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It takes an Ecovillage

Of shared significance to all current and future members of the Belfast Ecovillage cooperative (Maine law requires that they register as a condo association, though exactly what their bylaws will look like is still up for debate) is sustainability.

More than 30 acres will be available for farming, and the group is currently fielding inquiries from young farmers who want to be involved. Whoever takes on this role would do their own business from the farmland (with a very handy built-in market of 36 households). The common house will contain a root cellar, and community gardens are sure to be plentiful. There is also a barn on the property. The homes (duplexes, triplexes, and one quad, with units ranging from studios to four-bedrooms) will be clustered together, facing inward toward pedestrian paths and green space, with parking on the periphery.

The homes will have a tiny footprint on the 42-acre parcel (a mere five acres), leaving substantial open space for outdoor recreational activities and farming.

"Our mission and design was all about . . . transitioning away from an oil-based economy," McKim says of the initial design phase. The Ecovillage will encourage a lifestyle that is "self-sufficient in a way that a lot of Mainers are anyway."

To that end, the homes themselves (which are going for between $150,000 and $330,000) represent the pinnacle of eco-friendliness. The prototype was designed by G-O Logic, a Belfast-based architecture and construction firm co-owned by McKim's husband Alan Gibson. It is one of only two dozen houses in the United States that has been awarded uber-green Passive House Certification, meaning that the design minimizes energy losses while maximizing energy gains.

Among the energy-efficient features:

• Solar panels on the roof

• Triple-pane, south-facing windows

• Air-sealing (employing a ventilation system to avoid problems with mold and moisture)

• High-grade insulation

• Frost-protection and insulation at the foundation

• Locally harvested wood (although other materials come from abroad)

• Shared walls between dwellings

That last component, along with limited customization, also increases the units' affordability, says O'Connell, who admits it was "a big shift to go from thinking about separate houses to shared-wall" homes.

It was Charles Durrett himself who helped the original Ecovillage visionaries, a handful of families, make these types of choices, McKim says. The Nevada-based cohousing guru came to Belfast once the land was bought four years ago and "spent four days with us to get us in the right direction." It was Durrett who encouraged the tighter neighborhood setting, and Durrett who emphasized the idea of community out the front door. "He said, 'If you're going to do this, do it right,'" McKim recalls.

And so far, members think they are. There are currently 22 signed purchase-and-sale agreements, which means that 22 households have put down 30 percent of their house price. When the Ecovillage became a legal entity, its founders created a tiered membership structure, with "equity members" contributing $25,000 and "exploring members" contributing $250. That money has paid for the land, permitting, designs, and funding the first wave of construction. The remainder of the sales will finance the rest of the homes as well as the building of the common house.

Those who buy in aren't just buying a regular ol' residence, O'Connell says. They're "paying for the common house . . . They're paying for the experience."

It is an experience she thinks will continue to evolve over time.

"I believe this group of people will figure out our way of doing co-housing, and it will look different than any other co-housing community in the country," O'Connell says. "We are defining what an eco-village is for us."

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at dfulton@phx.com.

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  Topics: News Features , Bill McKibben, Housing, cohousing
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