Yarrow Ecovillage: Cohousing as a Building Block to the Ecovillage

Published in Communities Magazine #171: Ecovillages Around the World

Following the first cohousing community in the United States, Muir Commons in Davis, California, cohousing has not only continued to expand throughout the US and Canada, it has also become a model for other housing types (seniors housing, nonprofit affordable housing), and a building block for other larger communities, ecovillages in particular. The Yarrow Ecovillage is one such project. True to the cohousing concept in general, it aims to re-establish many of the advantages of traditional villages within the context of 21st century life.

The site of this community is a former dairy farm, left inactive in the 1980s. Quite conveniently, the site is also on a main road that connects the small town of Yarrow (drained by decades of suburban sprawl, and now incorporated with its neighboring town of Chilliwack) with both urban Vancouver (to its west) and the natural beauty of the Fraser Valley. Yarrow Ecovillage offers the possibility of creating a new town center for Yarrow, a place for living combined with commerce. The 25-acre site on Yarrow Central Road in Chilliwack, British Columbia, includes a 33-unit intergenerational cohousing project, a 30,000-square-foot mixed-use area (commercial, rental units, learning, etc.), a 20-acre farm, and a 17-unit senior cohousing community.

Yarrow Ecovillage is designed to offer an exceptional combination of cohousing, sustainable living, farmland preservation, a live/work community, a learning center, and a mixed-use town center. Three main elements—living, working, and farming—along with many other activities and amenities such as learning, socializing, sharing, teaching, playing and visiting, are designed to come together to provide a model for environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable lifestyles. In order to accomplish the many objectives of the ecovillage, the city of Chilliwack worked with the resident group and its architects to establish an entirely new, custom zoning code. The result is an Ecovillage Zoning designation that includes residential, commercial, cottage industries, work space, public open space, recreational space, and farming.

The “town” of Yarrow has a population of about 3,000 people. It once had a concentration of commercial buildings and houses along its main street, and twice the population. It was a rural but functional small town surrounded by farms. Like too many rural towns, Yarrow’s commercial viability is eclipsed by big box stores scattered between farmland, new residential developments, and previous downtown corridors. As a result, it is nearly impossible to shop, dine, be entertained, or go to school, the library, or the park in the area without getting into a car.

Although technically part of the city of Chilliwack, Yarrow is about nine miles away from Chilliwack. (For financial reasons, the town of Yarrow was was incorporated in 1980 with its larger neighboring city, population 80,000, because it could not afford its own in-town infrastructure—sewer, water, schools, police, fire, administration). The community’s disparate but numerous fruit and vegetable markets and smattering of small retail stores are too spread out to have any long-term commercial viability, much less culturally create any sense of place. Their dispersed locations do nothing to contribute to the kind of personal relationships that stitch a town together.

Ecovillage Zoning: A New, Sustainable Land-Use Concept

In the winter of 2010, MDA and a few of the members of the Yarrow Ecovillage development team met with the city manager of Chilliwack, as well as the heads of planning and public works and other staff—nine city officials in all. To begin the discussions of the site, the officials opened the zoning map, the parcel map that designates the allowable land uses for all of Chilliwack and the surrounding incorporated areas. Parcels were designated for farming, residential and commercial, or a park, a school, and so on. Then we came to the 25-acre site on Yarrow Central Road, the address of Yarrow Ecovillage. Its zoning was (in capital letters) ECOVILLAGE—the first site in Canada that we know of, and perhaps in North America, that is a zoned ecovillage.

Cohousing as Essential Building Block to Ecovillage

The 33-unit intergenerational cohousing community completed in 2015 is the first building block of the ecovillage and plays a critical role in creating the culture of the place. In building it, the group learned cooperation and development skills, as well as how to brainstorm, discuss, and decide; it is the place where well-intentioned citizens learn to make consequential decisions together to accomplish their environmental and social aspirations. It is also where the relationships built during the design and development process carry over to everyday interactions and relationships now that the community is complete.

The Getting-It-Built workshop, an essential piece in starting cohousing communities, was a large catalyst in this process, taking the group from being $700,000 in debt for seven years with four houses, to finishing the 33-unit cohousing community in two years. Cohousing is the foundation upon which other players at Yarrow Ecovillage (such as merchants and farmers) model their legal structure to achieve a cooperative corporation. That is, they have learned how to invest together and, most importantly, how to get things done by working together.

The second and most public component of Yarrow Ecovillage is a 2.5-acre mixed-use area (commercial, learning, etc.)—effectively a town center. It includes 30,000 square feet of commercial space offering services, and places for work and creative opportunities, to the greater neighborhood. Yarrow Ecovillage and its new commercial area—including a yet-to-be-built 17-unit senior cohousing community, a refitted classic old dairy barn, and a completely walkable environment—functions as a small town center. Its co-developer, the Yarrow Ecovillage Society (YES) Cooperative, continues to bring clarity of vision to the process. YES originally owned the site and works with new entities such as the Mixed-Use Development group (MUD) to best create the synergy on-site that will continue to set everyone up for success. Many of the original organizers of YES moved into the cohousing on-site.

The ability of the group to work together effectively yields the best strategy for accomplishing the sort of new town center that redevelopment agencies dream of. Yarrow Ecovillage is already a high-functioning hub and will grow to be a place where people can purchase locally grown organic produce (some grown on-site), park once and shop at four or five locations, meet a friend for coffee, work, get to know their neighbors, or take a class or two. It will be a place where families, seniors, and even teenagers will want to congregate. The goal is to not only enhance commercial viability and create a quality living environment, but to create a culturally viable and culturally vibrant place.

A 20-acre organic farm is located adjacent to the cohousing community. Some of the people who live in the cohousing community co-own and operate the farm, and like the commercial area, the farm is a separate partnership, managed by people with agricultural expertise (the business of farming), while remaining an important part of the larger whole—Yarrow Ecovillage.

Cohousing Site Design

In January 2010, we held a site design workshop with the group to plan and focus on the cohousing site. The outcome was a site plan that achieved the group’s objectives. It added a diagonal pathway that links the cohousing site in the middle with the mixed-use site at one end, and the other end serves as a sight line, giving the residents a view of an existing silo that will continue to be preserved in the redevelopment, along with the heritage barn.

The cohousing site includes 33 private residences with a variety of housing types (duplexes, flats, townhouses, and shared houses), a common house, and ample programmed and unprogrammed open space. A new 3,900-square-foot common house is built at the intersection of the pedestrian pathways alongside the parking area on the east side of the site. This central area accommodates a terrace (connected to the common house) and a children’s play area (across from, but separate from, the common house terrace). The location of the common house contributes to the overall functioning of the community as a gathering place. It is visible from private homes and the path that links them to the parking area. In this way, residents pass it on their way home and are likely to drop in.

Yarrow Ecovillage is designed to foster a sense of community along the pathways and in the various outdoor spaces, balanced with adequate room for privacy in more secluded areas, such as private backyards. It is also well suited to passive and active heating and cooling possibilities, and overall sun control.

Reviving the Town Center

The town center is almost as old as human settlement. Members of Yarrow Ecovillage understand that the combination of positive, usable public space, combined with commercial activity and spaces for creativity and learning, activate the environment. Such public space doesn’t just provide retail opportunities; it provides opportunities for meaningful human interaction. Over time, these spontaneous, informal interactions may grow into more formal friendships. You get to know the person who bakes your bread, grows your carrots, or relaxes in the public square on a sunny day, and he or she gets to know you and your children. The variety of relationships and diversity of people, skills, and interests will likely establish a vibrant culture of learning, doing, and being—as a functional, interrelated society.

Cohousing Design to Facilitate Community

Yarrow Ecovillage, while a model project in its own right, is part of a larger, growing trend in neighborhood design in which cohousing has played an important role.

We have seen many cohousing communities, like Yarrow Ecovillage, that begin as small infill projects and, over time, bring new life to an entire neighborhood. Yarrow Ecovillage is no different and has the potential to catalyze other developments nearby, helping to stem the tide of sprawl in this beautiful valley. As an infill project that reinvigorates a former, under-utilized site with a variety of uses, it is a model to be expanded upon in similar rural settings.

The Yarrow Ecovillage group has successfully completed a design and construction that captures a true genius loci, the spirit of a place that is memorable for both its architectural and its experiential qualities. This combination also allows for a wonderful balance of economics, ecology, and positive social space. This type of calculated diversity assures flexibility and longevity for Yarrow Ecovillage. The cohousing, first in the development process, is really the kingpin of the larger whole. It is the cornerstone or the incubator for thoughtful and efficient processes and investment models in the future. It not only catalyzes the larger whole, it also helps to synthesize the three separate endeavors to accomplish the overall goals of the ecovillage.

In Conclusion

At one point, we were talking to the city about adding the 17-unit senior cohousing community. We asked, can this work? The city replied, we don’t know, it’s zoned as an ecovillage—you tell us. We don’t claim to know anything about ecovillages.

And they were correct. It was up to the residents to come up with what made sense from an ecological, economical, and social point of view. Where is the synergy that will make it an ecovillage? What the group has designed couldn’t be more sophisticated, more synergistic, likened to the organic villages of old that you find in southern France. Those villages were created before development became big box and big subdivision. Like when human environments were human scale—that’s Yarrow Ecovillage.

McCamant & Durrett Architects | The Cohousing Company is an architecture and consulting firm with offices in Nevada City, California. Principal Architect Charles Durrett and his wife, Katie McCamant of Cohousing Solutions, have become well known nationally and internationally for the design of cohousing communities, sustainable design and development consulting. Since 1987 the firm has provided complete architectural services for a wide range of clients. Charles and Katie have published many essential cohousing books, including Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities, and Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living. MDA has adapted its cohousing design experience to affordable housing developments and senior neighborhoods. Other projects have included custom strawbale homes, mixed-use developments, town planning, commercial projects, and childcare centers.