A vision from above

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 14:35 08/10/2012
Lindsay Wood
NAOMI ARNOLD/FAIRFAX NZ
BLANK CANVAS: Architect and Braemar shareholder Lindsay Wood on his building platform at Braemar Eco Village.

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Naomi Arnold talks to the residents of Braemar Eco Village, who are building a country life in the city:

A strong breeze flattens Lindsay Wood's shirt against his arms and plucks at his collar as he describes the house he'll build one day. His site, tucked at the base of the Grampians and with a 180-degree view that takes in the Richmond Ranges and Nelson Haven, gets all-day sun - and plenty of wind.

"We could put a couple of generators up here," he says, and launches into descriptions of his plans to experiment with long-term heat storage - "They say it can't be done" - multiple energy sources, biodigesters, and creating a modest-sized building footprint. An eco-architect since before it was cool, Mr Wood wants such environmentally-friendly building methods to enter the mainstream.

"It's important to me that it's not a fringe thing."

The Woods and five other families have invested both financially and ideologically in Braemar, a 4.4 hectare eco-village tucked up the back of Waimea Rd that's been quietly evolving for four years. It's not a commune, and you couldn't even call it a modern hippie enclave - instead, it's a group of professionals and businesspeople wanting to live and work in a close neighbourhood, grow their own food, provide meeting spaces for the community, and tread lightly on the earth.

Each has a residential section and a ninth share in the company that owns the rest of the land, which they're slowly developing. There's just one remaining living site that's not under offer - the other is up for grabs on Trade Me.

"We've laid the foundations, but there's an awful lot ahead of us," Mr Wood says.

It began with Nelson artist, environmentalist and entrepreneur Kim Merry, who bought the grassy hillside with its collection of buildings, office blocks and classrooms from Nelson College in 2008, which had bought the land from Nelson Hospital. Mr Merry died a year later, but not before he'd gathered a group of like-minded people and formed a company, cutting up some of the land into nine freehold residential titles and keeping the remaining 3.5ha for shared gardens, space for animals, and orchards.

Tenants using the renovated buildings include yoga practitioners, artists, and Nelson Environment Centre, who are installed in one of the old classroom blocks and have landscaped their half acre to provide spaces for community environment education and demonstration.

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Nelson Environment Centre chief executive Grant Jones says it's "a great spot".

"They're a really understanding landlord; we're all on the same page in terms of our focus," he says. "The facilities are great and we're here for the long term."

He'd like to develop an outdoor stage and encourage the community to get involved.

"We position ourselves as an environment and comunity hub. All sorts of people use the classroom here; not just environmental people either; businesses and other groups as well."

Mr Wood, who came from Auckland is setting up WoodCo eco-architectural office in one of the old office blocks on the site. It's not quite the glamour architectural office some of his colleagues would hanker after, but he sees recycling the old building as being much truer to his profession.

Another shareholder, massage therapist and reiki practitioner Emily Whinney, works from the rooms next door. Her house, which she shares with husband Patrick Doherty and their five-year-old son Enda, is one of two that have been built so far.

Theirs is an $11,000 68.5-square metre two-bedroom cottage rescued from the Christchurch earthquakes, cut up and transported north.

The young family lived on the property for two years before they brought in their house, becoming familiar with the best place to put their new home, which they then spent five months renovating.

Iti the goat rubs against the fence opposite their house. Chickens peck around a citrus grove, several orchards have been planted, the gardens are underway, they've put in roads and drains and renovated some of the old buildings.

The area has the best of both worlds, Ms Whinney says; privacy, but a community around if they need or want it. The vision for the next few years is creating a sustainable land, growing what they can there. "We came up here and said ‘This is it'," Ms Whinney says.

"We wanted to move [into the country] but Patrick worked in town and wanted to commute. It's perfect. We have the land but we're not slaves to the land. We have shared resources and share the energy. Living in a community felt like the right thing to do. We took a leap of faith at the time and said ‘Yep, we're in'."

She believes it's working because they all want it to work.

"We've got a different demographic all through the group so it's not just one stereotype of person. I think that really helps in group decision-making," she says. "It's been a slow, evolving process. We haven't rushed and haven't made any errors in decision or mistakes. It's a good number of people as well, not too large and not too small."

Nelson writer Jacquetta Bell, another shareholder, likes that the land is now "a blank canvas".

"We have a land plan but this is the exciting time now. We've got subdivision down, infrastructure in. Now we can start deciding what we want to do."

She likes the idea of living in a mixed community as she heads towards retirement, and enjoys the country-city feel of the land.

"I've been in a commune on the West Coast when I was a hippie in the 70s. That was sharing everything and extremely idealistic and lasted about six months. This is much more business-like, more practical; there is idealism there, but we're not saddling ourselves with something that's unrealistic.

"The children up there are having the old Kiwi childhood. It's just an amazing place for the kids."

Yet it hasn't all been goats and orchards. High ideals came crashing down when it came to dealing with red tape. Braemar residents capture their stormwater to use on the gardens, but originally wanted to have all their water coming from rain and treated sewage on site - but were disappointed at the reality of urban limitations.

Getting the development up to where it is now has cost shareholders close to a $1 million.

"When I die, I want to be reincarnated as a lawyer or a geotech," engineer Gary Calderbank says. "An awful lot of that money has gone on geotechnical, administration and proving engineering arguments. I wish it had all gone into photovoltaics and [environmental features].

"What we were trying to do is in advance of where the Resource Management Act is. [Nelson City Council] say everything's a great idea, but it's outside the act so you have to prove every aspect."

Part of the group's ethos is becoming a model for others interested in sustainability. They hold regular meetings and working bees with all concerns aired.

Before they started, the group looked at different possibilities of coming unstuck, including at other communities that had run into problems in the past.

"You can end up with a lot of absentee owners, and we didn't want that to happen," Ms Bell says.

Both Ms Bell and Mr Wood say the village's strength is that residents aren't bound by too many rules. "It's not ‘You can do this or can't do that'," Ms Bell says.

"We have a green building code but it doesn't go a great deal further than what's required anyway. Solar water and solar power, and a generator from the stream might be a thing of the future up there."

Mr Wood says one day they might be able to sell environmental products developed onsite, and develop other means of making an income. But in the meantime, he needs to find a place for the solar panels and other gear cluttering up his new-old office. There's plenty of work to get on with, up on the city hillside he calls "a little Shangri-La".

- Nelson

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