The Awareness School Homestead is our 15 acre property in northwest Washington State. The land is currently undeveloped – but we have a vision for developing it into a farm on permaculture principles. We worked with Terra Phoenix Design to develop this plan (pdf)
Most (if not all) Awareness School retreats take place on the homestead, where we work together to contribute towards this vision. With our efforts we transform the property, while also transforming ourselves inwardly.
Big Picture Overview
The development of this our homestead will coincide with the development of the Awareness School, and people who make up the Awareness School community. Through this process, a wholly unique relationship will emerge between these people and this land.
The Community House and associated roads and utilities will be sited along the key-line, or the base of the slope. Clearing for the house will open up space for a productive drought tolerant landscape. Views to this landscape will connect the work indoors with the work on the land. Upslope/west of the Community House will be a cluster of simple guest cabins, a large water storage system and a family home nestled into a healthy managed forest. Downslope, or east of the Community house will be the rustic camping area and the primary productive landscape. These gardens will be framed by an orchard and Sun-trap to the north and they will border an enhanced wetland habitat to the south. Deep ponds and open water will attract a range of local birds, insects and wildlife.
Sharing this collective vision will unify our community in this collaborative work. Each step of the development will provide insights into the emotional, mental and physical relationships we engage with every day. As the space grows into a healthy and productive landscape, the nature of the work will evolve from that of growth and development, into the work of cultivation and care. The positive legacy of this work will be long lived in both the human community and it’s local ecology.
Connection with the power grid will provide simple and accessible energy for the early development of the project. Conservation is the best strategy for optimizing energy investments and it includes both technology and behavior. New construction will be designed for solar gain, improved energy performance and adaptable energy systems.
We will consult with a local PV specialist to determine the feasibility, scaling and siting of a Photovoltaic Installation. A pre-construction consult may provide insight into building design/siting and simplify mounting an array of panels on top of the Community House. Also, if clearing trees will improve performance, this could be done during the development of the house site. A grid connected PV system may provide utility credits in the future. Incorporating a battery bank will be more expensive and technical but will increase resiliency in the event of a power outage. The preferred site for an array is within the northeast area of the Sun-trap with the batteries and electrical equipment located in or near the house. A second option would be locating the panels up high on the rocky slope in a cleared area near the family home site.
We will install wood stoves as the primary heat source in all year-round living spaces. If the community house will be occupied throughout the winter, we will consider a Thermal Mass Heating system (i.e. masonry stove or rocket mass heater). That should result in a cleaner burn and less fuel consumed overall. Conventional wood stoves are also an economical heating option so long as their placement in the building is considered early in the architectural design process.
Our forest management plan will account for the Production of Firewood on the property. With an estimated consumption rate of two cords per winter, wood storage should accommodate at least six cords; two cords in use, two cords curing and two cords being collected. We will site a large wood shed near the Community House for convenient deliveries and small wood sheds near the family home and anywhere else wood will be regularly burned. For long-term fuel-wood production on site, we will bring in Italian Alder to succeed the existing alder grove, and manage through coppicing.
Propane is a practical cooking fuel and installing a large, accessible tank that is regularly serviced is an easy energy system. Gas lines can be incorporated into road/utility development to both the community house and the family home in the future. This propane can also serve as a backup fuel to run a generator and/or heating system should other utilities go down.
The size of the property and significant elevation change may warrant a Small Utility Vehicle (Kawasaki Mule, Polaris Ranger, golf cart, etc.). We will explore electric options in terms of battery life and capacity to deal with hilly landscapes. Gasoline engines may also be converted to propane for a resilient fuel source already present on site. If an Electric Vehicle is used, we will install one or more electric vehicle charging stations at the Community House and/or parking area.
The existing pond in the east provides benefits for wildlife. We will explore options for dredging it and expanding its size as a part of a Wetland Enhancement Plan (this will likely require a hydrologic study). In addition, one or two more ponds can be added to the east, assuming there is adequate water moving through the property to keep them full for a good part of the year. Each should have a spillway or overflow pipe that takes excess water to the next pond in the chain. These ponds will provide much more valuable habitat than the existing reed canary grass. Before digging, we will scrape and set aside the topsoil. This topsoil can be spread over the annual production area to accomplish the proposed functional lift recommended in the wetland enhancement plan. The forested pond east of the community house can also be considered for expansion under the wetland enhancement plan. We will plant the edges of all ponds with functional wetland species that provide snacks for people and food and habitat for wildlife. Installing a fire pump intake in the largest of the pond chain will provide large volumes of water in the event of an emergency.
Rainwater Catchment from the Community House and the family home will be an important part of the water system. Both structures should be designed with standing seam metal roofing and basement cisterns for clean and accessible water storage. Again, incorporating these systems in the beginning of the architectural design process will ensure optimal performance of the finished building. An Improved Surface Well can be dug during the development of the enhanced wetland. The current location of the small surface well gives access to a year round water table and will be easy to develop while equipment is on site. We will install either a 15 – 20 ft deep stack of concrete well rings or a large culvert for the casing with a secure lid and accessible power for the pumping system. If considering a bored well, we’ll contact a local dowser to determine the most appropriate location.
Water from the well and storage cisterns will be pumped to Storage Tanks at the top of the hill. We’ll start with a battery of small tanks (3 x 2500 gallons) to test storage and on-site use, and upgrade to a larger cement or metal tank sized to meet the water demands of the community. From these tanks, gravity-fed potable water can service the Community House, family home and camping area. Filtration can either happen within each building or in a filtration shed servicing the entire system.
Earthworks & Access
Development of the Entry Road can begin as soon as the siting of the Community House is finalized. Power and telecom utilities will be run along the entry road. Siting the primary propane tank along the entry road will ensure easy access for the refilling truck and consolidated utility service for the Community House.
Develop access to the Upper House Site along the draw, heading towards “Rusty Pail”. A Loop Road can then connect from the Upper House Site to the northern property edge fulfilling the need for an emergency vehicle turn around on site.
The Sun-trap and Garden will be accessed via a Broad Footpath (<5’ width) originating in the camping area. Access for equipment will be set up as needed, though these temporary routes will not be maintained in order to preserve the health of the wetland.
A network of Additional Pathways around the property will link the Community House, camping area, parking area and the enhanced wetlands. Trail development and maintenance will be an ongoing aspect of this place-based community.
Developing a Parking Area for up to 5 vehicles will consolidate traffic and maintain a human-centered experience within the property. These spaces can be “angle-in” to save space or parallel parking, depending on the nature of the site and soil and surrounding trees. We’ll consider accommodating electric vehicles in the future by installing a sub-panel and charging stations in the parking area.
Food & the Landscape
This landscape will grow into a healthy and productive ecology. In the low, open area to the east, a large Sun-trap will be developed to provide a warm micro-climate by blocking cold winter winds and leaving the sunny, southern sky open. The Sun-trap will also provide privacy screening from neighbors. A variety of fruit trees will compose the Sun-trap including apples, pears and prunes. The existing hawthorns present an opportunity to graft established trees into preferred varieties of European pears and mayhaws. With an “inter-stem graft”, Asian pears and apples are also possible. In addition, the Sun-trap can be lined with flowering shrubs and herbs that will support both pollinators and pest predator insects. The open area sheltered by the Sun-trap will be the most appropriate space for Intensive Gardens and vegetable crops. Garden beds here my be able to access the water table as well as nutrients in the wetland soil.
We will build a simple Hoop House for starting vegetables and growing warm season crops. This structure will be sited at the northern end of the Sun-trap to optimize solar gain. Over time, this simple hoop house can transition to a more permanent kit greenhouse. At either stage, we’ll make sure the greenhouse has adequate sun and ventilation.
Some trees will be cut in the process of opening up the center of the Sun-trap. Poles from these trees can be used to build a Small Tool Shed near to or integrated with the greenhouse for storage of tools, amendments, etc.
The most appropriate livestock for the site are Chickens and/or Ducks. Both can be integrated into the gardens and ponds easily. However, no livestock should be added until there is a permanent resident living on-site to care for them. Likewise, fowl will need fox-proof sleeping areas which may include electrified fencing systems.
An early planting of Privacy Screening will give time for development prior to intensive use of the garden area. Wet tolerant species such as willow, dogwood, spirea and the existing hawthorne can be coppiced and layered into an impenetrable thicket along the northern property edge. To limit deer browse we’ll erect a ~7 foot Deer Fence around the Sun-trap, gardens and orchard. Trees outside of the fence can be caged as individuals or in small establishment clusters. A few small blocks of fencing around the house will allow the landscape to get established without impeding the access and open feel of the space.
We will surround the Community House with Shade- and Drought-Tolerant Plantings. These will fill in the landscape without over drawing from the limited water supply. The amount of clearing will determine the type of plantings though many native, berry producing shrubs would thrive in these conditions (Mahonia, salal, evergreen huckleberry, elderberry etc.).
All of the forested land to the west should be put into a Forest Management Plan. We will consider the idea of forest farming in good areas, where a complete forested ecosystem is maintained, but harvest-able products are grown in the understory (i.e. products for floral arrangements, mushrooms, understory medicinal herbs, etc.).
The primary humanure management system will be Composting Toilets. We will select either a 2-bay or a movable-bin system to minimize transport and handling of unprocessed waste. Composting humanure can be stored for further decomposition beneath a permanent roof in a close, but out-of-the-way location. A Septic Leach-Field system will be required (down-slope/east of Community House), therefore the option for a conventional toilet will be available in the Community House.
All buildings will be designed with parallel lines for Greywater management. One line will send greywater to the septic system. The second parallel line will use a “branched drain” system ending in mulch basins nestled into part of the productive landscape. This will reduce irrigation needs for some plantings during the summer drought.
The Community House will be a large structure serving several functions for the land-based community. It will be the primary meeting space and accommodations for visitors to the property. 5-15 people can comfortably sleep in 3-5 dormitory-style guest rooms. A large kitchen for preparing group meals and putting up food produced on the land will be a central design feature. This space should blend into a dining area for a seamless integration of working with and sharing food.
Meetings, music and movement will all take place in a large open room with views into the surrounding forest and gardens. Large windows and doors onto a broad deck will create an adaptable and inspirational sacred space. In addition to the community- centered design the structure will incorporate a more private wing for a resident caretaker. A small garage/shop space can also be incorporated into the design to facilitate other work projects on the land. We will consider constructing a concrete cistern beneath the house to store collected rainwater for either domestic or agricultural use.
A series of small, one-room Cabins located on the flat spot in the woods to the south of the Community House will provide additional sleeping arrangements for visitors. These structures will not include plumbing or kitchens. Their construction may provide a great opportunity for collective work projects. A seasonal Outdoor Kitchen, dining area, and social space will be used extensively during the warmer parts of the year. Surrounding this will be campsites and tent platforms where summer guests can stay in rustic comfort.
Synchronization of the Community and the land will be happening in two different phases; the site development and the on-going maintenance/production. The development of the landscape will provide many opportunities for working and learning as a team. We will designate projects that lend themselves to collaboration and schedule them for retreat weekends. Development work requiring skilled specialists and tradespeople can be conducted as needed. Collectively work towards a smooth transition from the development stage into the ongoing maintenance and land-based production. These tasks will become the primary work of the community/retreats and the rhythm/mentality is different in nature than the development phase.
Syncing the Rhythms of the Community to rhythms of the land will take a bit of trial and error. Production farming requires daily attention, whereas the frequency of community gatherings may only be on a monthly basis. We will consider the collective schedule as it will relate to the plantings. Crops of bulk scale such as dry beans, potatoes, garlic and squash may be well suited for the intermittent labor schedule. Plantings in the spring, summer time maintenance and fall harvest can each provide land-based work in tune with the community gatherings. Gardening can provide many opportunities for mindful work, especially if the plants/processes compliment the community schedule.
The nature of this project limits the capacity for commercial veggie production. However, there may be many other opportunities for Producing Value-added Products within our intentional community. Green woodworking uses a range of forest products to create goods such as furniture, toys brooms and baskets. Cultivation of basketry materials throughout the soggy wetland edges may also prove an excellent fit. In all things we willlook for harmony between the Awareness School community, the land, and the greater community.