Just Don't Call Them Communes
It's the luxury edition of the American exurb: hilltop scenery, new-money mansions, horses galloping behind split-rail fences. About 25 miles west of Washington, D.C., Loudoun County boasts a median household income of $98,483, twice the national rate. It's the kind of place beloved by D.C. power brokers, whose sprawling estates serve as monuments to the American dream. These days, however, Loudoun County is also at the forefront of a very different if no less American vision: the commune.
The idea that like-minded individuals should forge a community is on something of a comeback tour. An online directory of "intentional communities" has more than doubled in the past two years to 1,295 in North America, and 20 new listings are added each month.
Past imperfect. But forget the term commune. Try "ecovillage," where residents live in Earth-friendly homes on communal land, or "cohousing," where a common house serves as a gathering place. Driven by a green ethos and discontent with impersonal suburbs, residents frequently dine together, share possessions, and baby-sit one another's children. But shared income is a thing of the past, and private homes are essential. Still, the old stereotypes of socialism, drugs, and rebellion dog these communities. "We've fought this for years," says Joani Blank, a cohousing advocate who lives in a divvied-up former market in Oakland, Calif. "Our ideology is about neighborhoods more than anything else."
Poverty and disillusionment drove many older communes to extinction, but the idea was reincarnated, particularly in Europe, in the post-Cold War era. By 1995, Danish activists Hildur and Ross Jackson had created the Global Ecovillage Network to promote sustainable living around the world. Even some of the most archetypal communes, such as the 1960s socialist experiment, the Farm in Tennessee, have reshaped themselves. In New York, the 175-acre EcoVillage at Ithaca boasts two 30-home neighborhoods, office space, and working farms.
Two of these modern day communities took seed here: the EcoVillage of Loudoun County and the cohousing community of Catoctin Creek Village. Passive-solar houses are clustered together, with overhangs to block high summer sun and large southern windows to capture low winter light.
On a recent evening, the compressed-straw walls of the home of Mike Saedlo and his wife, Maggie Scobie, held about 25 EcoVillagers for a vegetarian potluck dinner. Saedlo and Scobie moved their family from Bethesda, Md., for the quality of life. "Everything is shared here," Scobie says. "Even lawn mowers."
Former healthcare professionals Grady O'Rear and his wife, Tena, and two other families founded the EcoVillage in the late 1990s. The group was committed to green living, but the O'Rears also wanted to correct the isolation they saw in many communities. Bankers wouldn't touch it, forcing O'Rear to drum up much of the $800,000 for 180 acres from private investors. Since then, finding builders interested in or able to meet the strict green standards has been a challenge. In 2006, the EcoVillage sold half the property. On the other half, 13 of 26 lots, each smaller than an acre, are built or under construction. The homes, replete with vaulted ceilings and space-saving measures, cost a minimum of $400,000. Hardly hippie money. Heating and cooling comes from geothermal pumps, while the brown decks are made of recycled milk jugs.
Nearby Catoctin Creek Village has come alive only recently, says founder Kevin Oliveau, who bought the 164-acre site in 1999. Three of the six modular, Cape Cod-style homes were finished in the past half year. Nine of the 18 lots are sold. A 200-year-old farmhouse serves as the common house. Terrie Waters says she brought her husband and 13-year-old daughter here because she found the suburbs lonely and boring. Residents gather a few times a month to share meals or parse duties, and all decisions are made by consensus.
Longtime residents tried to block the development, then brawled over whether the small lane leading to the community could handle the extra traffic. The dust-up eventually blew over. But lot sales have been slow.
That might be because many idealists find they're not up to the intense financial and personal obligations. "The truth is they're hard to create," says Daniel Greenberg, a Massachusetts-based scholar of intentional communities. "You're creating a business and a marriage." Increasingly, activists are spinning existing communities into educational centers for green living. Even so, proponents are encouraged by the movement's steady growth in places like Loudoun County, where any type of living is a luxury.
This story appears in the August 13, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.