Home Page Editorial Winter 2003
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 finished.

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 months after.

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 note.

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 life.

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 neighbours’ presence.

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 /  Amazon
  • Christian (2003), Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to
            Grow Ecovillages and  Intentional Communities
    RealGroovy /  Amazon
  • Jackson (2000), And We Are Doing It: Building an Ecovillage Future
    RealGroovy /  Amazon

And among others also:

  • FIC (2000), Communities Directory: A Guide to Intentional Communities
           and Cooperative Living
  • Corbett & Corbett (2000), Designing Sustainable Communities :
         Learning from Village Homes
  • Henderson & Register (2001), Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance
          with Nature
  • Barton (2000), Sustainable Communities: The Potential for
  • Roseland, Cureton, Henderson et al (1998), Toward Sustainable
          Communities: Resources for Citizens and Their Governments
  • Todd and Todd (1994), From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of        Ecological Design
  • Broome & Richardson (1996), The Self Build Book [about group self build]
  • Freeman, Thomspn-Fawcett eds (2003), Living Space, Towards
            Ssustainable Settlements in NZ.

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 free SNZ or the pdf version from MfE (part1 780K  part2 1700K).

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.

Peter Scott

ps. if you havent done so lately go check out www.permaculture.org.nz .Theres all sorts of great new interactive stuff there.


 Page maintained by Peter Scott, last update   www.converge.org.nz/evcnz/