Green town breaks ground

 

After years in development limbo, a pioneering eco-village will soon be built in Tipperary, but will it change the way the rest of us live, asks Siobhan MacGowan

The village of Cloughjordan, near the main town of Nenagh in north Tipperary, looks much the same today as it did in the summer of 2000. There is one long and wide main street lined with impressive l9th-century buildings housing residences, shops and pubs. There is an attractive restaurant in the middle of the street and unusually there are three churches in the village - Catholic, Church of Ireland and Methodist. Retired international jockey Charlie Swan has a home and equestrian centre here, and actor Patrick Bergin has a part-time residence here; but there is nothing to suggest that anything major is about to happen.

Unless, of course, you look closer. Behind a relatively new shop-front in the middle of Main Street sits a comfortable sofa, fresh green plants and various desks, computers and wallcharts. We have found the office of the Village.

Registered as a non-profit company in l999, Sustainable Projects Ireland Ltd, trading under the name the Village, is the brainchild of Scotsman Davie Philip, who lives in Dublin and runs the Cultivate Centre for Sustainable Living in Temple Bar.

Philip and his partners, Greg Allen and Gavin Harte (now CEO of An Taisce) launched their plan for a fully sustainable, ecologically friendly and community-based village in Ireland at the Central Hotel in Dublin in 2000.

The future members of this community would buy affordable plots of land, build energy-efficient and environmentally sound houses, produce some of their own food from an agricultural base and preserve the bio-diversity of nature within the community.

As Philip puts it on the Village website, he wanted to "walk the talk".

Now, six years later, some of the watching world are beginning to wonder if to "walk the talk" has proved more difficult than Philip and his founding partners first imagined. To the cynical, the Village project may seem purely idealistic, without a foot in reality and destined to be forever a wall-chart.

However, in reality, a project as complex as this, from conception to completion, takes time, and members of the Village have remained remarkably resilient throughout these past six years. The large amount of publicity the fledgling group received may give rise to an illusion of stagnation within the project, but in turn has served the purpose of attracting worldwide membership and the interest of sponsors. In truth, the past six years have been nothing if not busy.

There is no one more committed to this project's fruition than Mick Newham, who is the members, sales and marketing manager of the Village. A native of Dublin, he now works from the Cloughjordan office alongside two other full-time employees: business manager Shane Barrett and administrator and accountant Helen Costello.

Newham attended the company's launch in 2000 as an interested member of the public, gave up his job as a systems engineer for a mobile networking company and became the official spokesman for the Village.

He owns the 19th-century building that houses the Village office and rents it to the company. The living area overlooks an idyllic scene of green fields, mature trees and farming land; the 67 acres that the Village now own.

Securing this land has played a major part in delaying the project. Negotiations between the company and the last landowner began in 2002, but it took 18 months for an agreement to be reached.

Eventually a deal was put in place with the company paying a non-refundable €l0,000 deposit to the landowner on condition that the site was held for them until planning permission was obtained.

In effect this did not allow the company to apply for planning permission until November 2004. On the plus side, they were confident of receiving it, as Tipperary North County Council had already rezoned the 67 acres of land for sustainable development, based on its viewing of the Village master plan, drawn up by Dublin-based architects, Solearth.

PLANNING PERMISSION WAS finally received in August 2005 and construction of infrastructure was due to begin in spring of this year; however, routine archeological surveys of the site have exposed human remains and signs of ancient habitation. This has resulted in further delay, as archaeologists gather their findings and the Village awaits final clearance for construction to go ahead. The initial reports suggest that nothing of major importance has been found at the site and Newham and the company expect to be able to start work on infrastructure this September.

Protracted negotiation has given Newham time to build the membership base of the Village. The company is run as a co-operative and one buying a plot within the Village automatically becomes a member of the company and is entitled to all the benefits of the community. They are also required to abide by its social and ecological charters, which include a commitment to buy on an owner-occupier basis and to build to the required ecological standard.

To date, the membership drive has been successful, with 105 of the l32 plots sold. The members range from single parents to young couples, from divorcees with low income to those who have paid their mortgages and are looking for a new way to live. They come from all parts of the globe - Ireland, the UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the US and Vietnam.

Each of these members has given a €15,000 down payment to secure their site, the balance due when services are in place. The final prices of the plots, which vary in size, are estimates until the site-works price has been fixed, but indicative prices on the remaining plots stand between €24,800 for the smallest apartment plot of 66.5sq m and €57,000 for the largest terraced plot at 293sq m.

The company is funded in part by these down payments, but the largest injection of cash to date has come in the form of a loan from Dublin-based Clann Credo, a social investment fund for community-based projects.

Interestingly, the member base of the Village includes previous participants of self-organised systems think tanks, one being retired property lawyer John Jopling. He brought his 40 years of legal experience in the UK to bear on setting up a loan company, Loanstock Exchange, raising another €500,000 for the project.

THE VILLAGE HOPES to have infrastructure in place by March 2007 and construction completed in summer 2008. The timeline is a little, but not overly, ambitious - certainly no more so than the average developer's.

If the Village is completed as planned it will contain 132 homes built by individual members. All will be fitted with solar panels and composed of energy-efficient materials; 22 of the homes will be combined with retail or commercial outlets.

There will be two community buildings, of which one may be used for shared business services and one for social use. Agricultural land will be used to produce some community food, a further possibility being to lease a portion of the farm.

Each member will have their own allotment, there will be an orchard and a market square. The woodland area will be free of human intervention except perhaps for coppicing of trees to produce chippings for fuel. The waste-water system will be managed by the community using reed beds. An application has been made to the European Union for a grant to install a district heating system, which consists of one central boiler for the community, rather than individually housed boilers.

The company's ultimate aim is to provide a world model for best-practice living in the 21st century. Newham believes that the one-third human habitation, one-third agriculture, one-third woodland (fostering bio-diversity) model for the Village is a good one and is a direction in which society must move. He acknowledges that employment could be a problem within such communities, but sees eco-tourism as a growing industry and sustainable living, generally, asbound for the mainstream.

It would be easy to scoff at such sentiments, but the introduction next year of an EU directive grading homes on their energy efficiency, Ireland's 93 per cent reliance on depleting fossil fuels, warnings of climate change and the recent shift in attitudes towards recycling, it may not prove wise. Each of us, in our own way, is taking home a little bit of the Village.

VillageHomes

Average plot sizes and prices

Dispersed, 680sq m: €79,900

Detached, 520sq m: €67,292

Semi-Detached, 420sq m: €59,473

Terraced, 185sq m: €46,205

Apartment, 112.5sq m: €26,290

Chronology: the road to the future

1999: Formation of Sustainable Projects Ireland Ltd.

2000: Company launch at Central Hotel, Dublin. Ad for land appears in the Farmer's Journal

2000-02: Search for suitable land 2002: Cloughjordan chosen

2002-04: Land negotiations continue. Tipperary North County Council rezones land for sustainable development. Opening of office on Main Street, Cloughjordan.

2004: Contract on land signed. Nov - application for planning permission

2005: Aug - planning permission granted. Land sale completed

2006: Infrastructure construction due to begin; archaeologists find human remains. Infrastructure postponed until final report.

September 2006 - March 2007: Proposed timeline for infrastructure works.

Summer 2008: Proposed completion