Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

Ecovillage at Eden Hall First of its Kind on University Campus

Feb 29, 2020 10:51AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Keller Court Commons at Eden Hall

Plans to develop Pittsburgh’s first ecovillage are underway at Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus. Leading the project is Stefani Danes, an architect and adjunct professor in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the founding members of the Pittsburgh Cohousing Group. Danes discussed the concept behind this project with North Hills Monthly.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the Pittsburgh Cohousing Group, and what is cohousing?

Stefani Danes (Danes): The Pittsburgh Cohousing Group, which started in 2000, brings together anyone in the area who’s interested in the idea of cohousing or an ecovillage. I’ve been a member since it started and am also an architect. My particular interest is in housing that supports community. I’ve done a lot of work with neighborhoods around the Pittsburgh region, looking for ways that a built environment becomes more of an instrument for building relationships among people. 

We think we have good old-fashioned neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, but even here, it’s likely you don’t know your neighbors very well. The idea that people could get together with the intention of getting to know each other by living nearby is at the heart of cohousing. The other piece of it, the ‘eco’ part, is a way for people to live more lightly, to have energy efficient houses and to live in a way that reduces waste. It is a lot easier to do this if neighbors are doing it as well. A two-pronged set of values drives this project; one is community, and the other is sustainability.

NHM: What are the characteristics of an ecovillage?

Danes: An ecovillage is basically a planned development that’s built to a very high standard of performance, which means that the buildings are super insulated and also well-constructed. We’re looking to get certified for low energy and air quality. We will not be using any toxic materials. We’re also going to be looking carefully at how the site can restore the natural water cycle so we eliminate runoff and don’t contribute to the problem we have in this region with combined sewers. The other side of it is living more sustainability, through things like composting and recycling and sharing.

NHM: What other ecovillages exist?

Danes: There are close to 200 cohousing and ecovillages around the country, though none in this region; some have been in existence for as long as 30 years now, and they do very well because they enable people to live really affordably.

It was started in Denmark by young folks raising families who decided that it would be easier to live next door to each other; now, one in 12 people in Denmark live in a cohousing community.

The first in the U.S. was in Ithaca, NY. Many of these communities are in cities and towns on the West Coast and the East Coast. New England and North Carolina have quite a few, but it’s starting to happen around the country.

NHM: Where are you in the development process?

Danes: We had our first meeting in January to bring people together to talk, and there were about 30 people who came to that. The folks who get interested in this will be part of the planning process. By May or June, we should have a pretty good idea of the character of it. We're thinking we'll probably have 30 units that will fit with the character of the campus and neighboring houses.

We’ll also be bringing in experts in ecology and in high performance building, so that this is really uniquely suited to the campus and to the research that is going on there. Chatham and Richland Township have worked closely in the development of the campus, and pending the outcome of this exploration and feasibility phase, we hope to see construction start in spring 2021, with an opening in 2022.

NHM: Is there a shared or common feature?

Danes: A clubhouse, called a common house, is the major feature. There is some common land that the ecovillage will take care of that will include places for gardening, places for outdoor get-togethers, and then the common parking.

NHM: How much acreage is set aside for this project?

Danes: The acreage hasn’t been determined. It will be a relatively compact development, and that is intentional, as we want to keep it very efficient in the use of land. It will be a cozy development in the sense that you want to be near your neighbors. The development will be walkable and pedestrian-friendly.

NHM: What is the advantage of the proposed ecovillage being built on the Eden Hall campus?

Danes: There will be an opportunity for residents to participate in Chatham activities, which is an even greater kind of sharing. I’ve been talking with the Chatham administration and faculty about the opportunity for students to volunteer with this project or take on research projects related to this. It would bring more enrichment to the campus, so for people looking for an opportunity to do more than just find a nice house in a good neighborhood, this is a way to connect with the university, to be able to participate in lectures and concerts there, and the really amazing research they’re doing into sustainable living and agriculture.

There isn’t an example where an ecovillage has been built on a university campus before; this is just an ideal connection between Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability & Environment and the ecovillage.

NHM: Who do you anticipate will be interested in living here?

Danes: Like most cohousing, Eden Hall will be multigenerational. We are definitely looking to have a variety of people in age and interests, and I think our first gathering was a start toward that. We had some young families and a good core of empty nesters.

NHM: What are your hopes for this project?

Danes: We’ve gotten a tremendous response since it was announced a month ago. Though there have been people eager for this kind of lifestyle for 20 years here in Pittsburgh, this time, more people are coming. The connection with Chatham and in particular with the whole sustainability work going on at Eden Hall campus has really added a level of excitement to this. When we went on our tour, you could just hear the buzz. There are all kinds of interesting opportunities that go well beyond just housing. That aspect of it seems to be particularly attractive to people.

NHM: What lessons can an ecovillage teach us?

Danes: First, how much fun it is to know and trust your neighbors. Second, that people always have a need for their own privacy, and that balance between the privacy and the community is respected. And third, that it’s important to focus on putting the money where it really counts: after you build it to a high standard, it will reduce the energy bills every month by 75 percent or even more, and everyday expenses are less because the homeowners are taking advantage of sharing things and information. Having good neighbors makes life so much easier!