Sonora Cohousing

Tucson, Arizona
March 2005

Sonora Cohousing, Tucson, Ariz., March 2005

Sonora Cohousing, Tucson, Ariz., March 2005

Credit: Joel Sternfeld


In many ways Sonora Cohousing is typical of all cohousing—numerous environmentally sound practices are woven into the 36 homes and throughout the 4.7-acre site. Townhouses sit in groupings of three or four units around highly landscaped “placitas,” forming natural conversation points in the landscape. The “green-built” homes are energy efficient, with active and passive solar energy elements, and are structured to facilitate water harvesting. The community's 3,500-square-foot common house is built from straw bale. Sonora's social practices are also typical of cohousing: community, collaboration, conservation. But the most unusual aspect of the community is no longer visible to the eye: Sonora cohousing is intentionally built on an urban infill site.

“Infill development” refers to the practice of making use of underutilized or empty sites within urban areas. The founding members of Sonora wanted to avoid destroying untouched desert—“blading unbladed land”— or becoming part of the suburban sprawl that requires new roads, sewers, and schools every time a developer “leapfrogs” to build a community further out from the city center (developers are motivated to do so because the farther land may be less expensive—and offer better “access to nature”). The founders of Sonora not only made a choice for infill, they also adhered to the criteria that the site must be accessible by public transportation (in this case bus transportation) and that shopping must be within walking distance. What's more, they chose a neighborhood with a high crime rate by Tucson standards, and yet they refused to become a gated community. This has meant that bicycles, and charcoal grills and watermelons, are occasionally stolen—but it also allows for meaningful interactions with neighbors (the three nine-year-old girls who stole the watermelon came back and sought out its grower to apologize).

Something else invisible in this photograph: When the garden was being built, resident Don Arkin helped to create a compost area by building a wall around it. The much-disliked, stucco-like material he used was referred to as “doncrete.” An artist resident, Kendra Davies, created the mural that covers it without going through the community approval process. To date no one has objected.

An Earthship at Earthaven Ecovillage

Black Mountain, North Carolina
April 2005

An Earthship at Earthaven Ecovillage, Black Mountain, N.C., April 2005

An Earthship at Earthaven Ecovillage, Black Mountain, N.C., April 2005

Credit: Joel Sternfeld

Earthships, invented by American architect M. K. Reynolds, derive their name from his idea of them as “independent vessels to sail on the seas of tomorrow.” They are generally made from tires filled with rammed earth, though sometimes of bottles and cans. They are often configured to maximize the surface area on which solar panels can be placed and typically have rain catchments and a filtration system for water (the circular object seen at the corner of the building is a cistern). Not visible in this photograph is an all-glass south facing wall. In the winter when the sun is low in the sky, sunlight pours through it directly into the home. The warmth that results is retained by the high insulating coefficient of the three earthen walls enabling the house to be 68 degrees with minimal heating. In the summer, when the sun is overhead, the cool earthen walls maintain 68 with little or no additional cooling. This home is sited so that on Dec. 21 the sun is just over the horizon of the ridge to the east.

The house is one of numerous innovative structures that comprise Earthaven Ecovillage. Because Earthaven's 320 acres are mostly mountainous forest, all dwellings are built on slopes, leaving flat ground available to become agricultural fields. Though still under construction, Earthaven has been completely off the grid since its inception in 1994. The central village is powered by a micro-hydro system, and the water supply comes from a natural spring and is stored in a 10,000-gallon water tank. Homes in the community are built of natural or recycled materials, and the entire site has been planned as a model of permaculture design.

Members pay annual dues, share title to the land, and participate in a consensus decision-making process. Each community member is responsible for earning his or her own living. The village-scale economy includes numerous ecologically sound businesses, such as Red Moon Herbs and Permaculture Activist and Communities magazines.

The community doesn't have a single village-wide spiritual practice. “What many of us have in common is a reverence for the Earth and our land, and the belief that our land is alive and conscious and it's our sacred duty to honor and care for it.”