Location Ithaca, NY
Size 48,980 ft²
Completed December 2013 (expected)
Program 40 residences, community center
Client TREE, LLC
Architect Coterre, Jerry Weisburd
Landscape Architect Rick Manning
Energy/Passive House Consultant Steven Winter Associates
General Contractor TREE, LLC with Michael Carpenter
Construction Financing CFCU, Community Credit Union
The actual homes of EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) occupy less than 10 percent of the land that constitutes the development. But this cluster of 100 residences built on just nine acres in the Finger Lakes region of New York is setting an example that reaches far beyond the property limits.
EVI is a hamlet of 165 residents, after two phases of development that began in the early 1990s, but with a third phase on track to be completed and occupied by December this year, the community is about to grow by 40 units. What makes this village unique is that it’s a cohousing community. Cohousing was first conceived in Denmark to wed private housing with strong community features. Its characteristics include an orientation to central pedestrian walkways, with cars parked on the periphery, and common houses that facilitate things like community meals three times a week.
This intentional style of living is currently more common in Europe than it is stateside, but the Cohousing Association of the United States lists 217 built or in-development projects in 38 states and Washington, DC. The community aspect reduces individual energy consumption and increases social interaction, something easily lost in more typical types of American residential neighborhoods.
The homes at EVI are a dense cluster of duplexes built on a 175-acre property, the balance of which is dedicated to organic farming, recreation, and natural habitat. Residences are organized as a New York State housing cooperative, bought and sold on the open real estate market and situated within the sphere of Cornell University and Ithaca College, about a mile outside the city limits. As buildings and as a functioning, organic community of families, singles, seniors, and a whole lot of wildlife, this groundbreaking experiment provides lessons that are shared with commercial developers as well as academics and architects, a glimpse into a way of life that is sustainable for nature and for community members.
“We create a lifestyle that’s appealing,” says Liz Walker, EVI’s cofounder and the executive director of the nonprofit arm, the EcoVillage at Ithaca Center for Sustainability Education. Although everyone who lives in the community makes a conscious decision to live a sustainable life, Walker says that there are components of the village that hold a natural attraction to others from more traditional communities. Separating vehicular traffic from living areas is one such draw. “We have pedestrian streets where kids can play,” Walker says. “That is how people used to live in villages.” And it might become that way again. This component of life at EVI was studied with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency; the team looked at distances between houses, streets, and parking to develop “floating zone” language, now used to describe Pedestrian Neighborhood Zones (PNZs) in proposed municipal zoning documents.
The homes are a lively jumble of two-story townhouse dwellings, ranging in size from 922-square-foot one-bedroom units to 1,642-square-foot four-bedroom units. The first community, FROG, was completed in 1997. It is centered around the FROG Common House, which encourages community interaction with a cooking and dining area, multipurpose play and meeting rooms, offices, a guest room, laundry, and storage. Walker believes only about a quarter of the homes have televisions; it’s rare to see a child watching TV alone—instead, children and adults gather in the Common House to watch films together. (The development has been, however, an early adopter of high-speed Internet connectivity.)
Although no TV might seem crazy to the typical American child or teenager—accustomed to a personalized, on-demand entertainment paradigm—the children of EVI reportedly take it in stride. These are the offspring, after all, of parents who espouse a conscious life.
An eco-friendly ethos is ever present at EVI, illustrated through the solar panels that populate the residential roofs and the nearby 50-kilowatt array, through energy-efficient buildings and sustainable construction methods, and through the woods, meadows, wetlands, streams, and ponds where children play, adjacent to community gardens and organic farms where some teenagers have jobs.
Walker reports there is very little obesity among adults and children in the community, which shouldn’t be surprising given their active lifestyle and their remove from consumer packaged-goods. Walker speaks of another benefit that she has observed in her own children, now grown, as well as in others. “Overall, these kids are very good in social groups, at problem solving,” she says. “They are confident and have a strong sense of belonging.”
Design, Develop, Repeat
Intentional communities are, as the term implies, full of good intentions, but fulfilling those is hardly a cakewalk. Trendsetters such as Walker circumnavigate myriad zoning, financing, and legal challenges and must be skilled sales people. She had to explain the concept and benefits to stakeholders in order to persuade the town planning board, the New York State Attorney General’s office, and EVI’s investors, grant funders, bankers, and home buyers. “Our first banker had to override his attorneys in providing a construction loan,” she says.
That bank, a local savings and loan, did well in the end by financing both FROG and SONG, the second development. Twenty-four of the original 30 units were claimed in advance of construction, and all of the mortgages ended up in the lender’s portfolio. TREE, the third community, is being financed by a local credit union, and despite current market conditions, 39 of 40 units are pre-sold with construction under way.
Homeowners also have fared well in their investment. It is difficult to identify area comparables, and most homes are still in the hands of original buyers, but Walker’s own three-bedroom house, purchased in 1996 for $130,000, is now valued at $235,000. Ithaca was, in large part, spared the price bubble and burst of the past decade, and at least one appraiser says EVI earns a 20 percent premium because of its community features.
For EVI’s inaugural village, the steering committee hired Ithaca-area architect and builder Jerry Weisburd on the basis of his experience in large-scale affordable housing. “We rode his coattails,” Walker says regarding the architect’s instrumental role in the success of EVI’s first phase. Weisburd returned to design the third phase as well, and for TREE, 25 out of 40 units will meet Passive House standards, which strive to reduce heating and cooling loads by 90 percent over traditional building methods. Passive House methodology specifically pushes the envelope in the area of, well, the envelope by prioritizing features such as R-90 insulation, passive solar and strategic shading, and energy recovery ventilators.
Passive House design is an extraordinary effort, but it requires a conscious homebuilder and buyer. Walker says this is another example of how EVI, along with eco-communities elsewhere, helps traditional builders identify methods through which to hone the environmentally friendly options of their craft. “Even if other developers can’t do all this,” she says, “there is a lot that is applicable to building envelopes and ventilation systems.” Walker points to a nearby Ithaca urban infill project; the Aurora Street Pocket Neighborhood aims to meet Passive House standards when completed toward the end of 2013.
Criticism and Consensus
Has EcoVillage met criticism? Have there been challenges along the way? The answer to both questions, of course, is yes. Some say that because EVI is outside the city, residents are dependent on motor vehicle transportation. Walker admits this is true but responds by saying EVI provides a housing model for the type of individual who yearns to connect with nature on a daily basis. Besides, residents are quite amenable to carpooling, and a bicycle culture—even in the hilly terrain around Ithaca—has emerged as well. And though some residents commute to jobs via automobile, many work on-site as writers, consultants, craftspeople, and farmers. One EcoVillager maintains a five-acre ‘U-pick’ berry enterprise while another manages a ten-acre vegetable farm and employs scores of people during the growing season.
Another question concerns economic diversity, but Walker and the community are managing this issue as well. Already many residents rent rooms in their homes to individuals, but TREE includes 15 smaller apartments with five for rent in the four-story TREE Common House. Those units will range in size from 452-square-foot studios to three-bedroom flats at 1,150 square feet.
In the end, the village is run by democratic consensus. This involves disagreement, but differences are quickly ironed out. The community is creative in its solutions; when it added a $280,000 solar photovoltaic system, the residents shared the costs, government rebates, and tax credits. In addition, all residents volunteer two hours per week on one of six work teams. These are people who are thinking globally, acting locally, and living a life that many hope to replicate—at least in some form or fashion.
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