A summer travelogue from European ecovillages

The article was originally published in Slovenian magazine “Pomagaj si sam!” in September 2022.

Overhearing people as they rant and moan over petty issues reminds me of the words of Duško Radović: “Let’s fight for dignity and a high level of our dissatisfaction. It’s a disgrace what people can be dissatisfied with.” This summer I traveled 5000 km across Europe and met people who have every reason to complain but prefer to engage in creating something better and celebrating their success.

I admire Ad Vlems, who founded Boekel ecovillage in the Netherlands with his wife Monique. I visited them one winter many years ago when they just settled into their temporary container home. They enthusiastically showed me sketches of their future ecovillage. Their plans looked amazing and I hoped it would all turn out well. Now I witness their success.

20 years ago, Ad decided that he had to do something, not just grumble. Disappearing glaciers were leaving millions of people around the world without drinking water and that happened to be Ad’s impetus for building a settlement that was envisioned as a model of innovative ecological design and construction of a regenerative future.

Their decision was to be extroverted and to share knowledge with others—not only with institutions and governments but especially with ordinary people. The shape of the buildings reflects this idea: the three oval “rings” face outwardly without corners. Each of them holds twelve housing units, one of which is intended for persons with special needs or refugees. Their common building is going to be built soon. The EU has given quite a lot of funding for innovations which Ad enjoys talking about…

Summer sun preserved for winter

Ad enthusiastically explains how they asked for a million euros for a self-sufficient heating system, but when the project won out of 24 proposals, they received 2.5 million to test the thermal battery made by the CESAR company. The system could be made even better, Ad points out, but they had to stick within what officials understand and works well when scaled to even larger systems.

650 solar panels on the roofs of the ecovillage bring the electricity into a thermal battery. The battery is a 400 cubic meter (14,000 cubic ft) cylinder of thermal mass surrounded by a thick layer of insulation. The electric current gradually heats the thermal mass up to 450 C (840 F). A system of pipes passes through the cylinder and hot air is used to bring the heat to a large boiler with water heating to 70 C (158 F). The water from the boiler is used to heat buildings.

Boekel ecovillage was not the first to come up with this type of technology, but it is unique in the choice of materials, the method of implementation, the planned scaling, and transferring it to other projects. The thermal battery is robust and durable.

The technology is interesting for producers of electricity because excess of electricity can be stored in thermal batteries and used it to produce electricity later on. Ad understands why there’s so much interest in such systems by governments and industries, but in our conversation, we exchange our experiences with simpler solutions, doable at home and functional without a high use of electricity.

Domestic heat and cold storage

Some years ago I visited PER ( Il Parco dell’Energia Rinnovabile ) Renewable Energy Park in Italy. There I saw simple heating systems relying on circulating air (not liquid) from homemade solar collectors. Warm air is brought from black panels into a well-insulated chamber filled with rocks. The stones warm up and store heat for days when the sun doesn’t shine. A separate air pipe passes through the chamber taking cooler air from one side of the house and blowing it warmed up back at the other side of the house.

In this case, the maximum temperature and also the capacity of the system are relatively low. Still, if you add such a heating system to the house for transitional periods, you can save a lot of energy. If you have enough space for a large enough system, it will make a difference in winter too. For summer cooling, you can have a simple pipe 2-3 feet deep in the ground and run it like that for 100 to 200 feet, ideally starting in the woods or at least in deep shade; a simple fan is enough to blow air from that pipe into your house and take advantage of the stable (colder!) ground temperature.

Add some solar panels and solar collectors, attach a greenhouse to the south side of the house, a couple of small wind turbines, etc., and you can reach a pretty high level of energy self-sufficiency.

Smart collaboration is the heart of smart living

Local energy and food are only part of the equation. The buildings in Boekel stand on 2 feet of glass foam for really good insulation. The slab on top of the glass foam is made of cement-free concrete. Roofs and floors above the cement slab are made of wood and hemp, and parts of the insulation are made from recycled jeans. They have their own reed beds for wastewater treatment, and they collect rainwater in storage tanks to gradually release it into the groundwater not to deplete it.

The municipality exempts the ecovillage from certain laws so, for example, it doesn’t need to have a connection to the sewage system. They may also be the only ones in the area allowed to use groundwater for watering their gardens. In short, Boekel ecovillage is an example that everything is possible if you communicate well with the local community, businesses, and officials at all levels—for me, such close collaboration is a greater innovation than all the technological inventions that Boekel has to show.

650 communities in Denmark

Out of hundreds of Danish communities, I only visited six this time. Four of these six lie in the north of the Jutland peninsula. They are less than half an hour’s drive apart from each other and all consist of 100-400 members.

Friland is one of the models of simple and affordable ecological construction—without any reliance on bank loans. We all get impressed by the house, built in a large greenhouse providing the house with a great micro-climate throughout the year.

In terms of infrastructure, Friland is outstanding, but the community has fallen asleep in recent years. So some former members decided to establish a new ecovillage not far away. The outlines of the Grobund ecovillage show what can be done in just a few years. They could move faster if all the legal documentation didn’t take so long. Fortunately, two of the founders are a former mayor and a lawyer.

The center of Grobund is a former factory with a large hall, in which the members are now building their own tiny houses. These houses are light enough to be moved to their final locations in a designated area around which permaculture gardens are planned. While we are visiting, a week-long natural building festival is taking place, attended by hundreds of people. Part of the hall is a social space including a dining room and a cafe… and in front of it, hundreds of hands, guided by skilled mentors, crafted various construction items. There is a spirit of a vibrant community in the air.

Hjortshøj and Hertha communities are comprised of a few dozen houses each, outwardly quite ordinary looking, but a look inside reveals many approaches that strengthen the connection between people and a healthy coexistence in harmony with nature. Hjortshøj is like a cluster of multicolored neighborhoods. Each of them consists of several matching buildings around a community building in the center with a common kitchen, dining room, laundry room, etc.

Hertha is shaped like two palms extending from a common center. The center is a barn with a pasture, the palms are two neighborhoods. In between, there are shared and private gardens, and further pastures and fields all around. The central building has a large kitchen, dining room, and ballroom. Danes love to sing and dance!

The special feature of both communities is their connection to Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy and that they share their life with people with special needs. These people get involved in everyday life, they work in the stable, kitchen, bakery, and gardens… One of the older members enthusiastically explains how much he is learning watching them do simple everyday tasks without complaining. They enthusiastically knead dough, milk cows, peel potatoes, take care of the garden…

The community provides them with a quality home, and professional care for mental and physical needs, so they are happy to work within their capacity. They don’t whine because they can’t do everything others can. A young woman shows us her small studio apartment with a shower and a kitchenette. We take a look at the shared kitchen, where they cook their own meals for more than 30 people with special needs. The softness of these people makes me realize how handicapped I am because I set such high demands on myself to be happy.

Communist activism

Kassel with its surroundings is a German city where quite a few activist communes have developed. Their shared economy is not limited to individual communities. Several communities in the city and its surroundings exchange goods and services. They think that for a better life it is not enough to focus on ecology—more than anything we need a healthy economy.

They take a radical approach and share much more than most of us would dare. All the salaries go into a common treasury, from which members take as much as they need. Some contribute more financially, while others contribute more of their time to community service. They help mothers with small children or the elderly in solidarity. They eat meals together as large families.

Regular meetings ensure that disagreements don’t escalate. Villa Locomuna is a small commune in a former training center for railway workers. Individuals and families have their own rooms and apartments, share a kitchen, get vegetables from the gASTWERKe community, and buy the rest of the organic food in bulk.

Common spaces are used for various activities. Through the semi-open door to the next room, I overheard fragments of heated debate by political activists. They fight for justice, equality, setting limits to capitalism and industrialization, etc. Communism is still alive in some new form—I only hope positive values won’t succumb to collective stupidity!

A training ground in an alpine paradise

The last stop is the MonViso Institute, an idyllic laboratory of sustainable practices near Ostana in the Italian region of Piedmont. Tobias Luthe found the right place to combine his professional work and hobbies in a beautiful remote village at an altitude of 4,500 ft.

As a professor at the universities of Zurich and Oslo, he wanted to create a practical training ground for regenerative practices, because, as he emphasizes in our chat over breakfast: “Sustainability is no longer enough. We need a deep change in thinking towards regenerative orientations. I don’t like to talk about solutions anymore, because the world is changing too fast for solutions to last long enough. We need better pathways and orientations instead.” For him, this approach is crucial in education and also the wider society, which is reflected in the programs he creates.

In Ostana, he built a house that is a combination of traditional practices and a range of modern ideas: the sun shines through large triple windows to warm the interior in winter, and the treetops provide shade in summer. The winters are very sunny and the windows do an excellent job—at -10 C (14 F) the house warms up to 17 C (63 F) from the sun alone. Thick wood-fiber insulation contributes to this effect. The window frames are made of local chestnut wood with cork filling.

The foundations are made of lime concrete (without cement). The shower cabin is, interestingly, wooden—covered with larch boards, installed with a 2 cm (¾ inch) gap between the wall for better ventilation. Gray water is used for flushing toilets. The interior partitions are made of planks connected with wooden screws and some hempcrete. The floors are not yet done. They will be made from chestnut wood, and IR panels will provide additional heating (in the bathrooms and in the working areas). I find this simple mechanical self-closing patent for the bathroom window fascinating—when you step inside, you open the window, and after a certain time the patent closes it by itself.

Tobias likes to work with wood, so he made each stair to the upper story from different types of wood from the trees that had to be cut down to build the house. Most of the healthy older trees next to the house were preserved. “The view is not that spectacular, but we are grateful for the shade in the summer,” he explains. As an architect, he understands space very vividly, and because he loves trees, he does all he can to preserve them.

Let me stress that the views are spectacular in any case! Towards the west, across the valley of the upper reaches of the Po River, the mighty Monviso mountain rises to 3841 meters (12,601 feet). Mountains and forests are all around, and the sound of cowbells fills the air. No wonder the groups of students and researchers who have been coming here for the past few years are having a great time.

Tobias is a mountain guide and a passionate back-country skier. For example, he guides a 450 km (280 miles) long ski tour from Chamonix to Ostana (from Mont Blanc to Monviso). Not only that, he makes his own skis from selected types of wood, hemp fibers, natural glues, etc. He named the brand Grown. “I’d like to join you on a ski tour on these skis!” I exclaim. Tobias replies: “I can come to Slovenia and we’ll do a workshop on how to build skis from local wood and hemp fibers, and you’ll make them yourself.” It seems to me that this could be the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

I am inspired! I’m listening to the news on the radio on the drive home and I almost fall into grumbling and ranting, but I bite my tongue. I remind myself how easy it is to do something constructive for a better world. I myself am always my main obstacle when I believe the people who claim that everything is bad and we can’t do anything to make it better. But what if all these other people that I met on my journey are right? What if we simply need to keep doing what needs to be done? No, I shouldn’t wait for hope. Hope comes from the work of my own hands.