Columbia eco-village is a relatively new co-housing project in the north east of Portland. It is on the site of an old nut farm which was partly sold to developers in the 1960s who built five apartment buildings. These buildings and the remainder of the farm and farmhouse now constitute the eco-village. Using a loan the original buildings were dramatically eco-retrofitted – stripped and gutted with new roofs and ecological materials. They added many new ecological features such as rainwater harvesting off the new roofs, and added eves and gables to provide shade and have hopes and plans for more such as photovoltaic panels.
Entrance sign and old farmhouse
This renovation was finished in March 2009 and the village is now homes to 50 adults and 13 children aged 7 and under. Organisationally everything is run by consensus through a Home Owners Association and there are membership conditions through a number of bylaws which determine certain responsibilities such as attending communal meals and meetings, and contributing eight hours each month to communal maintenance, working the gardens, harvesting and storing food. They also have different ‘teams’ which take responsibility for certain areas like food, facilitation, events, compost, maintenance etc.
The main housing units and the communal space in front of them
At first glance from the road Columbia looks like a pretty standard (albeit colourful) retrofit of existing apartment blocks with the unfortunate central focus on a car park, but much of its wonder lies in the back half of the plot – where the gardens are – and in the way the different spaces inside the buildings are used.
The six bee hives
The gardens are large and include individual growing plots, chickens, bees, a permaculture food forest, fruit and nut trees (walnut and hazelnut) and also space for more formal gardens. Once in the wooded area at the back it is easy to forget that you are in a city at all. Even the gardens near the original housing units are lush and varied and provide both food and shade for residents. There is also a ‘grazing zone’ which is where residents are encouraged to pick and eat the produce as they walk through the gardens. As such there is a great variety in the way the green spaces are used – as individual, communal, grazing annuals and permanent spaces make it feel bigger than it actually is. There is hope that they might be able to reduce the size of the asphalt car park in due course and reclaim it for a greener use.
Trees at the back of the project and eggs from the chickens in the bulk food room
There are also a large number of communal spaces such as a laundry room, meeting and craft room, outdoor drying space, covered (new) bike shed, compost bins areas, and the old farmhouse is used as communal space with a kitchen, dining and sitting room, quiet room, bulk food storage area, gathering room and several guest rooms. Each resident is allowed to use the guest rooms 28 days a year for $5 a night – an excellent way to reduce the need for people to have their own spare guest space which would likely remain unused much of the year. In the same way new external individual storage units have been built for people to store extra belongings, reducing the size of home unit required. All these extra spaces available reduce any replication of individual use and make obvious ecological savings.
Extra individual storage units and communal garden space
The huge variety and physical size of communal space and the carefully constructed organisational structure certainly emphasises the collective nature of Columbia – it is more of a collective enterprise than many of the other eco-build communities I visited and this is certainly one of its great strengths.
In terms of cost the units here are not really low cost. When sold in 2009 a studio unit cost US$150,000 (£100,000) and a the largest three bedroom, two bathroom units were $330,000 (£220,000). They were a reasonable price for the area but cannot really be considered ‘affordable’. Although the actual costs of creating Columbia were dramatically reduced by retrofitting and creating small units, the initial buy-in costs are quite high. This is likely to have had an effect on the demographic at Columbia which is older than somewhere like Kailash eco-village. However, there was clearly demand for the type of co-housing that Columbia offers – with a quick uptake of units and the few that have resold have done so easily. Those that I spoke to also enjoyed the lack of immediate responsibility for a large dwelling and garden all to themselves. In other words, although they had obligations to community work this was a shared responsibility they enjoyed rather than the worry of owning and dealing with a place all to oneself.
My visit to Columbia was brief but inspiring. Very different to many other places it mixes an emphasis on permaculture and collectivity with a design and feel which is more likely to have a broader appeal. As such it is a useful model which could be replicated elsewhere and adapted as required to potentially become more affordable.
For further information about Columbia see their website: http://columbiaecovillage.org