Ten Stones Community: “A Neighborhood with Soul”

Today, I was lucky enough to get to visit Ten Stones Community, an eco-village in Charlotte, Vermont. While there, I got to speak to Cami Davis (one of the residents) and Ted Montgomery (the last of the community founders still living there). When I first arrived, I met Cami in the garden: her and a few of her neighbors were working on planting tree saplings because they want to add more native plant diversity to the forest on their property. Some of the trees they were included were black cherry, witch hazel, and balsam fir. After working with them for about half-an-hour, Cami took me on a tour of the entire property and gave me the low-down on what the eco-village was all about and the kinds of things that happen there. The Ten Stone’s Community boasts a beautiful, community garden which they have made a CSA program (available to people in and out of the village), they also have people doing beekeeping, large-scale composting, and chicken husbandry among other projects. Each member of the community must work thirty-hours a year to ensure all of the jobs get done, but they get to pick between these projects and many more. After getting the grand tour, Cami invited me into her house for some hot tea-complete with honey harvested from Ten Stones bees! The two of us carried on conversation for a while about what it was like to live in an ecovillage, before I moved on to Ted’s house.

Speaking of, Ted has the most beautiful house I have ever seen. He is an architect, and designed his house and nearly all of his furniture with his wife. As one of the original founders of Ten Stones Community, Ted had a lot of information to share that was new to me. In terms of the origination of the village, it all started when he, his wife, and another couple sat down at his kitchen table and made lists describing their perfect place to live. From there, the idea of the ecovillage evolved, and in the early nineties the plan was put into action (with 13 more families at this point).
Ted commented on the fact that at times, it can be extremely difficult to make an ecovillage work because in practice, creating one takes a lot of effort, trust, and patience. Along the way, a lot of interested people left the project due to conflict, which existed within the community until most of the infrastructure had been built. Cami noted that one of the problems is that some people wanted to make everyone do the same amount of community work, whereas others had a looser perspective and only wanted people to work out of joy. Considering all the work it takes to build a community like this, it is no surprise that conflict would arise time to time.

Because the community owns the land as a single property (with further allotments within), unlike other neighborhoods in Charlotte they are responsible for making sure their power lines work, their roads are always graveled, and often they have to deal with a lot of maintenance stuff that the average neighborhood would leave to the town. In this way, living at Ten Stones requires people to really take pride in their community and accept that in return for the close-knit community and advantages, often a little extra work is expected.

Because of this, Ted believes that Ten Stones, though a wonderful fit for many, is not the best fit for everyone. He doesn’t like calling his site an ecovillage: he prefers “intentional community” or “neighborhood with soul”. In this sense, to be a happy member of the community, your goals and dreams must really coincide with those already living there. Ted mentioned this does not by any means mean that change should not happen (in fact, they are adding new projects all the time), but because they need to problem-solve in a unique way, it is important that everyone agrees with the mission of the area.

A fun-fact about the community is that it was named after the Jimi Hendrix song “Three Stones from the Sun”. When Ted was back in school, he named his ecological-design related thesis “Ten Stones from the Sun”, after that song which reflects upon nature, and that name has stuck through the years! Below, I have included some photos I took during my visit to Ten Stones. Enjoy!


Chickens at Ten Stones

Chickens at Ten Stones

Ten Stones Community Garden

Ten Stones Community Garden

Solar-Panels power the whole house and the electric car pictured here

Solar-Panels power the whole house and the electric car pictured here

Tea Time with Cami - complete with Ten Stones honey!

Tea Time with Cami – complete with Ten Stones honey!

Ted Montgomery's home: the roof addition is a grassy area where you can sit and view the Adirondacks

Ted Montgomery’s home: the roof addition is a grassy area where you can sit and view the Adirondacks

Inside Ted's house he has a "greenhouse room" with a pond and an Ash tree that goes through the ceiling. Outside you can see his outdoor pond as well.

Inside Ted’s house he has a “greenhouse room” with a pond and an Ash tree that goes through the ceiling. Outside you can see his outdoor pond as well.

Ted is working on more ecological design projects: this is actually a model for a solar-paneled community centered around a wind turbine, designed to look like a flower and have cohousing. He hopes to bring this community to the Caribbean.

Ted is working on more ecological design projects: this is actually a model for a solar-paneled community centered around a wind turbine, designed to look like a flower and have cohousing. He hopes to bring this community to the Caribbean.

Because I spent an entire afternoon at Ten Stones, I chose to informally talk to Cami and Ted. Due to this, I do not have an official transcript of our conversations. At the beginning of this post I highlighted some stories I heard from them, and if you would like to know more please comment on this blog post and I will be sure to answer any questions!


A Q&A With the Sustainability Focused Yestermorrow Design/Build School


Yestermorrow Design/Build School, established in 1980, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit located in Warren, Vermont.  Their focus is on education and hands-on learning experiences in the fields of design, construction, woodworking and architectural craft.  In each of their students they instill a passion for both aesthetically beautiful, as well as sustainable, and ecologically conscious designs.  These are the types of buildings that would ideally be found in an ecovillage.  If people can live and survive in gorgeously built structures, that are also sustainable, it could be a great image booster to ecological living communities.  Instead of the stigma being that you are living in dirty, unkempt, “natural” communities, Yestermorrow shows that sustainability can be attractive, and even modern or chic.  Their ideas and designs should be the template for any further building in this country.

I was lucky enough to get to talk to Kate Stephenson, the Executive Director of Yestermorrow, and ask her a few questions I had about the school.

David Jaeger: How does having a building and design school in rural Vermont affect the types of students, teachers, and products that come out of the school?

Kate Stephenson: We attract both local Vermonters as well as more urban and suburban students who love to escape the city and come to Vermont. The landscape and the rural nature of the school is definitely part of the appeal. In terms of the products that are designed and built at the school, they vary widely, but I would say they are influenced somewhat by our location- we try to use locally harvested and milled wood for example, so you won’t see any tropical hardwoods in our projects.

DJ: How diverse are the backgrounds of your faculty and do they all work solely at Yestermorrow or do they continue their practices out in the professional world as well?

KS: None of our faculty are employed full time at Yestermorrow. They all have businesses and day jobs in the professional world and then teach a few days to a month per year depending on their specialty, availability and our curriculum schedule. The faculty is really a diverse mix of architects and builders, but also farmers, stained glass artists, welders, permaculturists, cabinetmakers, and much more. And a big part of our teaching philosophy is emphasizing team teaching where we can partner a builder and architect together on one class so the students get two complementary perspectives.

DJ: How has the interest in the work done at Yestermorrow changed since its development in 1980?  With the rise in interest in eco-living these days I would expect that more and more people are looking for the kinds of skills taught at your school, is this true?

KS: While the school has had a sustainability focus since the very beginning, it has come more to the forefront in the past ten years. Whereas previously we focused more on the owner-builder process, and DIY mentality, and sort of “snuck in” the solar design and green components, now it is more explicitly what students are looking for and asking for, both for their own personal knowledge and also to enhance their career skills. I would say though that our focus is less on “sustainable living and lifestyle” and more on the skills and inspiration needed to contribute meaningfully to a sustainable world. It’s about how you live your own life to some extent, but also about how you can positively impact the community and place around you.

DJ: People often like to talk about the idea of “simplifying” lifestyles when it comes to ecologically sustainable living.  However sometimes the technology needed to become more sustainable can be quite complex. So how would you characterize sustainable buildings and designs, are they simple, complicated, or possibly a mix of both?

KS: Sustainable buildings can be radically simple, or they can be drastically complex. This depends on the design, the client’s intent, as well as the scope of the project. It’s challenging to build a 50 story skyscraper without getting in to some pretty complex systems, but at the residential scale there are certainly opportunities to keep things simple. Right now we are definitely seeing an interest in smaller or tiny houses, which I think is a reaction to “too much stuff”.

DJ: How much of a crutch is the commitment to ecological sustainability when it comes to how attractive or aesthetically pleasing building and landscape designs become? Or is it no crutch at all?

KS: The aesthetics of a building or site should not be compromised in any way by an intention to build sustainably. In fact, beauty is one of the key elements of sustainability- if a structure is not beautiful, then it is unlikely to last a long time because people won’t put the same effort into maintaining and preserving it over time.

DJ: On your website you state that your philosophy as a school is to teach students to both design and build, rather than the general “either or” approach given to architects and construction workers.  Why do you think this is such an important idea to have as a driving philosophy?

KS: One of the key concepts behind “design/build” is empowerment. The design/build method empowers architects to understand how their designs are actually implemented, it empowers builders to understand they can influence design and not just build what is presented to them on a piece of paper. And for laypeople and homeowners design/build really allows them to understand that they can influence the places where they live and work; they do not need to accept what is delivered to them as-is.

If you want to see more pictures of the kinds of things Yestermorrow students have created, I urge you to check out their photo gallery.


An Ecovillage, Anywhere?: Part III

For part three of my blog series “An Ecovillage, Anywhere?”, I decided to talk to Leila Rezvani, one of my fellow classmates and a resident of Slade. After all, Slade is the other sustainably-focused resident hall on campus, and in our interview Walter Poleman equated this living format closely to that of an ecovillage. Like my previous interview, I first asked Leila to give me a little background on Slade, followed by connections between the environment, the larger UVM community, and ecovillages. Many of the questions I asked Walt I also chose to ask Leila, hoping to see a new perspective on some of the same sorts of issues to draw direct comparisions. Our correspondence began on April 14, 2014 and continued for a few more days via email. (Leila’s words are designated by “LR”, and mine by “SF”)


SF: Can you give me a little background information on Slade? Who lives there, what it is all about?

LR: Slade is UVM’s environmental co-op. we currently have 24 residents including the RA. we have all sorts of different kinds of people, lots of envs majors but also folks study engineering, social work, art, biology, geography etc. more girls than boys i think but it’s almost even. we call ourselves a cooperative because everyone came to live here with the intention to create a stronger community than you find in an average college dorm. “intention” and “community” are vague terms, its that sort of thing where you know it when you feel it. but basically it means we all have a responsibility to each other in terms of attending meetings, cooking on your designated night, keeping the house clean, confronting and resolving conflict when it arises. we’re the “environmental” co-op because we compost all our food waste, use a grey water system, and order all of our food in bulk from local farmers or companies that we have thoroughly researched and found to be socially/environmentally responsible. we also have a garden/greenhouse and try to grow a lot of our food (when the winter doesn’t last the entire school year)

SF: What does Slade provide community members with, that they might not get from the average dorm or downtown living experience?

LR: Slade provides a family, simply put. The relationships I’ve formed here are truly indescribable, and they all arise from sharing this space and philosophy. it can be really chaotic and intense, but that’s what makes it so good. I;m having trouble articulating what exactly Slade is like… I hope my answers aren’t too vague. Slade also provides an open accepting space for people no matter what their backgrounds or views or lifestyles. i also love that I’ve been able to build relationships with local farmers- they deliver food weekly to our house and being able to meet the person who grew your kale or milked their cow for you is incredible. The multi-generational aspect of Slade is great too- because it’s been around for so long, there are “sladers” who are now into their 50s, and we have a lot of sladers who are recent UVM graduates and are still in Burlington come hang out or make dinner with us. it feels like having a huge extended family network that stretches out across the country but is also firmly grounded in Burlington/VT.

SF: Do you think the type of environment and community there can be emulated or re-created elsewhere? And what types of things do you think are necessary in creating and maintaining an intentional community such as Slade?

LR: I definitely think this environment could be recreated anywhere, as long as the group of people are willing to put in the time and effort and self-reflection necessary to make it into a real community. love and respect for the people you’re living with are definitely required to create an intentional community. open-mindedness and a willingness to admit that you are wrong and to think critically about your place in the world and your opinions. optimism, idealism, a drive to change things.

SF: Would you consider Slade to be an ecovillage (under your personal definition) or at least fill the space of an “ecovillage” on UVM’s campus?

LR: I think Slade is an interesting example of an intentional community because it exists within the context of a huge, bureaucratic university. I feel like we’re constantly battling against that but we also don’t realize how much support we get from the instituion in terms of people cleaning our house, fixing our plumbing when it breaks etc. in that sense I don’t think we qualify as an ecovillage. Although we try to be really self reliant, by nature we are plugged into this incredible input/resource-intensive system that renders us pretty dependent.

SF: How do you think the presence of Slade affects other dorms on UVM’s campus, and people who don’t live there? 

LR: I hope that Slade has a positive impact on people who don’t live here. We host lots of events, mostly things centered around music/art like open mic and slestival and concerts. Lots of the same people come to these things so we have a kind of extended family within the university. People really love Slade as far as i can tell, but I guess if they didn’t they wouldn’t tell me, haha.

Last comment- for me, the magic of Slade comes from the feeling of mutual aid and support i get from the people I live with. In our society, and especially in a university, it’s so easy to become isolated and to lack meaningful personal interaction. but the ability to be completely yourself (weird, sad, angry, silly, cynical, optimistic etc) and to change your mind and still know that you are accepted is truly amazing. and intention- that word is so hard to describe, but being deliberate about your place in the world and thinking about the ways in which you affect others is so important. Slade makes space for that, or we try to. there is a real revolution that needs to happen if we are to learn to live in harmony with each other and with the earth. living in community is the first step in that direction.

all in all- I wouldnt still be at school without Slade, I;m pretty sure. It’s not all good, and there’s always work to be done, but we’re trying and that’s what makes it worthwhile.


An Ecovillage, Anywhere?: Part II

For part two of my examination of the possibility of an ecovillage at the University of Vermont, I thought it would be fitting to talk to some of the people already participating in the school’s residential programs centered about sustainability. On April 11th, I had the pleasure of talking with Walter Poleman, the Director of UVM’s GreenHouse Residential Community. Having previously taken an ecological design course with Poleman, I was well aware of his interests in ecological design and place-based learning, and was eager to learn more about the role of these within the Greenhouse program. Moreover, I wanted to understand GreenHouse’s role in the larger UVM community, and see if Poleman either recognized the community as an ecovillage, or saw potential for growth into that community form. Below is the transcript, copied from my audio notes (Poleman is designated by W.P., and I am designated by S.F.). The beginning of our interview focused on the Greenhouse Program itself, and the latter part on the relationship between the program and ecovillages.

SF: Okay, so my first question is just can you give me a little history on the UVM Greenhouse?

WP: Yes, the building itself was built in 2006. I remember when the vision kind of came out that they were going to build new resident halls on campus for the first time in 30 years, the president at the time Dan Vogel was interested that they be themed residential colleges. And actually the honors college liked that, and now over there it is like a college existing next door. Then a group of faculty and others said “what about if we had themed housing: broad big themes that any students from any major could get excited about being a part of” so the initial ones that started were global village, which is over in L&L… That was the idea that they could unite together the existing houses. Greenhouse was a new concept. There was already Slade, which was already a themed communal housing where people came together, the greenhouse was meant to fill the ideas of “how could a community of people think of how to live sustainably”. The amazing thing, as they were building this LEED certified place, is that we asked ourselves could we design a program to go along to this housing. So, we launched the greenhouse program in 2006 and it has evolved from there. That was the beginning with making a big program available to our students, providing them with an enriching learning environment. So, that is how it began and eight years later it has evolved quite a bit (although a lot of the same structures are still in place) due to student feedback and new faculty and experimenting with new things. Now, ecological design is one of the main themes over here.

SF: Could you tell me a little bit about the specific infrastructure of the greenhouse and what makes it sustainable?

WP: Yea, well the facility itself… the sustainability thinking that has gone into it is energy efficiency so there is a lot of air-exchange type of stuff. Even though it is air conditioned because they wanted to use it for summer housing (a multi-use vision), they wanted to make it very efficient. I can’t tell you exactly what it is but the energy usage for heating and cooling is efficient. The materials, like this table, the doors, a lot of the rock, are sourced locally. The paints and the carpeting (though you can’t tell so much) are low emission kind of materials. There’s a lot of light in general the way that the windows were done, to maximize the use of outdoor lighting too. That’s the building itself, it’s LEED certified so it has gone through all the environmental design criteria. The program itself is (as you’ll know from class with me) designed to feature the place where it is located, and so we look at the community. It is important to be intimate with the building but also with the Burlington landscape and larger landscape so that when you live here the town is your classroom. So we promote that with field trips, lectures, meals from local farms, and other integrated opportunities. That local piece is definitely a part of the sustainability. We try to showcase local sustainability efforts; the other day people from Carshare VT were here trying to get the students to sign up. Again, different speakers related to social justice through sustainability, environmental art, and anything else connected to place have been featured. So, there are two parts to the sustainability: programming and then the facility’s structure.

SF: As for the social environment that is developed within the greenhouse, could you talk about the role of collaboration and living together in creating a sustainable environment?

WP: The idea is to bring together people who are interested in this theme, into a community. But… not let it stop there but look at “what are the community structures”? We have villages embedded within the larger community, guilds which are interest groups around themes, classes, and the hope is that through the application process we will develop as diverse a group as possible. Diversity of majors, race and ethnicity, background: it is partially about “how can we engage with people with other cultures?”

So it is really about embracing cultural diversity, and then how do you bring that together in thinking about “what does it mean to live sustainably”? We aspire to have a community that is very inclusive where difference is celebrated. The reality is that Vermont is not a very diverse place, but that being said we try to make the most of what we do have. For instance, next Wednesday all the housekeepers and other staff are bringing food from some place we feel connected so we will have Korean food, Bosnian food, rural Vermont food too. One guy is going to make bear stew. So, it is really trying to celebrate a diversity and as we talked about in our class, the idea is “what happens when you go to a different culture and landscape? How do you design things that fit there?” And so that is kind of the vision. So we try to create a community where a diversity of people and ideas is engaged.

SF: Do you think it is easier for students to live “sustainably” or take on sustainable practices in an environment where the people around them are doing the same thing?

WP: I think so, a lot of people who come here say “I was the only one in the family, or in school that cared”. They often felt like a minority in some way, and when they come here they think, ‘ wow there are so many people here interested in this stuff’. They share with each other and grow off each other. So I think it is easier. It is kind of interesting to intentionally form a community with a common interest, but once the community is together you try to go throughout the diversity within that community.

SF: Do you think that in any way the greenhouse has an effect on the other dorms on campus? Either negative because students interested in sustainability may be concentrated here, or positive in that maybe other people may be prompted to be involved?

WP: There is a little bit of a tension. We aspire to have the ideas that happen here radiate out into the campus. The idea is that we want our place to be a strong a point of service in the community. We want to serve the greater UVM and Burlington community. But, it would be interesting to ask people that. Anytime you sort of designate something it can become sort of exclusive feeling, which is sometimes the danger, and I think that your question is a really good one. If there were no greenhouse all these people would be living elsewhere and maybe they would be having positive impacts on other locations.

SF: It is kind of hard to gauge because the learning they gain here and the growth they gain here working with other people they may not get if they were dispersed in the larger environment, but by being dispersed they could perhaps pass their knowledge to different demographics.

WP: And this is only a 2-year program so our hope is that students can learn here and form good friendships, and then when they move on, they can bring those lessons with them. I’d like to think these ideas radiate outward over time.

SF: Do you think the high turnover of people in the dorms every year really adds rejuvenation and a new face to the project as time goes on?

WP: Definitely, I think it is healthy. In fact we try to model the program like an ecosystem: there are always new people and ideas regenerating. That is really healthy. But, some programs are all new students every year –a freshman program- but here we try to have a two-year experience. As a second year student in the greenhouse you often get the opportunity to act as a mentor to first year students. Our understanding is this does happen: the place develops, and second years really feel they have an opportunity to give back.

SF: On the opposite side of the spectrum, I know last year there was a “yo-guild” (yoga guild), and I saw a sign for it right outside today, so obviously it is still here. Is it hard to maintain stability in the program when the people are constantly changing?

WP: That is a perfect question for today because I just talked to the yo-guild leader today, Jackie. She has identified a new person who will take her place next year. That is the beauty of the overlap here, if you have a healthy program in place there is that combination of getting to play a leadership role when new people come in, but also take advantage of their ideas.

SF: As I mentioned my project is on eco-villages, so I am just curious how you would define an ecovillage, and if you believe the greenhouse could be considered an ecovillage of sorts.

WP: Well, I have certainly encountered some ecovillages. There are some in VT and Ithaca where I am from (it is actually called “ecovillage”) and the idea really I think is that people can inhabit a place and within the community there is a higher degree of self-sufficiency. It is very community intentional and community engaged. In terms of the higher self-sufficiency, it might have to do with growing your own food, generating your own energy…etc. We don’t really do that at all here. We could, some college dorms definitely do it. So I would say that the intentionality of the programming (being mindful about food consumption, waste, opportunities to teach and learn) matches the mind of an ecovillage: we are an ecologically designed village. It is as much about community as it is about sustainability.

SF: Do you think the greenhouse fits the “mold” of an ecovillage within the restraints of the university community?

WP: You mean how far could we go down the line to create a village? I think slade is a lot closer in that they are more community-scale, whereas we are still really dorm based. Moreover they are actively looking at cooking, feeding, sourcing their food together –that is a huge, huge step in the right direction-, and I know right now they are not going to be in their building next year but from what I understand (from Deane Wong and a bunch of other design forces), the students are getting an opportunity to play a role in the re-design. So, anyway, they are closer to that than us, because of their relationship with self-sufficiency. Many of our students move onto there though, so we are kind of a nice feeder place for that.

SF: What is your role?

WP: A lot of cross-departmental things, as a faculty member is needed and I am in charge more or less of the curriculum. I manage a lot of different things, there is large staff, a program coordinator, then there is a program specialist, then there are students with leadership roles… So I am kind of directly responsible for all of those folks.

SF: Could you tell me a little about the current projects that are going on in the greenhouse?

WP: The big one, from my perspective is the ecological design collaboratory. Greenhouse is at the center of that. How do we grow this idea of the collaboratory, is the main thing for me. We will be doing a lot of courses in the summer; there is lots of community education… so that is a big example of a project. Related to that is another program called ecological citizenship which all the second-year students enroll in. it isn’t a big class, rather it includes small classes with skill-based education. With me, they make maple sugar (tapping trees, inventorying the forest…) that is a typical one. There’s also photography, bike repair, woodcarving, furniture building, very hands-on things. They are all related to ecological design.

SF: What do you think makes the greenhouse program so successful?

WP: I think it is adding something of value to UVM. I think the theme, what makes it successful it is open to anybody. It is not just for people in environmental studies, it is meant for engineers, historians, business majors… you name it! This theme of place is really about the whole picture: everyone is related to it. The question is how can we live well in this place and how can we bring our interests and background experience –particularly our academic learning- to this place. That kind of vision fosters success. But the students who come to UVM are what make this program really cool. There is an unpredictable aspect, a lot of the things we get out of the program come right from the students and that is the beauty of it.


Metta Earth Institute: Interview

The Metta Earth Institute is a contemplative ecology center located in Lincoln, VT. Last summer, I spent 15 days at Metta Earth for an experience called the Metta Earth Leadership Training Program. It was a truly life-changing experience, and Metta Earth continues to have a profound and lasting impact on my life. On Sunday, April 6th, I had the pleasure of returning to Metta Earth to interview Gillian Kapteyn Comstock, Co-Director of Metta Earth and one of my most valued mentors. Gillian and I walked around the land, visiting the yurts, house, garden, and animals I had lived with and cared for during my time there. We discussed a wide variety of topics, from homesteading to animal care to ecovillages.

Gillian’s background involves teaching and living close to nature. She has practiced yoga for over 30 years, and takes time out of each day to meditate and focus on her practice. She is a certified yoga teacher and an original founder of the Green Yoga Association. Gillian received her bachelor’s degree in Counseling Psychology, which has led her to practice holistic psychotherapy for over 20 years. She also holds a masters in Human Ecology, which has enabled her to live a life of connection to nature while also teaching and working with others.

As we walked through the woods, we took a moment of quietude, and as I looked at the mountains that surround the valley in which Metta Earth sits, I realized how truly incredible this place is. Gillian’s warmth and wisdom only adds to the mindfulness and beauty of the location. As we walked down to the barn, Gillian explained the plans that she and her husband, Russell Comstock, have for the land. They hope to one day have an ecovillage on the property, and have already started this process by building one house that Russell’s parents currently live in. The house is a net-zero, carbon neutral home powered by renewable energy. Gillian explained that they hope to build more net-zero homes and start a community that is centered around homesteading, ecological practices, and mindfulness. They believe that an effective community will be centered around cooperation, permaculture, and gardening.

Finally, we reached the barn, where newborn lambs greeted us with loving and inviting eyes. Just 24 hours before my visit, these lambs were born. As I held one of them in my arms, I realized that I wanted to be a part of this contemplative community and create an ecovillage around the values that Metta Earth holds so dear.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage


(photos taken by Amelie Rey at the Metta Earth Institute and are not to be used without permission from the photographer)