperature solar storage system for cooking. We have discovered a material that we think will make a big difference. In considering high temperature solar storage, we have looked at both tracking collectors and a trough system that needs no tracking. The trough is simpler, but leaves a long collector pipe hanging in the air. As the pipe heats, a lot of heat is lost to the air around the pipe. It would make sense to put some kind of insulating glass around the pipe. But the material would need to be able to withstand very high and fluctuating temperatures well beyond what normal or tempered glass would handle. The high-temperature glass used on woodstove doors is much too expensive. And we would either need a fancy frame to hold the glass around the pipe, or some kind of glass tubing. Finding very high temperature, reasonably priced, large diameter glass tubing just was not happening. Then we found it. The original Pyrex cookware was made with something called borosilicate. We have found that we can get borosilicate cheaply in large diameter tubings. This should make a huge difference in our high temperature solar collector.
We are also re-assessing whether to use steam or oil as the heat transfer medium. Steam has the advantage of being very cheap as it is just heated water. It has the disadvantage of needing pressurized storage tank(s). Oil has the advantage of being capable, at least in theory, of handling and storing much higher temperatures in non-pressurized vessels. Industry uses various forms of modified mineral oil that they call “heat transfer fluid,” or HTFs. The market for HTFs has been evolving rapidly. In just the last few years, more and cheaper HTFs have become available. In our case, we could use a large heating oil tank, pack it full of small, clean rock, and circulate HTF through it. That’s the design concept at least. Hopefully, after we finish the current round of infrastructure improvement, we can focus on this project.
Low Density Nickel Iron Batteries
Eddie (our technical intern now resident in Pittsburgh) has been working on low-density nickel iron batteries. He has a working prototype. The electrical storage capacity of his prototype is low, so he is working to add more nickel and iron plates to expand the storage capacity of the batteries. If this technology works, and we can build it cheaply, it could give us a way to provide lighting for a lot of people around the world.
Taking the LEF Model to Other Locations
If we hope to expand the LEF model, we need to know where we are going to take it. We have been working with Kate (see previous 2 newsletters) to find sites where we might use what we have learned at LEF to help people in the non-industrial world. Kate has extensive experience working with development and aid organizations around the world. Kate has been traveling in Latin America, and looking for sites where LEF can help. This seems to make more sense than locations far away. Kate made some good connections, but we have not yet picked a specific site. As we mentioned in the last newsletter, we will stay in touch with Tom (from New Community in Harrisonburg) as he travels this winter to the Dominican Republic.
Sustainability is a hot topic in communal living, but I think that there are several different types of sustainability. I’d like to take this post to explore some various levels of sustainability.
The first level is what many people think of when they talk about sustainability, what some people call ‘eco-sustainability’. Living Energy Farm is an example of a commune focused on eco-sustainability, as is the Stillwater Sanctuary, but even Twin Oaks, which has never tried very hard to be eco-sustainable, has a very low carbon footprint. With the climate crisis we are in now, this type of sustainability is very important.
But it isn’t the only level of sustainability in the communes. Twin Oaks is a model for a very different type of sustainability, the ability of a community to sustain itself, which Twin Oaks has done for fifty years. Not only has Twin Oaks lasted, but it has provided a model that has influenced other long lasting communes (some of which have been around now for twenty to forty years) .
There’s also a third level of sustainability to community living. Dancing Rabbit (which is not an income sharing community but is an interesting model for community living and sustainability on many levels) refers to this as ‘inner sustainability’. It is not enough to live ecologically sustainably and to sustain the community. It is also important to sustain the individual members of the community.
There are many tools to do this. Two that are practiced at some of the communes are Transparency Tools and the Clearness process, but sometimes people use things like meditation, Nonviolent Communication, and Re-evaluation Co-counseling as well. Some of this shades into interpersonal sustainability, where forms of conflict resolution are often helpful as well. Good communication is an important part of sustainability.
So in community, we have the opportunity to learn to sustain ourselves as well as our interpersonal relationships, and the community as a whole as well as living in a way that is ecologically sustainable. And this is how we create a sustainable world.