Ecovillage at Ithaca, which may be a model for Pittsburgh's first ecovillage. Photo courtesy of Stefani Danes.

After years of false starts, the Pittsburgh Cohousing Group is ready to start creating Pittsburgh’s first ecovillage at Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus in Gibsonia.

So what’s an ecovillage?

“It’s both people and place,” says Stefani Danes, an architect and Carnegie Mellon professor who’s helping to guide the project. “It’s a group of people who want to live more lightly on the Earth, and value having friends and neighbors to do that with.”

Also known as cohousing, an ecovillage is an intentional community, designed by residents for a balance between private and public common space.

“It’s typically 20-30 units of housing, where everyone has their own private house. But there’s also a common house, where there’s a large dining room and kitchen for optional meals together, and a couple of guest rooms for visiting family to stay overnight,” explains Danes.

“The common house is a place where — depending on the community — there might be a workshop with tools that people share, laundry, a childcare room, an office with shared office equipment. The mailboxes are typically there so that people stop in on a daily basis. That’s the kind of everyday encounter that goes a long way towards people staying in touch, being part of a community.”

The common house’s dining room is typically used for community dinners several nights a week.

“People take turns preparing meals,” says Danes, who notes that the dinners are what people enjoy most about an ecovillage. It works like this, she explains: you’re on a cooking team so once every six to eight weeks, you have dinner to prepare. The rest of the time you simply sign up for dinner so dinner with your neighbors awaits you every night.

It’s intended to be a more efficient way to live.

“In all these little ways, by sharing things, people live in a more sustainable way, and a more affordable way,” says Danes. “Research on the ecovillage at Ithaca (New York) indicates that they average a 40 percent smaller (carbon) footprint than standard American families.”

There are about 150 ecovillages around the country at the moment. The movement really began in the 1990s.

Duwamish Cohousing in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Stefani Danes.

Not everything is shared — that’s up to the community to decide.

“Sometimes a group will decide to share a car,” says Danes. “Other groups create a big community garden. People also have their own small private yard. It’s a balance between private and common.”

The Falk School of Sustainability & Environment at Chatham University was founded in 2010 after a gift of the 388-acre Eden Hall Campus in Gibsonia was received from the Eden Hall Foundation. Being on the same campus could have some benefits for both residents and the school.

“The campus itself is being restored ecologically,” says Danes. “I envision that will be a very exciting opportunity for the ecovillagers to take part in, whether it’s serving the existing plants or planting native trees and clearing out the invasives. I think that will get a kind of synergy between the students in the program and the residents.”

Monitors built into the houses will track power usage, which Chatham students can analyze.

Ecovillagers will be able to participate in campus life in other ways as well: They can attend lectures, use the fitness center and participate in university research work, says Danes.

While the campus provides many benefits for future ecovillagers, one drawback is its location in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, which isn’t sustainable in the same way as a city location with access to mass transit.

“That was our goal initially,” says Danes. “We’ve tried for a long time to get this to happen in a walkable neighborhood in the city. We’ve come close, but we’ve never had a site that worked out. I’d be very excited if we had an opportunity. This doesn’t preclude that. This came along, and there are some people who are really attracted to the idea of sustainable agriculture, and participating in a way of life that’s more rural and small-town than the city.”

Danes estimates that about 50 families have expressed interest in the ecovillage. Their first meeting was on Jan. 25 at the Eden Hall Campus. “Over the next six months, we’ll have monthly meetings to introduce this concept to people,” says Danes. “Those who are interested will come back and form the core group, which will gradually get larger. Ideally, we’ll have about 30 families before construction starts.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.