Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus in Gibsonia is designed as a 388-acre living laboratory for environmental learning and the study of sustainable living.

Soon, it will be a place where people can actually live. The school just announced plans for 35 houses as part of the region’s first EcoVillage, with construction expected to start in 2022.

“This is a community of people who care about both living lightly on the planet, living with nature and also living with their neighbors,” explains Stefani Danes, an architect and Carnegie Mellon professor who is helping guide the project.

An EcoVillage (also known as cohousing) is an intentional community, collectively designed by its residents to balance privacy and public common space. Everyone has a private house, but there’s also a common house with a large dining room where villagers take turns preparing meals for one another, and guest rooms. There can also be everything from shared child care space to shared tools and/or office equipment.

Named after the pioneering environmentalist and Chatham student, the Rachel Carson EcoVillage will be a model for sustainable living. Houses will be designed for maximum energy efficiency and powered by renewable energy. The air, soil and water will all be actively improved.

The 35 houses will range from studios to three-bedroom homes. Studios will range from $160-$180,000, and 3-bedroom houses will be in the $400,000 range. Most will be priced between $200,000 and $300,000. The architects are evolveEA.

“Together, Rachel Carson EcoVillage and Chatham have submitted a proposal to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency for a grant to make several units affordable for households earning less than the county’s median income,” notes Danes.

Members of the EcoVillage will make decisions for the community via a concept called sociocracy, a style of constructive and collaborative decision-making.

“EcoVillage residents will have opportunities to participate in classes and research, take part in organic farming and help renew the natural ecology of the campus,” says Danes. “The EcoVillage, in turn, will provide a full-scale case study for students, faculty and residents to do joint research projects.

“Besides taking part in Chatham’s academic life, EcoVillage residents will be able to walk out their front door to over six miles of trails through the campus woods and fields, enjoy concerts at the campus amphitheater and take the university shuttle van to and from Shadyside.”

There are currently about 150 ecovillages around the country. This will be the first in the Pittsburgh area, 20 miles north of the city, and those interested in living there range from young families to retirees.

“This inspiring endeavor brings the transformative words and beliefs of Rachel Carson to life in a beautiful and practical way,” says Chatham University President David Finegold. “Chatham University is proud to work with a community that is so passionate about becoming responsible stewards of our environment that they are willing to rethink their entire way of life in order to make their impact on our planet more beneficial and sustainable.”

EcoVillage residents will partner with Chatham ecologists and students to limit the spread of invasive plants and create a better environment for local birds and butterflies.

“We’re doing significant tree planting,” says Danes, “That’s one of the best things we can do for capturing carbon on the planet. We intend to do that in a way that the trees we plant will become part of a maturing native forest, and that will be a healthier ecosystem than the potato fields that were there before Chatham acquired the property. We’ll be working closely with Chatham on this process of regenerative planting of the landscape.”

Rendering of Orchard Commons at the Rachel Carson EcoVillage.

The Eden Hall Campus is home to the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment. The land was given to Chatham in 2008 by the Eden Hall Foundation. Its fields and woods are also home to an organic farm and several innovative zero-carbon buildings, where classes are held in sustainability, food studies and environmental sciences.

On Saturday Dec. 19, at 10:30 a.m., there will be an Introduction to the EcoVillage event for anyone interested in learning more about the community. It will be online hosted via Zoom, and can be accessed at rachelcarsonecovillage.org.