Ecotopia, named after and deeply inspired by Ernest Callenbach’s utopian novel of the same name, is a knowledge centre focused on permaculture and sustainable development in Sweden, run by social entrepreneurs Karin Malmgren and Roland Birgersson. The operation is intended to help bring about a sustainable future and explore holistic solutions.
When talking to Karin and Roland, one word comes up in conversation more frequently than any other: Inspire. Karin speaks to me about helping to encourage the world through the period of transition from industrial to post-industrial, with Ecotopia demonstrating just how much people can do with a holistic view of a plot of land and a commitment to permaculture.
Karin’s own training in permaculture is based on a certification obtained in Austria under the tutelage of Ronny Wytek, a teacher certified by Bill Mollison, at the Keimblatt Ökodorf Projektcentrum in Steiermark. She stresses the importance of seeking to maintain a high quality in teaching and comprehension since the principles of permaculture are somewhat open to interpretation. One strand of Ecotopia’s efforts to spread permaculture and sustainable ideas and skills is through the provision of its own courses.
Ecotopia sits on 7 hectares (17.3 acres) of land in Sweden’s Skåne county, on the southernmost tip of Sweden at a latitude comparable with northern England. On the property is a 19th century Swedish farmhouse of the common regional style referred to as a ‘skånelänga’, a long crofter’s cottage. The traditional form is in a single-level large U-shape, with a house, stables and barns comprising each of the sides.
The assessment of the site was as deep and long as permaculture demands it to be, with an initial period of exploration lasting two years. Information was gathered on the fauna and flora, the water, the materials in and of the soil, and more. Once collated, questions could then be asked about what else was needed or desired. The resources of the farm are enormous. The food output today naturally far exceeds the requirements of its owners.
The first significant addition to the site was beehives, to assist with pollination. After that came vegetables. Today the system also includes goats and sheep, hens and roosters, a number of new buildings and additional plants.
The land on the site is recorded in the title deeds as being of relatively poor quality when compared with local soils. Nonetheless, as Karin says, it is “amazing what you can get from these 7 hectares” using the principles of permaculture as a guide. “There is no bad soil in the world,” she says. The soil at Ecotopia has been steadily improved since the site was acquired in 2006 with the addition of organic materials, through the use of high quality horse manure and seaweed, among other things.
The old farm buildings are still in use and have been extended with additional sections. The site also hosts a natural water filtration system, two solar arrays for electricity and hot water, and the associated storage facilities in the boiler room. I ask if details of these systems might be put online but Roland emphasises the importance of not providing off-the-shelf solutions, which could threaten the ethos of inspiring others to self-reliance and development of their own solutions.
The new buildings are all constructed using a mixture of techniques and based on designs developed without external assistance. One critical factor in providing inspiration is ensuring that the work behind Ecotopia is done entirely in-house. Were that not the case others would be less able to see themselves constructing their own solutions. A brief experiment working with an architect failed because she “wanted to make her own solutions” and design in a non-ecological way. It was also expensive. “To take on an architect (would mean) we could never really inspire people to build houses in a low budget way,” Karin says.
Three small eco-cottages have been added, each based on different building materials and using a range of techniques. A ground source heat pump supplies the heat to all of them. The variation in the array of cabins gives people a chance to sample and see what might be possible.
Almost all of the materials are found on the farm, including clay, used for the creation of bricks and for wall covering, wood for cladding and interior construction, sand and stone for foundation and walls. Some novel materials, such as cellular glass, and particularly durable materials, such as larch cladding, are also used where appropriate. The ease of building using the techniques on display here is emphasised by the time-scales required to complete the work, measured in days rather than weeks or months.
The new buildings also include a large eco-cafe and a ‘future workshop’, a grand, vaulted timber-framed room with a large window that looks out across the farm, used for education, music, and more. The buildings are a particularly impressive demonstration of the idea that “you have everything – you don’t have to go back to the old society and consume,” as Karin says. The buildings were so cheap and easy to make, she suggests, that all young people could take inspiration from these models and build for themselves.
One aspect that strikes the new arrival, a surprising and significant solution presented to them by a visiting student from Linz, Austria, is that the longest sides of the largest buildings are placed parallel and relatively close to the busy road outside. Managing the road was the closest thing to a problem that Ecotopia has had to confront; it carries an average 2,900 vehicles every day and generates noise at a volume of 85dB. Building elsewhere on a plot of this size might seem the obvious decision to make, but placing the buildings along the road in this manner actually shelters the rest of the farm from road noise and maintains tranquillity. Karin stresses again that the solutions generated by Ecotopia are not intended to be copied, but in the case of this particular building layout it has been such a success that “everybody should do it.”
Inspiration is also shared with the local community through the organisation’s involvement in various local projects, which focus on building up local networks for resilience, engaging in education, and facilitating discussion. In the initial years of the project the outreach efforts were more forceful than they are today, with the involvement of the local community sought directly. Karin says she “started strong and really wanted everyone to do everything together”, but the days of knocking on doors are past as response was unexpectedly weak. Recent efforts include involvement in a seed bank, which has uncovered experience among some local citizens, working with an ecological growing group, and ongoing engagement with a local group of nuns. The softer approach to engagement may be bearing fruit, as local people are coming this year in significant numbers to get fully engaged in courses, often with the entire family in tow.
A new display has just been added in the eco-cafe demonstrating key elements of the farm and what it produces. A website for the project is maintained in English, German and Swedish, and they are happy to discuss specifics for those who are interested.
Tours take place on Saturdays through the open period, from February to November. A calendar is available on the website which includes details of the training courses in green building, permaculture design and more, as well as a blog with regular updates on projects, permaculture activity, and other developments. You can find the English version of the website at: www.ecotopia.se/en
Roger Vaughn is an expat Brit who lives with his partner in southern Sweden. Above all else, he loves to discover good ideas in action. He spends most of his time toying artlessly with the notion of the new Nordic cuisine, reading, writing, and trying to memorise the Swedish names of local plant life.
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