As humanity faces its most severe crisis ever, most people seem to respond with a mixture of denial and terror. How extreme is the climate going to get and what impact will it have on us? How do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent necessary to keep warming from increasing more than 2 degress Celsius? Are we leaving our children and grandchildren a planet that will be virtually uninhabitable? Amid these challenges, it is increasingly being recognised that we need models of how we can build low-carbon and resilient communities. Cloughjordan ecovillage in Co. Tipperary has been recognised as one of the most successful such models in Europe.
Now with 55 houses built and a population of around 100 adults and 35 children, Cloughjordan is seen as one of Europe’s 23 most successful ‘anticipatory experiences’ showing the way to a low-carbon society. As an educational charity, it draws thousands of people a year to learn the lessons of this pioneering community. Central to those lessons are the combination of some modern technologies that help lower emissions embedded in a resilient community that seeks to foster a rich sense of interdependency.
Among ecovillages, Cloughjordan is unusual in that the decision was made to integrate into an existing urban settlement. The small village of Cloughjordan (around 500 people) in county Tipperary was chosen due to a site of 67 acres (27 hectares) available on the south side of the village main street and its location on a train line. The local community recognised it as an opportunity for regenerating a village that was in decline but, before the land was purchased, members of the ecovillage project worked with children in the local schools and with the residents of Cloughjordan to win support for developing the project.
Cloughjordan ecovillage therefore models not just ecological sustainability but also rural regeneration, drawing visitors to the existing village and fostering a new social, economic and cultural dynamism. For example, Cloughjordan was voted one of the ten best places to live in Ireland by readers of The Irish Times. The important message of the ecovillage therefore is that low-carbon living does not mean reverting to the privations of the past but can be the catalyst for drawing together a diverse group of people who, through their wide range of talents, make it a lively and interesting place to live.
Integrating with the natural environment
When developing the greenfield site the residential area was confined to about one-third of the site closest to the main street. The area beyond the residences is devoted to support services and amenities including a district heating system, an eco-enterprise centre, allotments for growing food, and a community farm. Native varieties of apple trees have been planted and throughout the ecovillage various varieties of herbs and fruit bushes have been planted to create an ‘edible landscape’. An area of 12 acres (5 hectares) is devoted to farming in a biodynamic way and constituted as one of Ireland’s few Community Support Agriculture projects.
The final third of the site is devoted to woodland in which 17,000 trees were planted in 2011, mainly native species such as oak, ash, Scots pine, birch, rowan, cherry, hazel and alder. This is regarded as an amenity area for visitors and a contribution to promoting biodiversity. A labyrinth, built according to an ancient Celtic layout, provides a quiet space for reflection amid the woodland. The ecovillage’s website says that ‘the community’s land use plan is based on the principles of environmental and ecological diversity, productive landscape and permaculture’.
Corridors for the movement of wildlife are built into the design of common and private areas and the composting of organic matter to regenerate the soil and avoiding toxic or other harmful substances is strongly recommended to all members. Since the upkeep of the common areas is the responsibility of all, regular periods of communal work on the land are organised (the Gaelic word ‘meitheal’ is used for these, recalling the traditional practice of communal work among Irish farmers).
Central to the success of the project is the combination of low-energy technologies and robust community living. The Village Ecological Charter, drawn up by members, contains the guidelines for the development of the built and the natural environment so as ‘to reduce the impact of the project on the natural environment and so promoting sustainable development’. This includes detailed and specific targets for energy supply and use, plans for land management, water and solid waste, construction (including materials, light and air, and ventilation), and community issues such as transport, social and communal facilities, and noise and light pollution.
Towards low-carbon living
Combining both cutting-edge technologies and some traditional technologies gives a rich and unique mix to the ecovillage. One of its most innovative features is its district heating system – the only one in Ireland powered by renewable sources of energy. Its bank of solar panels to heat the water is currently being made operational but that the heating system has until now been fuelled by waste wood from a sawmill in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. The system supplies the entire heating and hot water for all the houses in the ecovillage using no fossil fuels for its primary energy sources and emitting no greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated to save 113.5 tonnes annually of carbon that would be emitted by conventional heating systems for the number of houses served. This year PhotoVoltaic solar panels are being mounted on houses to generate electricity for domestic use.
Members buy sites from the co-operative which owns the estate (of which all site owners must be members), building their own houses to their own designs, in keeping with the principles and specifications of the Ecological Charter. As a result, many different building types have been used, including passive timber frames with a variety of insulations and finishes, Durisol blocks (blocks of chipped wastewood bonded with ecocement), sheep’s wool, cellulose (shredded newspaper), hemp-lime (lime is a traditional Irish form of finish but the addition of hemp, a fibrous plant material, gives it strength and insulation), cob (clay, sand and straw), a Canadian stick-frame house with double stud walls (with no cold bridging) and kit houses, while natural slates or recycled plastic roof tiles and ‘green roofs’ are widely used. These provide a colourful variety of different designs and finishes that give the ecovillage a very distinctive look compared to other residential areas in Ireland. It also has some of the best Building Energy Ratings (BER) in Ireland.
The ecovillage includes Ireland’s first member-owned and operated Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm which is run by members of the ecovillage and the surrounding Cloughjordan community. Currently it grows 4 acres (1.6 ha) of vegetables, 1 acre (0.4 ha) of cereals, 1 acre of green manure (humus building) and 6 acres (2.43 ha) in permanent pasture. Members pay a monthly fee (€128 for a household of typically two adults and two children) and can take what food they want from a central distribution point that is supplied three times a week, all year around. Two part-time co-ordinators act as the main producers, are paid from the farm budget and are answerable to the farm board which is elected by members. They rely on WWOOFers (Worldwide Opportunties on Organic Farms) and volunteers funded by the European Volunteer Scheme (EVS) as well as on the voluntary labour of members when called upon.
Not only does the form of food production and distribution link the producer and consumer in a deeply interactive relationship, but it changes practices of consumption, since members are reliant on whatever food is available according to the season, the weather, and the amounts planted. The farm contributes to the resilience of the ecovillage itself and lessens the reliance on commercial producers and greatly improves the quality of food consumed by the members while enhancing their skills. It recently returned to the use of horses to plough the land to avoid the compacting that resulted from the use of tractors and has hosted public demonstrations of horse-drawn ploughing.
The farm also links in with other projects through which ecovillagers earn a livelihood, such as the award-winning Riot Rye bakery and baking school, Cloughjordan Catering Co-op which uses the food produced on the farm to create tasty wholesome meals in their Middle Country Café on the main street, and the Green Enterprise centre with Ireland’s only community-based Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory with 3-D printers). Ireland’s largest co-housing project is being developed in the ecovillage to offer low-cost accommodation to those who want to come and sample life or live in the ecovillage. All these are examples of the ‘ecosystem of innovation’ that enhance elements of ecovillage life.
Beyond the technologies, both ancient and new, an essential character of the ecovillage is that it is an intentional community. The dense web of interconnectedness that characterises relationships in the ecovillage is strengthened, and at times tested, through a myriad of different kinds of activities – from the often tense discussions attempting to reach a community consensus on key issues to the enjoyment of community meals and parties where rich encounters take place. A special process group exists to facilitate community interactions and the monthly community meeting puts aside a period which allows any member to voice any issue that is troubling them, including issues of grievance and pain caused within the community. Its success as a community depends not on avoiding or minimising pain and tensions, but rather on facilitating their expression in an atmosphere of mutual respect. A diverse membership, which includes professional facilitators, counsellors and psychotherapists helps this process.
Finding a governance structure that reflects its values is a particular challenge for any intentional community, particularly one as complex and multifaceted as an ecovillage.
In 2007, the existing organisational structure of Cloughjordan ecovillage based on multiple committees was under strain, unable to deal effectively with the many tasks and challenges facing the project. This led members to turn for support to consultants Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker who promote the use of the Viable Systems Model (VSM) in co-operatives and large communities looking for alternatives to traditional hierarchies. This resulted in the restructuring of the ecovillage governance structures according to the principles of VSM, identifying the primary activities of the project and establishing groups to promote them. Two primary activities groups exist in early 2017, one for education and the other for land-use. The primary activity group for looking after the development of the built environment is currently being reconstituted as its previous structure wasn’t working. The ecovillage is a work in progress and as things are tried and tested adjustments are sometimes necessary to get it right.
Having put in place the means to transition to low-carbon living, the ecovillage needed evidence that it was succeeding. This required measuring its ecological footprint and comparing it to other similar communities in its locality as well as nationally and internationally. The concept of the ecological footprint (EF) is widely used internationally to quantify the amount of carbon emitted by a household through measuring energy consumption, waste assimilation, food consumption, water consumption, built land area and travel impacts. Through aggregating household measures, an estimate for a community can be produced. In mid 2014 a survey was distributed to all households in the ecovillage to gather data so as to measure the EF of ecovillagers. A measure developed at the Centre for Environmental Research at the University of Limerick and implemented in communities in the region by Tipperary Energy Agency (TEA) was used and the results compiled and analysed by the TEA. The survey covered the following areas:
- Household characteristics (number of dwellers; size and type of house)
- Household energy use and its sources
- Household waste (amounts and disposal)
- Food consumption and its origin
- Transport (modes and frequency)
- Water use, including water-saving measures and water harvesting
Based on the survey, an ecological footprint of 2 global hectares (gHa) was estimated for the ecovillage, the lowest recorded for an Irish settlement. This compares to an ecological footprint of 2.9 gHa for the nearby town of Ballina after a four-year campaign to reduce its footprint, 3.9 gHa for a commuter community, and 4.3 gHa for 79 settlements throughout the country. The Global Footprint Network, an NGO which has developed and implemented the methodology for measuring ecological footprints internationally, estimates an average EF of 4.6 gHa for Ireland. Globally, it is estimated that the maximum footprint that allows each human to live within the planet’s biocapacity is 1.8 gHa. Based on this, ecovillage residents would currently need 1.1 planets to continue living the way they do. A number of focus groups came up with ideas for reduciing the ecovillage’s EF further and it is due to be measured again in 2017.
You can estimate how many planets your lifestyle requires with the Global Footprint Network Calculator.
Cloughjordan ecovillage faces many challenges. It is still only in its early phase of growth with more than 70 sites yet to sell, which will draw in new members and more than double its population. Yet, already it is winning national and international recognition. Cloughjordan won the National Green Award for Ireland’s greenest community three years in a row from 2012 to 2014 and won a gold medal award at the 2013 International Awards for Liveable Communities (LivCom), also known as the Green Oscars. The Milesecure consortium of 15 research centres throughout Europe was funded by the European Commission to learn the lessons for European policy of how to transition to a low-carbon future. As part of its research, it examined 1,500 projects all around Europe to identify the most successful ‘anticipatory experiences’ to help guide EU policy. Among the 23 finally selected was Cloughjordan ecovillage and it was the only project to be highlighted in the ‘manifesto for human-based governance of secure and low-carbon energy transitions’. In a study completed for the European Commission in 2016, the Young Foundation in London identified the ecovillage as one of Europe’s most interesting projects of social innovation. In these ways, the project is helping establish itself as beacon for the challenging future that confronts humanity.