CASE STUDY: Many of us dream of one day founding a community of our own; composed of like-minded individuals with a shared vision of sustainability and community values.
One group in Western Australia are turning their vision into a reality in the form of Witchcliffe Ecovillage, which when complete will serve as home to around 700 people and be a model of sustainability for communities worldwide.
Set in a small town 280km south of Perth and just ten minutes from Margaret River, the Ecovillage site spans 120 hectares of former farmland adjacent to the Bussell Highway.
Project co-founders and partners, Mike Hulme and Michelle Sheridan began the project with a plan to create “the most sustainable residential community possible”.
Central to the plan is for the entire development to be carbon negative, sourcing its own energy, water and fresh food through solar and rainwater capture, regenerative agriculture practices, and passive solar and low carbon building techniques.
After purchasing one of roughly 300 lots, residents can design and build their own homes in accordance with the Ecovoillage’s fairly rigid sustainability guidelines, or purchase one of six pre-designed buildings.
From a people-oriented perspective, the village hopes to facilitate the development of a thriving community by incorporating features like a village square with Tavern, café, playground and co-working office spaces, as well as a commercial precinct and “food hub”.
With an eye to attracting the attention of the world, Witchcliffe will also feature a backpackers’ hotel and other tourism accommodation.
“In time, we hope to attract visitors from all over the world who want to learn from what we’re doing and experience a holistic, sustainable community based on permaculture principles,” Hulme said.
“But more importantly, we are excited to deliver exceptional social, economic and environmental outcomes for the Ecovillage community and the Margaret River region as a whole.”
The project is privately funded through a joint partnership between Hulme’s company, Sustainable Settlements and WA investment firm, Perron Group.
The partnership has already produced several major projects including the South Beach Village and Old Broome Estate, which helped see Hulme appointed to the West Australian Planning Commission board for three years after the latter was completed prior to 2005.
Despite their wealth of experience it has taken over ten years for the Witchcliffe Ecovillage to achieve planning approvals and begin construction, due largely to the unique nature of the undertaking.
However Hulme said he was heartened by the overwhelming response and rate of interest which has driven the sale of over 100 lots so far, largely through word of mouth.
“Around 50 per cent of the buyers are coming from the Margaret River region and the remainder from Perth, but we also have people who have moved from all over the Australian east coast, New Zealand and the UK,” Hulme said.
“Interestingly, many people come from a professional background and the vast majority intend on working or retiring within the Ecovillage, with a few commuting to work in the region.”
Jeff Thierfelder joined the project around two and a half years ago as project manager of architecture and planning, in time to see civil infrastructure completed for the initial stages of the development and residential construction commence.
Personal interest drew Thierfelder and partner Jo to the project, and two decades of experience in architecture and town planning made him an ideal fit as it entered the crucial delivery stage.
“We’re sort of coming in at the delivery end of it. The fun bit where you actually get to build the stuff,” Thierfelder told The Fifth Estate.
Step one of the construction process consisted of building two large dams that will serve as the source of irrigation for community gardens, agricultural lots and other amenities as well as stormwater catchment and a place to cool off.
An on-site sewage treatment plant will provide processed water to feed a surrounding patch of eucalypt trees, which ultimately will be mulched and used on gardens to form a closed nutrient loop.
Every household will have a rain catchment system to provide its own potable water, which Thierfelder explained is quite easily achievable when combined with dam water for landscaping and gardening.
“The potable water supply is up to the individual. It’s actually not that hard to achieve water independence just from a household perspective. There’s a ratio about the roof size and the amount of water storage you need depending on how big your household is and we’re also specifying water efficient appliances as well as taps and showerheads as part of our design guidance,” he said.
“We’ve got a weather station on our site so we’ve got good data going back around 30 years, so what we did was basically looked at the worst year in that 30 year period and then reduced that down by 30 per cent again to account for future reductions in rainfall. So we’re pretty comfortable the guidance we’re giving people is going to work for them over time.”
The development will be 100 per cent solar powered, with the aim of generating significantly more energy than it consumes and offsetting the carbon emissions created during the development process.
Photovoltaic panels on every available roof top will feed into microgrids that enable power sharing between residents and businesses, which will be entirely electric.
A 232kW/hr Tesla Powerpack battery in every residential cluster will improve efficiency and feed electric vehicle charging stations for use by residents and visitors.
“We imagine that in the future electric vehicles will become more prevalent and people will need places to refuel as they’re travelling up and down the coast and that will be charged off the batteries. And that income from tourists filling up their EVs will go back to the stratas and help to offset the strata fees so we hope that in time those fees will go down, possibly to zero,” Thierfelder said.
The development is also connected to the main power grid with the intention of ultimately selling power back into the grid.
To increase energy efficiency, all of the homes must meet the Ecovillage’s Sustainable Building Design Guidelines, including passive solar design to cut down on heating and cooling.
“We require a minimum of 7 stars under the NatHERS thermal assessment rating system, the basic is 6 under the building code here, but honestly it is very easy to get to 7 stars with the requirements that we have,” Thierfelder said.
Of the six pre designed buildings, five have achieved nine stars out of 10 in terms of thermal efficiency.
Houses are subject to life cycle and thermal assessments and are required to be carbon negative and use natural materials such as timber, stone, hempcrete, and straw bale.
Witchcliffe ecovillage has coordinated with life cycle assessment company eTool and worked with the company to develop a smaller scale app for assessing single residential houses, called Rapid LCA.
“That allows us to essentially do a life cycle assessment on a single house in about 20-30 minutes at a cost of around $50 dollars each,” Thierfelder said.
Thierfelder explained that the solar panels were key to the project achieving carbon negative status.
“If you took away the solar panels the houses themselves wouldn’t be carbon negative. They would be much lower in carbon than a typical house but they wouldn’t be carbon negative. But when you add in the requirement for the solar panels that tips it over the carbon negative scale,” Thierfelder said.
“The objective we’ve got is that all of the houses are carbon negative enough so that at some point when it’s all finished hopefully that will account for all the hard infrastructure that’s gone into the land development, the roads and sewage system and so on.”
WA has a mixed reputation in terms of sustainable planning requirements, and at multiple levels Witchcliffe experienced the downsides of stepping outside the mold.
“Unfortunately when you try to do something different, even if you’re aligned with a lot of the government agencies ‘motherhood statements’ of what they’re trying to achieve, if you’re doing anything outside of the box it takes twice as long and costs twice as much. That’s our experience,” Thierfelder said.
“A lot of times agencies are only thinking about their own little bubble and so they don’t understand that a particular requirement, say from the health department causes major issues with the water department for example. So there’s a lot negotiating you have to do and sort of finding your way through.”
A major defining factor of the ecovillage is the intentional facilitating of communities and relationships between neighbours.
Based on studies of group interactions and past experiences of communal living, the Ecovillage is broken up into clusters of typically between 20-25 lots and around 40-70 people.
“It actually works better if you break it down into smaller increments so that there’s actually communities within communities,” Thierfelder said.
“The way that those clusters will function will hopefully replicate some of the benefits that the cohousing movement has been able to achieve in terms of community formation.”
One of the concerns was the demographic of the village would skew older due to the location and distance from occupation centres, however Thierfelder said this has not been the case, with the largest cohort being young families followed by 50-60 year old early retirees.
With little to speak of in terms of advertising, word of Witchcliffe Ecovillage has spread primarily to types of people most likely to be interested in a project of this type. But Thierfelder said that other developers are watching closely to see if they might have missed a gap in the market that buyers are eager to see filled.
“Hopefully now that I think we’re showing it’s commercially viable and successful, you’ll see some more developers doing similar types of projects. We’re pretty open source with our materials and if other developers want to try something similar we’re all for it,” Thierfelder said.
“I’m sure this type of project doesn’t appeal to everyone. I’m sure there’s people that would be concerned ‘what if I don’t get on with my neighbour, or I want more privacy or I’m not into all this eco stuff,’ and that’s fine.”
“But I think there is a growing interest in decentralising some of the systems that we rely on and having some control over your water supply and your power supply and not having to worry about what’s happening in the bigger world, and connecting with nature and growing your own food so hopefully there will other developers that pick up on it and do something similar elsewhere.”