Groundbreaking set for Rachel Carson EcoVillage in western PA
Groundbreaking scheduled for this fall at ecovillage on Chatham University’s Richland campus
By ZACHARY GROZ 8/8/2022
Twenty miles north of Pittsburgh, at Chatham University’s satellite in Richland, construction on what project organizers are calling the first-ever multi-generational “ecovillage” on a college campus is set to begin this fall.
Named for Chatham’s celebrated conservationist alumna, the Rachel Carson EcoVillage, when completed next summer, will serve as an “intentional community where people know their neighbors, work cooperatively and live sustainably,” according to Stefani Danes, RCE’s project lead and a longtime member of the Pittsburgh Co-housing Group, the cooperative living nonprofit that conceived of the plan for the community in Gibsonia.
The 35-unit cluster of studio, 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom homes will sit just off of Ridge Road on Chatham’s Eden Hall campus, where the university’s school of sustainability and environment unfolds across 388 acres of fields and woods.
A team of architects, engineers, energy specialists and ecologists spent the last year designing the layout of the community to minimize carbon production in the short-term and equip the development with a 100% renewable energy supply for the long haul.
Ecovillages like Rachel Carson have been built around the country over the last three decades, notably in Ithaca, N.Y., where another “intentional community” is laid out in three connected neighborhoods just under 5 miles outside the Cornell University campus.
Other colleges, like Berea in Kentucky, have converted student dorms into environmentally sustainable housing, but the ecovillage at Eden Hall does something else. Residents of the ecovillage — or “equity members,” as RCE calls them — buy their homes, at cost, for anywhere between $180,000 and $550,000, and buy into the general ethos of the community, supporting the university’s research and field work in various capacities.
Last fall, according to Ms. Danes, the RCE had eight equity members who had put deposits down on units. Now they have 25. Most, she said, are empty nesters from Pittsburgh or with other ties to the region, but some are young families who like the scenery, the school district and the ecovillage’s project.
Like the equity holders laying out thousands of dollars before construction begins, David Finegold, Chatham’s president, thinks the RCE model — “when people see how part of their commitment is not just not to harm the environment but to improve it” — is promising.
“We see this as a solution to a lot of societal problems,” Mr. Finegold said.
Groundbreaking at Eden Hall is expected to take place in October, once the final building permits are issued by the township.
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Rachel Carson EcoVillage: A Bridge between Past and Future
By Stefani Danes, RCE Community Member
[this article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Green Horizon Magazine]
Rachel Carson EcoVillage (RCE), in the early stages of development in western Pennsylvania, will be an intentional community designed to foster residents’ connections with each other, with nature, and with surrounding neighbors. Once completed, Rachel Carson EcoVillage will be home to an intergenerational group of like-minded individuals from diverse backgrounds in a 35-unit cohousing arrangement.
In the Pittsburgh area, a region of over one million households, 35 housing units is, of course, a small drop in the bucket. Could such a project have any significance beyond its value for those homeowners? What role might such a project play in the larger shift of society toward a deeper democracy and a more life-sustaining world?
We suggest that it could make three notable contributions that might transcend its own boundaries: sociocratic governance, infrastructure performance, and ecological fit. First, though, it’s important to recognize that Rachel Carson EcoVillage is building on a history of successful communities.
RCE is part of a growing movement around the world, fueled in part by the increasing prevalence of social isolation that is the by-product of hyper-individualism. According to an article by Phillip Perry, “… cohousing could help solve a lot of the world’s most pressing problems, such as how to provide affordable housing, how to help people find work-life balance, how to regain the loss of community and connectedness we once had, and how to adopt sustainable living practices.”
In Europe, the cohousing movement has been accelerated by support from local and national governments. In Great Britain, for example, cohousing is incorporated into city housing strategies as a way to offer better housing options for young families, elderly individuals, and low-income households. In the US, cohousing is a private initiative that must be accomplished without public subsidies or incentives. A successful cohousing project in the US therefore demonstrates a great amount of sustained determination, a high degree of risk-taking, and an impressive collective will. Each new community contributes to the momentum of the movement as a whole, even though it’s only one more pin on the map.
Today, cities like Boston, Seattle, and Oakland, California have become hubs of cohousing. In Pittsburgh, though the idea of creating an intentional community has been drawing people to discussions for over twenty years, the closest fully-developed community is Ecovillage Ithaca (NY), a half-day’s drive away. So Rachel Carson EcoVillage will fill a large geographic void.
But cohousing is growing — not only in numbers, but also as a network of communities that collectively demonstrates the viability of an alternative lifestyle with documented benefits for people, land, and society. Rachel Carson EcoVillage, Altair Ecovillage in eastern Pennsylvania, and others in development are building on thirty years of successful cohousing advocacy in North America. Today there are 165 such communities in the United States. Through organizations like the Cohousing Association of the United States and the Global Ecovillage Network, residents are part of a community of communities learning from each other and offering hopeful and practical ways to avoid the potentially discouragingly high costs — to themselves and to society — of ongoing suburban sprawl.
RCE’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE MOVEMENT
Rachel Carson EcoVillage is the only independent cohousing community in North America being established on a university campus. It will be located on Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus, home of the Falk School of Sustainability and Environment. The school educates professional sustainability leaders through innovative experienced-based undergraduate and graduate programs. The campus is the school’s learning laboratory for teaching, research, and public service. The school, taking its inspiration from Rachel Carson, one of Chatham’s most notable alumna, is emerging as a new world leader in finding answers to the growing global challenges we face today.
It would be hard to find more fertile soil on which to create an ecovillage. RCE is located just beyond the campus gateway marker, on which the opening lines of Rachel Carson’s most famous book are inscribed: “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” This alignment of visions and values is the foundation for a productive partnership between the ecovillage and the university. While Rachel Carson EcoVillage brings academic theories to life, the school amplifies the impact of the community. RCE residents will enjoy lifelong learning on the campus. They will be able to participate in academic events, volunteer in campus projects, mentor students, and host learning activities. In return, the EcoVillage is creating unique opportunities for collaborative research in social organization, building performance, and ecological integration. In each of these ways, Rachel Carson EcoVillage is looking to break new ground and offer lessons for future communities.
“Who decides who decides?” is perhaps the most important question for any organization to answer. In a book by that apt title, Ted Rau of Sociocracy For All explains the fundamentals of sociocracy — participatory governance by friends. Rachel Carson EcoVillage adopted sociocracy as its governance structure from the outset.
Good governance is the basis for harmonious living. In a sociocratic organization, everyone agrees to working toward a common vision and goals. Decisions are decentralized, and leadership is developed throughout the organization. Meetings are facilitated so that each person’s voice and time are respected. New RCE members take an introductory course taught online by Sociocracy For All, and then they practice in the community’s planning groups. All of Rachel Carson EcoVillage’s decisions have been made by consent, which connects people to each other, rather than a majority vote, which is inherently divisive. In this way prospective residents are taking an active role in planning the project and its long-term management. They are also getting to know, trust, and respect each other well before moving into their new housing.
Rachel Carson EcoVillage is the first organization of any kind in the Pittsburgh region with experience in practicing sociocratic decision making. While there is growing interest in a model of governance that connects people — especially in a time when society has become so fractured and distrustful — two years of on-the-ground implementation puts the community in the role of a leader with lessons to share, not only with community organizations, but with local government agencies and boards, businesses, non-profit groups, and others.
As good stewards of resources, Rachel Carson EcoVillage has identified specific targets for the design of a low-energy, low-carbon-emissions community. It has an expert team of designers, builders, and analysts with experience in state-of-the-art green construction working together in an integrated process. From early in the design process, iterative energy modeling and carbon lifecycle accounting have informed design decisions. For example, the buildings will be US Passive House certified. The general contractor is hiring an offsite fabricator to construct wall, roof, and floor panels in a controlled factory environment. Not only does this guarantee higher precision and performance, it reduces the risk of exposure to unpredictable weather, minimizes construction waste, cuts field time by almost half, and provides exact as-built documentation for homeowners.
Once they are constructed, the buildings will be independently “commissioned” to test actual performance before they are sold. A monitoring system will be installed to enable homeowners to control their comfort and air quality as well as track their energy savings. Building performance can also be evaluated on an ongoing basis for community/university research. RCE promises to provide a unique laboratory for empirical analysis as part of its commitment to learning and sharing.
Traditional site plans and landscaping have a way of fragmenting space. They aim to distinguish and elevate the human condition above that which is around it, often cutting down flourishing diverse vegetation to a turf lawn to provide a dramatic contrast between the land and the house. Relationships between people and nature are further suppressed in the dominant culture when we aspire to individual convenience and chemicalized “landscape hygiene.”
Even some cohousing communities have tended to adopt such an approach to landscape design. Rachel Carson EcoVillage is committed to realizing an “interdependence” approach — design for the betterment of the natural ecosystem, not just the human community. It is based on an ongoing study of the ecology of the fields and forests of the campus by both community members and professionals, including eco-walk explorations and an iNaturalist project. Residents will be collaborating with students in invasives-control projects. With the advice of an expert in meadows, the community will transform a monoculture field into a beautiful and diverse meadow and introduce the first stage of a natural forest succession that will allow the existing forest to reclaim a former potato field. RCE will be working hand-in-hand with the university on long-term landscape management of the area around the village.
The Rachel Carson EcoVillage community is laying the groundwork for a lifestyle that is socially vibrant as well as ecologically purposeful. Its goal is to explore ways of living harmoniously with each other, with nature, and with neighbors. While it is an outgrowth of several generations of successful cohousing, it is inherently a practical test case for new ideas in community and sustainability that require a thoughtful foundation for success. That foundation combines looking back at lessons learned and looking ahead to new ways to build not just a better community, but a better society.
STEFANI DANES, FAIA serves as Rachel Carson EcoVillage’s development project manager. An architect by profession, she designs urban affordable housing, cohousing, and community facilities. She also teaches courses on housing, intentional communities, and urban design in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. Stefani has visited more than forty communities in the US and Denmark, prepared post-occupancy evaluations, and has completed a course in cohousing development. She has been a presenter at two national Cohousing Conferences.