Rebuilding Echo Hill

An alternative approach to housing development design

One of the articles in Sustainable Habitat (IC#14)
Originally published in Autumn 1986 on page 11
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Having explored a concept that adapts well to existing housing, we now turn to some ideas for new building projects. Bruce Coldham, an architect in Montague, MA, took a look at a housing development built recently near Amherst, MA and devised an alternative design for that site. In this article, we see how applying principles of sustainability and community cohesiveness can produce a design providing better usage of the land, less energy expenditure, and a richer community life.

IF A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY is a lower energy society dependent on renewable resources, what would a sustainable version of present western industrial society look like? What would change in our practical living arrangements? How would we spend our day?

The large hierarchical pyramids of social organization that characterize contemporary society, and that require large energy inputs to support themselves, would likely break up into more numerous, smaller jurisdictions. Localities would become more productive as their freedom and responsibility were reinstated. This new-found productivity would be geared to satisfying local needs from local resources. This is the essence of a sustainable society.

In such a society, a community would need to set some goals for local production of its citizens’ needs. The guiding aspiration should be to harness the resources of the setting and would include the following goals of communal self-reliance:

  • water supply
  • energy production for day-to-day requirements
  • basic food production (that required to provide an adequate, healthy diet)
  • cycling of organic wastes as a nutrient resource.

Additional goals could be set which would progressively increase self-sufficiency. At some point, however, a level of self-sufficiency is reached that would severely limit the range of goods, place unacceptable constraints upon the lifestyles of most people, and possibly place unacceptable demands upon the resources of the setting. Therefore, establishing reasonable production goals entails the consideration of questions such as these: How rich is the natural resource base of the locale? What population is it expected to serve? How big is "local"? What is the difference between self- sufficiency and self-reliance?

We are a society that historically has committed resources to trading goods and ideas from outside our sphere of influence, and it is safe to assume that this will continue. Self-sufficiency implies isolation and is, therefore, inconsistent with this aspiration. Self- reliance, on the other hand, implies interaction from a position of strength and relative independence. It is a matter of degree, a balance, which in turn depends upon the size of the locality.

To better illustrate the differences between contemporary and sustainable lifestyles, consider a typical contemporary suburban setting as it is now, and how it might adapt. Echo Hill, outside Amherst, Massachusetts, is a planned-unit condominium development on a 50-acre south- and west-facing site, home to 450 people in 120 dwelling units. It is, by today’s standards, a well-laid out, attractive residential development. However, the site serves only as a place for houses, houses which are usually well separated, randomly oriented, and located on the flattest, most arable land. The spaces between are paved to accommodate the vehicular lifeline. The surrounding landscape consumes energy to arrest its natural succession back to the rich diversity of the local forests. Expansive lawns, which require potable (drinkable) water and chemical nutrients to grow lush, and gasoline to cut down the lushness, produce nothing except visual amenity. The waste nutrients are channelled away, a problem to be rid of.

Here, the sun bakes the pavement and the rain runs off fast to aggravate the local storm drainage system. Here, on-site production is a negative quantity.

Let us re-examine the Echo Hill community as if it were a part of a productive community setting in a sustainable society. Firstly, the site planning would reflect the need to release more productive land for agriculture. As a general rule, any expanse of prime agricultural land would remain open. Buildings would be clustered on sloping land in relative proximity to open, productive land, allowing gravity to convey organic wastes/nutrients. The topography of the setting, its hydrology and surface geology, among other factors, would determine the appropriate scale of these clusters and of the productive land parcels to which they would be coupled.

FOOD PRODUCTION AND ORGANIC WASTE CYCLING

Waste management would be developed as part of a continuing resource chain, wastes becoming raw materials in a production process rather than an expensive problem, a source of environmental degradation, and a dispersal of natural wealth. Where once there were expansive lawns and pavement, perhaps a variety of vegetables and herbs might grow, using advanced, intensive gardening techniques. They would provide fresh, healthy produce for the immediate community, and casual employment for those who need and want it. Picture a walk flanked by espaliated apple trees or overarching vines leading to a delightful place, offering shade and enclosure beneath a huge mulberry tree, overlooking acres of vegetable garden, an orchard bounded by a hedgerow of berry briars, or a field of mulch.

A sustainable community will rely heavily and continuously upon biological processes. To maintain these processes year round in cool climates, a temperate enclosure is required. Such an enclosure – a bioshelter – could be quite large, employing a translucent tensile skin or shell to enclose a few acres. It would be the town common, main street, the market place, a winter garden as well as a market garden, a sewage treatment plant, and a fish hatchery. It would be a place to sit and be a part of local life, a place to be among people as well as a link in the life support chain of the community.

WATER AND ENERGY

Conservation techniques would reduce water use dramatically without sacrificing amenity. Organizing the open landscape into productive agriculture and cascading domestic greywater for its irrigation would virtually eliminate the use of potable water outdoors. With demand for potable water reduced sixfold, water supply options multiply. Roof top collection for example, especially from large, smooth expanses such as that overlaying a bioshelter, becomes feasible.

Each dwelling would produce sufficient energy for its own day-to-day operations from solar conversions. Again, with efficient appliances and practices, and appropriate end-uses, average domestic electric use would be reduced three to four fold, such that the photovoltaic conversion from 500 sq. ft. of roof area would satisfy the need for electricity. Furthermore, the auxiliary heating requirement of a sensibly designed, well-constructed house would be met by the simultaneous collection of the heat accompanying photovoltaic conversion.

Production, however, is only half the battle. The energy flow from the sun is inexhaustible, but it varies with the season, with the time of day, and with climatic conditions from day to day.

Therefore, for photovoltaic conversion of solar radiation to be a viable source of high grade power, it must be accumulated in some form of storage to maintain supply over periods of scarcity or drought and also to perform a "load levelling" function.

A number of community-scale storage options might be useful. Technologies involving storage as chemical energy in batteries, storage as mechanical energy in flywheels, and storage (through electrolysis) as hydrogen with reconversion through a fuel cell, are all possibilities. Beyond the community, participation in regional storage and leveling is possible through connection to a regional power grid.

For heating purposes, wood has been a substitute for fossil fuel, but as a mainstay for a sustainable society, it would be impossible in all but thinly populated areas. Even with tight, efficient houses, an acre of woodland would be required to sustain each dwelling. Better to collect the incident solar energy directly over the whole year, storing the summer excess for use in the wintertime. Annual cycle storage would be the most appropriate district heating option, given moderate residential densities, and its large thermal storage coffer would make an excellent bedfellow for the type of community bioshelter described earlier. District heating technologies of this kind would be an additional incentive to the close grouping of buildings.

In addition to the constant flow of energy needed to maintain those of life’s needs so far addressed, everything we acquire has energy bound into it. It is the energy required to manufacture it and to mine and process the resources embodied in it. Local materials, simply processed and close at hand, generally have low amounts of embodied energy and consequently would find increased use. Wood products, which never lost their popularity, would be joined, for example, by rammed earth techniques. Non-native species such as bamboo might be developed to withstand cooler conditions and cultivated for their peculiar building construction properties. In the process, building would retrace some steps toward a regional vernacular.

Echo Hill would make a productive contribution to its own durable material needs, as an orchestrated part of a regional effort. It would be a part of the chain of inorganic material recycling that would feed regional reprocessing and manufacturing establishments, for a renewable energy society would spend more time mining its kitchens and workshops.

As we become more committed to a form of organization, so we become more adept at it. Sorting and separation would become more refined, with more materials in more specific groups being reclaimed. Within this societal effort, each community would support a recycling center. It, like the local laundromat, gas station, or library, would be one of those institutions in town where people exchange gossip while they make their transactions.

Conscious source separation and recycling activity are inevitably linked to views of consumption and production. If people are seriously involved in the management of their waste stream, their purchasing practices come under critical review. People are likely to ask of each purchase: "How will I get rid of this, and when?" in addition to the standard question of its price. In a renewable energy society, the market would favor more durable, longer-lived goods.

From a technical viewpoint, such goods would be produced by designing for maximum durability, easy repair, and "remanufacturing." This would increase the presence of the used appliance and replacement part markets. In a small community like Echo Hill, these life-prolonging factors would spawn local businesses, remanufacturing goods in workshops and factories and reopening repair shops on street corners.

LIVING AND WORKING

The reduced scale and local productivity would result in the growth of local wealth and employment opportunity. Expansion in local employment would accompany domestic recycling efforts, the operation and maintenance of domestic services, and food production. Moreover, it would be work that could engage younger people full-time, and others (perhaps the elderly and the very young) in seasonal and part-time employment. With more activity at their doorsteps, the elderly might find opportunities to occupy those hours of the day or week that suit them. The very young would find the diversity of their environment an enrichment of their education as they tended plants or participated in the routines of animal husbandry.

Home/working arrangements would thrive because the same pressures that act to decentralize production would act to reduce long-distance commuting. Cottage industries would undertake commercial projects in research, mail ordering, data processing, etc., while others served the local and regional repair and remanufacturing market.

With more people working on local projects, more people circulating locally and dependent upon local resources and institutions, more people on foot or cycling, there would be increased interconnectedness among residents, which would result in a heightening of community cohesiveness. Family extensions would consolidate as groups of families cooperated in such activities as bartering services, carpooling, sharing household work and day care, and processing the summertime food harvest.

This level of cooperation and interconnectedness and the wide range of lifestyles possible in the community could bring together a very diverse group of people: young and old, commuters and the self-employed; single-parent, nuclear, and communal families; artists and technicians; dreamers, thinkers, and doers. The inhabitants of a community such as Echo Hill could create an environment of beauty, utility, social diversity, and personal fulfillment – a climate in which technical and social innovation would flourish. Having their needs satisfied within the context of a rich and dynamic social network, they could live in ever greater harmony with self, family, community, and with the earth itself.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Elgin, D., Voluntary Simplicity: An Ecological Lifestyle that Promotes Personal and Social Renewal. (New York: Morrow, 1981).

Harbraken, N.J., Supports: an Alternative to Mass Housing. (New York: Praeger, 1972).

Hatch, C.R. (ed.), The Scope of Social Architecture. (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984).

Hawken, P., The Next Economy. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983).

Hayden, D., Redesigning the American Dream. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984).

Madsen, P. & Goss, K., ‘"Shared Houses, Shared Lives," Solar Age (July 1982).

Ophuls, W., Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1977).

Schumacher, E.F., Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. (London, U.K.: Blond & Briggs, 1973).

"A New Outlook Takes Shape in Shared Housing," New York Times Real Estate Report, (Oct. 18, 1984).

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