Development & Property TrustsEco-VillagesPeople SystemsVillage Development

Laying the Groundwork for a New Intentional Community in New Zealand

Shifts and Closures

The Koanga Institute originally developed out of a mission to save heritage seeds in New Zealand. Over a period of 20 years it has built up a national collection of over 700 varieties, which are regularly grown out, distributed and maintained. For most of the last 20 years this was done just outside of a Kaiwaka, a small village about 100 kms north of Auckland, NZ’s largest city. Increasingly over the last 5 years the Institute has focussed on how we learn to live sustainable lives, believing that we can’t save the seeds if we don’t save the gardeners, and we don’t save the gardeners unless we build communities that honour and support gardeners. Then completely out of the blue, three years ago, Kay Baxter and Bob Corker, the founders of the Institute decided to leave Kaiwaka and have taken the Institute on a nomadic journey.

The main reasons for leaving Kaiwaka, were a sense of impending suburbanisation of our once rural district (one lifestyle block at a time), and the sense that the eco-village we had designed had some major limitations in its economic and governance structure, and that these combined limitations were unlikely to change. We had a dream of taking what we have learned from our years of observation, study and experimentation and do something more bold, with more potential to engage our personal visions and those of others. The dream hasn’t got a home just yet, but our nomadic ways are about to end. Over those last few years we’ve continued to shape our vision and we’ve had some major shifts along the way

One of the biggest shifts, for us, has been our involvement with the Weston A Price Foundation (WAPF) culminating in our writing Change of Heart: The Ecology of Nourishing Food. The crux of the WAPF hypothesis is that most of our modern health problems are a direct result of applying the industrial paradigm to our food and our ecology and that the diet patterns of non-industrialised societies (which have developed through observation and community benefit rather than reductionist science and corporate profit) form a better basis for health – and that the challenge to us, in the 21st century, is to bring philanthropic science to bear in creating a holistic modern diet based on the principles learnt over thousands of generations. We’ve been thoroughly absorbed in learning the practicalities of eating a modern non-industrialised diet, and we are totally convinced of the validity of the WAPF hypothesis. In a similar way modern cities, suburbs and their associated ‘agribusiness’ have been based on the seemingly invincibility of the industrial paradigm. But now we have very clearly seen how this ‘invincibility’ is largely reliant on a 100 year drawdown of: fossil fuels, deep top soils, aquifers etc (i.e. a massive subsidy from the past with little thought of sustainablility.)

Beyond the WAPF hypothesis we are faced with a similar quest in creating post industrial human settlements: The bringing together of the patterns from the past into a modern context – walking away from industrialism/consumerism and creating post- industrial human ecologies.

The Context of the Bigger Dream

A major part of the Purpose of the Institute, is supporting bringing forward new shapes in the way we live. It never fails to amaze us how parts of the ‘jig-saw’ in our dream sit and wait for us to find them, and once we have found them we wonder how could we have missed seeing them. Or isn’t that amazing – now we can address that issue. It could be scary that we don’t always know all the answers, but life is about finding the answers (not knowing them all) and the essential belief of the dreamer that the answers are out there (if we keep looking) is all we need to implement our dream in the face of doubt (and doubters).

Enough philosophising – I’m going to share with you some of the key concepts and issues that lie behind our new dream – and then unfold it.

Our first night after leaving Kaiwaka, was at Trish Allen and Joe Polaisher’s, a time to share our journey with friends and fellow dreamers. As usual Joe had something I “needed” to see, and we sat down and watched Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101 by Dr Albert Bartlett. This is one of the world’s driest videos, next to John Jeavon’s Dig It, and with equally important content. As Albert says it’s not rockets science, but the implications of continual exponential growth are stark. You will never forget this video, and it really helps us put the continuous economic growth model into perspective. You only have to superimpose a graph of exponential growth (whether it be population, oil use, resource depletion etc.) over the bell shaped graph of finite resource availability to immediately see the potential for collapse.

Moving on I also spent some time reading David Holmgren’s ideas on our possible ‘energy futures’. David ‘casts an eye’ on the exponential growth of the industrial revolution up to now and asks where to now? Four possibilities present themselves:

  1. Techno-explosion, the ongoing belief that its onwards and upwards, more growth, amazing new technologies, and more discoveries, in our ‘reach for the stars’, including possibly space travel and colonising other planets. (This may be necessary, the way we are going, and why anyone believes we wouldn’t do the same to the next planet, I’m not sure.)
  2. Techno-stability, a scenario where growth levels off and we use conservation, recycling and appropriate technology to sustain a similar level of energy use and material well being to the one we have now (the lucky ones of us).
  3. Energy Descent, a conscious reduction in energy use, with increased use of the sun’s energy, biological systems and appropriate technology to ensure a sustainable future. This almost certainly means the ruralisation of communities and economic activities. We live where the resources are rather than cart them to cities.
  4. Collapse, an uncontrolled rapid descent, with accompanying loss of knowledge and infrastructure for an industrial culture. A worse case scenario involving a major die-off of human population.

It’s not too hard to see examples of all four operating at present, with less and less people being part of Scenario One. Personally nothing that I’ve seen over the last 50+ years gives me confidence that Scenario One will continue. I agree it is possible, but I believe it would take an enormous spiritual, political and economic shift the likes of which we have never seen in our history.

So if we rule that out, and we assume that Scenario Two is really an optimistic version of Scenario Three, then we are left with two scenarios.

We believe that we have to start seriously preparing for both, with the main emphasis on Energy Descent. We also believe that a major economic contraction will start occurring within the next 5 – 10 years (possibly sooner) solely based on reduced availability of oil and other resources. We try not to focus too much on possible contractions caused by global warming, epidemics, war, or earth changes (however some preparation for Collapse is a sensible ongoing insurance policy).

That’s the bigger picture within which our dream sits.

Our Vision

There’s no one right way to proceed from there, each is going to be an expression of the individual or individuals who are the immediate drivers of the dream. For Kay and I, here is a summary of the principles that will lead the way.

  • We will be developing an intentional community with a clear purpose of becoming largely self reliant (within our community or our bioregion) in food, health, energy, clothing, shelter, currency and finance. We are subscribers to Richard Douthwaites ideas, check them out.
    • The community will be focused on self- reliance and interaction within its bioregional community, and global society. It will not be isolationist.
  • We will focus on materialistic simplicity, an age old pattern that is just as empowering as it has been in the past
  • We will look to understand and copy the patterns of traditional villages and communities
  • We will take particular care in ensuring the land we settle on has adequate resources to achieve our goals – particularly enough water and good soil
  • We will choose a rural setting, not unduly affected by horticulture, industrial dairying or lifestyle blocks, an area that is not likely to change dramatically in the foreseeable future. This will also mean avoiding being close to a major city (2hrs?). We see the need to fully engage in our vision without too much interaction or conflict with the expanding presence of this culture. This is likely to mean we choose a small dairy farm, sheep farm or forestry land in a relatively isolated area
  • We will take particular care to ensure that, once we have satisfied the infrastructure requirements of the District Council and the Resource Management Act, we have sufficient capital, energy and an appropriate governance to invest in the community’s economic development – to give legs to our vision. Most of the ‘eco-villages’ in NZ have not done this adequately, or have not wanted to do it, consequently they have become rural suburbs with very little development of self-reliance. In particular we are likely to establish a well provisioned design/building cooperative, a good water supply system, a small dairy farm and shed, a cooperative processing facility, community facilities, and a cooperative communications/office facility.
  • We will adopt the legal structure and typical governance structures of a Community Land Trust. We believe this is by far the best model developed so far to promote self reliance. Its philosophical base is that we are ‘owned by the land’, not that we ‘own the land’. This is a huge topic to discuss, check out our summary and compiled links.
  • A major part of the economic development within the community will be centred around the Koanga Institute, including maintaining and distributing its seed collection, and an education facility based around experiencing and learning about the whole process of developing self-reliance. This will entail the lease of a section of the Community Land Trust specifically for this. The activities of the Institute will provide opportunities for employment and contracted self-employment. Outside of these opportunities we envision others will be both self-employed and/or working within other independent business organizations, with independent leases or licenses from the Trust to suit their needs.
  • The initial development of the community will be done by a purpose formed development company, under contract to the Community Land Trust. This stage will possibly take up to 4-5 years between obtaining the land, setting up the Trust, obtaining resource consent, constructing the infrastructure required by the resource consent, marketing, economic infrastructure, and settling the full complement of settlers.
  • We envision two parallel economies within our community, the ‘internal’ one being based on our self-reliance within our bioregion, the ‘external’ one being oriented towards using the internal economy to create external synergies. One example of this will be that the institute will bring students in from all around the world to learn from what we are doing and to contribute to both our internal and external economies. We also imagine using our base of producing and processing good food to export some high value processed products. There are lots of possibilities which will arise out of the vision and passion of the individual settlers.
  • We will provide for both clustered and non-clustered housing and clustered sites for ‘cottage’ industry
  • Much of the detail about how we do this will present itself out of the individual nature of the land we acquire
  • We will plan for and attract sufficient people and specific skills to meet the needs of a diverse community. We expect this will be at least 20 families. Some of the positions within the community for settlers will be held for who ever turns up, however we will also target the specific skills we will need once the detail of the development forms. This is likely to include builders, designers, business managers and administrators, investors, elders, farmers, gardeners, healers, food processors, mechanics, teachers, foresters, potters, weavers, blacksmiths, etc.
  • There will be use of ‘gatekeepers’ to protect the direction of development, these may include:
    – Limited or no grid electricity to foster alternative and low energy use
    – Prescriptions on the heat dynamics of housing to encourage passive heat storage
    – Prescriptions on housing materials
    – Organic management of the commons
    – Possibly others

First things First

We have developed a good relationship with a UK based finance company owned by a New Zealand family, that is interested in supporting our vision. Our challenge now is to put a proposal in front of them that stacks up. This finance company is also involved in purchasing large parcels of isolated farm land that is suitable for forestry planting and preferably future ‘carbon credits’. This is particularly advantageous to us as they can purchase the whole farm and sell or lease back a small part that fits our requirements. There are many ways this will be mutually beneficial, and best of all this relationship has been initiated from one of the institute members whose family has an on going commitment to support our work.

Now we need the land. This is an invitation to all the readers of this to help us find the ‘spot’. What’s it going to look like? Here are a few ideas:

  • Probably 200-1000 hectares of marginal hill country grazing and with some easy contour land and a small amount of elevated river terraces with good soil (between 5-10 ha) plus good grazing land (30-40 ha)
  • Good water flow through the summer
  • Doesn’t need to have any housing on it, but could be an advantage
  • The present owner could have the option of retaining long-term leases on house sites if required and being part of the community
  • Could be anywhere in NZ but most likely to be south of Rotorua and north of Palmerston North, or warmer parts of the South Island
  • We need to keep in mind that this will continue over many generations into the future – so we need to choose wisely

If you are reading this and know someone who may be able to help us, please feel free to pass this on with a personal introduction attached. (Please do not send it out indiscriminately.)

We are also keen to start a network of supporters including potential settlers, investors, designers, and those who simply would like to lend their encouragement. We’ll be keeping in touch with progress as it happens on www.changeofheart.co.nz. Also we’ll be having regular meetings starting in the new year. We already have four committed families.

First Fruit of the Research Program

Starting the research program this year, I was not sure how people would respond to the new direction. Since we have started the program, the donations earmarked for research have equaled those for the garden support, which has been very affirming for me. Thanks to all those who have responded so generously. Here’s my first opportunity to give you some feedback.

One of the principles behind what I have been attempting to achieve is that the strategies and techniques we bring forward are those that are suited to NZ conditions and that can be used by most people with local and/or common materials. It has often been the case in the past that we (broadly being the ‘alternative’ movement in NZ) have copied ‘sexy’ techniques from overseas without clearly identifying whether these are the best for us NZers. I intend to address this. I have also kept in mind that we may not always have access to sophisticated industrialised products in the future. So you will see a common thread of minimising industrial products, and eliminating sophisticated ones.

The overall goal of the research program is to be able to design and build a place to live where we address all our basic material needs: shelter/comfort, passive solar energy use, processing/storing/preparing/cooking food – and do this in a way which is low cost and respectful of our environment and our health. Much of this is embodied in the concept of the ‘autonomous house’.

Perhaps the most important starting point is getting a clear understanding of the principles involved and finding the best techniques to match our requirements, rather than latching on to techniques with the ‘sizzle’.

We have identified the following key issues:

  1. Building houses with an appropriate combination of solar heat input, heat storage and insulation, to maintain comfort without any fuel energy inputs (other than those in #2 below). To do this we have decided that we will store most of the solar gain in the mass of the insulated floor, and provide well insulated light earth walls to prevent loss of heat from the house. In the USA, some practitioners believe that we are best to use solid walls insulated on the outside, which act as radiators for the stored heat in the floor. We believe that in our more temperate climate the heat transfer from the floor and raised solid kitchen heating facilities is sufficient. We are also aware that wood frames are more suited to our climate (we have plenty of wood) and that generally wood is good to match our earthquake requirements. Where ever we can avoid steel and concrete we will. There is a strong interest in straw bale in NZ, and while it provides a near perfect insulation, we have avoided this because baled straw is usually an industrial product, still requires steel tie downs and lacks a strong history in a humid climate. So our strategic approach has been to attempt a NZ version of a light earth wattle and daub. The wattle can be a traditional green wood weave, or sawn wood multiple layered fixed lattice work (depending on your resources). We have trialled several daub mixes, and by far the best one is a 50/50 mix of clay slip/cow manure mixed thoroughly into wet pine needles. The resultant matrix when dry is incredibly strong, flame proof and has a density of approx 300kgs/m3 – almost half that of pumice. (Density is strongly related to the insulative R value.) This will all be done using timber poles and non load bearing walls. We will probably apply the daub in situ, and make panels of the same material for the ceiling. In both case the daub base will have traditional earth plasters applied. We have made one panel so far, and we will be testing the face loading once it is plastered and dry.
  2. Constructing home made wood fuelled stoves and ovens to provide all our cooking and heating needs. We have decided to use a combination of three different strategies.
    a. Well insulated earth ovens
    b. Traditional Asian pot-type charcoal cookers
    c. A rocket stove with a manifold flue where we can direct the heat flow to multiple end uses (hot plates, wet back water heating, space heating and even into the earth oven)
    The key to this is the valve/manifold. We’ve come up a with a nice simple design, which we are constructing now and will test by Xmas. Watch the next newsletter and website for photos.
  3. Recycling our ‘wastes’ to maximum benefit. Given that 80% of the nutrients we excrete are in our urine, the key to this is in collecting and recycling this in a safe way. We’ve gone back to the first design that Joe Polaisher showed us probably 20 years ago, and we’ve added a few refinements. We’ve also improved the greywater recycling system which we first designed and built at Kaiwaka. I’ll be writing a booklet on the design in March. In the meantime check out our next newsletter/website for some photos. These two systems between them are able to satisfy legal requirements, and enable people to build their own systems for less than $400 materials and 3 days work.
  4. Food drying. Earlier this year we trialled the solar food dryer that we found on the Geopathfinder website. This is a radiant dryer, rather than a convection dryer, as most conventional cabinet type solar dryers are. What we’ve discovered so far is that the convection dryers are less efficient (about 80% as effective as the radiant dryers), however both types have some advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a summary.
    – Radiant heaters are more efficient and more suited to hot drying (fruit, meat)
    – Radiant heaters are not suited to drying seeds, because they can get too hot, and also because the seeds roll down the tray.
    – The temperature of convection dryers can be controlled better, and the source of heat can be varied (direct solar, or water radiators from hot water cylinders that can be solar powered or wood fuel powered).
    – If you have a large source of window sashes, radiant dryers can be relatively easy to make.
    Our conclusion, if all you want to do is dry fruit over the summer, radiant dryers are probably your best bet, however if you want to dry over the whole year (including seeds) which we do, then a convection/cabinet dryer is far superior. I will be writing a booklet with information and designs in March.

If you are interested in learning more about all this appropriate technology – and more, consider doing our 4 day workshop in April.

2 Comments

  1. “Make it so Number One. Engage!”
    Some dreams just don’t die so easily, lol.

    But the dream IS changed. Al Gore and the majority seem to be looking to energy future #2. Seems most us “permies” advocate #3. Mike Ruppert of late eeking a livelihood from #4.

    Seems we likely won’t have to wait too long to see. What an honor and a challenge to be alive at this time!

  2. Hi Kay and Bob,

    I thoroughly identify with your ideologies and would like to invite you to Karamea as my guests and show you some properties here that may be suitable to realise your fabulous vision for a better way of life. I recent;y completed a PDC with Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton at Melbourne University and am working on my own permaculture farm here in Karamea. The climate here is suitable (we can grow bananas here) and the availability and price of land and the abundant rainfall should meet your other requirements…please contact me and I look forward to meeting you both sometime and showing you around the beautiful Karamea region.

    Regards from Sunny Karamea,

    Paul Murray.

    Hm: 037826767

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