Home Page Editorial Winter
In my view sustainability is about the delicate juggle of theory
and practice. We need to get beyond chitchat but on the other hand action
without a foundation in conscious considered design and capacity building
gets us little further forward.
On the theory front there are three important new books to mention, the
on-line finished Sustainable Subdivision Handbook, as well as some other
works in progress. On the practical front I want to use this update to
offer a brief insight into my experience of living at Earthsong: a sort
of Eco-Neighbourhood 12 months on.
On June 21st 2002 my young son Oliver and I moved into our new two bedroom
home in Earthsong after a very intense 2 year construction period. I suppose
that `completed` is not technically correct, because there was still mud
and carpenters lingering about here and there. And in spite of all the
professional timeline programmes I wonder if it will ever be completely
Earthsong founders adopted a build-by-contractors-all-at-once approach
because of the physical proximity and funding constraints of an urban
project. This is necessarily a more intense approach than would usually
be contemplated in a rural 2acre-lot-self-build scenario.
Although it was a bit strange for me that someone else was to be doing
the building, it was by no means a hands off process. It was like the
group built with email, computers and telephones rather than hammers and
saws. Like most sustainability projects this amounts to a long series
of difficult decisions and trade offs. To ensure that the implementation
did justice to the vision was in itself a full time job. In any event
whether or not it would be any cheaper to build yourself probably depends
on how you charge out you own labour.
So, while the first stage houses are built, the remaining houses, the
gardens, paths, nurseries, animal enclosures and all the rest of the permaculture
stuff will take time, even on this a comparatively small four acre urban
site. The forming of strong community bonds, settling into new management
systems, developing local community cultures, and teaching the children
will each also take more time.
For two years my family lived 2 blocks away and we came to visit every
other day to keep an watchful eye on building progress. Over that time
we watched as a tranquil forgotten apple orchard was transformed into
a housing development, and our house to be sprouted from the earth.
Even now it still seems hard to believe, that all this was never here
a while ago. Along with this feeling is a sense of responsibility for
urbanising this particular piece of countryside. What with all the urban
pressures and questionable long term sustainability issues around urbanism
I rest here with a certain degree of mixed feelings.
Only the good that we do as an accessible educational model of more wholesome
urban living makes up for the inherent transport and economic sustainability
contradictions of city life. In any event real examples of truly sustainable
rural settlements are probably just as scarce. We all have to do something,
be somewhere, no matter what misgivings and unsettledness we might have
about the state of the world.
Finally after seven full years of work we moved in. As we carried boxes
up the same stairs the builders were still finishing, the house still
smelled lovely, with the residue of the tung and citrus oils and home
made milk paints still pervading the rooms. The marmoleum had just been
laid and contributed the smell of cork and linseed. The other thing we
noticed was that the rammed earth walls were still quite damp, having
only been rammed some 8 weeks before. We suffered damp kitchen salt for
One of the first things I did was go out and buy two thermometers, one
of which I put outside and one inside. After a few weeks it became readily
apparent that it would be a pretty boring exercise keeping temperature
records, because the inside temperature was so very stable. Over the first
few months the indoor air temperature only ever fluctuated by one or two
degrees over the course of a day or week averaging 16 degrees, being as
it was winter. Our monthly power and water bills leave change from a $20
The final weeks of building were somewhat comedy filled. The sparky seemed
to be having a premature mid life crisis of sorts as the gib stoppers
had plastered over cables that were supposed to protrude in the kitchen
wall. As he hacked open the freshly painted wall, rescued the wires, no
sooner had the stopper replastered the wall did he realise there was still
one cable missing. So the whole process got repeated and to this day you
can still faintly see the scars of these wounds if you look closely.
Then there was the fire door. Our particular front door is fire rated
(you wont believe the fire regulations in timber designed unit developments).
This means in practical terms that the door is two inch thick solid timber
and has a self closer fitted. The self closers seemed like industrial
overkill and it meant that every time someone knocks on the door I have
to stand there and hold the door open. But the irony was that the door
didn't or wouldn't actually close with the self closer—it would get most
of the way but then jam on the fancy fire seal all around the door. So
here we had a situation where a door that is supposed to be kept closed
for safety reasons, leads to the door never actually being fully
closed at all.
Eventually we fixed it, along with the other remedials, but it was a great
chuckle all round at a time of high tension. The building industry is
not known for its rocket science, but in general the people that have
worked here over the course of this house's construction have been good
people, who cared about their work and worked harmoniously together in
a space that often contained a great many tradespeople at once.
Once the contractors were more or less finally gone, we settled in, and
quickly realised that this house has great views of the neighbourhood,
being as it is on the second and third levels of an apartment smack in
the middle of the neighbourhood. I generally know who’s going out with
who and other such important pieces of community intelligence. I have
my office in the loft, which is a brightly lit, low-ceilinged pitched
roof space that I really like.
The apartment being without a yard per se, meant we were able to settle
in quite quickly and put energy into the common vege gardens and workshop
etc. I made a large planter box for the deck and we grow some salad things
and herbs in it although Im surprised at how much water they need, as
it is a real sun trap.
I'm really happy with the acoustics in the building, which is home to
three other households, and for the most part we are all blissfully unaware
of each others existence. The intertennacy floor comprises a sandwich
of marmoleum, cork underlay, 6 inchs of concrete, 4 inchs of greenstuff
polyester accoustic insulation and 2 layers of 12 mm gib plaster board,
which I am glad to say works! There are some very sound sensible reasons
for cluster housing, but sustainable design shouldn't mean we have to
live in each others pockets, without benefit of basic privacy.
That’s all I want to say about the house itself really. Its strange because
we have spent 5 years creating a lovely set of houses with the vast bulk
of our energy focused on their design, funding, and construction, but
the houses are just the beginning of our neighbourhood. For me a house
is a place to rest your head so you can do all the other things in your
My moving in experience has been more about realising all the little
cooperative mutual beneficialities of living in this neighbourhood. Even
though I have lived in various community situations before, it was still
a blessing to have confirmed that all the theory, principles and mission
statements aside, that, like the accoustics, community works.
Living in a neighbourhood of 40 people there is always someone that knows
something you might want to know about, has tools or something or other
you might need, energy for a certain project, and beyond all that, just
some colourful unique contribution to village life. It's that balance
of diversity and commonality. I don’t have to know everything or remember
everything. Some one else organised making the maintenance manuals, someone
else organised getting chooks for the orchard, some one else organised
the summer celebration.
Naturally everything has a flip side...there was of course the endless
meetings (often 3 or 4 a week), and the inevitable conflicts that arise
when groups work together. One issue that comes to mind was around paid
group roles, and more generally the great task v process debate. Different
people seem to have a different personal emphasis on the relative importance
of just getting the job done compared with how the job is done--and there
is a tendency for both sides to not really understand each other.
But when I think about it in hindsight it really is very extraordinary
that a disparate group could colasce around a dream, work together in
a sustained manner in much the same way a corporation does handling major
budgets, managing complex tasks, and time pressures, and be able to do
it with humanity and spirit and come out the other side.
In December the group spent some sessions debriefing the construction
period stresses and strains, and sharing stories with each other. This
was an important part of arriving here, taking off our 'developer' hats,
licking what wounds we carried, and finding the space to learn to relate
to our neighbours as neighbours and less like business partners.
In terms of my social life, friends and any other not strictly essential
pursuits became somewhat, in some cases very, neglected. In terms of my
own family, over the course of developing the project my then wife and
I separated, however we both remained involved with the project and ended
up occupying separate houses here. If Oliver does not have one bedroom
or one house he has at least I feel one home.
Oliver, now 9 years old, joined the project the day he was born. On that
day the 4th of February 1994 there was a meeting of an early incarnation
of this project at our house, and he well decided to come along. That
gives you an idea of just how long cohousing actually takes.
As a result he has experienced community sort of second hand, absorbing
the feeling and connections of a meeting based pre-site community culture.
But it was interesting, because when we finally moved in, for him moving
in seemed to be really only a technicality. He perhaps like the rest of
us had conceived, dreamed, modelled, drawn, felt and lived this place
in all its parts already, long before it was actually built.
And well lets just say I see rather less of him these days. Through one
or other of the many windows in this house I can usually see where the
kids are playing. He, like all the other kids, is really flowering in
this environment. On Saturday is the annual Earthsong Boat regatta, planned
and run by the kids on the pond.
Another memorable highlight was the summer celebration and progressive
meal. It was really special to go around the various houses seeing what
people had done to their homes to make them special and unique. I for
one loved having the whole neighbourhood at my house for dessert. It was
pretty packed, to say the least, but I felt honoured and blessed by my
By way of conclusion, I realise that it is very difficult to put such
a big journey into a small amount of words. And, in terms of stories,
the last 12 months here is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Of course
what we are talking about is no less than the physical arrival of cohousing
in NZ, along with the associated excitement, expectation, labour, and
birth pains. Where and how that baby grows is any body's guess, but it
seems to me that its continued growth is contingent on that bigger story
being told at some point.
Meanwhile in the theory department there is a rash of new books on or
around the ecovillage subject. For years Gilman et al/Context Institutes
(1991), Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities was about it (and
it was hard to get hold of). Now more recently we have:
- Svensson & Jackson (2002), Ecovillage Living:
Restoring the Earth
and Her People RealGroovy
- Christian (2003), Creating a Life Together:
Practical Tools to
Grow Ecovillages and
- Jackson (2000), And We Are Doing It: Building an
And among others also:
- FIC (2000), Communities Directory: A Guide to Intentional
and Cooperative Living
- Corbett & Corbett (2000), Designing Sustainable
Learning from Village Homes
- Henderson & Register (2001), Ecocities: Building
Cities in Balance
- Barton (2000), Sustainable Communities: The Potential
- Roseland, Cureton, Henderson et al (1998), Toward
Communities: Resources for Citizens and
- Todd and Todd (1994), From Eco-Cities to Living
Machines: Principles of Ecological
- Broome & Richardson (1996),
The Self Build Book [about group self build]
- Freeman, Thomspn-Fawcett eds (2003), Living Space,
The Sustainable Subdivsion Handbook that was being produced by Lattey
Consultants with part funding from MfE was completed last year and emerged
with the final title of Subdivision for people and the Environment.
Doug's ongoing input into the process was invaluable.You can buy a
print copy from Standards NZ's website or download the zip version for
or the pdf version from MfE (part1
On an administrative front the notices pages have been redesigned to
be more reliable and requiring less maintenance--take a look see. Also
Im hoping to find time to update the resources section, so if you have
any kind of documentation that might be useful to others Id be really
grateful if you let me know.
ps. if you havent done so lately go check out www.permaculture.org.nz
.Theres all sorts of great new interactive stuff there.