Shawnigan’s OUR Ecovillage – inspired and inspiring

Sanctuary at OUR Ecovillage, Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island, bRitish Columbia

The sanctuary at the Ecovillage offers a beautiful, calm environment

Plunk a group of dedicated people on 25 acres near Shawnigan Lake, stir for 17 years, and the end result is both inspired and inspiring. Although in truth, there is no end in sight at O.U.R. Ecovillage, a sustainable co-op community that finally, this Spring, is holding its grand opening.  After 17 years of dealing with banks, financing, property ownership issues and a number of other bureaucratic intricacies, the Ecovillage is at long last a true co-operative community from every legal standpoint.

Vegetable cellar at OUR Ecovillage, Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Many community groups and school classes contribute their talents at the Ecovillage – this is the vegetable cellar

It all began in the late 1990s when 14 people put their collective heads together to create an environment that would allow them to live sustainably and to work together

“’Most of us weren’t running away from something” says Brandy, one of the original founders of the movement. “The movement was quite strategic, more sophisticated and ‘techie’ than what was going on in the commune era.”

Terraced gaqrdens at OUR Ecovillage, Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Several acres are occupied by terraced fruit and vegetable gardens

So, what began as a small farmstead with an old farmhouse, a barn and an ancient garage has slowly evolved over the years into a vibrant community that, pretty much, is well able to take care of itself.

According to Brandy the goal was to create a sustainable living and demonstration site.

“This place is a value system and a design of life”, she says. “ It’s like a community empowerment model – a social experiment, in essence.”

Cob-built dining hall at OUR Ecovillage, Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

The Zero Mile Eatery – the dining hall, built of cob

Other than the original farmhouse on the property many of the buildings are constructed of cob, a natural building material integrating subsoil, straw and water. Others are built with recycled wood and other ingredients – 90 per cent of all the materials used are either diverted from the landfill or salvaged.  All of the buildings at the Ecovillage are fully permitted and engineered – there is no slapdash construction or, for that matter, slapdash use of the land. That is an admirable record for any project – one that proves that if you put your mind to it is certainly possible to create a much smaller environmental footprint than one might expect.

Recycled bottles make windows in cob house at OUR Ecovillage, Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

The beauty of cob houses is that you can incorporate anything in to the building material – including old bottles and glass to let in light or add colour

The Ecovillage is also home to a varied collection of livestock including Jersey cows, goats, sheep, upwards of 150 layer hens, 200 roasting chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigs.  Several acres are occupied by terraced vegetable gardens.

In addition to the food sustainability aspect of the Ecovillage there are courses of all make and models offered.  The courses run the gamut, from public school (including residential programs) right through to university and college-level programs.

Interior of unfinished cob house at OUR Ecovillage, Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

The interior of a cob house under construction. Recycled Styrofoam trays originally used to transport tree seedlings provide insulation in the floor

There is a teaching kitchen in the beautiful dining hall, aptly dubbed the Zero Mile Eatery, There is an eight-month-long community homesteader course, and there is a myriad of other activities that help to keep the Ecovillage financially afloat and vibrant. The old farmhouse has been converted to a six-bedroom bed and breakfast, and there is a dorm area above the communal eating area that will accommodate 50. Local trade and barter has also played an integral role in the Ecovillage’s survival.

Wash stand at campsite at OUR Ecovillage, Shawnigan Lake, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

There is also a legal campsite at the Ecovillage – this is the wash stand

Thousands of volunteers show up each year, coming from research programs,  Universities and school groups.  They turn their efforts to any number of projects and, in the process, learn about sustainable living.

On average there are 20 – 25 people living at the Ecovillage at any given time. They participate in all activities, from helping to construct the beautiful cob buildings to working with the livestock or in the garden or kitchen.

One of our favourite aspects of this most unique venture was the collection of stunningly gorgeous cob structures.  They have a serenity and distinctive welcoming suppleness that embraces you the minute you walk through one of the beautifully-crafted doors.  Perhaps it is the lack of straight lines and sharp corners that appeals – you feel more cocooned than anything.

We had the opportunity to tour a couple of the cob houses – one finished (for the most part) and the other still under construction. Innovative use of what would have been garbage was evident at every turn – it was a stunning revelation to realize just how much ‘trash’ can be effectively utilized in other ways.

The Ecovillage is also providing modeling for succession planning for farmers.  Several of the village’s neighbouring farmers are close to retirement and have approached the Ecovillage about purchasing their properties.

“Ten thousand people a year come through here,” says Brandy. “We have almost more of a draw than anything in the Cowichan region. And when we take people on tours we almost don’t have to talk about it, because people can see that it’s for real.”

            O.U.R. Ecovillage is not a pristine, highly-manicured site – it is a living, working community, always evolving and changing. Being self-sustaining isn’t necessarily always pretty, but it certainly is impressive  It is an amazing story and an inspiring model, well worth a visit and a couple of hours of your time. O.U.R Ecovillage offers guided tours of the site every other Saturday.

More details can be found on the website:

http://ourecovillage.org/

            O.U.R Ecovillage is located at 1565 Baldy Mountain Road, Shawnigan Lake.

GPS co-ordinates are:

Lat. 48.638376  Long. -123.609084

N 48 38.303  W 123 36.545

 

Shirley

About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers. In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.
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