Sustainable living and education at O.U.R. Ecovillage

One of the reasons I love travel is experiencing the world in reality. It is one thing to read about a place or to see pictures, and quite another to see and experience it yourself. Likewise, it is one thing to study something – for example sustainability – and quite another to see the theory applied to real-life projects. A few weeks ago I visited one of these real-life projects, a place called O.U.R. Ecovillage on Vancouver Island in Canada. This was an inspirational visit showing that design is one thing but living it is another, bringing with it unexpected challenges.

A main part of the O.U.R. Ecovillage’s mission is education, and I visited the ecovillage on a public tour that is organized every two weeks. However, instead of talking about the aspects that make the ecovillage sustainable – such as local food production and natural building – our guide spent most of the time talking about the legal struggle they had to go through in order to make the ecovillage what it is today. This was not at all what I had expected but it turned out to be a fascinating story. According to our guide, regulatory processes are the greatest obstacle for sustainability projects in North America, and probably the greatest contribution of O.U.R. Ecovillage has been showing that this type of projects can be done legally – a key issue that needs to be solved in order to gain acceptance from the wider community.

Eco-home at O.U.R. Ecovillage
This home at O.U.R. Ecovillage demonstrates natural building techniques but the greatest work behind it – working with people and with legal issues – can’t be seen from the structure.

Design of O.U.R. Ecovillage

So what is it that makes O.U.R. Ecovillage an ecovillage? And what is an ecovillage anyway? Basically an ecovillage is a place where people live integrated into the natural world, trying not to harm the environment. O.U.R. Ecovillage stands for One United Resource Ecovillage, and the acronym is a play on words that challenges the concept of ownership and whether we can really own the land. O.U.R. Ecovillage is first and foremost a community that demonstrates how common good supports individual well-being, fighting the individualism that is so prevalent in Western culture today.

An important step in the development of O.U.R. Ecovillage was a master plan that was made for the site. Instead of directly moving to the site, the founders spent the first year observing the place, trying to understand how the site behaves during all seasons. Everything was mapped – soil types, water flow, ecosystems, wind direction, sun patterns – and based on this mapping a master plan was made. The plan provided space for organic food production, off-grid homes, educational activities and an ecological conservation area.

Gardens at O.U.R. Ecovillage
The flow of water was an important factor guiding the design of O.U.R. Ecovillage, and this garden is terraced in order to hold water better.

O.U.R. Ecovillage has a large organic garden where different plants are grown together for mutual benefit. The garden includes several greenhouses with different microclimates for growing different types of food, including foods that most people wouldn’t believe could grow in Canada. My favourite were the orange trees that were growing in their own little cob houses that were heated in the winter by old inefficient Christmas lights.

Orange tree in a cob house
This orange tree is growing in its own little cob house that creates a suitable microclimate. Old Christmas lights hanging to the left of the tree provide heating during the winter.

Buildings at the ecovillage are designed and constructed in a way that reduces their ecological footprint. Over 90% of the construction materials used at O.U.R. Ecovillages are recycled or natural, which not only reduces waste but also saves money. The Climate Change Demonstration Building was the first natural building to be built on site, and it is a hybrid building that mixes different materials and techniques in order to demonstrate and to educate.

Climate Change Demonstration Building at O.U.R. Ecovillage
The Climate Change Demonstration Building is partly a cob house and partly a strawbale house. After its construction O.U.R. Ecovillage has received funding for designing eco-homes that can be replicated.

Fighting laws and stereotypes

Today you can find books on how to create an ecovillage, but the situation was very different when O.U.R. Ecovillage first got started in 1999. The ecovillage was founded by a group of idealistic people whose vision was to create a sustainable living demonstration site following the principles of permaculture. What the founders didn’t realize was how much time and effort it would take to actually turn their vision into reality.

The founders went to the planning office talking about permaculture and proposing a master plan for sustainable living. The response they got was far from what they had expected, and it turned out that what they wanted to do was illegal because of zoning laws. The founders found this hard to understand. Was it illegal to live sustainably? They didn’t know it then, but it would take 2.5 years before the master plan would finally be approved.

Composting toilet at O.U.R. Ecovillage
This composting toilet is called Credit Union because it is where residents and visitors alike can make a deposit that provides manure in the future. Treatment of waste was a key issue that needed to be resolved in order to get the master plan of the ecovillage approved, and the composting toilet at O.U.R. Ecovillage has since been used as a basis for a law on composting toilets.

And it was not just the authorities that had to be convinced. It was also important that the neighbours knew what was happening on the site and accepted the new community. This was not an easy task, and the founders had a whole list of stereotypes to fight. The word ”ecovillage” evoked images of a hippie commune where no one would get anything done, causing the value of the land to go down. People simply found it hard to believe that someone would really do so much volunteering and so much for the community, unless they were perhaps some sort of religious cult.

The founders of O.U.R. Ecovillage realized they had to be open and to educate the people. They invited everyone to come and take part in the development of the ecovillage, even the most skeptical ones. It was not easy, but through this interaction they could educate the zoning authorities, the building inspectors and the neighbours about what sustainability really meant, why it is important and how it could be done safely and efficiently.

Interior of Climate Change Demonstration Building at O.U.R. Ecovillage
The Climate Change Demonstration Building is the first natural building in Canada that has been monitored for 10 years. Monitoring and documentation is a necessary step in the process of making natural building techniques legal and standardized.

Today the project has the support of the authorities and the community. By opening up, O.U.R. Ecovillage built relationships with the authorities and the neighbours, and these relationships are what they turn to today if they encounter legal issues. These relationships have also resulted in regular volunteers, including the farmer who originally owned the land and ended up donating a third of the original asking price.

Education for all and by all

Once the designs were made and approved, the hard part was just starting: the living part and with it continuous education and work with people. In order to help solve global issues and in order to really be sustainable, the ecovillage couldn’t be an isolated island. Instead, it had to open up and because of this education has been a part of the ecovillage’s mission from the beginning. Indeed, learning is everywhere at O.U.R. Ecovillage, and you can’t even go to the bathroom without seeing educational signs explaining about water conservation or the benefits of composting toilets.

Playhouse at O.U.R. Ecovillage
An important part of the educational aspect of O.U.R. Ecovillage is children. There are some children living on the site, but the majority of children visiting the site are school classes.

But education at O.U.R. Ecovillage is not a one-way street, and permanent residents and short-term visitors make the site sustainable together. Thousands of people pass through the site every year, some staying for a couple hours, some for a few days and some for several months. There are volunteers, people doing courses, people on tours like me, even Airbnb guests.

At O.U.R. Ecovillage everyone has something to contribute, and everyone is simultaneously a learner and a teacher. In this context money has started to take on a different meaning, and people with skills have become more important than people with money. The diversity of people and skills is what makes the ecovillage what it is today. Solving global problems like climate change is not just about technical solutions, it is about getting people to work together for a global ecovillage.

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