Photograph by Frank Muller
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People gather at a "winter spiral" ceremony at EcoVillage Ithaca, December 2015.

Photograph by Frank Muller

How These Communities Save Energy—and Time for What Matters

In a growing number of modern-day villages known as cohousing, people are seeking a greater connection with the environment and each other.

Every winter near solstice time, residents of EcoVillage Ithaca gather in a darkened room around a spiral of evergreen boughs laid on the floor. A single lit candle sits at the center as musicians play in the background. One by one, children and then adults wind their way to the center, lighting their own candles and setting them down on the way out, creating a vortex of light.

The candlelit tradition is one of several meant to capture the spirit of the season at this central New York development devoted to community and sustainability. The 100 hilltop homes at EcoVillage are super-insulated, mostly solar-powered, and located near three organic farms. With more than 200 people, from toddlers to seniors, living in three "neighborhoods" built between 1996 and this year, it's the world's largest example of cohousing, or private homes centered around a common space.

Not all cohousing sites are ecovillages, and vice versa. Still, many facets of cohousing—more resource-sharing, efficient use of space, affordability—lend themselves to smart energy use. Though a very small niche, the originally Danish concept of cohousing has been gaining ground since the 1980s in the United States, which now has more than 150 communities, many touting ecological benefits.

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EcoVillage Ithaca, above, has 100 homes across three neighborhoods built over the past two decades. Solar power and energy-smart construction help keep energy bills low.

Nearly 100 more cohousing groups are in the works, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. They're "driven by baby boomers demanding a better way to live, with more community and fewer resources" and by millennials interested in alternative ways to raise a family, says the group’s executive director, Alice Alexander. It's a trend aimed at "some of the scarcity and lifestyle issues shaping household preferences," notes a recent report on housing trends from the nonprofit Urban Land Institute and the consulting firm PwC.

Living Simpler

At EcoVillage Ithaca, residents are "creating warm friendly community space together and enjoying the traditions of the season without being too consumer-oriented," says Liz Walker, the development's co-founder and executive director of its educational nonprofit arm, Learn@EcoVillage.

Of course, she adds: "We're not freezing in the dark." Like other Americans, people at EcoVillage—from kids to retirees, writers to computer programmers—still drive cars, share feasts, and buy gifts. And they still use energy, just a lot less of it: Many homes there use just 15 percent of what a typical new home would. About half the residents work from home part-time, Walker says, reducing commutes.

Other cohousing residents echo the tenets of using less and coming together more. At Takoma Village, a cluster of 43 townhouses and apartments in Washington, D.C., people gather to make their own Christmas tree decorations and gifts. Others volunteer at soup kitchens or share potluck meals, says resident and cohousing advocate Ann Zabaldo.

The same spirit of sharing pervades Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage, a group of 36 homes set on a former dairy farm along central Maine's coast. People carpool and trade everything from tools and repairs to toys. Like EcoVillage Ithaca, its common house has guest rooms and other amenities that typically would inflate the size, and energy needs, of a conventional home.

"Most of us downsized our homes when we moved in," says resident Joline Blais, a professor who lives at Belfast with her husband and two children. Though Belfast builder GO Logic estimates that the homes cost about 7 percent more than conventional ones, they say the energy savings repay that premium within eight years. All the shared meals and resources contribute to even more savings, adds Blais.

The homes at Belfast are so efficient that when a 2013 ice storm knocked out power for five days of frigid weather, indoor temperatures only dropped into the mid-50s Fahrenheit, says resident Sarah Lozanova, while other homes in the area dropped to freezing within the first day.

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Still Evolving

Of course, living at the leading edge of sustainability and togetherness comes with trade-offs. Success depends on people dedicating extra time for group projects and decisions. Everyone needs "the patience, fortitude and interest to sit and listen to their neighbors, sometimes for hours," Walker writes in a report about EcoVillage Ithaca. "Unfortunately, this doesn’t describe most people."

Creating a rural haven for modern times can also lead to unintended sustainability downsides. EcoVillage Ithaca sits on 175 acres, 90 percent of which is preserved as open space and farmland, Walker says, but being two miles uphill from downtown means accessibility takes a hit.

"I consider transportation our Achilles heel," she says, noting that the community tried to set up car-sharing, but couldn't get enough residents to participate. People do carpool and use bikes, she says, but "we still probably have way more cars than we need."

Like any community, these progressive villages are works in progress. Belfast recently installed a backup solar array, because it needs power to pump water from its shared well. At Ithaca, construction is finishing up on a third neighborhood that includes seven homes certified under the ultra-efficient passive house standard.

It's all part of being a "living laboratory" for sustainability, Walker says: "We're trying to pioneer things that actually work."