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NEW BOOK: Eco-Homes: People, place and politics November 30, 2015

My book about eco-homes worldwide will be published on 16th January 2016. It is being published by Zed Books (London) and Chicago University Press (USA) as a paperback, so hopefully reasonably affordable.


Book blurb:

It is widely understood that good, affordable eco-housing needs to be at the heart of any attempt to mitigate or adapt to climate change. This is the first book to comprehensively explore eco-housing from a geographical, social and political perspective. It starts from the premise that we already know how to build good eco-houses and we already have the technology to retrofit existing housing. Despite this, relatively few eco-houses are being built.

Featuring over thirty case studies, from Britain, Spain, Thailand, Argentina and the USA, Eco-Homes examines the ways in which radical change to our houses – such as making them more temporary, using natural materials, or relying on manual heating and ventilation systems – requires changes in how we live. As such, it argues, it is not lack of technology or political will that is holding us back from responding to climate change, but deep-rooted cultural and social understandings of our way of life and what we expect our houses to do for us.

What others say about the book:

‘Without sustainable homes, there will not be a sustainable future. We need a detailed and cutting-edge book that teases out the complexities of the people, politics and places that will deliver the eco-homes of the future. Pickerill’s inspirational book does just this.’ Paul Chatterton, University of Leeds

‘Pickerill illuminates the contested nature of eco-homes and housing, bringing a refreshingly broad and much-needed feminist perspective to a subject that has been traditionally dominated by a technology-first approach.’ Fionn Stevenson, University of Sheffield

‘This fascinating book explores the many facets of eco-homes that are environmentally benign, emotionally rewarding, endearing, enduring, protecting and comforting …’ Susan Roaf, Heriot-Watt University

‘A timely reminder of different ways of living and housing people.’ Sofie Pelsmakers, author of The Environmental Design Pocketbook



Findhorn Eco-village, Forres, Scotland July 24, 2013

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 3:40 pm

DSC_3819   DSC_3911

Houses at Findhorn 

Trying to summarise what Findhorn is about, what it does and what contribution it makes is almost impossible. Every visitor, resident, student or employee would focus on something different. Even in its own literature it describes itself as a ‘spiritual community, learning centre, ecovillage’. It is these three things and so much more. Moreover, while I am primarily interested in its green buildings, these cannot be viewed in isolation from the way decisions are made (governance structures), people work together (community spirit), income is earned and distributed, the nature in which these buildings sit and the ways in which daily life is structured.

DSC_4017    DSC_3978

I had the great pleasure of visiting for a week in June 2013. I was attending the International Communal Studies Association (ICSA) conference being held on site, but also participated in a taster experience of life at Findhorn for three days beforehand. This involved understanding community processes (such as sharing, attunement, the game of transformation and meditation), the history and evolution of the Foundation, and learning community games, singing and how work was done in different departments (I had the fun of picking rhubarb). It was a brief foray into the place, but it also felt utterly absorbing and inviting. I left with a feeling of having been openly welcomed, hugged, and shared with. This was not a normal feeling for me. I am a reserved British female academic who rarely hugs, holds hands with others, sings or dances (certainly not in front of others). But there is something about Findhorn which invites you to shed your inhibitions (no, it wasn’t the alcohol!) and to listen and share. When it was time to leave I experienced a physical shock at returning to the disconnected world beyond; that all too familiar place where we do not talk to strangers and try our best never to touch.

Findhorn map

[Click on map to enlarge]

Underlying ethos

Findhorn was not planned and its founders (Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean) did not intend to start a community. They moved into a Caravan Park on the site in 1962 having lost their jobs at a local hotel. However, their spiritual practice and surprising success at growing vegetables in the poor soil of the sand dunes drew others to the area and by the 1970’s an impromptu spiritual community was already 150 strong. This drew others, such as David Spangler, who saw the potential in Findhorn as an educational space. Thus Findhorn began as a spiritual community, rather than a particularly ecological one. For many Findhorn is a deeply spiritual place where time is taken to understand yourself (‘the small voice within’) and communicate purposefully with others and nature. This emphasis is reflected in the three principles of Findhorn (the meaning of which I am simplifying):

  1. Deep inner listening: Practising Eileen Caddy’s approach to spirituality is to listen to one’s own inner voice deep within to find the answers to life’s questions
  2. Co-creation with nature: To work with and have respect for nature
  3. Love in action: Work is love in action, this includes work in the village but also the work of communication to others


The form of this spirituality is not prescribed, dogmatic, or a doctrine, rather it is yours to evolve and develop, and places such as the nature sanctuary are thus central to much of that practice at Findhorn. It is reported that there are at least 47 different cultural practices evident at Findhorn.

Findhorn as an eco-village emerged as a secondary ethos, in the late 1980s when members such as John Talbott sought to build better houses on the site and began experimenting with eco-building. Over the years the community had purchased the Caravan Park and other land surrounding it (via fundraising), and this was a space for experimentation when Findhorn became very building focused into the 1990’s. For Talbott this emphasis was not separate to the spiritual practices at Findhorn, rather they were the act of ‘translating these early principles of cooperation and working with nature into a built environment’ (Talbott, 1995, 17). Thus rather than there being a tension between spiritual practice and building an alternative ecological world, it is through spiritual practice that better environmental solutions are developed. Green building is considered a physical manifestation of the cultural and spiritual sustainability already practiced and thus Findhorn began a period of combining the spiritual with the practical.

The nature sanctuary

The buildings

This village began as caravans, many of them in poor condition and many residents still live in them. Having caravans is a great way to start an eco-village, but they are not good for a long term living. The village is now split into different developments and for anyone interested in eco-housing is a unique place to explore so many different varieties in such proximity. Approximately 400 people now live on site.


Caravans on site

HOUSING DESIGN: The emphasis on co-creation with nature led to a focus on building better homes that were more ecological. Over the years a number of different forms and designs have been tried. There are houses made from old whisky barrels, strawbale, and tyres, but in the last few years Findhorn decided that the best houses for the climate and affordability are timber frame with high insulation. There are some excellent examples of individual buildings which are central to the community – such as the Universal Hall, Community Centre, and Guest Lodge, but what really interests me are the houses.

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The Barrel Houses

These are clustered into different areas of the village. The first eco-houses were the Barrel Houses made from recycled timber vats from a local whisky distillery. Bag End was a cluster of more conventional, though just as radical for the time, timber frame eco-houses. Then Field of Dreams was built and a whole array of self- and architect-designed buildings emerged. Soillse is a unique bomb-proof set of buildings to the far east of the village which had extra requirements placed on them because of their proximity to the air force base (since closed).

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Houses in the Field of Dreams

Most of these houses are ecological, inspiring, colourful, inviting and because there are so many it is hard to know where to start in exploring them. Of the buildings I stayed in and explored it was clear that timber frame worked well here and they are comfortable buildings. It is notable, however, that as with every development time changes things. At Bag End the houses were built to be passive solar, but at the same time Findhorn was on a tree-planting mission. These trees have since grown so that Bag End feels like it is in a deep woodland – thus cutting off much of the passive solar gain. In another example, in Field of Dreams which were more individually designed, not all residents have made sensible ecological choices, for example determining where to locate the wood stove according to looks rather than need. The houses have two other noticeable tensions; fences and vegetable growing. There are few private gardens growing vegetables, whether that is due to climate, pests or desire, food provision is obviously a central ecological practice. Findhorn had intended to discourage fences around houses, preferring to keep space common and shared, but gradually fences are being erected.


Soillse houses

The latest stage in eco-housing are the new co-housing developments (East Whins) complete in 2013 and planned for West Whins. These signal a shift for Findhorn in releasing land for developer-led construction (an experience which has not been entirely positive) and a search for a less individualistic housing structure; seeking to extend their practice of community into new houses.


Co-housing in East Whins

PRIVATE OWNERSHIP: This shift to co-housing has in part been because of the rise of private ownership of houses and land at Findhorn. People have freehold and thus can sell on open market. Findhorn is now trying to restrict this and restrict absentee landlords by determining that all homes must be occupied. Findhorn has also introduced social contracts as part of purchase agreements using Common Ground guidelines (see below). Despite these restrictions the complicated and private ownership of much of Findhorn has limited their capacity to then deal with issues of affordability.

LACK OF AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Housing remains a significant problem at Findhorn. There continues to be a need for affordable housing for co-workers of the Foundation, but much of the property on site is now owned privately, is very expensive and sought after. They are trying to find cheaper ways of building homes. The co-houses cost £180,000 per unit and the Findhorn Foundation has purchased a few flats in order to provide affordable housing for its employees, though it is limited in how much capital it can raise to do this. At the same time they have looked at the caravans they still have on site. The Foundation has planning permission to replace caravans with equivalent structures, and thus has developed the Ecomobile. At a cost of just £40,000, using minimal foundations, they have developed an elongated structure with simple internal design and open plan living and kitchen with outside deck space, they are fantastic small eco-houses.

DSC_3922 Ecomobile

Governance structure

Given Findhorn’s haphazard growth and development it is not surprising that it has had to develop (and then re-develop) its governance structures as the community grew and needs changed. In the 1990’s there was significant change, triggered in part by its continued growth, but also financial difficulties.

Findhorn was separated into the Findhorn Foundation (which includes the Findhorn Foundation College and New Findhorn Directions, and does the work of running the infrastructure and visitor facilities) and the broader community organisations and individuals working onsite. In the 1990’s many of the business which had been developed within Findhorn became independent (such as Findhorn Press, Trees for Life, The Phoenix shop, and The Game of Transformation), but remained physically in the eco-village. The umbrella organisation over the whole village is the New Foundation Association (NFA), formed in 1999. In seeking to outline what communality there is across these potentially disparate groups a statement of Common Ground which outlines 14 guidelines for the Findhorn Foundation Community was developed.

Findhorn Common Ground  Findhorn mind map

[Click on images to enlarge them]

In essence the village is divided between those who are part of the Foundation (co-workers, get paid by it, eat communally) and those who are not (and can live relatively separate lies), and the NFA is the community association which is attempting to bring together the diversity on site. This is helped significantly by the Rainbow Bridge community magazine which is printed and distributed weekly and includes minutes of committee meetings.

The Foundation is no longer run by consensus. Instead decisions are made by a management committee who liaises with a Council of all members of the Foundation. The management committee gets elected and the heads of the work departments/ units are chosen by the committee. Despite this quite formal structure decisions often made through spiritual and cultural practice such as attunement – silence and reflection to attune to the task or respond to a question about a decision which is needed, often while people are holding hands and standing in circles. What is most surprising about this practice is how well it seems to work. The focus for the Foundation now is on good management, through greater coherence across the village, but also greater transparency and accountability.


Office space

There are some interesting tensions around money. Co-workers get a small monthly stipend of £200 and free board and lodging, though housing is limited. Findhorn is a place of growing private businesses, private land ownership and wealth, alongside co-workers on very low wages. There is no obligation to share personal money, although they have their own local currency – Eko – which helps keep wealth in the region.

Self-sufficiency and autonomy

Being ecological is not the same as being self-sufficient, but there are important overlaps. Findhorn has an interesting relationship to place – the focus on spirituality overshadows attempts at environmental self-sufficiency, yet it has had a significant positive impact on the region and internationally. Findhorn is located in north east Scotland on the shore of Findhorn bay, just east of Inverness. It can be a harsh environment in which to live, with a short growing season. They do not provide much of their own food onsite, growing roughly 5% of their needs. In the early 1990’s Findhorn had a Community Supported Agriculture scheme but it collapsed; now few people work in the gardens. However, it has half the ecological footprint per person of the UK national average (Tinsley and George, 2006). They have several large wind turbines and many homes make use of solar power.

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Bag End houses

Its education programmes provide the main avenue for income. Since the 1990’s they have worked hard, and developed specific programmes line Building Bridges, to reach out to others and extend their education programmes, corporate links and to bring a wider diversity of people into the village. In addition, their presence and their business have meant that in 2003 it was estimated that Findhorn created £3.8 million in value of economic impact for the local area. Thus, ironically for an eco-village, they are perhaps more economically sustainable than they are environmentally self-sufficient.

Remaining questions

My time at Findhorn was brief and I have doubtless missed many nuances that only come with an extended stay. My visit prompted many questions for me and I am left with these:

? The importance of age in community: Findhorn has only recently engaged with the issue of having an aging population, and they do not have any pension provision. Several conference speakers talked about their work exploring co-care in age specific living (50+), while others wanted to commit to building intergenerational communities. Either way there remain many questions around how to better plan for aging residents and care.

? Food production: There was a lack of emphasis on this at Findhorn, and it is notable how many eco-communities lack agricultural skills. I would like to know more about why this is and what can we do to correct it.

? Local economic and social impact: There was much talk at Findhorn about the positive impact on the region, and some economic figures, but I would like to know more about what residents not associated with the village think about it. Many people are associated with Findhorn beyond the site itself, but what impacts is it really having?

? Housing affordability: Ironically Findhorn has become such a desirable place to live that they have pushed up the local market house prices. We still need more and better models of housing affordability which work. What do we need to do to change our housing system?

Thank you

I would like to extend special thanks to Findhorn residents Craig Gibsone and Dürten Lau, the focalisers for the taster experience, and for all the residents of the Guest Lodge and in my taster group that week for a whole lot of fun. Also to Graham Meltzer for the best conference I have ever been to.


Findhorn Foundation Community (2012) 50 Findhorn Birthday Book Spirit of the Future. New Findhorn Association, Findhorn.

Forster, P. M and Wilhelmus, M (2005) The Role of Individuals in Community Change Within the Findhorn Intentional Community, Contemporary Justice Review, Vol. 8, Iss. 4, 2005

Hawken, P (1975) The Magic of Findhorn. Book Club Associates, London.

Inglig, M (1996) Findhorn Foundation: Nature Spirits and New Age Business, Chapter 11 in B. Metcalf (ed) Shared Visions, Shared Lives: Communal Living around the Globe. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland, pp.119-129

Metcalf, W (2004) Community Living. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland

Riddell, C (1990) The Findhorn Community: Creating a Human Identity for the 21st Century. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Sutcliffe, S (2000) A Colony of Seekers: Findhorn in the 1990s. Journal of Contemporary Religion, Volume 15, Issue 2, pages 215-231

Talbott, J (1995) The Findhorn Community, in Eco-villages and Sustainable Communities: Models for 21st Century Living. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Talbott, J (1997) Simply Build Green: A Technical guide to the ecological houses at the Findhorn Foundation. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Tinsley, T and George, H (2006) Ecological Footprint of the Findhorn Foundation and Community. Available at:

Further contact

Findhorn Foundation

The Park


Moray IV36 3TZ


To visit Findhorn: You are able to visit Findhorn for a day and walk around the village, stay onsite at one of the many private B&B’s or join an Experience Week. There is an excellent cafe onsite – Blue Angel – that serves food and drink.

[July 2013]


Evaluating the success of an eco-house March 4, 2013

Filed under: Building materials,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 9:43 am

How do we judge how ‘good’ an eco-house is? By its ecological performance, what it feels like to live in it, how long it lasts, how much it cost? All of these are used, some formally in post occupancy evaluation, and others more informally in judging what worked and what hasn’t in new buildings. Post occupancy evaluation seeks the opinion of those who live (or work) in buildings, but too often eco-houses are judged just by their cost versus carbon emission savings, or how robust they are. While I am most interested in the balance between building a structure which is ecological as well as nice to live in, and thus tend to focus on people’s experiences and feelings about their homes, I know that we also need to measure the performance of buildings, especially in how they keep warmth in or not.

Recently I have been using a thermal imager, newly purchased by the Geography Department at the University of Leicester, to explore how much houses lose their heat.

IR000029  IR000076

Thermal image (at night) of a conventional house (to the left) and a straw bale eco-house (to the right)

Comparing a straw bale house (in North Yorkshire) with a more conventional house in similar freezing temperatures it was clear to see the benefits of eco-building in terms of reducing heat loss. The conventional house leaked heat – with its external wall temperature as high as 15.9C, whereas the straw bale house external wall temperature was only -2C. Both houses where heated internally and where between 18 and 20 C inside. Notably the ‘hot spots’ on the image for the conventional house where were the radiators were on the wall – the heat was literally leaking straight out of the walls and windows next to the radiators.

Of course, a thermal image only tells us so much. It cannot judge for us which is the most comfortable house to live in. We can assume that the conventional house leaking heat probably costs more in energy consumption, that it is less ecological, and that the internal temperature is more uneven. Likewise we can assume that the straw bale house has low energy costs, has an even temperature and is more ecological. But what does it feel like to live in? Does it feel warm and cosy? Which would people prefer to live in? All these are qualitative questions about feelings, emotions and expectations and cannot be measured by scientific results alone. We need to continue to develop creative ways in which to judge the success of eco-housing and not rely on measures of energy efficiency alone.

[Jenny Pickerill, March 2013]


Earthship Biotecture, near Taos, New Mexico, USA May 17, 2012

Standing on top of an Earthship in the New Mexico desert watching the sunset turn the mountains a deep red, makes you realise how boring conventional housing is. Earthships are a highly inventive and unusual house design by Mike Reynolds who spent years experimenting in the New Mexico deserts. There are now hundreds of examples worldwide but I wanted to come to the place of their inception to try and understand their possibilities and questions around affordability.

Sunset view from top of an earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

An Earthship is an autonomous building made from car tyres filled with waste (such as drinks cans and bottles) to produce highly insulating walls. The Earthship has been replicated in the UK (Fife and Brighton), Holland, France, South Africa and India. There are now 3,000 Earthships globally. The design, often built into the ground, not only uses recycled and natural materials, but by using passive solar heating (and cooling), water harvesting, contained sewage treatment, and internal food production (through conservatories), creates a self-sustaining building with a stable ambient temperature even in climatic extremes. Built to be cheap, efficient and autonomous, Earthships represent radical ecological architecture designed to reshape our relation to the environment and our daily lifestyles.

“The Earthship concept is meant to place shelter and a less stressful method of living within the immediate grasp of people. If land is made available for no profit; if shelter can be obtained with little or no mortgage payment; if utilities come free from the sky; if much of our food can be grown in our homes; people will become more mobile with their thinking. They will begin to have time to think of each other and the planet” (Reynolds, 1990, p.254)


An Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

There is a great sense of freedom from knowing that a house has everything you need to survive without needing to be connected to anything else. All the systems are holistic and autonomous. Standing on the roof I am next to the water cistern which collects the rainwater, and overlooking the PV panels and solar thermal hot water heater. Moreover all resources are used as efficiently as possible, for example, rainwater is used three times – for drinking, to flush the toilet and then to water plants. Having stayed in one at the height of summer I can also confidently confirm that it works – nice and cool during the day, warm at night and not too dark inside. Such autonomy also enables the resident to more clearly understand how houses work – if you are not careful you will use up all your water – and thus, potentially, how to look after and fix it.

Inside the studio earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

By watching the sunset you also realise that Earthships enable a landscape without wires. Look out of your door – do you see wires? Most houses are linked by electricity and telephone cables criss-crossing the landscape, but here there is only sky: huge big open skies. It is a liberating view compared to most outlooks from houses. In New Mexico all you can really see of the houses are the windows reflecting the sunlight. It is a very calming view.

Phoenix Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

Earthships are more than simply highly integrated autonomous houses, they are amongst the most radical and inventive green buildings I have seen. So inventive that new systems, such as water and power management systems, have been designed specifically for them. But they do have an unusual aesthetic, they do not look anything like a house as conventionally understood – buried in the ground, glass wall to the south, curved walls inside, and glass bottle walls. This of course potentially limits wider adoption. Personally I find them rather beautiful buildings to look at, but then I already love eco-houses and all things quirky. Replication is not only limited by how they look however, but also by their requirement for manual management (such as opening vents and closing blinds) which in an age of ‘on demand’ heating and air conditioning puts some people off.

The houses were designed to be highly replicable, and Reynolds has gone to great effort to build demonstration houses around the world and to create plans and ‘off-the-peg’ designs which can be purchased and followed. The use of the metaphor of the ‘ship’ in its name also signifies that such designs should be replicated elsewhere (that the ideas should travel, they were designed to run without fuel, use rubbish and thus locate anywhere); that these ships should be part of a broader network (that we should exchange and develop these ideas); that ideas need freedom to enable experimentation and radical innovation (the ship as autonomous and free from regulations); and, finally, that they will “sail on the seas of tomorrow” (Reynolds, quoted in Paschich and Hendricks, 1995, 73) (and thus continue to travel into the future).

Yet this replication has not happened in the way that might have been imagined. The design is robust, tested and cheap and yet few Earthships exist. In addition to how they look and what it is like to live in them, they are not the easiest to build – they require time and effort (and strength and perseverance) in a way that brick houses do not. Finally, they are not appropriate for all places, they have been developed to work best in the climate of New Mexico and as the Brighton Earthship has shown, if changes are not made to the design when built in other climates then they do not work as well (in Brighton the floor is rather cold). This could be overcome, but only with further experimentation and the freedom to adapt Reynolds designs.


Inside the studio earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

Earthships can be built expensively or cheaply, it all depends on choices made by the builder. They are designed to be extremely low-cost to run, but to make the actual build cost lower then there is a need for self-build (using your own labour, also called ‘sweaty equity’), build on cheap land (hence the growth of such houses in the deserts of New Mexico), use waste materials (there are some plans for Earthships using concrete), ignore building codes, and keep the design simple and small scale (thus ‘designing down’ the house so that you need less electricity in everyday running). Reynolds argues that “just as the sun allows no darkness, the lake allows no dryness, the wind allows no calm, the river no silence … the Earthship allows no poverty” (1993). However, some have complained at the high cost of the step-by-step designs to build an Earthship.

An Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

There are many lessons to be learnt from Earthships which could be, and should be, applied to eco-housing elsewhere. It is a bold design that works: the result of years of practical experimentation and radical innovation. Whether it is about their autonomy, low cost, low visual impact, self-build nature, or the way in which every resource is carefully harvested and used multiple times, we need to understand and learn from Earthships. The strongest memory for me is of sitting on the roof watching the sunset knowing that I would be warm and cosy that night, that there was amble water and heat for a shower, and that the environmental cost of all that comfort was minimal. It was a guilt free sunset.

There is a Visitors Centre at the Earthships near Taos (#2 Earthship Way Taos NM 87571) which is open 10am to 4 pm, 7 days a week.


Key references about Earthships:

Freney, M (2009) Earthships: Sustainable housing alternative. International Journal of Sustainable Design, 1, 2, 223-240.

Harkness, R (2011) Earthships: The homes that trash built. Anthropology Now, 3, 1, 54-66

Hewitt, M and Telfer, K (2007) Earthships: Building a zero carbon future for homes. HIS BRE Press, Watford

Hodge, O (2008) Garbage Warrior (Film). A Co Production of Open Eye Media UK, ITVS International & Sundance Channel.

Ip, K and Miller, A (2009) Thermal behaviour of an earth-sheltered autonomous building – The Brighton Earthship. Renewable Energy, 34, 9, 2037-2034

Kemp, S and Cowie, P (2004) The Earthship Toolkit: Your Guide to Building a Zero Waste, Zero Energy Future. Sustainable Communities Initiatives, Kinghorn.

Paschich, E and Hendricks, P (1995) The Tire House Book. Sunstone Press, New Mexico.

Reynolds, M (2000) Comfort in any climate. Solar Survival Architecture, Taos, NM.

Reynolds, M (2005) Water from the sky. Solar Survival Print, Taos, NM.

Reynolds, M. (1990) Earthship Volume I. One Solar Survival Press, Taos, NM

Reynolds, M. (1993) Earthship Volume III. One Solar Survival Press, Taos, NM


Columbia Eco-village, Portland, Oregon May 31, 2011

Filed under: Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 11:08 pm

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:


Kailash Eco-village, Portland, Oregon, USA April 24, 2011

Filed under: Cost of housing,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 7:06 am


I had the great opportunity to stay at Kailash Eco-village for ten days in August last year. It was the last stop on my trip around eco-buildings in the USA and it did not disappoint. Kailash shares some similarities with Los Angeles Eco-Village – in that it is a deliberately urban project which enables people to rent eco-units and participate in some collective activities. What was most appealing was the explicit focus on affordability – using a rental rather than owner model.

Situated in south east Portland in what a realtor might call an ‘up and coming’ neighbourhood (Creston-Kenilworth), Kailash took over an old 32-unit apartment building built in 1959 on a one acre site. Bought by Ole and Maitri Ersson in 2007 they explicitly wanted to create an affordable and accessible way for those on low incomes to participate in a sustainable community. In effect it allows people to try out community living without the risks (or barrier) of capital investment.

All the units are one-bedroom apartments with a typical living area of 565 square foot. Units can be rented at approximately $650 a month in 2010, low for the area. They have also added a dorm room “as not all residents are able to afford their own private unit” ( There are currently 48 residents, ten of whom were resident when the block was bought. Those who have joined since the Ersson’s took over have had to pass a selection procedure and agree to certain stipulations.


Inside a refurbished unit and a typical floor plan

Each apartment is gradually being remodelled using ecological principles in order to increase energy efficiency – using eco-materials, fitting low-flow shower heads, installing water metres in each unit, adding extra insulation and double-pained windows. They are experimenting with materials, trying to balance low cost with ecological properties. For example, they trialled using carpets but the wear has been too high and so have moved to using laminate flooring (which uses more glue but is likely to last longer). Fundamentally however the very act of retrofitting rather than demolishing has proved both ecological and cost-effective.

There are a great many other future projects which Ole and Maitri would like to do as Kailash is only three years old; including rainwater harvesting and an exterior make-over. The whole block faces south and so benefits from passive solar but they are hoping to install external blinds to prevent overheating in summer.


Bike racks and communal compost

Kailash have deliberately tried to create lots of different types of communal space. There is a community meeting room with a large kitchen and another next to it. There is a laundry room which has storage spaces, post boxes, recycling bins (including items not normally recycled like plastics, styrofoam and shredded paper), and communal equipment like a vacuum cleaner. There is also a separate garden and tool room. There is collective bike storage and composting. Other areas like the balconies and walkways are also explicitly considered communal and this is used for things like a ‘freebie’ shelf where people put things they no longer want for others to use. Community is encouraged through people encountering each other in these spaces, getting to know their neighbours, a weekly community night and work parties. Perhaps most interestingly, however, was the decision by Ole and Maitri to not have collective decision making. Instead Maitri is the Community Manager and they make all decisions. This has simplified and speeded-up their ability to get Kaliash off the ground and to make renovations.


A variety of communal spaces: balcony and walkways, garden seats, community meeting room

Gardens space is segmented into individual plots (ten are available in total), with communal tables and chairs. Gardens are important here to the extent that one of the first changes was to turn an old swimming pool into a new terraced garden area. Encouraging gardening is core to the eco-village and with this is mind they made the choice to limit the amount of communal garden – instead hoping that individual plots would encourage people to be creative and invest time in their own space. It seems to have worked. All lawn (bar one tenants) has been turned into active garden and despite being small the gardens are a wonder of colour, production (strawberries, tomatoes, bees) and calm retreat from the city. This emphasis on creating a beautiful place is evident throughout the site and is an important part of Kailash – making eco-living seem attractive and appealing, a ‘shining example’ for others to follow.


The whole site is arranged to encourage tenants to participate, to encourage people to get involved, but not to penalise if they do not. There is an interesting balance here between rules which might enforce ‘green behaviour’ and the benefits of people deciding to take green actions themselves. The eco-village has mission and values statements which encourage residents to value ‘the diversity of our community’, ‘regular community gatherings’, ‘common facilities’, ‘frugal use of energy and resources’ and ‘human powered transport and its infrastructure’ among many other things. There is a monthly pot-luck vegan meal and veganism is encouraged but not enforced. Likewise ample bike storage is offered, external clothes lines and wooden clothes dryers are communal, and car parking spaces limited. It is a subtle process of leading by example.

On the other hand individual unit water metres are gradually being installed to encourage reductions in water use, and tenants have to commit to recycling as part of their rental agreement and agree that all communal spaces are vegan (including the garden which excludes the keeping of chickens). Overall, the emphasis is on behaviour change rather than relying upon the ecological features of the building to reduce energy use. Many of these changes are also low-cost, so cycling rather than driving, not using a tumble dryer and reducing water use all save money.

When I first arrived at Kailash I had struggled to understand how it was a ‘village’ or a ‘community’ in the sense that I had understood other eco-projects I had visited. But after ten days I really began to value the different approach taken here. Everyone I had met had been immediately welcoming but there was also a beautiful slowness in getting to know Kailash and understand it’s perhaps more subtle sense of community. Its emphasis on affordability has also opened it up to a more diverse range of people than other projects, and although the small size of the units might ultimately limit who can stay (as in there are limited possibilities for large families) this also creates a much needed space for singles, couples and the younger and older generations.

There is also merit in not using all the collective energy of a place to make each decision and allowing others to take the lead. It opens community to those who are busy and committed to work or projects elsewhere. Perhaps this does lead to a slight sense of disengagement for some residents, but it is unclear to me whether the lack of engagement in work parties (for example) is an effect of the lack of individual ownership, or participation in decision making, or simple reflects the slow process of growing a community. My experience of Kaliash suggests that this divergent form of being an eco-village opens up sustainable living to more possibilities and far more people.

For further information about Kailash eco-village see their website:

[23rd April 2011]


Ampersand Learning Center, Cerillos, New Mexico, USA March 8, 2011

“In a quality life, the sense of fulfilment comes from connection. Look to your rain, look to your land, look to the magical seasons of this earth. Listen to the wind, dance in the mud, then plaster your house with it … living intimately and comfortably with the basic elements brings a deep sense of fulfilment” (Amanda and Andy Bramble, 2010, p.154)


Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center is an intriguing mixture of teaching space, collective building, embryonic community, and a remote eco-home. Situated south of the small town of Cerrillos in New Mexico, Ampersand is at the end of several tracks snaking into the hills. In construction since 2003, the buildings here are mostly hybrid, a mixture of straw-bale walls, adobe and earth bags. Many things have been fashioned from reclaimed items such as salvaged windows, reusing wood, or using an old swivel office chair as a base for a solar oven (thus being able to move it to best catch the sun).


The main house

There is a main house – the home of Andy and Amanda Bramble – and then other more collective spaces such as a straw bale guest house, an outdoor kitchen for guests and another guest building to which a new bathroom was being added. There is also an outdoor solar shower. All the spaces are compact – making use of sleeping platforms, open plan design, and careful placement of furniture – and there is a beautiful simplicity to many of the rooms. There is enough for comfort but not clutter and certainly not an excess of things.


The straw bale and a plaster wall design

This simplicity is also evident in the way everything is designed to be efficient and minimise waste. For example, the solar thermal hot water panel is just outside the bathroom meaning it does not have to travel far to the point of use, and they feed used water into the indoor planter to water the growing vegetables – making multiple uses of what they have.


The outdoor shower

Ampersand is completely off-grid – generating all their electricity from photovoltaic panels, using solar thermal to heat water, collecting all their water via rainwater (into a 2,500 gallon tank) and using a solar oven for cooking. They also warm and cool their house passively. The back of the main house is built into the ground with only a couple of very small windows looking north from the pantry. To the front they have a greenhouse, as this heats up they let heat in through internal windows and when it is cold outside the greenhouse acts as a barrier while still letting the sun in. Their water use also is extremely low, about six gallons each per day. Water is then filtered through a Big Berkley system ready for drinking.

Growing food out here is difficult so they have built a large greenhouse to the front of their house with an indoor planter and created a large storage space – a pantry built into the ground at the back of the house. Refrigeration is limited, they “we harvest ice from an open-topped cistern in the winter to keep our food cold” (p.154) but have to use a propane powered fridge at times in the summer.

Ampersand aims to demonstrate “low-tech sustainable systems which people can do themselves, so that they are not reliant on experts” (Amanda Bramble). There is an emphasis here on having the skills and courage to do it yourself and key to this is starting small and simply learning through the experience of building small structures. It is also about building as a collective endeavour.


Inside and outside a straw bale house at Ampersand Learning Center

I can’t help but fall in love with the simplicity of some of the design and materials used here. In the straw bale guest house there is everything you need and no more or less. Everything is low cost, reclaimed, salvaged, adapted and yet it all has a beauty too. When I asked Amanda what barriers might exist in getting mainstream society to understand and value a place as eclectic as Ampersand she argued that the main obstacles are the “mental constructs of what is acceptable beauty and lifestyle”. Of course it can so easily come down to one’s own choice of aesthetics, but to me this is a place made for the future.


Off-road track to Ampersand Learning Center  and the straw bale house

If you are interested in visiting Ampersand they run classes in the spring and summer, volunteer days, have open house visit days, and occasional internships. Details are on their website:

There is also an article written by Amanda and Andy in Sustainable Sante Fe (2010) ‘On being a beneficial influence: Off grid at Ampersand’