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Appalachian Ecovillage

A college founded by abolitionists builds on the dream of a school open to all, turning student family housing into a visionary model of sustainable living

Driving along Jefferson Street in Berea, Kentucky, you might not notice at first glance anything remarkable about the 32 townhouse apartments that Berea College built in 2003. Like many homes in this part of Appalachia, the row-house apartments are modest structures with a mix of brick and siding.

Look a bit closer, though, and you'll see a large greenhouse among the buildings on the five-acre site. The greenhouse holds a “living machine”—a series of tanks filled with aquatic plants, fish, and microorganisms that purify the wastewater from the apartments and other buildings on-site. The greenhouse is prominently located facing the common outdoor space on one side and the busiest street adjacent to the community on the other. Anyone passing by can see the tanks.

Most communities keep their waste streams hidden. But at the Berea College Ecovillage, the waste treatment, as well as the flow of energy, food, and water through the site, are visible. This is just one example of how the Berea College Ecovillage works with natural systems and provides a model of ecological design and living.

The ecovillage features 32 new and 18 renovated units for student families; a commons house with a meeting room and laundry for residents; the Sustainability & Environmental Studies (SENS) house, which houses four students and an education center; and the Child Development Lab, a teaching and research childcare facility for 118 children.

Berea College was founded in 1855 by abolitionists dedicated to providing an interracial education and opportunities for residents of Appalachia, regardless of income. So when their student housing needed expanding, it was natural they would think radically.

The plan for Berea Ecovillage began with extensive community participation in the design process through a two-day design charrette—a collaborative community planning and design process—facilitated by the architects to develop concepts for the  ecovillage. The result is a plan that grew out of the history and culture of the place and from the people who will live and work there. “Students who participated and graduated before completion cared enough to come back and take a look at it.” says Connie Briggs, who oversees the ecovillage for the college. “They feel a strong sense of involvement.”

Flows of water, air, light, and waste

What these students see is a direct outgrowth of their earlier design work. The buildings are connected by the central common outdoor space—a network of pathways, gardens, patios, gathering areas, and an open lawn planted with native grasses—carefully shaped by the buildings that form its boundaries to create a comfortable social arena and bring sun and breezes to the buildings. These outdoor spaces also play an integral role in the ecovillage's ecological function. Storm water collected from rooftops and ground surfaces is stored under the central commons in a large array of subterranean storage cells, to provide irrigation for gardening.

 The living machine was intended to save water by reusing all wastewater on-site. Although it purifies water to swimming pool quality standards, the state of Kentucky currently will not allow the water to be reused for anything beyond refilling the toilet tanks. So most of the water is discharged to the city sewer system. Water from the living machine will be tested by the SENS students for the next two to three years to establish scientific data to support new state legislation, which Berea officials are helping draft and support, that will allow living machines and their water to be used across the state. If this new policy is adopted, all the water from the ecovillage's living machine will be able to be used for other building water needs and irrigation.

 Richard Olson, director of the SENS, notes that based on testing to date the living machine “works fine for water quality, but odors have been a problem.” Students and staff have tried some renovations and are assessing the results.

The ecovillage was designed to support composting and recycling. Each building and townhouse is equipped with a recycling area. Garbage disposals were not installed in the unit kitchens, to encourage composting. “Composting and recycling is something I have always wanted to participate in but found it harder in other places that I have lived,” resident Hallemah Morrison says. Not all residents participate, however, so the community is exploring how to inspire everyone to do so.

The college set ambitious environmental goals, including reduction of energy and water use by 75 percent compared to the regional average, treating wastewater on-site, and reducing waste by at least 50 percent through recycling and composting. Significant savings have been achieved, and SENS students are tracking progress to determine the precise results.

As for the challenges of living in the ecovillage, Morrison notes, “We don't have as much access to modern conveniences. It takes a little adjustment from being used to a dishwasher and dryer in your apartment to washing by hand or going to the community laundry.” Yet there is a waiting list to get into the ecovillage.

Support for student parents

Perhaps more important than the tangible economic and environmental benefits are the social and educational ones. Each unit has direct ground level access to the outdoors and a trellised patio facing the common space. Residents gather on their patios, and some have added swings, lawn chairs, gardens, clotheslines, and children's toys. Parents feel comfortable letting children play freely in the common space without direct supervision.

“A strong indicator that the college's goal of creating community is successful is that residents are working together to solve problems and figure out childcare,” says Connie Briggs. Briggs tells about a child living across the street from the ecovillage who talked with her parents one evening about wanting brothers and sisters. The girl thought for a moment after her parents had gently explained that siblings would not be forthcoming, then said, “That's okay. The kids at the ecovillage are my brothers and sisters.”

“The ecovillage,” says college President Larry Shinn, “is first and foremost a place for Berea students and their children to live, to learn, and to play. It is secondly a place for others to learn from what we have done and to build upon it with their own dreams.”

Green living, Kentucky style

Olson believes the ecovillage is a concept that just might catch on in this rural part of Kentucky. “I don't think there are many people in our area who would not be receptive to ideas that save them a lot of money on energy use, that will protect or improve the quality of their water, or that will preserve open space and farmland. Those are values widely held in this area,” Olson says. “A house that will cost almost nothing to heat, cool, and light would be perceived as a good value worth paying for.”

At its best, sustainable design creates harmonies between the social, physical, and natural worlds. The Berea College Ecovillage is demonstrating this potential and the benefits it has on people's lives.

Tonya Smith, a senior at Berea College living in the ecovillage with her four-and-a-half-year-old son, says, “I was worried that I would have to sacrifice so much time with my son when I came back to college. But the ecovillage allows my child to be an active participant in my college experience. This is the greatest gift living in the ecovillage has had for me.”

Christopher Gutsche and Kathleen Smith were formerly senior architect and senior designer at Van der Ryn Architects, which designed the Berea Ecovillage. They now live in Winslow Cohousing on Bainbridge Island, Washington, with their daughter and run EcoSmith Design & Consulting. They can be reached at Chris Gutsche email or Kathleen Smaith email. Email Signup
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