Call it what you will. New Urban. Modern community. Retro-roots living. The Serenbe ecovillage is a modern day eco-twist on the old English Village. The idea of the “ecovillage” has been infiltrating the sustainability lexicon in recent years with the advent of more and more sophisticated, responsibly designed developments.
Emphasis on Ecovillage
Just a short drive outside of Atlanta, Georgia, in the rolling green Chattahoochee Hill Country, lies one such development which has been peaking the curiousity of ecovillage enthusiasts: Serenbe, dubbed a “utopian experiment in new urbanism” by its creators, Steve and Marie Nygren.
The Nygrens discovered the land Serenbe now sits on back in 1991, when they were taking their kids out to the countryside for some outdoor adventuring. A few years later, so enamored with the landscape, they purchased some property and moved to Serenbe for the long haul. Believing strongly that to change the world, one must start in their own backyard, the Nygrens decided to do just that.
Their vision for Serenbe was to create a community that helped protect the local landscape. For those craving an environmentally and socially conscious community to rest their head, Serenbe’s philosophy seems to fit the bill: At Serenbe we value nature, passion, creativity and community. We believe people can live more fully when connected to the wonder of nature. We value people for who they are, not what they are or what they do. Breaking ground in 2004 on the first residence, Serenbe has grown to more than 400 homes. The Nygrens have managed to build what they deem as a profitable, sustainable community that maximizes function, eliminates waste, efficiently uses energy and is changing the way Americans think of what it means to live in a modern-day city.
Serenbe’s architecture and landscape was designed with sustainability in mind from day one. All homes in Serenbe have to be EarthCraft certified and all new homes in the new Mado development have to be geothermal powered. The landscape planning not only protects nearby wetlands, but preserves an impressive 70 percent of the land as green space. Landscaping practices and natural treatment of wastewater for ornamental irrigation help conserve water, while use of geothermal, solar and net zero homes conserves energy on property.
The Nygrens wanted Serenbe to serve as a model for aspiring ecovillages around the world. That’s why they do a number of workshops for knowledge sharing. Steve runs design charrettes such as the one last Spring entitled, “Developing Serenbe: New Strategies and Techniques for Building Sustainable Communities.”
A repeat of this seminar will be held April 25-27, 2016, where attendees will walk away with ideas on planning and building walkable communities where residential, retail and farming can all co-exist to conserve natural resources and provide financial returns for both the developer and residents. Later this month, Steve will also host an Architecture & Thoughtful Design walking tour to show participants how the property has implemented sustainable design practices.
A Focus on Growing Community
Serenbe is made up of four hamlets based on the English Village, with corresponding commercial areas that are centered around well-being through art, agriculture, health and education.
Serenbe hosts cultural events all year to promote the arts. Residents and visitors can attend outdoor theater performances at the Serenbe Playhouse, or participate in culinary workshops, art festivals, musical performances, films and lectures, or stroll through the various art galleries on property. Their ‘Artist in Residence’ program offers opportunities for arts education.
Local food lover residents can look no further than their back yard or a short walk, where they will find fresh produce being grown on Serenbe’s 25-acre organic farm or amongst edible landscaping along sidewalks and paths. Visitors can take a farm tour and meet farm manager Ashley Rodgers, whose efforts were recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning. The farm offers more than 300 varieties of veggies, herbs, fruits and flowers, which can also be found at one of Serenbe’s farm-to-table restaurants, the seasonal Saturday Farmers Market or in their CSA (community supported agriculture) program.
Serenbe has an extensive map of nature trails and footpaths connecting the homes and hamlets on property, designed to encourage outdoor activity in the fresh air. In addition to an on-site outdoor challenge course, gym and bike rental, they host health workshops, such as the upcoming Love Yourself Wellness Retreat open to the public on February 11th.
Serenbe offers resident families the opportunity to educate their kids down the street, at Camp Serenbe, The Children’s House, a Montessori school for 3-6 year olds and The Chatahoochee Hills Charter School, all of which emphasize learning out in the natural environment.
In the summer of 2015, Serenbe broke ground on its latest project called “Mado” – a neighborhood dedicated to wellness and multigenerational living. Mado will include a high-end boutique hotel and cottages, spa, new energy efficient homes and condos and new organic restaurants. Mado’s concept is about “aging in place,” or shedding the idea of the outdated “retirement communities”, with current research demonstrating that today’s baby boomers desire to live in multi-generational communities. This is a call to times past when it was not unusual for several generations of families to all be living together in one place. The project is set to be completed by Fall 2016.
Just this January, Serenbe collaborated with Auburn University’s Rural Studio program on its “20K House Project,” which aims to address affordable housing through the design and building of a model home that can be reproduced on a large scale for $20,000. Rural Studio is an off campus design-build program that offers architectural students a more hands-on educational experience in engaging with community projects that impact West Alabama’s underserved Black Belt region. The idea of the pilot is that once the constructability and performance of the 20K House Product Line is field tested successfully, a set of construction documents and specifications can be developed for construction in a similar climate and reproduced in other regions.
Serenbe anticipates that this field test could have a national impact on affordable housing. “We have admired and followed Rural Studio over the years and are honored to partner with them on this important project” states Steve Nygren. “Providing Rural Studio with valuable research and learning while also supporting artists, demonstrates our passion for community and our vision as placemakers.” The first 20K House line at Serenbe, The Art Farm, will support over 50 artist residencies in 2016.
The Serenbe ecovillage has been recognized for its sustainability efforts, receiving the Urban Land Institute’s Inaugural Sustainability Award, the Atlanta Regional Commission “Development of Excellence“ and EarthCraft’s “Development of the Year” award.
Feature image courtesy of Nate Steiner (Flickr)