Ithaca Eco Village, Rachel Carson Drive, Upstate New York

The trip out of the New York City was intense, going off the island and through the Lincoln Tunnel – the only tunnel that never closed during Hurricane Sandy ¬ but the following drive was mostly dull and boring up a monotonous highway to upstate New York. Only got off the track once looking for food and ending up on a new “Turnpike” freeway with no exits (much less food) heading in the wrong direction for at least twenty minutes.
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The trip got a lot more interesting towards the end getting into the higher country and into a very big storm.
2015-05-18 17.25.21 River2015-05-18 17.20.15 Storm coming2015-05-18 17.25.55 ImminentBreaks
Such fun !! travelling on the wrong side of the road, at speed, in the gloom of a thunderstorm, on a highway, with the windscreen wipers barely keeping up with the pelting rains and the mirror askew and the steering wheel, brake pedal and in fact all the controls over there.. Memories of driving out of Barcelona towards Catalonia and Costa Brava coast with Margi in 2008. (That adventure took us to Hotel California but that’s another story).
“This too shall pass” …… and it did.

2015-05-18 18.08.01 the out the other side2015-05-18 18.12.362015-05-18 18.12.13 Farmlands2015-05-18 18.09.03 Nearly at Ithaca

With the sun now shining again the scenic road to Ithaca was captivating and photogenic. Lots of farms, and barns and flags and beautiful country all with a distinctly “American North” feel. It was a lovely way to arrive at Ithaca right on mealtime in the Common House and to be greeted by Arlene Muzyka. Walking out to meet us in the warm air of a summery May day.

2015-05-18 19.48.22 Frog Common House

Ithaca FROG Common Meal photo from website

Ithaca FROG Common Meal photo from website

A very friendly welcoming buzz from the community and then an evening conversation with Liz Walker, co-founder of Ithaca, and Jarred her partner, who thoughtfully proffered a couple of cold beers. Much appreciated!
2015-05-18 19.36.12 copy Liz and Jarred

A mature cohousing eco village community sitting on one hundred and seventy-five acres (eighty – ninety hectares), Ithaca has grown over twenty-three years, and now has three communities in the Village with the imminent completion of their third cluster, which brings total to a hundred+ households.
FROG – thirty, SONG – thirty and TREE 25 homes and 15 apartments.

From FROG community house looking over the pond to their open country

From FROG community house looking over the pond to their open country

In 1992 the Founders organised a co-op structure – Eco Village Inc. – which bought the land for $450,000. By 2003 they had paid off the land and were debt free.
The first community bought it from EVI and built FROG in 1996 including the Common house.
2015-05-19 12.00.44 Into Frog
The founders were committed to reserving 90% of the property to being conserved in its natural state. They started with a master plan of the whole property and chose to put the buildings where the soil was worst which also coincidentally happened to be where the best solar exposure was to be found although this wasn’t a priority at the time. Probably wind generation potential too but this hasn’t been properly explored yet.

The agricultural activity is by the driveway coming in, is CSA on Ithaca Eco Village land leased out by EVI to their neighbours who happily supply their produce to the Common House kitchen.

Some of the land under cultivation

Some of the land under cultivation

The workshop is spacious and currently very tidy and organised. The mere existence of such a space inspires and encourages projects to be undertaken there. It is part of the alchemy of space and one of the less tangible aspects of co-housing.

EVI have their own stories to tell of designers and architects and builders. Ones they wanted to work with moving to the US West Coast apparently without seeking permission and much to the distress of those attached to the idea that he be around to continue his great and much appreciated work. Equally those less easy to work with, inserting strange and sometimes expensive, flights of fancy into the project with little or no consultation with those who will be living there, who remain perhaps forever perplexed.

The Founders and core group worked to coordinate the next community and in 2004 SONG came into being. The people buying in wanted to lessen the density with more space between them and built considerably bigger houses, some building down into the ground and creating an extra level – full sized basements. (Well, there was not guideline to say you couldn’t.) These have various uses, some are music rooms, one member has created a Bed and Breakfast there.
2015-05-19 12.23.14 Song2015-05-19 12.26.09 Song Common House2015-05-19 12.21.52 Song2015-05-18 18.38.13 Song

Five acres from EVI was allocated for this community to build a south facing, passive solar cluster for thirty households and gardens and opens space etcetera. The homes here are bigger and were custom built typically cost between $250,000 – $280,000 compared to FROG homes around $160,000. The thirty households of SONG still had to be contained within one and a half acres (although it looks like the garages might be outside that boundary?)

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They built using hemlock or larch – a timber that was cheaper upfront but whose durability is yet to be established. It ages into a dark colour, almost black.
They had to conform to a neighbourhood character and Ithaca sustainability principles but beyond that were individually constructed and fitting out predictably caused a lot of problems for the various building and construction people with it all going on simultaneously in a restricted area. It took the Song Community almost another two years to build their Common House.

The SONG Common House has the common problem of an assortment of different shaped, un-stackable, wooden tables and a range of chairs making it difficult to clean and manage. They are considering a long bench table but enjoy the smaller cluster and the more effective communication that occurs around tables of six or eight people.
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SONG has a big community garden and some individual plots. The gardeners recently produced a very large crop of onions beyond the needs of their own cluster and gave the remainder to the rest of the broader Ithaca community.
2015-05-20 16.06.47The pond that both FROG and SONG look onto provides fun and activities both Summer and Winter. Swimming, tadpoles, rafts and in Winter, Ice-Skating and Broom Ball which apparently anyone can play and have a lot of fun with.

Ithaca in the snow taken from their website

Ithaca in the snow taken from their website

2015-05-20 15.34.532015-05-19 12.32.54 The Pond
Back in the FROG Common House Jarrad explained the Multi Purpose room (yoga, karate, some meetings, etc.), the Re-Use Room (ie Open Closet), the frequently accessed Video Library, the new Infra-red Sauna, the Office Wing (a computer business, a writer, a masseur, the eco-village office, etc.) and the laundry. The laundry used to have Maytag machines but has upgraded to Speed Queen (which has a set time of only 27 minutes). It has a 7.00 am – 12.30 pm booking system after which it is first in first served.

The Common House is categorised as a Public Building which brings with it a few complications.

It has a radiant floor system which doesn’t work very well and so isn’t used. Heating in the community is managed by Energy centres with forced blow out of hot air.

The architect didn’t design the rooves of FROG for solar as it wasn’t really on the radar then and here were no Government incentives at the time.
By the time they realised they wanted to become more energy independent they were left wit installing a free-standing fifty kilowatt option. Fortunately space is not an issue here. The solar array produces about sixty to seventy per cent of the energy used by the FROG community and the seven-kilowatt system of solar panels on top of the Common House produces about sixty to seventy per cent of the energy used by the Common House. This is financed by a loan from some community members returning five per cent.
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The community own a tractor with bolt-on snow-plough, snow blower and a big ‘brush pig’ for taking out small trees.
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Ithaca aerial shot of TREE from website

Ithaca aerial shot of TREE from website

The first resident moved into TREE in September 2014. Seventeen free standing, four duplexes and fifteen apartments The apartments are Passiv Haus certified, zero net energy, achieved with construction that is double-walled outside with three and a half inches of closed-cell foam (6.7 R per square inch) and dense packed cellulose (4 R per square inch) all triple glazed. The houses are not certified as Passiv Haus but may achieve that if retrospectivity is allowed. The Americans have identified that the existing certification process discriminates against small houses and have now changed the criteria to rectify this.
2015-05-18 18.37.39 Tree Apartments2015-05-18 18.37.53 Tree
They are dealing with the issue of acoustics between floors with flat sheet hatching plus deep acoustical fibreglass insulation all enclosed with ‘Gypcrete’ plasterboard. The apartment building will also be equipped with three washers and three driers.

Regarding storage, Jarrad’s response was “deal with your stuff”. However a lot of apartments and houses have garages and the community as a whole has space for them. Whether they fit with the envelope permitted – ie the concept of the piece of string circling the cluster keeping it below the maximum space allocation is a question.

Jarrad and Liz have 3.5 / 3.75 kw on their roof and solar hot water – flat plates. Research monitoring on flat plate solar hot water compared to evacuated tubes over several years has indicated that evacuated tubes are less effective and less durable in this area.

The impressively huge support beam on the first (ie ground) floor had a sizeable bow and gap when first installed but since then the building of four more levels in height has come down to meet it and is now a snug fit.

The build cost of TREE is working out to be around $150 per square foot for the domestic houses averaging out across the project. They have the unique relationship of being their own contractors who employ two expert builders who really understand the costs and projects and maximise efficiencies and savings, therefore minimising the traditional builders profit and allowances in pricing for contingencies.

In talking with Mike and Kendall, the expert builders, they are discussing “Pattern Language”, “Whole Systems Change” and changing consciousness – these are not your average builders. Mike has been around working in the field of community since the sixties and is fully aware of the central importance of strongly held community values and how the design of the community and the buildings can do a lot to help or hinder the values based engagement of the people who will live there. He says the thinking has to be “bottom up and inside out” and that you can’t make assumptions. Kendall has identified the need to address the gap between the structures and the social connection in the building of neighbourhoods and the fostering of community. Lenore, a member of the community and speech therapist by profession, is also part of their team of three. Conversation with her went to the frustration of working with architects, designers and builders who, in spite of being of course usually very nice people, often conveyed a certain arrogance as ‘the professionals’ and dismissiveness when dealing with the community. The nuances, the appreciation of how spaces can inspire and empower (or the converse) can be lost on them. If they are out of their depth they can want to save face and may choose to blame the community for the mistakes, clumsiness or poor decisions made. Of course the community can and does make mistakes too.

This discussion also went into an exploration of what’s really below the barriers and hurdles that can make these projects so difficult. The homogenisation of bland community where the creative, forward thinking option is seen as a thorn in the side and needs to be firmly discouraged and IS discouraged. Our mechanistic society preferences economies of scale and bigger, conformity and all-embracing approaches that are by nature exclusive of difference, digression, diversity and creativity.

The FROG Common House is airey and attractive with a patio laced with wisteria blossoms out the back overlooking the pond. Sitting there in the balmy evening air after dinner Liz and Jarrad provided the basic introduction to Ithaca.
2015-05-20 16.05.342015-05-18 19.48.22 Frog Common House2015-05-18 19.48.33 Kitchen and Cool room2015-05-19 11.55.46 Triangle
The Frog Guest room is charged out at $75 US ($100 AUD) per night, meals $8.50 and tours $35 per head

Barbara and Dick Charon joined the community in July 2009. Both now officially retired Barbara as a sociologist and Dick an anthropologist, they are both active participants in the community sitting in various committees and spearheading the Education Fund whilst maintaining their personal commitment to Israeli – Palestinian relationships.

Barbara explains that Ithaca seeks community diversity via diverse ethnicity, race and disability including the often misunderstood disability of multiple chemical sensitivities.

Barbara sits on the Membership Committee. They would like to be able to enable low-income earners to live here. There are six subsidised units which can benefit from a 20% grant, 20% low interest and a no-interest loan. However renting has become an issue in conjunction with Participation and this discussion explored the different levers for renters and owners and the potential for a Participation Policy. The issue of tenant participation has been partly resolved by including a written expectation of participation into the lease they must sign.

Wood burning stoves, preferred by some members for their aesthetic ambience, have been banned because of the intolerance some members have to wood smoke causing some others to feel frustrated that their free will was being restricted. There are always some compromises involved in co-housing.

The discussion continued covering further points including the social dynamic of decision-making and conflict resolution in Ithaca, ongoing management and coordination and how we can all do that better and engage with each other and the affect of greater or lesser proximity on the individuals and on the group dynamics.
Dick pointed out that the influence of proximity is one thing and the age of the community is another that may also influence the sense of intensity experienced. The conversation ranged over observations re levels of materialism and material bases for problems. The third community just arriving has a wider economic range of household incomes.

Conflict aversion is a factor common to all communities it appears. Consensus decision-making has also been an issue with a general unwillingness to commit to a process which can require so much time.

The Ithaca website says, “The Community work is accomplished through a voluntary Work Team system, where residents apply themselves to whichever task areas they have most enthusiasm for.” Which begs the question “who does the jobs that no-one has enthusiasm for?”

The issue of email communication, especially where it plays a role in censorship, the shutting down of a conversation, even bullying, was discussed. The phenomenon of the one or two strident voices prevailing over the many who say little or nothing avoiding confrontation, drama and being drawn into email based discourse that is bound to be fruitless. The Tyranny of the Minority is something that comes up often and many communities have had to work through these issues. Various devices such as active discouraging of group emails as much as possible and certainly of ‘Reply All’ responses can help. When these things do happen though, a response to call off the email conversation and organise a meeting to discuss it face-to-face can potentially facilitate better resolution rather than merely silencing the discussion and pushing the frustration underground.

Issues around the keeping of Pets have been deeply discussed with a decision that there can be only two outdoor cats per neighbourhood and when one goes or dies there is a vacancy to fill from the cat list.

Coordination is managed through a ‘Process’ Steering Committee in each neighbourhood and a Village Steering Committee for the whole community.
The Neighbourhood Committee usually meets once a month. These meetings alternate between three hours and one and a half hours depending on whether they are followed by a Village meeting (usually every second month) or not.

Ithaca has a very skilled facilitator available who may be brought in if the topic is contentious. They also have skilled mediators available as necessary but Barbara pointed out that as a general rule, everyone gets on very well so these processes and resources are seldom needed.

As members they are responsible for everything inside their house and the community maintains the outside of their house. Barbara and Dick pay Condo insurance themselves and Community insurance covers the outside. They pay $1200 per month for a whole house, including all services. This figure varies depending on size of house and community fees per month as well as usage of utilities.

Membership Committee will let the community know first when there is a vacancy.
If it is not filled through their own network they draw from the waiting List / Pool. They go through a Set of steps including a tour, contact over 5 days, involvement in a meal, requirement to participate on work teams, read bi-laws and sign agreement re decisions and mission statement.
There is a set of criteria for renter and the landlords are the ‘buddy’ responsible for the integration of the renters into community.

2015-05-20 07.48.27 Mission statement
The Mission Statement of FROG cohousing covers the goals and aspirations of the community and outlines how it intends to be a Showcase / Model to help others by having a Smaller Footprint and Creating Community. On their website this and their commitment to continual improvement is reinforced.

“Cutting Our Ecological Footprint by 70%: PhD student Jesse Sherry from Rutgers University found that the ecological footprint of EcoVillage Ithaca residents is 70% less than typical Americans. This means that people in our community use only about 30% of the total resources needed for travel, heat, electricity, food, water and waste. We’re glad that we can enjoy a high quality of life, while living more lightly on the planet. However, we’d like to continue to improve over time, and we’re eager to share what we’ve learned with others, as well as try new ways to conserve.”

Liz’s first book published in … describes her community. They are also an outward looking community and have shaped and been shaped by the wider context in which the community is situated. Ithaca township has a lot going on these days and Liz has published her second book in 2010 describing this side of the Ithaca culture. It is a lovely part of the world.

“Choosing a Sustainable Future: Ideas and Inspiration from Ithaca, NY”
“Winner of a 2011 Living Now Books Award from Independent PublishersThe city of Ithaca, NY has embraced the sustainability revolution with incredible enthusiasm. From co-ops and carshares to credit unions and community health care, Ithaca is rising to the challenges of the day with practical, real-world solutions. Choosing a Sustainable Future explores all aspects of the city’s emerging green culture, introducing a rich variety of successful innovators and ideas.”

It seems that in all communities creativity is well nourished with woodworkers, authors, artists, poets, musicians and craftspeople of all kinds. Ithaca is home to an enterprise running gourd making workshops and the FROG community is the beneficiary of these beautiful works.

Gourd business at Ithaca - photo from website

Gourd business at Ithaca – photo from website

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Ithaca town had some delightful elements – it was a pleasure mooching around there.
2015-05-19 10.49.50 Music Store in townTraveler DC 140

Martin Luther King Junior is honoured by street name in many places in America

Martin Luther King Junior is honoured by street name in many places in America

Traveler DC 140

The visit to Ithaca concluded with dinner at the famous Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca township enjoying the connection and warmth of Liz and Jarred. Founders chatting and acknowledging the constant evolution, Liz talked about the cycles she has seen over these two decades of her experience where issues around Participation for example would simmer and fester and then blow-up in a kerfuffle like an incident in a chicken pen. And then some actions would be proposed and something would happen and then it would all settle down again – until next time.

It’s always good to leave smiling and laughing …. until next time ☺

This is the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address “Greetings to the Natural World” from the Mohawk people honoured by the Ithaca Community at their Thanksgiving celebration.

About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
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