Housing

Agraria picks five-acre site

The model, low-energy development Community Solution calls Agraria became a little more real late last fall when organizers of the project purchased a 5.1-acre parcel of land on the north end of town. And after informal discussions with the Village about possible annexation, Community Solution hired a consultant to study the feasibility of building a sustainable community of 10, 20, or 30 houses on the property.

“Our dream is to have a demonstration of a passive housing development using half or less of the land for housing and the rest for agriculture and organic gardening,” Community Solution member Faith Morgan said. “And we hope,” added Community Solution Director Pat Murphy, “that those who will be happy to live in a small space without deleterious effects on the planet will come here.”

The idea for Agraria was first proposed at Community Solution’s second annual Peak Oil Conference in 2006, when the energy-efficient development’s plan to design a lifestyle using 75 percent less energy seemed “radical,” Murphy said. Since then, the issue of fuel shortages and the environmental impact of energy consumption has come into mainstream consciousness, he said, and made the concept of reducing our energy usage to half its current rate seem reasonable. It has even made much bigger reductions, on the order of 80 to 90 percent, seem necessary in order to soften the impact of climate change, he said.

Since Agraria was conceptualized, Community Solution has remained active in researching and planning for the best and most effective solutions for Agraria. When Jane Morgan, who helped found Community Solution’s parent organization in 1940, died last fall, she left a bequest to her daughter, Faith Morgan, to help purchase the potential site for Agraria. The site, a star-shaped property located just inside the corner of State Route 343 and U.S. 68, has helped the team of Murphy, Morgan, Community Solution outreach director Megan Quinn Bachman and now consultant Rob Content, get closer to defining just what type of development their ideal community will be.

Community Solution plans to seek a rezoning of its land to planned unit development so that Agraria’s housing and infrastructure can be as dense as possible, Morgan said. The group will also investigate annexing the property into the village, all of which could take several years, she said. In the meantime, a private local grant will help fund the consultant’s analysis of what type and size development would best suit the property.

Organizers are keenly interested in villagers’ feedback and want to give time and opportunity to hear from the community, they said.

Solutions for Agraria

To tackle first and foremost is the issue of housing. Because buildings are responsible for 48 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions and use 76 percent of all electricity generated in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Community Solution has turned its attention to a low-energy building model known as the “passive house.” Developed in Germany, the passive house takes advantage of multiple energy-saving measures to reduce a home’s energy consumption by 90 percent, according to studies completed by the Passive Haus Institute in Darmstadt, which can be found at http://www.passivehouse.us/passiveHouse/PHIUSHome.html .

“This model can accomplish these numbers by reducing energy consumption alone, without adding any renewable energy production,” Bachman said. “We’re just focusing on reducing the energy demand.”

Energy for heating and cooling can be dramatically reduced simply by shrinking the size of the average home in the U.S., which has tripled in the last 50 years, back down to a modest 1,200 square feet, Murphy said. By combining an air-tight outer shell with super-insulated inner casing to reduce heat loss while producing heat through window placement for passive solar gain, a small house can maintain a comfortable temperature with little fuel, Bachman said. Strategically placed shade trees can reduce unwanted heat gain in the summer, and, along with insulating triple-glaze windows, a solar water heater, and low-energy appliances, help to further reduce daily home energy use, according to passivehaus.com.

“The fact is, we build in this tremendously wasteful way in this country, illustrated by the fact that we have 5 percent of the world’s population but we’re using 25 percent of the energy,” Murphy said. “We want to show how to build and remodel houses to meet the demands of climate change and live comfortably in a cold climate.”

As its name implies, Agraria will revolve around the production of food grown on site. The plan calls for clustering the housing and traffic on perhaps one half to one third of the plat and using the rest of the land for growing organic vegetables, grains and fruit orchards to reduce as much as possible dependence on fuel to transport food from other parts of the country.

The aim is not to be 100 percent self-sufficient, and of course not all of the residents living there will be directly involved in farming, Morgan said. But the idea is to protect the land, not as idle green space, but as agricultural space with a purpose.

Agraria’s locale was chosen partly due to its proximity to the village’s downtown, allowing walking and biking to and from the site. The development would have limited roads for vehicles, which would be parked together in a central carport area, from which residents would walk to their homes. Agraria residents would also be encouraged to participate in the Smart Jitney, a high-tech ride-share program coordinated by Internet and Global Positioning System that is currently being developed by Community Solution.

Why Agraria in Yellow Springs?

Agraria, as its creators envision it, will be an education-research center for villagers and visitors and well as an opportunity for Yellow Springs to distinguish itself by announcing at one of its gateways that, “We’re doing things differently here,” Bachman said.

Yellow Springs made a statement when its current Village Council voted against the new AMP-Ohio coal power plant this year, according to Murphy, who feels that a development that models solutions to help the planet is a reflection of Yellow Springs values and a good way to represent the village.

Methods of producing renewable energy such as wind and solar have had only mild success so far, according to Murphy, who said that there isn’t currently a way to replace the level of energy consumed today with renewables. And recent studies on innovations such as biofuels, previously thought of as a solution to the energy crisis, show that more carbon is emitted from the production of biofuels than from the consumption of conventional fuels, he said. Other things such as solar cells and wind turbines are ineffective for certain regions or are too expensive to afford on a large scale.

The only viable answer, therefore, is to curtail usage, he said. And given the life cycle of American homes and the long-range cost projections for oil and gas, which have doubled over the last 20 years and, like coal, are only expected to rise from here, investing in energy efficient building will save the most resources in the long run, Murphy said.

From a philosophical point of view, Murphy said, Agraria will be a much safer and much happier way to live. “Consuming all this energy has not made us happy,” he said. Agraria aims to be a human-centered community, according to Bachman, which will be good both for the environment and for the soul.

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