The rate and degree of evolution for building types and development patterns around the world may be one of the most critical decisions facing the fate of the biosphere over the next century. While a growing number of voices can point to the decidedly unsustainable nature of the settlement patterns of many different cultures, proposals that offer a significant step towards the dynamic equilibrium of sustainability are harder to come by. One developer/architecture team has recently rolled out a vision that does more than toggle the mainstream model, but proposes the framework for a cultural shift built around goals of balance.
Together, entrepreneur James Ehrlich and Danish architecture firm EFFEKT have created the ReGen Village as a model for small communities that utilize planning and technology for some bold steps towards self-reliance while minimizing its negative environmental impact.
Ehrlich, author, serial entrepreneur and the founding force behind Regen Villages, became impassioned by the growing possibilities of stepping outside of what has become our traditional grid-based model for development centered around remote consumption.
“My original inspiration goes back over a decade ago as I was filming case studies on organic and bio-dynamic family farms, learning a great deal about where the strongest communities in the world are born and nurtured, around where healthy food is cultivated,” Ehrlich explains. Eventually he became involved with Stanford University’s team for the forward-looking Solar Decathlon competition that taps the minds of students and teachers for sharpening the bleeding edge of energy positive living.
“I was literally blown away at this idea that we could essentially redefine the subdivision development industry toward regenerative and resilient thinking,” Ehrlich confessed. “My thoughts were, if we can just add some high-yield organic food production, water harvesting, clean energy generation and storage and waste-to-resource management – we could develop these communities further into the peri-urban and rural areas as a better hope for humanity cramming into megacities.”
Building an Ecology
Initially, the design team began framing their design problem where all development efforts should start: what about the current status quo doesn’t work. When it comes to how and where we build, the list is not a short one. In describing their project, the team highlights the fact that humanity currently uses 42% of our planet’s surface area for farming and, in the process, allow it to be the leading cause of deforestation across the globe. Not only do we then ship that food all over the place, but also end up throwing a embarrassing amount away. The firm came to the same conclusion as author John Mandyck who points to over 1 billion tons of global food waste every year in his book Food Foolish.
The shelter of our homes comes with amazing levels of consumption for resources and energy that are usually being transported from as far away as our food. The size and scale of the systems in place to provide these basic necessities are often used as reasons why they cannot be changed, but crafting a new system on a smaller, more local scale could offer a glimpse into the possibilities for reversing the trends of consumption and their repercussions. Rather than a development base centered around consumption, EFFEKT was tasked with designing a model around sustainably producing the resources needed for its own survival.
The premise of the project revolves around meeting the needs of sustenance that we all enjoy: shelter, food, water and community–along with the energy that all of these interconnected components require. The design team took systems like vertical farms, aquaculture, and hydroponics to be the anchors of food cultivation and paired them with a variety of energy sources in order to achieve the goal of net-positive for the community. Rather than a single source, the combination of solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind power and biomass can operate in tandem for increased control and reliability.
“ReGen Villages is all about applied technology. We are simply applying already existing technologies into an integrated community design, providing clean energy, water and food right off your doorstep,” says Sinus Lynge, co-founder of EFFEKT.
The result is a design for living built from this industrial ecosystem rather than trying to force an ecosystem’s participation into an outdated framework. “We like to think of ReGen as the Tesla of ecovillages. We want to make it easy, convenient and accessible to choose a sustainable lifestyle off the grid,” says Sinus Lynge, co-founder of EFFEKT.
Weaving a New Community Fabric
The design team’s inaugural model starts from the point of providing a residential community, rather than taking the best selling residential homes in the world and working from the assumption that it represents the holistically best option. The detachment from an existing suburban base helps free a new community building exercise from the baggage of an antiquated status quo. Ehrlich notes that, “The very nature of regenerative design thinking is to constantly be looking at the output of one system as the input of another. It’s also that the bi-products of these outputs produce a public good or generative asset that is beneficial.”
Each of these pillars become part of a web whose co-dependence mandates that removing any piece could damage the integrity of the whole–a mentality holding more similarities to an ecosystem rather than common first world development models. Following that mentality, each one of those basic needs is produced by more than once source. This redundancy helps to ensure reliability at all times. Instead of coming from one farm source, food is spread among small livestock, aquaponics and heated greenhouses. This is further supplemented by the fact that growing food is designed as an integral part of every home.
Power production is given the same inclusive presence, not segregated out to the periphery where acknowledgement of its necessity can become compromised. The distributed nature of multiple energy types (wind, solar & biogas) has all the trimmings of a balanced micro-grid (more on those: here) to help ensure that power is always available even when only working from renewable sources. Community spaces like playgrounds, community learning centers and social dining are dispersed throughout the circular array of various housing modules that range from one to three stories tall, but all of which include protected exterior space and areas for growing food.
One could imagine how the village of 100 homes could support the vast majority of its own basic living needs while producing relatively little waste. Ehrlich’s search for the proper site to serve as the pilot for his community ultimately drew his gaze across the Atlantic for both his site and his designers. “Realizing that Silicon Valley was a bit myopic in this kind of infrastructure thinking, I made the decision to use Northern Europe as a test bed for market research and design thinking from a Scandinavian perspective. It was at that moment that I met the EFFEKT architecture group and thus began our global framework architectural partnership together, as they had a deep interest in pursuing design thinking for the benefit of humanity and were dedicated to supporting this vision anyway they could.”
Ehrlich points to developing nations as eventually being prime examples for how these small communities could flourish to offer a higher standard of living with a lower-impact alternative to simply harvesting a Western suburban model developed over the past half-century. Given the two choices, it is easy to see why the ReGen option could be appealing.
“Community” in Different Languages
The basic composition of ReGen’s model sets the stage for a plausible, sustainable function at its suggested scale: the village. While this certainly makes sense as a place to start the intervention and test hypotheses, it seems like the design basis of a constructed (and balanced) ecosystem is built on tenets of sustainability that can, and arguably should, be infused into all of our development goals–including those with higher densities. This raises the inevitable questions of whether or not there are opportunities for ReGen Villages to evolve into a denser, perhaps more urban, model that could host not hundreds, but thousands of inhabitants?
“This is such a great question,” says Ehrlich. “I spend most of my time lecturing on the desperate need to focus on the peri-urban and rural areas as the last great hope for humanity. This thinking is not original of course, I derived most of this thesis from the 2013 UNCTAD report “Time to Wake Up” – with 80 scholarly papers all pointing to the same or similar conclusion about small communities in the aggregate producing more organic food and clean energy and water, than large mono-culture farms. I have many colleagues on campus and around the world that are focusing on urban resiliency, which of course is critical to the hundreds of millions of people who live in big cities.
I believe however, that we can create these lily pads of regenerative and resilient small communities all around the world, especially on the outskirts of big cities and even further out into the rural areas that we can create a real steam valve for these brittle megacities, where some percentage of humanity will increasingly choose to live further away from. In other words, we can create mid-density ReGen Villages as we move forward, where the aggregate of these small communities start to look like larger off-grid towns for instance.”
Indeed, it seems possible that the underpinning goals of the ReGen model could be retooled for a slightly denser model that includes more people and program types. One thing that the model currently avoids is commercial or retail program; arguably important facets to our current definition of community that exists outside the bare essentials of shelter and food. One could make the argument that these components are more extraneous than current, first-world culture may believe, but the fact remains that they represent the foundation of our economy with substantial contribution to our current way of life–a reality that may not be quick to change any time soon.
But does it really have to? While the ReGen thesis may never be conducive to an “urban” landscape as we currently understand it, the construction of vibrant towns does not seem to contradict its goals of self reliance. Beyond being palatable to a larger audience, a truly sustainable model for development may need to reach higher densities for a world that is a ways away from being population neutral.
It Takes a Village
The roll out of the ReGen model appears to be assuming a blank slate, using a tablua rasa as the canvas for deploying its series of technological and programmatic elements that will work in unison to support a community of residents. Looking at the existing landscape of the U.S. and the inefficiencies of its persistent development models, a first glance could say that ReGen offers less opportunity for a country that has so many existing buildings (including very old buildings) and entrenched infrastructural systems. America’s contribution to global sustainability has to include substantial measures for its existing building stock.
That being said, the ReGen model still works off of a series of individual systems that, as the authors note, already exist. The trouble in mainstream thinking has been how to better integrate these systems into our existing development patterns for new construction, but this could be searching for the answer to the wrong question. A model like ReGen sidesteps this potentially faulty starting point to mine the possibilities of a community built around the goal of self-reliance and how much our models may have to change to accommodate a sustainable lifestyle in the first place.
A fascinating caveat to Ehrlich’s model is that, in some ways, ReGen is trying to market a process as much as a product. The acquisition of suitable land parcels through the development arm paired with a prototype design is really only the beginning. “ReGen’s team of regenerative platform technologists contract with local architecture, construction and engineering firms in each country and region to adapt and optimize the village model to the local conditions. ReGen Villages then remains in every project, managing these regenerative platforms as a concierge level of services to residents, by aggregating data and building algorithms that improve daily thriving mechanisms,” the partnership explains.
With a built village in place, it is certainly possible that the lessons learned could be extracted and applied to the scalar task of implementing the same concepts into different settings–even the existing built environment. With prototype deployment set for Europe and Asia, it will be fascinating to see how the models fair in regular use and what tactics can be harvested from them as they evolve over time.
Images Courtesy of EFFEKT