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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2000 : Living Lightly on the Earth

Living Lightly on the Earth

by Penny Bonda, FASID

So begins a marketing brochure for EcoVillage, a sustainable community being built in Loudoun County, VA. Not far away in Caroline County, Haymount—calling itself a traditional town and planned using a set of environmental and social goals—is set to begin construction this fall. These two projects join a growing list of towns being built in a different way and the developers of each hope that their methods are contagious. Whether we like it or not, rapid growth is a fact of life in many parts of the U.S., but it need not always assault our senses with its ugliness, infringe on our countryside with its sprawl or depredate our environment with its carelessness.

Narrow tree-lined streets, sidewalks, front porches, local shopping and recreation, the decreased use of the automobile, a variety of housing types and price ranges, pedestrian-friendly town squares—these are all hallmarks of these two communities. Haymount and EcoVillage share these virtues and something more: an adherence to strict environmental specifications. In fact, as home to these two new developments, Virginia could rightfully boast that it is the state where The New Urbanism Meets Ecology (a bit of an irony given Virginia’s somewhat poor environmental reputation).

Haymount is, in fact, being built according to the dictates of The New Urbanism, a decade-long movement pioneered by architect Peter Calthorpe. The concept has been further developed by town planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, whose projects include Seaside, FL, and The Kentlands in Maryland and have gathered much acclaim for restoring the concept of the neighborhood to suburbia. Haymount hails itself as a “classic American small town.” It is organized by clusters, or neighborhoods, each providing the living, working and shopping needs for its residents within a five-minute walk. Twenty-two different housing types will be available, ranging in price from entry to luxury and will include single-family homes, cottages, townhouses and apartments perched above the retail stores on Main St. Walking is meant to be a friendly and socially stimulating experience down streets dared to be encroached upon by front porches. The architecture will remain in the regional vernacular of Virginia but not so strictly regulated that it doesn’t leave room for individual interpretations.

There will be rules and regulations meant to assure that the town offers all its residents quality of life amenities. Haymount is located along the Rappahannock River and none of the river frontage will be privatized. The river front park, equaling 12 percent of total river frontage is for all county residents to enjoy with no private docks or home sites. Additional land is being set aside by the developer for other parks as well as for churches and schools. Haymount designers describe it as “a new town planned with the belief that sustainable development is a trilogy of ecology, sociology and economics. Its design represents a holistic approach to the mending of nature and the human spirit—and is an ethic that accepts responsibility for the imprint and impact of its development on the landscape and the environment.”

EcoVillage, although similar to Haymount in many ways, defines itself as “a substantially new manner of thinking; an environment that explores the interconnectedness and interdependence of human health, community health and the health of our planet. The goal is to imitate the diversity and efficiency of nature.” EcoVillage features co-housing, meaning that resources, chores, responsibilities and just about everything, except partners and income, are shared. The common house is the heart of the community and each cluster of homes will have one, thereby keeping many of the daily needs of people within easy reach.

Co-housing began in Denmark in the early 1980s and has gradually grown in popularity around the world. The EcoVillage Web site (www.ecovil.com) explains, “Typically co-housing developments are designed, planned and managed with a high degree of participation by future residents. The goal is to create a broad social mix that brings together residents of different ages, races, economic backgrounds and marital status. The layout of the development and architectural design of the homes encourages community. Making community happen while preserving privacy is the goal of co-housing.”

EcoVillage is located on a former dairy farm near the Potomac River. Twenty-one different prototypical housing designs will be offered in the Virginia vernacular, although they can be customized. Pedestrian friendly, the town will be built in two clusters with plenty of open space remaining for community enjoyment. Sound familiar and an awful lot like Haymount?

Aside from their obvious formational differences, EcoVillage and Haymount are remarkably similar in some very important ways, the most striking of which is their shared commitment to a concept of planning that is profoundly different from the commonly found urban, suburban and even rural sprawl which is spoiling our landscape. The common planning tools that have governed surburban development in this country since the end of World War II, such as zoning laws and master planning, have inadvertently contributed to this mess. Practices that strictly separate residential land use from commercial and industrial sites have created an automobile dependant society. James Kunstler put it bluntly in an article in The Atlantic Monthly:

“What zoning produces is suburban sprawl which must be understood as the product of a particular set of instructions. Its chief characteristics are the strict separation of human activities, mandatory driving to get from one activity to another, and huge supplies of free parking. After all, the basic idea of zoning is that every activity demands a separate zone of its own. For people to live around shopping would be harmful and indecent. The pattern it represents is also economically catastrophic, an environmental calamity, socially devastating and spiritually degrading.”

Haymount and EcoVillage, on the other hand, represent a new approach where buildings are clustered in higher densities than usual, encouraging interaction between people and protecting open spaces and the natural habitats of wildlife, wetlands, forests, soil and water. Both will incorporate organic farming and will promote and encourage occupations that support the local economy. Although each is within commuting distance (preferably via train) of Washington, DC, their economic development will be centered around the types of small businesses generally found in small towns.

Both also are being planned with state-of-the-art environmental systems by committed environmentalists: John Clark leads the group at Haymount while Grady O’Rear heads the EcoVillage team. (I should disclose that two members of my firm, Harry Gordon and Gina Baker, are part of the EcoVillage design team.) Each will restore former farms back to their natural state, leaving the majority of the land better off for their having been there. The town of Haymount covers 1,650 acres but only one-third will be developed. The much smaller 180-acre EcoVillage is developing 15 percent of its site. EcoVillage calls this, “living lightly on the earth.”

Both projects started with a design charrette, an interactive process where interested parties get together for a week or two of protracted work in order to create the master plan of the town. Base information is established on a wide range of issues from forest management and wildlife identification to the establishment of an architectural vernacular. The value of this interdisciplinary approach is to assure the acceptance of common goals at the beginning and to avoid misconceptions and missing pieces. Each community’s charrette exercise resulted in extraordinary environmental commitments.

A list of the environmental goals for Haymount could just as easily be those of EcoVillage:

• Design with humility and acknowledge the complexity of nature.

• Accept environmental responsibility for our work.

• Nurture the connection between nature and the human spirit.

• Design with sustainable objectives as a requisite.

• Design with flexibility to allow for environmental technology advancements.

Likewise, EcoVillage’s Manual for Natural Resource Protection and Community Quality could suffice as a guide for Haymount. Some of the environmental initiatives found in the plans of both communities include:

Water and wetlands: Water, both in its natural state and as it’s used, will be protected and safeguarded through methods including alternative wastewater treatment, wetlands delineation and preservation, porous pavement and low water use fixtures. Water for the Haymount community, for example, will come from the aquifer beneath the Rappahannock River, avoiding impacts on local wells as well as adverse effects on the river itself. Wastewater will be treated using sequence batch technology and constructed wetlands. Discharged water will be cleaner than the current average river quality. The protection and restoration of streams running through the EcoVillage property is a high priority and will be monitored regularly.

Plant life: Landscape programs that require the use of native trees and shrubs will reduce the need for watering and the use of fertilizer and pesticides. Both EcoVillage and Haymount have carefully catalogued the plant species found on their land and have developed protocols for re-vegetating with native plant life while eradicating all non-native, exotic and invasive plants. Each of the respective properties were carefully surveyed and all trees larger than a given diameter were identified and marked. This information was then used in the land development plan to protect as many of the specimen trees as possible.

Wildlife: Likewise, protection of the animal populations is a priority and both communities are taking care that their actions will have minimal adverse impact on any species. At Haymount, an American Bald Eagle was found on the site and a management plan for the eagle habitat was devised. EcoVillage prohibits the harm or destruction of even “nuisance” animals except as specifically spelled out in the guidelines. To acquaint future residents with the wildlife, EcoVillage regularly conducts bird watches and has recently concluded its first butterfly count. Twenty species were spotted and they’re still counting.

Energy: Energy that is from non-renewable sources is to be minimized and both communities will rely heavily on solar power. At EcoVillage, Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates and the Ensar Group designed buildings that make use of passive solar, natural ventilation and other low energy efficiencies. Solar Design Associates, a Boston, MA, area firm, is EcoVillage’s solar power advisor. They have planned the placement of 10,000 square feet of photovoltaics to best capture the energy of the sun and convert it to useable power, although the high cost may prohibit its use. Haymount will use as much solar as it possibly can with the ultimate goal of taking the whole town off grid altogether.

Buildings: There are going to be lots of no-no’s. The use of toxic building materials will obviously be prohibited and each community is planning to have an environmental manager to assist builders and home owners in selecting healthy building materials, which will include used, recycled and renewable resources. They also will help with standards governing the performance of buildings. They will be climate responsive, limited in height, and will be built from sustainable, locally available, long-lasting products. EcoVillage has considered straw bale construction and has incorporated the use of structural insulated panels, engineered wood and recycled content gypsum board. And while these towns may look back for some of their planning devices, they are anything but old-fashioned. Both will be wired for high speed Internet access and other advanced technical requirements.

John Clark of Haymount and EcoVillage’s Grady O’Rear are men of vision and of infinite patience. Both projects are behind schedule primarily because of roadblocks thrown in their way by the local jurisdictions. One described the process as a dance between the regulators and the developers. True, each is pushing the envelope and each had to compromise in order to get even this far. But they are where they are because their process was inclusive and intelligent. Local and regional policymakers are beginning to recognize the growing demand for livable communities and that the success of environmental protection efforts depends on the level of involvement and sophistication of local government. These are state-of-the-art environmental projects that will be used as proof that intelligent development is possible, profitable and highly desirable.

Haymount and EcoVillage were planned from the beginning for livability and sustainability: a place where you can listen to the sounds of the meadow and count the butterflies fluttering by your front porch as you munch on your apple, organically grown of course—where the livin’ is easy.

Penny Bonda, FASID, is the director of interior design at the Washington, DC, office of Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann and serves as a board member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). She can be reached at 1056 Thomas Jefferson St. N.W., Washington, DC 20007; (202) 333-2711; fax: (202) 333-3159; e-mail: penny.bonda@burthill.com.

 


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