Eco-Community Design: A Proposal

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Let's say "Business As Usual" (BAU) real estate economics assumes:

— that one does not grow one's food, or any portion thereof; that one therefore travels to a grocery, and pays someone else for food that has been shipped from dozens to thousands of miles away and largely grown thanks to massive fossil fuel inputs and fossil fuel-based infrastructure, processed, and for the most part unnecessarily packaged, labeled and wrapped ;

— that large power inputs are required to maintain heating and cooling loads for various household functions (not to mention innumerable small electric devices, some irreplaceable, many not);

— that one does not make income from selling excess power back to the grid, or into a neighborhood network, or derive carbon credits from providing carbon-negative services;

— that, generally speaking, no one works or wants to work where they live; one commutes to an external job-site, using fossil fuels or at best electricity in a public transit system;

— that one goes out to shop and be entertained and socialize by paying for restaurants and bars and clubs and movies and whatnot;

— that materials used to construct residences are largely virgin, and transported from distant locations, and that the eventual resident is not involved in the construction process, neither on the design nor construction side;

— that household water is used only once, in excessively large quantities, to be shipped away from the household;

— that rainwater is not captured for use and re-use;

— that human waste is not recycled into fertilizer and/or electricity (via biogas digester), but instead is shipped using electricity or fossil fuels and treated via costly chemical sewage treatment plants;

— that other household trash is shipped off for alleged recycling, rather than being creatively repurposed on site and/or gasified for power and/or synthetic fuel and/or other useful products.

None of this HAS to be the case. Elements of this model have been superseded in innumerable experiments around the world, to varying degrees in different situations.

This proposal is based on the reasoned intuition that a robust "ecovillage design" COULD BE MARKETED AND SOLD ON A PURELY ECONOMIC BASIS, against BAU real estate and implied lifestyle expenses, and taking into account:

— permaculture principles;

— biointensive gardening, hydroponics and aquaculture methods;

— intensive use of bamboo, hemp and other plant fibers grown on-site or nearby for structural support and flooring;

— recycling of used construction materials;

— solar heating and cooling systems;

— passive-solar architecture;

— gasification of waste materials;

— biogas reclamation of sewage and/or treatment via ‘living machines';

— all the latest energy storage, microgeneration, smart-grid micro-grid technologies, and "clean-slate" thinking.

In other words, no appeal to greenness, hippie values, save the planet, do goodiness, etc., strictly that such a community would be a far, far cheaper place to live, and a solid investment opportunity now and even more so every year further down the road of oil depletion.

To the best of my knowledge, this has never been done.

What is needed is an economic model, embedded in a spreadsheet, that compiles and compares a range of values from different sources. These numbers would draw broad averages for the typical household expenditures for people of a certain class living in a certain region. The source data sets should be updateable and manipulable to play out various assumptions and alternate scenarios.

For all the above processes, we would research the best available cost numbers, and where not available use educated guesses, identified as such.

Necessary data sets would:

— outline typical household costs for a BAU lifestyle, to show where people spend money "unnecessarily," from the perspective of an "ideal" ecovillage design

— factor typical design/build, marketing and operating costs for various types of housing — single, mcmansion, multi-family apartments, loft condos, etc., coming up with some average $/square foot numbers

— pool the best available data on proven energy saving potential of passive solar design, solar water heating and absorption chillers, geothermal, radiant heating, etc.

— look at land prices in various areas, financing assumptions for projects of a certain scale, market values for different types of housing, etc.

— look at how much food can realistically be grown in an urban environment with what kinds of energy, water and material inputs and labor

— examine costs of sewage treatment, rainwater harvesting averages, how many times grey and rainwater can be safely recycled within an ecosystem.

Ideally a carbon footprint number would be tied to all these numbers as well.

These various data sets would be mapped together in a master model. The result would show the efficiencies in carbon, energy use, and current dollars per person of an intentionally designed sustainable community versus the total costs of a BAU lifestyle and real estate investment.

Probably the model would show that a BAU lifestyle is massively more expensive and inefficient, on multiple levels, than a coherently designed, sustainable community lifestyle, EVEN IF the cost to build the physical infrastructure, broken down on a per-resident basis, initially turned out to be more than the cost of an average home or condo or whatever. In other words, the financial and energy and externalized cost savings of designing and living in a "true" sustainable community would be far cheaper than a BAU lifestyle. And based on those reduced economics, the communities and lifestyle could be sold as such to normal people with no interest per se in green values.

Further, the greater efficiencies, reduced energy and carbon footprint, and reduced externalities could all be used to justify real subsidies from governments adopting sustainable policies and values.

On top of this, most municipalities have large amounts of land and property than can be given away or leased or sold at any level below market value if the government deems it appropriate. Being able to site such projects on "Community Redevelopment Agency" type land, at a fraction of the normal cost, could make such communities even more radically cheap.

This model could be used to spin out ecovillage designs of many different flavors, adapted to regions and tweaked according to all kinds of preferences and specifics. It could form the basis for an incubator-type organization that would work with many different developers and contractors and groups financing and construction their own urban or rural ecovillages.

It could also form the basis for an investment fund or community bank or coop that would funnel savings and investment money into spawning such communities. In a future of shrinking net energy and rapid fossil fuel decline, the best and possibly only real investment may be in a community that is maximally energy efficient, low carbon, self-sustaining and EFFECTIVE at delivering a quality lifestyle.

Just like carbon accounting models, or the eco-footprinting model, it would be updated on a continuing basis as better data became available. As it was refined, the actual financing projections for real projects would become ever more solid and actionable. Essentially this would be an open source model and project, probably developed via a wiki.


Image by telex4, courtesy of Creative Commons license.


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