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Sunday 25 February 2018

Treading softly on the earth, Tipp Ecovillage's green heart beats strong

One person might not be able to make a difference, but what if a whole community can? Rachel Lavin talks to Ireland's Eco residents

Pa Finnucane, David Philip, Peadar Kirby, Sally Starbuck and Brid Ni Chumhaill at the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary.
Pa Finnucane, David Philip, Peadar Kirby, Sally Starbuck and Brid Ni Chumhaill at the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary.
Sally Starbuck, architect, in her house at the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary.
Peter Manley, music teacher with his daughter Marie in his house at the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary.
Peadar Kirby, retired University professor and chair of the eco village board in his house at the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary.
Round house at the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary.
Cobb built house at the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary.

Rachel Lavin

It's not easy being green and perhaps never will be. But for the trailblazers of Ireland's first Ecovillage the search for paradise while treading lightly upon the earth goes on.

As world leaders gathered in Paris there was a lot of hot air spoken about emissions. In Cloughjordan in rural Tipperary they are actually doing something about it. And it is working - though still facing considerable challenges.

"The biggest challenge to our society is how do we move to a low carbon society by 2050 and this is the leading project in Ireland showing what that involves," says Peadar Kirby, chair of Cloughjordan Ecovillage, the experimental green initiative in North Tipperary that is pushing the boundaries when it comes to being green.

It already has the lowest ecological footprint ever measured in Ireland.

"It's to do with future-proofing your life," says sustainable architect Sally Starbuck as she looks out of the window of her home onto the burgeoning village.

Members of the community all bought one of the 130 sites and built their own house to a high standard of energy efficiency, so much so that 6.5pc of all of Ireland's A energy rated houses are here. The 55 houses in the small estate are all self-built and were constructed in the last six years.

But, Sally admits: "One thing about people who join Ecovillages, they don't like rules," and as a result, "it's a bit of an architectural zoo at the moment".

There are houses built with everything from old-fashioned cob, a building material made of soil and straw, to new and innovative forms of building, such as lime and hemp. They are all heated by 100pc renewable energy through a district heating centre that burns wood chips from a nearby wood mill. Sally's house is timber frame with natural ventilation and skirting radiators. She doesn't pump water but merely relies on a large tank in the attic and let's gravity do the rest. Looking out from her warm kitchen she laughs at the suggestion the wild landscape outside is incomplete.

While she admits there is work left to be done, a lot of the wild layout of the outside communal area is intentional."

Sitting cosily with her feet up on a large cream couch Ros na Run actress Brid Ni Chumhaill argues that living an eco-friendly life doesn't always involve the level of sacrifice that some people envisage. "The houses here are all really luxurious. There's no privation in being super warm and eating lovely food."

The Ecovillage has a co- operative farm that grows 85 varieties of vegetables to feed the village residents along with 3,000 fruit trees and 100 nut trees planted around the estate in what are called, 'edible landscapes'. They also co-operatively fund local farmers and an award-winning bakery, providing fresh meat, milk, eggs and break on a weekly basis.

For Brid, the project she committed to is a 'laboratory', something in which "the blueprint is an organic and evolving thing that we are tweaking with debate and experiments."

Leading some of that experimentation is Davie Philip, a founding member of the Ecovillage. He is less concerned with utopian fantasies and more focused on the everyday solutions to creating a greener Ireland, especially considering the economic barriers.

While some are able to work from home, many have to commute long distances for work. The Ecovillage has helped the local economy and its green enterprise centre is home to numerous green businesses. But living here is not cheap. Prices have ranged from €30,000 to €60,000 for a site and from €70,000 to €400,000 to build a home. As a result, many people have moved to the main village of Cloughjordan as they want to be part of the project but cannot afford to live in the Ecovillage itself. The project began as the economy collapsed and Davie does not hesitate to admit it's been an uphill battle.

"We've managed to navigate the worst economic downturn to get here but really it's by the skin of our teeth - there are some huge challenges that we're trying to overcome. Since the collapse we've hardly sold a site, this is why we are struggling for that to be viable right now."

To tackle affordability, the community is considering collaborative housing where residents could share amenities in a building but also maintain private space. Other options are modular housing, getting the Government to invest in social housing, and holding out as the economy recovers for the remaining 47 serviced sites to be sold. Davie is confident the demand is there.

Clash of personalities and differing levels of commitment to the community's eco-friendly goal has been an issue. "It's not easy, this is no utopia. It's challenging when you bring people together, to bring cohesion, so we've a long way to go but that is a big part of the work that needs to be done in transitioning to a low carbon society," says Davie.

"I don't think one person can make change," he says. "You need a whole community."

Sunday Independent

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