To kick off our year-long Greenlight Project – a series looking at how regional Australia is responding to climate change – Greenlight editor Marie Low checks out an ambitious ecovillage in south-west WA.
Is it feasible to live off-grid and still enjoy the comforts of community and modern living? Nearly 30 years ago, Mike Hulme wanted to know the answer.
Today, his vision – Witchcliffe Ecovillage – has just launched stage 4 of a project that could see up to 1,000 people living in a community that is 100% self-sufficient in renewable energy, water and organic fresh produce.
It’s a lofty ambition, and one that will nearly double the population of the small village of Witchcliffe, a short drive south of Margaret River in the south-west of Western Australia.
Witchcliffe Ecovillage communications and marketing manager Jo Thierfelder is among those building on the 119 hectare site with her husband Jeff Thierfelder, the project manager for planning and architecture.
The ecovillage has not had a smooth ride, she says. “No one has ever done this before. This is pushing the boundaries in so many ways.”
Peter Newman, a professor at Curtain University Sustainability Policy Institute, has said he doesn’t know of any other development in the world that can claim to achieve energy, water and food self-sufficiency all on the one site “as well as being a place for real community”.
The ecovillage claims a unique ability to meet obligations of both the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Mike Hulme had his eye on the site, a former organic vineyard and hobby cattle farm, back in 1994. But it wasn’t until 2010 that he and his partner, Michelle Sheridan, along with joint venture partner the Perron Group, bought the property to develop a model ecovillage.
It has since taken 11 years to navigate the approvals processes needed to get Witchcliffe Ecovillage off the ground.
“It has been unbelievably complex,” says Thierfelder. “It is testament to Mike and the Perron Group’s tenacity that this project is a reality. I think they nearly packed up shop a number of times, but thankfully they’ve pushed through.
“Now, the eyes of the development industry are on us. They want to know not only if this can be done, but if it’s financially viable.”
Thierfelder says the project’s success thus far can be attributed to the private funding arrangement – and sheer determination. Witchcliffe Ecovillage now has about 25 houses completed, and another 60 under construction. Stages 1-3 have already sold out.
“The demand is running hot,” Thierfelder says. “We have kept it as affordable as possible for people who really need it.
“We didn’t want this to become an eco-retirement village. In fact we’ve attracted a great cross-section in both age and demographics. We have young people right through to 90 year olds. Our major demographic is young families and then 50- to 60-year-old semi-retirees and retirees.”
Lots are sold under a strata model. Owners of the smallest and most affordable lots must meet eligibility criteria, and there is an income and asset cap. Lots in the latest stage will range from $140,000 (with eligibility criteria) for a “groupie” lot of about 400 sq.m, up to about $425,000 for the bigger family lots of about 1000 sq.m.
The lot price includes access to the water supply, connection to the solar microgrid and batteries, NBN fibre and connection to the sewerage system.
The pandemic, Thierfelder says, has prompted a boom in interest in living a sustainable lifestyle. This was evidenced last year in 3M’s State of Science Index Survey in which 61% of Australians reported that the pandemic has made them more environmentally conscious. A huge 80% of survey respondents thought better solutions needed to be put in place immediately.
In fact, the delays have also ultimately worked in the ecovillage’s favour, with the implementation of technologies that weren’t around when the project was first drawn up.
So how do you plan a village of up to 1,000 residents without leaving an ecological footprint?
The ecovillage’s vision is to “create a highly sustainable, self-reliant community incorporating the best of 21st century technology and human settlement design”.
Its stated aims are to be 100% self-sufficient in renewable energy, water and organic fresh produce; to care for the local environment; to generate ongoing economic and social opportunities for the area; to be socially and demographically diverse; and to be carbon negative.
The planners hope it will become a model for people from all over the world to come and learn how to live more sustainably.
Unlike the traditional off-grid image of physical and social isolation, the emphasis here is on building a community. To this end, the design features clusters of mixed housing lots.
These lots are bought under a strata model. Owners of the smallest and most affordable lots must meet eligibility criteria, involving an income and asset cap.
Thierfelder describes the 11 clusters as “microcosms within the broader community”. The homes, which must meet strict sustainable building design guidelines, face inward to a community garden where each household has a plot to grow what they choose. Neighbours can garden side by side.
The homes are connected to the village’s own water supply, while each cluster has its own solar microgrid and Teslar Powerpack battery. The ecovillage will produce as much solar energy as it consumes from rooftop PV panels, batteries and microgrids; it is expecting to produce about 1.6 million kWh of excess renewable energy each year, which can be sold back to the WA grid.
Electric vehicle stations in each cluster can also be used by visitors and tourists, potentially adding an income stream for residents. NBN fibre links each home, allowing work-from-home options.
As well as the residential clusters, the ecovillage will in future include a village square with a tavern, cafe, backpacker’ accommodation, community hall, creative hub, food hub, and commercial lots. There will also be playing fields and a playground, with facilities open to the wider community, not just village residents.
A network of walking and biking paths winds through the village; landscaped creeks harvest stormwater for the dams. There are orchards and open green places, giving the project a semi-rural ambience.
But Thierfelder says it’s the sewerage system that’s an economic “game changer”. The village has its own onsite sewage treatment plant designed and operated by TMC Australasia utilising moving bed bioreactor technology (MBBR); the processed water will be fed back onto an on-site tree plantation. The ecovillage says the system is not only eco-friendly, but saves residents the $15,000 a stand-alone septic system would cost.
With the the provision of on-site sewerage services, and with water and solar systems already in place, the often hefty expenses involved in a compliant off-grid plan are avoided.
“Putting in that community-scale infrastructure allows us to be so much more sustainable than someone on their own who doesn’t have the capacity and the financial means,” says Thierfelder. “That’s what sets us apart.
“Mike’s hope is for this project to become a model for ecovillages. This can be a way forward for development. It is proving financially viable, and the market is responding.”
Further plans for the village include tourist accommodation, so visitors can experience firsthand this model of sustainable development.
“I feel we have found the balance between privacy and community,” Thierfelder says. “This is no hippy commune. We’re attracting mainstream people who are simply interested in lowering their carbon footprint.”
On a personal note, Thierfelder says she’s looking forward to leaving her cold rented property for a home designed to be warm in winter and cool in summer, with no energy bills, while maintaining a carbon-negative footprint.
As is the case throughout the rest of Australia, construction costs have increased recently, and also been slowed by the limited availability of materials and labour, but Jo says the demand and interest in Witchcliffe Ecovillage remains strong.
The world is watching.
Marie Low has been a journalist and communications advisor for more than 30 years. She has also worked as a media advisor to state government ministers, headed a government media department and worked within a well-regarded metropolitan communications consultancy as a senior consultant. Her family tree change brought her to Tenterfield and then Gunnedah where she now is one half of Two Cats Creative.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.