20 April, 2018
A little tired after facilitating a training in Chisinau, I'm heading home, to our vibrant eco-community near "Noroc" village, about 30 km. from Chisinau. How lucky that I don't need to drive through the 5 o'clock traffic or worry about missing a bus. Since car pooling is quite common among us, my neighbor Tanea, who works in Chisinau daily, is giving me a ride tonight.
Tanea pulls into the garage on the edge of our community, which looks more like a hobbit's home with its 'living' roof, covered with wild grasses. As I walk home, I pass the first big structure that was built on site: a six-room dorm with a small conference hall. It is still widely used, since there is a continuous flow of visitors, volunteers or workshop participants. Take a few steps up the hill through a 'green tunnel' of vines that separates the 'public access' from the 'residential' area and I can see our home in a row of other houses. Good thing we planned for this kind of 'buffer space' to respect people's privacy, as we get more visitors than we anticipated. One of the most popular 'sights' is our 'demonstration house', built 100% from natural materials, and offered rent free to someone who'd accept occasional visitors. Igor, who lives there now and works part-time giving presentations about the community, told me recently that he is getting burned out with so many unexpected guests. Despite our 'visitor hours' published on the web-site, we still get occasional 'passers-by that just want to check it out'. We're thinking now of making some 'self-guided tour' brochures or employing someone full time to take on the visitor's program.
There are 18 homes, built mostly from natural materials, occupied by owners, renters and guests and a big centrally located common house in our community. It looked quite differently 5 years ago when we started as a small initiative group. In the first stage, our primary focus was reducing our environmental footprint and building affordable housing that would be economical to maintain. So the first cluster of homes, designed by just a couple of people, was built from earth bricks as 6 connected 'apartments' of various sizes (15-60 m2) around a court.
During Stage 2, when more people wanted to join, our focus shifted to more community- building and less pushing the limits of eco-design. We realized that healthier societies ultimately make better ecological decisions beyond their private homes. Designing, financing and managing a second cluster of homes and common house was more of a group process. Reaching a decision among 16 people of various backgrounds was a big challenge, especially as it was a new dynamic for us all. Sometimes it meant reminding each other about the values we agreed on, working out conflicts, learning to trust the process and the collective wisdom. Some wanted to discuss things endlessly, while others wanted to get going fast before the construction costs go up. It was hard, but I'm glad we had good facilitators to make the process a little more structured and help us develop strong relationships while keeping up with strict budgets and timelines. Once we came up with a collective design, it was handed off to the construction company to be built.
During the planning, some people wanted big, spread apart houses of 100-200 m2. Others in the group feared that individually designed and built big houses would end up half finished and deserted for years. In the end, we decided that clustering the homes would better nourish a sense of community and smaller homes would be more affordable and allow efficient use of resources. A few people did not agree with this decision, so they withdrew from the group and settled in another place. We're still in touch with them and occasionally they come for dinners at our common house.
As I walk home on the narrow paths weaving through the area, I'm trying to locate our 3 kids - sure to be outside at this hour. . I see two old men playing chess on a bench... few teenagers gathered around a guitar in one of the 'pavilions'... a girl with a book heading towards a
secluded bench behind the bush... Ah, there is Danny and Amelia climbing a 'spider-web' on the playground with 5 other kids... and Nick zooming carelessly on his bike since the whole area is a 'car free zone'. Like many other children in the community, all three of them are going to school and kindergarten in the nearby village. Some children in the community travel with their parents for schooling in Chisinau.
I still have a little time to catch up with my husband David before dinner, since I don't need to cook it. For about 20 lei/person, we can sign up minimum 2 days in advance to enjoy a tasty meal and great company at the community house. Once we came up with a collective design, it was handed off to a construction company to be built.
Common dinners on Monday through Thursday and Sunday lunch are usually prepared by 2-3 adults. On average, about half the people in our community sign up for it. Others prefer to cook at home, or eat out in the nearby town. By rotation, everybody has a chance to cook for others. It may seem overwhelming to cook for 20, but you're not alone, you do it once a month and enjoy extra free time all these other evenings. Tonight we have pasta with white sauce and cheese, green bean salad and fruits for dessert.
Over dinner people catch up, since everybody is too busy during the day. Some people are working on site either from rented offices (programming, composing, translating) or running a small business (ex. eco-café, greenhouse) or developing civic engagement activities through a local NGO. I'm involved in our NGO's educational program, occasionally going to Chisinau for trainings or networking. David is managing a social business focused on vocational training and eco-construction. Half the adults are commuting daily to Chisinau for work, often carpooling. Two people who manage the community's tree nursery are from the nearby village and come on bikes.
For dinner, David and I join a table of 4 in the middle of discussion:
- Surely we can find some decent second-hand equipment for about €3000. We only need a few weight machines, a bicycle, a running machine, free weights and a bunch of mats.
- Did you run the idea by anyone yet?
- Oh, 8 adults and 2 teenagers are already interested in a fitness room?
- We should bring it to the financial committee to discuss. Anybody could benefit from it, so the investment should be covered by the community's Development and Maintenance Fund.
- I doubt they would want to spend so much on a fitness room.
- If they say no, maybe 2-3 of us could start it as a social business? With a monthly subscription of 15€ we'd return our investment in 2 years and further income could be used for maintenance and growth.
- Sorry guys, I don't' have this kind of money to put into it.
- Maybe Alex would want to invest and operate it as his private business... what's he up to these days?
It's not the first time I hear such discussions. Last year Dima got a small cultivator for €1200 Euro and now he rents it out to other people in the community and the neighboring village.