What would it be like to plan and live in an eco community? We asked the man behind Desa Alam Indah, a.k.a. the Eco Village Bali, to share his experience
By Kurt Beckman
In the dawn of 2015, we arrived in Bali, Indonesia as a temporary stopping off point. Our intent was to sort out the next destination in our lives while momentarily burying our toes in the sand by the sea following a 4-year stint in Singapore that ended with a hard bump.
But we began to fall in love with Bali and our three young kids immediately blossomed as they adapted to their new environment. We had enrolled them for a semester in a fantasy jungle school (the Green School) made of bamboo, with teachers who were dialed right into their very being. My wife and I too, were captured by Bali with its chaotic energy and vibrancy.
The kids’ school became central in our daily life, and we recognised there was not enough housing for families to live near enough to walk or bicycle to the place. Most were commuting half an hour or more to drop off and pick up kids every day and the disproportionally large parking lot full of SUV’s highlighted the effort and nonrenewable energy required to attend rural Green School Bali.
The following year, having still not left to begin our life anew somewhere else, the idea was launched to create a village nearby from within the parent community and Desa Alam Indah, also known as the Eco Village Bali project, was born.
Designing Eco Village Bali
Bali is blessed with an abundance of clay, enriched by ash from the resident volcanoes. In harmony with the rice straw from adjacent fields and river sand, we had all the ingredients we needed for traditional earthen cob construction. Adding recycled teak, local bamboo and a bit of sugar cane thatch, we had a full natural set of materials to work with right at our fingertips. Setting aside high tech solutions to environmental problems, we looked backward a few thousand years to a decidedly low tech methodology.
Cob is cool. It acts as a thermal heat sink that chills the home naturally. The ancients knew that but the modern world forgot–most of us did, anyway. Still, nearly one-third of humanity live in earthen homes with good reason, but the idea of a mud house for the rest of us is somewhat messy, primitive, and impermanent so we need to deal with the optics.
An earthen home bears no more resemblance to a sloppy wet pile of mud than a concrete home does to the gray watery slurry that arrives in a Redimix truck. In its finished form, either rendered in lime plaster or polished up raw with a glossy wax sheen, cob invites us to approach and touch it and to feel it’s cool, curvy sensual surface. Cob floors feel great to walk on which is nothing like a concrete floor that tends to suck all the energy out the bottom of our soles. Instead, It cradles our feet in its soft bedding, almost custom fit to the curves of the human foot, linking us to the earth.
At a gathering recently, I was quizzed on the longevity of cob and a gentleman chimed in that he had lived in a cob home for most of his life. When asked when his house was built, he replied: “Fourteenth century. In England.” For most, that will suffice.
The glamour of cob aside, the design challenge was to keep the house bright and cheerful with walls half a meter thick, encompassing deep-set windows and doors that can potentially create a heavy cave-like feeling. In the tropics, this is perfect for a cool inviting bedroom, which is exactly where the cob core structure is contained. The insulating value of the robust cob walls fully deadens the outside noise of all-night creatures like roosters and barking dogs, setting the stage for a deep night’s sleep. (Balinese roosters tend to ignore crowing-at-sunrise de rigueur and carry on 24/7).
The main living areas are open to the outdoors under a vaulted bamboo and thatch roof that channels the breeze to keep us cool. This hybrid construction style allows both the light open-air feeling in the living areas and the snug, secure earthen bedroom zones.
Defining an eco-sensitive home
Our eco-sensitive smorgasbord of materials, technology, and social considerations change dramatically by location. Every project needs a customised ethos developed by caring and conscientious people willing to make an investment in the future quality of life on this planet.
Even well-intentioned choices can unexpectedly turn out to have negative impacts, so it is very important to start with the building techniques and material options immediately available to you and work carefully through the entire process. Avoid designing yourself into a corner where the only final options are exotic materials sourced from halfway around the globe. Here are some examples, below.
At Eco Village Bali, we strived to eliminate cement; an environmental baddy. By and large, we were successful in using natural lime for our masonry work instead, as the ancient Greeks and Romans did, but for critical bearing points we resorted to valuing the cement in concrete more highly for its longevity aspect despite its negative environmental impact. Using an environmentally sensitive product not suited to its application ultimately leads to a building that fails prematurely. This is more damaging in the long run than the less environmentally sensitive choice. We must be sensible and conscientious in weighing our options.
Cob ingredients come literally from beneath our feet and are available all over the globe. It’s hard work, but oh, to build a home from the good things mother earth places in our hands is incredibly gratifying, and ranks high on our sustainability scale.
Bamboo is a super-strong renewable species of grass with personality. Each piece is unique with quirky characteristics to fill specific roles in the structure. Treated properly and installed with care, it proves to be a very durable construction material.
What we decided to offer
Another consideration for creating the Eco Village was deciding what would be private, and what would be communal. Of course, at the heart of Desa Alam Indah is the ethos of creating homes and communities that are ecologically conscious. Communal living is a big part of that by way of sharing talents and resources. By choosing to share many things most households consider private, such as laundry facilities, we could save resources and energy.
Our communal spaces and resources include:
Village rainwater collection and groundwater replenishment
Food gardens with lemongrass, sugarcane, chili bushes, banana, pineapple, rosella and local herbs and veggies.
Security and management
A lap pool and a kid’s pool
Car and scooter parking
Beyond the building material choices for Eco Village Bali, there were a host of other location-specific issues to consider.
As rapid development spreads across Bali, beautiful, productive, sustaining rice fields get taken over by housing. In searching for land, we chose to remove from consideration any parcel that had a working rice field. But there is always a twist. There was once a rice paddy on part of the land where we ultimately built our village. The landowners were left with no choice but to lease their property within a deadline and the only interested party was a large hotel development company. The owners felt our project would have a much softer impact than a concrete high rise and invited us to reconsider our ethos based on the greater good.
Bali struggles with diminishing groundwater supply across the island as demand for fresh water increases while more roofs and paved roads shed rainwater into rivers, rather than back into the ground. We invested land, labour, and material to create a recharge well onsite to redirect rain back to the water table. A drop in the bucket perhaps, but in time, many drops fill a bucket.
Culturally we choose to be sensitive to the traditions of our host nation. We strive to work hand in hand with our neighbours and participate in the greater community around us. A community that fails because it cannot exist cooperatively in its surroundings is decidedly not sustainable.
Important lessons learned
Let’s first assume that anyone wishing to create a communal eco village is highly likely to be of a mindset that is environmentally focused, community-driven and not prone to greed or status-seeking. Keeping in mind that most who choose to buy into such a project will share similar kind and gentle characteristics, let’s take a look as some of the challenges and lessons learned along our journey, hand in hand with like-minded people.
- Start with a clearly defined ethos, governance document and constitution. Every community member from the first to join, to the last, will know and be bound by the same conditions. Once in place, do not waver from the path.
- No one gets to be king of the village. Establish equality across the community and ensure that money does not buy power within the community. Each member gets an equal voice. Owning multiple homes in the village does not equate to greater voting power. If you plan to start an eco village as the primary shareholder, set a handover schedule for the village to run on its own so members do not feel beholden to the more powerful developer or landowner for eternity.
- Make every effort to standardise the homes. Do this in such a way as to avoid having the “One Big House on the Hill” dilemma that can kick off a one-upmanship competition. Our approach was to have a standard envelope (being a fixed footprint and roofline) that was fully customisable within. Unlimited customisations, however, were a real challenge to the design and building process.
- Communal decisions can take a lot of time and energy. With a democratic process for just about everything, disparate opinions result in seemingly endless discussions, and the project plods slowly along if some sort of stopgap is not in place.
- Community size of between 11 and 13 families seems to work really well. Studies indicate that the ideal size is somewhat larger in order to achieve “critical mass” of a productive village, but our two villages have taken on a life of their own once handed over and members are contributing in all sorts of organic ways that no amount of top-down planning could achieve.
- Eco-sensitive living is no longer the realm of hippies. Now conservative mainstream families are eager to get involved, but may seek something a little more familiar. A cob house can embody freeform otherworldly shapes, but can just as easily resemble a suburban home that appeals to a much wider audience who really need to be offered a way into this form of living.
- Even kind, gentle humans tend to squabble. Building an eco village requires some very thick skin. When the first community of 11 families materialised and prepared to hold hands and jump off the figurative cliff together, it was a Nirvana-like feeling of togetherness. But that was temporary, and we tended to otherwise regress to our more primal selves when push came to shove. Fortunately, the community ties were strong enough to weather most of the tensions without self-destructing. But consider that the design/ building team will be on the receiving end of some less than positive energy at times.
- Do not lose sight of the fact that the buildings are merely vehicle to support a community. They are not the community itself. It is normal for owners to place tremendous value on the physical buildings and get immersed in the costs and details of their beautiful home. This often runs in opposition to the focus on the community, which exists independently of the homes.
- If at all possible, form the community and build the entire village in one go to avoid:
- Years of ongoing construction. The average completion time for an eco village is 10 years. That is a lot of hammering and a long time to wait for the opening celebration.
- An erosion of the original ethos and construction parameters. Each subsequent home gets a little bigger, a little fancier, and little further from the original design intent, leaving the first homeowner feeling a little outclassed.
- Longstanding undeveloped communal zones and facilities that are shared costs among the members and can’t get funded until all plots are sold.
- Inefficiencies of scale and economy that could otherwise allow for bulk purchases of construction materials, appliances and hardware, legal work, and a host of other cost, energy and waste reduction advantages.
- Not every person or family to sign up will be the right fit for your community. Careful vetting upfront will help to avoid painful discussions later. When launching Eco Village Bali, it was tempting to accept applications from every interested party in an effort to get started. Be patient and ensure your prospective new village member will integrate well with the community, support its ethos, and not have a negative impact on the rest of the community. Your community is counting on you to choose their neighbours well.
Conclusions of my experience
Communication at Eco Village Bali is essential, as it is in any group endeavour. By far the most productive and positive are face to face meetings, both privately and in communal open meetings. A newsletter or weekly progress report is also a crucial link.
Try to avoid social media platforms as these quickly turn caustic and spoil an otherwise sensible path to cooperative solutions. Use of social media platforms can be beneficial for community building if used responsibly, but be very cautious of the negative aspects.
That has been my experience creating Eco Village Bali. It hasn’t always been easy, but at times, it does feel like heaven on Earth!