Trillions Magazine Construction and Business News

The Ecovillage at Currumbin: A Trillions Interview

October 6, 2016

The Ecovillage at Currumbin is part of a modern approach to building sustainable communities. Located in the southern hinterlands of the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, it is an unusual hybrid of a both very much “for profit” enterprise with some of the most-thoroughly-thought-through community design considerations in the world.

Aerial View of Currumbin Beach and Surrounds, Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo: David Bostock : Shutterstock.com)

It is currently home to extensive local wildlife, an estimated 60+ kangaroos and its interloper population of 350 adults and children that have moved there.

Its many features include:

  • A large community center with common swimming pool, Bali huts, large kitchen and playground
  • Recycling facilities for all
  • A café/bakery building featuring The Three Figs Café
  • Future sites for an in-community school, a community garden and offices serving the residents
  • 147 lots covering 270 acres of land, with buildable lot sizes running from 450 to 8,000 square meter

It was first imagined by a group of friends about two decades ago. Its current developer vision, as stated on the Ecovillage’s website, calls out its goal to “inspire sustainable living and development practice awareness.” Expert planners from around the region and the world were brought in to help come up with the original guidelines. Local indigenous peoples were and are also part of the ongoing planning for the community.

One of the many unique homes at the Ecovillage at Currumbin. (This and all images that follow in this article were provided courtesy of the Ecovillage at Currumbin -- and were reprinted with permission.)

And this it has done brilliantly, developing its space on the site of an old dairy farm where even much of that was preserved as well. As part of the region known until present day as “Willumbin,” it formed an important “foot highway” that once ran from the actual ocean’s edge to the rain-forest areas of Springbrook and more. Giant fig trees and mangoes were planted there from an earlier age, and much of their presence is still very much visible in their lush lands. A 25-acre Hoop Pine forest planted almost 50 years ago is also there, still fully intact.

Although many communities of its kind may have started with the idea of preservation of land, ecosystems and more, the Ecovillage at Currumbin took on the task to create in harmony with nature as its mission. The design “rules” used to guide this often turned conventional thinking on its head; for example, when many communities might have an 80% building space and 20% green areas and took care to keep the forest and wild areas preserved as much as possible. The Ecovillage site uses as its target that 80% of the site must be open space and 50% of the property must be an environmental reserve. Many plants indigenous to the region have been brought back in as part of the development, which, in turn, has attracted as many as 160 species of birds back to the area, many of which came because of the rebuilding of ecosystems there.

As one might expect of such a community, this is a place with extensive attention to recycling and energy efficiency and keeping the need for fossil fuels away from its residents. Its water and power systems all operate 100% “off the grid,” although in an emergency, water, sewer and power is available from areas directly adjacent to the land. Mass-transit options to bring residents to and from other locations – of work, school, friends and further transportation connections – are readily available at the edges of the property.

The Ecovillage does all of this with more than a few unusual tricks and tough rules up its sleeve. Those include, for example, that air conditioning is not allowed anywhere on the site, though because of other design approaches it is not missed much – even in the hottest times of the year. The community also does not allow either dogs or cats as pets, in part because they – by their very nature – would tend to disrupt the natural ecosystems the Ecovillage is working to preserve. There are also no guest residences and no outside functions, ranging from weddings to special conferences, allowed on the site, no matter how much they might be desired because of the setting or how lucrative they might be for the developers.

To learn more about how this particular community operates and how it came to be, Trillions interviewed Mr. Ben O’Callaghan, a longtime on-site consultant (from Ecomplish Consulting, www.ecomplish.com.au) who works as a tour guide and spokesperson for the community and inspires all in how he speaks and thinks about what makes a modern sustainable community work.

We spoke with him on September 6, 2016, at his offices in Currumbin.

Trillions: How did the Ecovillage at Currumbin get started?

Ben O’Callaghan: Back in about 2002, Chris Walton and Kerry Shepherd went and visited village homes in California. They’d always had a dream to develop something but didn’t know what. And they saw that and said: “Wow! Why can’t we do that here in Australia?” So that’s a very unique community there. They do things like having 20% of their community income [go back into the village].

So Chris and Kerry came back to the Gold Coast, where they were living, and found an old dairy farm, secured that with help from a private investor and turned that into a $40 million project. They wanted to improve on and replicate an existing model. But they wanted to do that as a developer-led model, as opposed to a community-led one. And – from my personal experience – I’ve been through eco-housing where it’s been a community-led organization, trying to get funding, trying to get land, trying to get those things together, and after about three and a half years, we managed that. About 80% of communities try from “the grassroots up” but don’t succeed, from my experience, in doing that. The developer ones tend to have more success, but they also don’t necessarily make all the original objectives.

So this is sort of a hybrid. It’s more of a commercial venture, compared to other eco-houses and other eco-villages in the world. But I wouldn’t call this an “intentional community” at all because it’s too modern and actually wasn’t developed by a pool of 100 people wanting to lead a more environmentally friendly life. It was just built by a developer with a vision, and people came on the back of that. So it’s a little bit different.

Trillions: It is true. When I look at the different ideas that people have done, in talking with people from all over the world connected with this issue who are going to specialize in sustainable living, one of the challenges is exactly the dichotomy you talked about. There are groups that try to do it as an eco-village from the very beginning – an intentionally planned community – and for one reason or another, they just aren’t able to pull it off. Can’t get the funding, can’t get all of the things that they want to have put in place be there. Then you have the other extreme, which is if it’s very highly commercial, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, then that also creates some problems, that people feel it almost corrupts the principles.

In terms of the core guiding principles that you use in guiding sustainability, in the videos and in the write-ups that are online, you speak to a number of different guiding principles. There are some unusual ones that are different than you might see in other communities. Can you talk about what some of those principles are that you use, in guiding what you build, how you live and what you allow in the community?

Ben O’Callaghan: There’s one big vision statement about wanting to be the world’s most sustainable community, living in integrity, [and] there’s a few other great words in there. It’s an interesting challenge because the developer had one vision and now we’re living that. And we’ve got to get on and do it. Having a vision’s great, but unless you have buy-in from all the individual residents, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to see that through. I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing, [it’s just] the community hasn’t sat down and said “Okay, what’s our vision? What’s our moral statement?” But we have had, every couple of years, a big planning session where we talk about what we’d like to see in the future, what we’d like to see more of or less of, so there is a changing plan that goes on. It’s not as advanced as what you might find in other organized communities that regularly sit down with all the residents and talk.

There’s a large body that’s corporate here – we’re managed by the Australia Title, Community Title. There’s a corporate management act, so we have to have democratic general annual meetings once a year and we have to have our finances audited – all [that] sort of boring black-and-white stuff that actually constricts us a little bit because those rules aren’t set up very well to manage common facilities, facility-shared assets, common facilities, associated facilities and shared assets. So that’s where we bump into the government a bit. For example, we can’t rent out our community hall for profit, and we can’t rent it out to anyone not connected to the Ecovillage itself. So we can’t let Joe from Brisbane come down and have a wedding here. It has to be connected to the community. It’s fine, but it means we can’t maximize, I suppose, the time we’re using those facilities.

There’s probably $2 million worth of community facilities on the estate. And that includes a 22-meter watering pool, Bali huts, an old dairy hall that’s been turned into a community hall and a small meeting hall. We have a large commercial kitchen that we recently upgraded with $9,000. We created our own library, turned the old barn into a library. We have seating, toilets and playgrounds for the kids. There’s a lot more happening.

The [old facilities set the standards], and they were there before any of the homes were up. So when we started building the community, we said: “This is what the standards are going to be like. A lot of recycled timber, a lot of reusable materials, a lot of lightweight construction.” I think people were attracted to that.

Trillions: When people talk about being “off the grid,” the first thing they talk about is that they are disconnected from the electrical system in some ways. Sometimes they talk about it related to computing. [But] you’re [also] off the grid with respect to water, which is a big deal. I can understand the solar power – being able to drive things and get off the electrical grid that way – [and] battery technology has come a long way since this has begun at your facilities, storing it for off-times when you need it. And if there’s enough flow-through in the design of homes, then you can naturally cool them there.

You also have some other things that are interesting. You’re not allowed to have air conditioning. Another thing that was unusual was “no dogs and cats.” That would seem like a deal breaker for some people who [would otherwise] want to move [there].

Ben O’Callaghan: It’s definitely a deal breaker for some people. On the third time [people would visit our sales office], we’d say, “Oh, by the way, we have Australian native bush, and the council have put in rules that prohibit domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, that might attack or threaten the flora or fauna.” So, yes, we’ve got that rule. There are probably about 60 kangaroos on-site now, so there are a lot of kangaroos. In most Australian cities you wouldn’t find kangaroos. We’re about 20 minutes outside the center of the city, and there are farms around us. So we’re a bit rural in that respect. But you wouldn’t normally find this quantity of kangaroos and this close. We also have 180 bird species, hand-counted on-site – the site’s 270 acres. Back when it was a dairy farm, there would probably have been 15 individual bird species, but [it’s recommended] you put in many indigenous species, so we planted a lot of [previously native] plants such as gum trees. That’s brought a lot of the bird life back to the site. So in terms of biodiversity, we’ve had what seems like a [big] outcome in that respect.

[As for water] certainly we have the water mains available. They’re on the main road out in front of the estate, but we don’t connect to that. Our home has about 40,000 liters of water in tanks along the house. And, yeah, we’re off the grid for water.

Trillions: In terms of going forward, is there anything the community does specifically to innovate? Because, clearly, as time goes on, some things are going to become easier to do, some things [such as with solar] are less expensive than they used to be – water systems that you might have had to build yourself are probably now becoming commercially available, as components and modules and things like that. Is there anything or any planning group within the community that is looking at how do we stay ahead, how do we keep maintaining and how do we keep evolving in those kinds of systems?

Ben O’Callaghan: The corporate group is not that proactive. It’s more to manage the rules and make sure they apply. But under that we have subcommittees, and one of them is on energy and batteries. And that happened about a year ago. Someone said “Let’s form an energy group,” and so they formed an energy group. They’ll chat and come back with recommendations. [There are others], more corporate, about updating our codes, so that instead of having to have [a given size and type] of thermal tank on your roof, you can have any system you want. So there’s certainly some energy within the community to explore something. But we don’t have a lot of planning sessions that look forward into the future and say “Hey, look at X, Y and Z.” I think we’re all so content with being where we are now. [But we’re also] watching [new developments on the land], and that’s been quite challenging for some people. I’ve found it relatively easy as a sustainable development consultant. I think once you’ve gone through that pain, if you like, the eight months of building your house and, before that, the months of planning, and [gone] through the build design [phases] and getting approved by local council, I think people [have been through a lot]. I take it for granted that there’s so much wildlife outside and kids have such a safe space to play in, the fact that I can ring up, I don’t know, one of 30 neighbors with ease and ask them for [things], [to] babysit my daughter, [it’s great].

I forgot to tell you that if in the village you have a baby, you get two weeks’ worth of free dinners just brought to your doorstep. And there’s a sign that gets put up in front, a big stork sign, and it says “Welcome to the Ecovillage.” So as you’re driving to the hospital, you get to the signs welcoming the new baby to the village. There’s a large pool of baby resources. A lot of people have been available to families.

Trillions: [You’ve addressed something really remarkable about your community – something that we’ve lost elsewhere in the world and yet something that lies at the heart of what one means by “community.” Back when I was growing up, in the Midwest of the United States,] everybody knew everybody [in your neighborhood], everyone was a good friend, the families knew each other and the kids knew each other. As time has gone on, we all live in neighborhoods where we don’t even know our next-door neighbor. You get up in the morning, you commute to work, you come back late and you literally don’t see them until something goes wrong. Not even your friends and family.

It sounds like you go out of your way [to deal with this idea of community]. The stork is a great idea – a good example of making sure that people think of this as a community rather than as a place where they live in their own protected residences. They are part of a broader group.

Ben O’Callaghan: [One thing we could do better is] we could have a better orientation process, I think. When you come into the community, there is a manual, but it’s online, not that tangible. We have an amazing village hub that we commonly use. You get email [communications from the community] on, [for example], the energy group or the aquaponics group, and so you get to chat by email about those topics.

You also talk about tracking [our homes compared to others]. We compared 35 homes in our Ecovillage here to more traditional Australian estates just up the road. We found that the homes in the Ecovillage use about 75% less energy than the [traditional homes]. The water was about the same, about 350 liters per household per day, but we figured that was because we’ve got large gardens, even though we’ve got smaller houses. That was interesting. I kind of thought we would use a lot less water, but we don’t. But we use our own wells [too], and it’s still all less than the other estates are using.

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For more information on the Ecovillage at Currumbin, visit its website at https://theecovillage.com.au/.

 

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