Walking back over to the Eco-Innovation Center you bump into Jill who is just coming out of the Blind. She is going in the same direction down the sidewalk with a box of what looks like washer parts. She says the Green Beings Grocery has a delivery and pick up that needs to happen that is near the appliance parts store, so she's going to make the run with the groceries cargo bike and kill three birds with one stone.
You look a little puzzled, so she says, “I'll take this box in and have it tested to see what's not working, probably one of these sensors,” she says, pointing to several small items. “Then I'll drop the groceries and grab whatever it is that the customer has to give back.”
“What would they send back?” you ask, still perplexed.
“Could be egg cartons, jars, finished compost, worm castings, basically anything that we can use. One customer gives us 5 gallon buckets. You can never have too many of them. What about you? How is your visit going so far?”
”Great,” you say. “I just had breakfast at the Inn with a bunch of really nice people. Whoops. Here's my destination,” you say as you come to the doors of the Eco-Innovation Center.
Looking at her phone, Jill says, “Three minutes to go. You better get in there. You don't want to keep Rufus waiting.” She walks on with a parting wave, smile and “I'll see you later.”
Sure enough Rufus is there at the big curved desk, in the same spot left him, a couple hours ago when you bought your ticket. As you walk in he's looking at his phone as a crowd of fellow curiosity seekers gather around. “Two minutes and counting,” he says and then goes back to a conversation he is having (with someone who seems to be associated with the office in some way). And then as if on cue he wraps up that conversation, pauses briefly and in a resonant voice says,
The Tour Begins
“Welcome to the 523rd tour of the Culver Way Ecovillage. This is a working office,” he explains, “and usually we start the tour in the conference room so that we don't disrupt things too much, but the folks that are in there at the moment are at a critical point in some delicate negotiations pertaining to the proposed network of Integral Urban Ecovillages and have asked us if we could make do with an alternative meeting place. We'll head over to the courtyard right outside the door over there. Since it is such a nice day, we will oblige them.
“First though, while you were here I want to point out just a few features of this place. As I said, this is a working office. During the day it houses the offices of Irresistible Community Builders, our cooperatively owned, sustainable development company, and SCIPS of St Louis, our cooperatively owned structural concrete insulated panel fabrication, erection and concrete finishing company. All the interior walls and floors and much more in some of our buildings are constructed of this product which we chose as our primary construction method because it is highly insulating, disaster resistant, has a high recycled content, is affordable, is easy for unskilled and semi-skilled people to build with and, as you can see,” turning and waving his arms around the space, “it opens up a lot of design possibilities.
No kidding, you think, as your eyes soak up the details of the space. There is hardly a straight wall anywhere; curves and cantilevered space abound. The design is multileveled and symmetrical with mirror image staircases going both up and down on both sides of the space. There are round art glass and ceramic borrow lights in various sizes between all the rooms and in the upper half of the round top, solid wood doors. A huge clerestory fills the center atrium space with light. Dozens of light tubes funnel light from the roof to all areas of the space that are not directly adjacent to windows or full light doors. The storefront itself wraps around three sides of the office space with the atrium on the south side.
Rufus says, “I am going to turn you over to Jim here and let him show you around the rest of the space. Turning to one of the tourists who is in a wheelchair. Rufus says, “It's not ideal, Mary, but we have to go around and come in through Lisi’s House to access the other floors and the roof of the Innovation Center, so follow me if you would.” And he heads for the front door.
Mary says, “See you on the ground floor,” and follows Rufus.
After introducing himself a bit further, Jim says, “Okay, if you would kindly take the stairs down to the left, we will come back up on the staircase on the right and continue on up to the second floor; from there to the roof.”
You take the curved stairs that drop down under something that looks like a medieval tower into a subterranean space that is amazingly bright with daylight. We assemble in the central space and are soon jointed by Rufus and Mary who have just come in through the elevator door at the back of the dining room.
”This serves as both a café kitchen and dining space evenings and weekends,” we are told, “and an additional common space for the occupants of this live/work space and those living in Lisi’s Home for Interdependent Living next door. It also serves as private space for the Brafords, the chief instigators of the this project, on the rare occasions when it's not being used by anybody else.
The Frog Fireplace
“What is that?” you say, pointing through the compound archway over the kitchen counter to the structure in the middle of the wall on the other side of the living room.
“That's some of Tom’s tinkering,” Rufus howls.
“Now, now, Rufus,” Jim says and continues, “That is a charcoal maker/fireplace.”
Someone says, “It looks like a giant frog holding up a timber.”
Someone else adds, “Yeah, with a giant coffee can in its mouth.”
“Well,” Jim says, “that's pretty much right on, as far as the whimsical side of it goes. That giant coffee can is actually a 55 gallon drum with a removable lid. The lid is the part facing us with a glass window in it.
Someone else says, “Just looks like a glass log there under the barrel like what you can get for your fireplace.”
”You are right there as well,” Jim says.
“So, how does it work?” another person asks.
“Well,” says Jim, “you remove the lid when the barrel is cold, slide in a burlap bag of any kind of dry waste wood, brush, split wood, construction site scrap wood, even bamboo, then you close it back up, turn on the gas log that is fueled by a methane digester on the roof that we will take a look at in a bit. This heats up the barrel and begins to drive the gas off the wood or whatever cellulose product you have in the barrel cooker.”
A junior high school student, Cindy, says, “Wood has gas in it?”
Jim says, “Yes. In fact most of the BTU’s are in the form of volatile liquids that are vaporized when heated. Have you ever noticed how the flames spit and sputter when you first start a campfire? That's because most of what you are burning at first are volatile gases.”
Cindy asks, “Why not just have a wood fireplace then?”
One of her friends, Rich, says, “Yeah. Having a fireplace that looks like a big old frog that you could make s'mores in right in your living room would be cool.”
Rufus chimes in now, “Well actually, Tom and I have done just that with this very fireplace. The wood gas flames are really hot so you have to hold the s'mores a little further away than with a campfire.”
Cindy says, “I thought Jim said it was methane gas that comes from the roof or something like that.”
“Maybe I better leave this up to you, Jim,” says Rufus. “I think I may be confusing things.”
“Can we go closer?” Cindy asks.
“Yeah. I wasn't going to start there, but since we're on the subject, why don't we head on over there. That way we can talk about the fish ponds and green walls next.”
That must be what's going on behind those glass doors on both sides of the fireplace, you think. Up close and personal with frog fireplace and the contents of his mouth, Jim opens the door to reveal a pile of charred branches which break into small pieces when he taps them with a stick. “This was brush, mostly the first trimmings from the front trees last year, just like what's in the burlap bag.”
The other Junior High kid says, “The bag says that it contains coffee beans in something like Spanish.”
”Very observant,” Jim says. “We have a café and roasters co-op here that keeps the Urban Farmers & Micro-utility co-op supplied with as many of these as we want, along with lots of chaff and coffee grounds.” Cindy asks what chaff is.
Rufus volunteers, “That is the paper-like husk that remains on some of the beans, which is actually higher in nitrogen than the grounds, so we like to put it in our worm bins, compost bins and methane digesters.
Now in unison the junior high kids ask, “What's a worm bin?”
”Let's leave some questions for the end,” Jim says. “I'll show you a worm bin in a minute when we go back into the kitchen. You'll see methane digesters in the greenhouse on the roof and a coffee roaster at the back of the common house next door, plus the whole lot more.”
“So, back to the biochar maker. This was the first crude prototype that we built just to try out this technology here in the Eco-Innovation Center as part of the first proof of concept stage. It works well enough. We only fire it up during extended winter cold snaps when we need a little extra heat in the center and to heat the hot tub in the greenhouse through a labyrinth flue under it. We use fruitwood, crabapple and hickory in barbeque grills and pizza ovens and sell some when we have an excess. We also use some in our water filters and in the biolung between the barns and greenhouses to remove ammonia from the air. The remainder and the saturated filter material is added to our garden soils where it absorbs and stores soil nutrients and releases them to plant roots through microbial action. The biochar creates a scaffolding in the soil for microbes to cling to and it helps retain moisture. That combination, along with the constant water and nutrient inputs from fishponds, methane digesters, compost piles and sunlight supplemented by a LED grow spectrum lighting, plus the constant attention of the Green Beings, all that accounts for the profusion of plant life that you see all around you.”
”Sorry, I know you said we should hold our questions,” Rick, the Junior High boy says, “But are the Green Being something like ferries or elves?”
“Sorry, no,” Jim says, laughing, “the Green Beings are what our co-op farmer/ gardener, micro-utility workers call themselves, which is not to say,” he adds, “that there aren’t lots of gnomes, elves, fairies and angels hanging around. In fact, if you keep your eyes peeled, you just might run across some during the tour.”
”Awesome, cool,” says Cindy and Rich.
”Meanwhile, back at the tour,” says Jim, “the ponds on both sides of the frog fireplace contain perch cubs, freshwater mussels and crayfish. As you can see, the back walls below the lower transom windows wrap around storefront. A variety of plants that commonly grow on the banks or shallow waters of streams and lakes, including wild rice. Water is recirculated through these and the green walls on the exterior of the building and rooftops where it fertigates the plants, that is it provides both nutrients and moisture in this symbiotic relationship between agriculture and hydroponic gardening.
“What's the plus?” you ask, forgetting about the request to hold questions for a moment.
“There are many plusses, but one big one is aesthetics or customs and culture, as we refer to it in our six point value accretion formula. By that I mean that there is a concerted effort to create beauty in all we do, no matter how utilitarian it is. My father used to always say to me, ‘Make yourself useful as well is ornamental.’”
Our request of the Green Beings is to make our gardens ornamental as well as useful because grain, legumes, oil seeds, vegetables and livestock may feed our bodies, but we need art and beauty to feed our souls. So they give us both in a profusion of ornamental and dual purpose plants, animals and even insects.
“Moving right along,” Jim says before anyone else has a chance to slip in another impromptu question, “over here is the utility room that contains the ground source heat pump equipment, that is pipes that circulate a glycol solution through a closed loop deep well and trench system that extends two hundred feet down into the solid limestone structure that underlies our site.”
Pointing to the blue and the red coded pipes, he says, “These bring 55º glycol solution from the trenches and walls and these send 55º plus solution back in the summer and 55º minus back in the winter after it goes through a compressor here which boosts the temperature in the winter and lowers it in the summer to a usable range before it enters the air handler here. From there it is circulated throughout the Center and Lisi’s House and the two units behind that.
“This storage tank here is heated by vacuolated tube, thermal solar collectors on the roof that again circulate a glycol solution through a heat exchanger to temper the potable water which is then busted to a usable temperature by this on-demand heater before it is fed through these manifolds directly to fixtures throughout the Center. This large steel duct area here circulates air from greenhouse through a plenum filled with broken brick, and the return duct on the other side of the Center takes it back to the greenhouse on the roof. Hundred year old soft and semi-hard St Louis brick is an ideal thermal and moisture storage medium because it has a lot of mass per volume but is also quite porous.
“This is also a good use for broken brick. You end up with a lot of it when you are tearing down no longer usable buildings or, as in our case, even with adding new masonry openings. Having this plenum filled with broken brick around the perimeter of the crawl/storage space behind this back wall here lets us utilize the mass of the rubble stone foundation wall as well and the mass of the earth directly below as a day/night, seasonal thermal and moisture flywheel to maintain the Mediterranean type climate that exists in the greenhouse pretty much year round and, to an extent, in our atrium spaces as well.”
Glancing at his watch, Jim adds, “If we can move back to the kitchen and dining area now, I’ll show you the under-cabinet worm bin, root cellars, trout pond, solar powered cook all and growing tubes. Also, you might want to take a quick look in the handicap accessible bath and the root cellar-type pantry on the left on your way to the kitchen. As you will see if you look closely, the bath achieves wheelchair turn around radius, although it is small, by having a squat pan, dual flush toilet and making it possible for the whole bath to serve as a shower. The slated shower floor opens up to allow access to the hot tub below. The hoist above allows an alternatively-abled person to raise and lower themselves in and out of the tub. The tub, like the trout pond between the kitchen and dining room, is made from one of several 450 gallon, old round City of St Louis heavy, green vinyl dumpsters inherited with the buildings. Unlike the trout pond, the hot tub is well insulated.”
“Back in the kitchen now, any questions about the bathroom or pantry before we go any further here?”
A tall old guy, Don, with bushy hair says, “I assume there is something special about the pantry because of the well sealed, insulated door, but it wasn't obvious.”
Jim explains, “The pantry, refrigerator closure, worm bin and under cabinet root cellar are all sealed off from and thermally separated from the conditioned space and are connected to the cool tube ventilation system that constantly brings a small volume of fresh air through a long underground channel and vents it through the house in summer and the greenhouse in winter. This maintains a dry, cool, fresh environment in all the spaces year round.”
Moving on and removing an 8” in diameter, round wooden plugs from a hole in the top of the 8’ kidney shaped island and picking up a plastic tub of about the same diameter from the counter next to the kitchen sink, he proceeds to pour the contents, which appear to be mostly broccoli stalks and chicken bones down the hole. “We put the coarser organic material in the worm bins,” he says. “The softer, smaller waste goes down the garbage disposal and from there into a 3-gallon reservoir under the sink where it is then sucked up to the methane digester, in much the same way the toilets operate.”
Walking around the end of the cabinet, he opens a door and removes a similar plug from the floor of the cabinet and, using a scoop that is already in the cavity. he draws out what looks like rich, black soil and walks over to the same counter where there is a tube six feet long and three and a half inches in diameter with plants popping out of notches that have been cut out of it. It is in brackets protruding from the wall a foot above the countertop.
“Would someone like to feed the plants?” Jim asks. “We also need a waterer and a harvester.”
A half dozen hands go up and Jim says, “How about you, you and you,” pointing to Rick, Cindy and you. You agree to be the harvester and are given a colander and scissors with the admonition to just harvest the outer leaves until the colander is full. Rich takes the job of spreading a mixture of soil and worm casings (worm poop) on the surface of the growing tube soil. A perfect job for a Junior High boy, you muse to yourself. Cindy follows with a watering can which she fills at Jim’s suggestion by submerging it in the trout pond.
While this is going on, Jim explains that the worm bin, which is about a foot deep, has good earth contact and is isolated thermally from the conditioned spaces. The floor of the bin, we are told, slopes from the counter to both ends of the island.
Shifting focus, Jim then says, “The trout pond which also has crayfish, snails, mussels and a variety of other critters, also has earth contact, which keeps both of these structures at close to 55º year round.”
The fountain structure above the pond looks to you like a series of cascading copper lily ponds with turned up edges and a spout hanging by cables from the ceiling. Jim says it serves as a series of micro constructed wetlands and the only energy required to create all this movement is one suspended pond after another, slowly filling, then tipping and pouring into the next and so on and so forth.
“All this is accomplished,” he says, “with a small DC pump that constantly moves water from the pond to a spigot above the top lily pad. The cascade happens like dominoes falling and then standing back up with the top one tipping again a few seconds after the bottom one tips. This living machine both aerates and cleans the water and provides an abundant supply of watercress, basil and other herbs. The fish get worms from the worm bin that are collected from access doors around the base of the compost shoot. They also get flies and other bugs harvested in insect traps in the barns and greenhouses.”
Checking his watch again, Jim says, “We have time for one quick question before we head back upstairs. Tony, a prematurely balding man with a big smile, raises his hand and when recognized he says, “This makes so much sense. Why hasn't this been done before?”
“Good question,” Jim says, “but most of this has been done before; it just has always been an individual or small group effort. The thing that is different here is that we are taking it to scale and putting in the social and economic structures to make it sustainable. In the past, undertakings like this were undercapitalized and overly reliant on a few volunteers. People burn out and funding dries up in those situations. We have turned what we're doing here into a network of cooperatively owned businesses that have a synergistic relationship with each other, the site, the residents and the surrounding community and beyond. There is enough diversity and variety of activities that the system itself becomes resilient. Most people are inclined to stay engaged and there is enough sharing of responsibilities that no one gets burned out.
“Okay,” Jim says. “That was a quick question but my response put us a couple minutes behind, so let's move quickly up the stairs here to the right. Turn left at the top of the stairs, if you would, and continue up the next flight and gather in the office space at the top of the stairs. I'll be along in a minute,” he says as he looks down and starts texting someone on his phone.
At the top of the stairs we walk by a full light door that opens out onto a balcony covered with a profusion of potted plants, bird feeders and some willow furniture.
Through the large round top door with art glass borrow light in the center, we enter a well lit office space. Window wells are over a foot deep and, as with the rest of the windows in the house/Center, they double as mini greenhouses with see-through reflective shades on the inside and a combination of Kalwall panel and awning windows on the outside.
Jim sees us examining these double function structures when he enters the space and proceeds to explain that the combination does a much better job of insulating the space against unwanted heat gain and loss while letting in sufficient light and ventilation when wanted. He says, “It also adds substantially to onsite food production. In fact,” he says, “close to 5% of the food grown on site is grown in these individually tended window units.” He then points out LED grow lights in the top and sides of windows between the wire shelving which, he says, helps maximize food production here, as a does in the atriums and greenhouses.
“The handmade quilted curtains keep out additional unwanted heat and cold, but also provide privacy at night.”
He demonstrates the thermal shades with a sample and flashlight from the desk. “They let you see out during the day without others seeing in and would normally have the reverse affect at night, but because of the grow lights they remain opaque from the outside at night.
“Wow,” says Sandy, one of the half dozen college students who have been quiet till now. “It's like a combination of a Mediterranean oasis in the searing St Louis summer during the day and a midnight sun oasis at night where all the plants grow like they are on steroids year round.”
“Well,” Jim says, “that is as good a description as I have heard and it does explain how we routinely grow two-pound heirloom tomatoes and 100-pound squashes and pumpkins that actually taste good.”
Beatrice chimes in, “And it's beautiful! Everything about it is unique. The furniture on the balcony, the quilted curtains, the little nooks and crannies and ceramic and colored glass accents everywhere. How do people afford all this?”
Jim chuckles, “Twenty-five percent of our homes are income qualified for people at 80% of median income or below. That was partly made possible through a number of grants and tax credits, but a lot of sweat equity went into these places as well, and if you look closely you'll notice that the things you are pointing to are mostly made from used, found or damaged items, including all the borrow lights and colored glass and ceramic highlights in the doors and countertops. The doors and most of the door and window jambs are recycled lumber from the site. Most of the furniture and lamps were made from discarded, partly rotted oak timbers. Even the light fixtures are mostly recycled bottles and large tin cans.”
“But it must have taken a tremendous amount of time,” says Ted.
“It certainly did,” says Jim, “but as you will notice, hardly anyone has a TV, and the kids aren’t spending much time playing video games and people aren’t sitting around waiting for their perfect life to unfold. Instead,” says Jim, “they are actively engaged in creating a good enough life now. There is also something about permanence that has time expand and open up,” says Jim.
“What do you mean by that?” Carlos asks.
“Well, I didn't expect to be teaching a philosophy class this morning,” says Jim, “but what I have observed is it when people are living in a place where they expect to raise their families and grow old and die, they have more time. They may even be inspired to take on projects that they don't expect to live long enough personally to complete. We are not just building our homes. We are building the modern equivalent of a cathedral and, like cathedrals of old, it is brick and stone and our modern day equivalent, SCIPS, but it is also the lives we are living now and our hopes and dreams for the future. Yes, I would say that the modern day equivalent of building a cathedral is the building of communities of proximity; community is timeless. So taking a few extra minutes, hours or even days to infuse this place with something of ourselves is a timeless, tireless activity. We are inspired to preserve the house on Westminster, and the commercial buildings along Olive, because the artisans and crafts people of a century or more ago took the time to create something of enduring beauty in the iron and copper work, brick, tile, wood and stone that has us stare in wonder and not just want to return to a richer time but to actively expand upon their example of what living in Integral Community makes possible.”
Looking at his watch again, Jim says, “Now we really are running behind, so let's walk on through the bathroom here and out the other side. I'll point out a few interesting features and then will go on out onto the balcony on this side where we can take the stairs to the roof.”
Up on the Roof
On the roof we are surrounded by plants and animal life, more living machines and seemingly inert machines that none-the-less occasionally burp and lurch about. There are also more fish, now joined by chickens, rabbits, ducks, goats, honeybees, insects and exotic birds flying about, as well as more people in their pedal and hand powered conveyances, working the hanging gardens above and below this level.
Suddenly your mind feels numb with sensory overload and, as if sensing your distress, Jim looks at his watch and says, “We are coming right up on noon, so that's it for this morning's tour. We will head down in that direction,” pointing now to the other side of the roof. Winding down over to Eco-Hut to the courtyard where you gathered earlier, you ask if you can cross the suspension bridge to the treehouse for a quick peek.
“That's up to the kids,” he says. “It's their territory. You can place a request at the desk on the way out. They will post it on the kids’ board and if a guide is available and amenable at 1:50, you can take a brief tour for an additional 75¢ in Ecovillage Ingots or $1 US.”
With that Jim asks if everyone is coming back at 2:00. You say that you thought the ticket covered the whole tour and that we were going to see everything in two hours.
“Oh, no, Jim says, “That would be impossible. Well, I mean, yes, the ticket covers the whole tour but we couldn't possibly cover it all at once. Two hours worth is about as much as most people can absorb at one time. That's why we do it in for two-hour sessions over two or more days. Some people just do one two-hour session each day and stretch it over four days or more. That's why I asked if everybody was coming back at 2:00.”
“Okay,” you say but still confused.
Sensing your uncertainty, Jim asks, “How long you are here for?”
“A week, maybe longer.”
“How long have you been here?” he asks. You say that you just arrived this morning, and he says, “Well, I suggest you take a break and see some of the other things going on around here, like the market. It's just open till 4:00, so you could go now and still be back by 10 minutes to 2:00, but that would really be rushing it, so I suggest coming back at 2:00 or a little before tomorrow. With more time, we're more likely to find a kid who wants to earn a buck or two.”
“I thought you said it was $1.”
“They expect tips,” Jim says.
“Oh yeah, of course,” you say a little shyly.
“Anyway,” Jim says, “that way you could really get the lay of the land and have a more relaxing time here. There is a lot to see and experience around the site that we don't cover on the tour. And you’ll want to get out into the rest of the neighborhood and city.”
“For sure,” you say, “so I'll see you tomorrow.”
“I won’t be here tomorrow. Judy has more of a handle on the farming and utility stuff, so she leads that part of the tour.”
“Okay then, good to meet you and thank you,” you say.
“You’re welcome,” Jim says.
Please continue to Chapter 5
Yours in Community,