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Our goal for the physical design of Earthsong was articulated in the first of the three aims in our Vision Statement:

To design and construct a cohesive neighbourhood whose layout, buildings, and services demonstrate the highest practical standards of sustainable human settlement.

Good design is a key component of environmental sustainability. The construction industry as a whole is one of the highest users of resources and energy of any industry, and produces some of the worst pollution. Buildings last a very long time, and the initial design is crucial not only for determining the resources used in construction, but the energy required over their lifetime. Standard subdivision and house design in New Zealand don't have a great reputation for taking this into account. At Earthsong we felt we could do better.

Choice of Site

The first (and often overlooked) rule in designing sustainable settlements: Location, location, location!!

Employment, schools, shops, community facilities - all are part of a rich and connected life, and if they aren't available locally, the ecological gains from eco-building or on-site services will be severely compromised by the use of transport fuel and the resulting pollution and CO2 emissions.

Reducing private car use was a key consideration in the choice of site for Earthsong. The land search criteria agreed by the group when looking for a suitable site included being near community facilities and being a walkable distance to regular public transport. The site we found was certainly that. Located directly adjacent to the commercial centre of the suburb of Ranui, residents have easy access to shops, medical centre, library and community centre. Buses are close by, it is a five minute walk to Ranui Railway Station, and several schools are easily accessed on foot or by train.

A recent survey of Earthsong residents showed that of the 38 residents over the age of 15 and in employment, 10 went to work on foot, bicycle or train on the day of the survey. 8 work from home, 2 were overseas, and 3 work part-time but not on the day surveyed, leaving 15 residents, or only 40%, who actually drove their cars to work on that day. We expect this number to reduce as train services become more frequent and people settle in to their new location.

Criteria for land search

As agreed at Design meeting 19 June 1997

  • available now or soon
  • affordable price
  • large enough for 15-30 households
  • unobstructed exposure to north
  • sheltered from strong winds
  • sense of openness and space
  • near bush, water or open space
  • enough land for growing food
  • at least one third of the land available
  • as open space
  • ability to manage stormwater and grey-water on site
  • large tree
  • minimal toxic spraying or extraordinary
  • pollution
  • good earth energies
  • cleared with local iwi
  • quiet neighbourhood
  • walking distance to regular public transport
  • near community facilities
  • supportive and encouraging council and
  • neighbourhood
  • benevolent and patient vendor

The site was an old organic orchard, with apples, pears, citrus, kiwifruit, feijoas and other fruit, two old houses and several derelict garages and packing sheds. Before commencing the site design, the group worked together to record and analyse the qualities of the site. Land contours, water flows, prevailing wind directions, summer and winter sun angles and significant trees were all mapped and considered when site planning commenced. Further into the design process, the site was surveyed for lines of electromagnetic stress, and although some in the group felt these had no validity, small adjustments were able to be made in the building positions to avoid the lines and satisfy both points of view.

All construction is enormously disruptive of the existing environment, but this was minimised wherever possible, and measures taken to ensure the finished neighbourhood had an equal or better environmental footprint than the existing site.

Buildings and paths were designed to fit the shape of the land to minimise excavation or other major earthworks. Huge effort was taken to save all healthy trees from the original, neglected apple orchard, and with care and attention many are now looking better than ever and contribute to the established feel of the neighbourhood. Many new fruit and native trees have been planted and it is planned that the food production from the site will exceed that of the original orchard when these mature.

Community Layout

At Earthsong the neighbourhood is designed around people, not cars. Instead of a road running through the middle as in most other subdivisions, cars are parked at the edge of the site and a network of pedestrian paths curve through gardens and open space to the houses. Land is thus freed up for growing areas, for living space and safe play space for children and adults, and the neighbourhood has a spacious and peaceful feel.

Houses step gracefully down the natural slope of the land to the main central path and watercourse running through the middle of the site. Smaller side paths lead to the clusters of two and three-storey attached dwellings, giving a sense of belonging and identity within the larger neighbourhood. In keeping with our commitment to encouraging diversity within our neighbourhood, all paths have easy gradients of less than 1:12 to allow full accessibility for all.

The physical design encourages a strong sense of community while safeguarding privacy and autonomy, with many layers and transitions between private and common areas. All homes have both a community side, with front entrance opening off the path and kitchens overlooking the community space, and a more private side opening onto a private yard, so that residents can choose the level of interaction or solitude that they need at any time.

Site Coverage

As a medium density neighbourhood, Earthsong has built 32 houses and driveway on the same area of land as accommodates 18 houses plus roads in the surrounding suburb. A comparison of land use area shows that, even with almost twice the number of houses, Earthsong has less hard surface area and more land available for gardens than the surrounding area. Keeping cars to the edge of the site and clustering two-storey houses around the pedestrian paths allows 71% of the Earthsong site to be open space (excluding roads, drives and parking),compared with only 55% in the surrounding suburb.

Land use statistics

The total building footprint at Earthsong is slightly less than in the surrounding suburb (32 two-storey houses taking less land area than 18 larger single-level houses), and the total paved area for cars (parking, drives and roads) is less than half that of the surrounding area (12% as compared to 26% of total area). Our local council recognized the fact that "the site will provide substantial areas of on-site open space together with additional recreational facilities" by reducing the Reserves Contribution required of developers from the standard 6% (of the added value of the new sites) to an unprecedented 3.5%. Our case for a reserves contribution reduction (pdf) and Council response to our case (pdf)

The resulting neighbourhood is spacious and peaceful, and has a village-like feel. Children play safely on the paths, and neighbours often stop to chat as they come and go. By working with the existing landform, vegetation, and climate, we've created a beautiful and flourishing ecosystem. Nearly 70 people now live where only one did before, in a thriving and flourishing community that is nurturing the soil and trees back into health and providing a much greater diversity of plants than previously existed.