From neglected apartments to Kailash Ecovillage, by Ole Ersson

Creating a sustainably focused community in inner SE Portland, 34 residential units go fully net zero in 8 years

Kailash Ecovillage began as the run down Cabana apartment complex in inner SE Portland in 2007. Built in 1959 on 0.9 acres as a high end 32-unit apartment development, it had fallen into disrepair and one quarter of the units were unlivable. The original community spaces, including a party room and tropically themed bar, billiard hall, and swimming pool, had long been boarded up or closed down.

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View of property in 2011 a few years before starting solar

My wife Maitri and I dreamed of taking our sustainable living journey, which until then had been in single family dwellings, to the next level: creating a sustainably focused community. We had remodeled several residences with rainwater harvesting, compost toilets, and energy efficiency in mind. We investigated cohousing but no such developments were available in the SE area. So when we came across this property for sale we figured we could start our own community. Community living has the advantage of being able to easily share many resources while developing closer relationships among neighbors.

Despite initial challenges, we were able to coax the existing residents, aided by our new recruits, into a thriving community and started a bunch of great projects such as converting the run down ornamental landscape into organic vegetable and fruit gardens and restoring the neglected community spaces.

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Veganic gardens have replaced a 12 space parking lot. Meeting one’s neighbors in the garden has never been easier!

An experience working with the Energy Trust of Oregon on a passivhaus remodel of the house next door intrigued us with the idea of producing all our own energy.

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The passivhaus remodel in the center had suboptimal roof configuration (north-south axis) for photovoltaic, so we decided to focus on the main building at upper center. Community projects include an intersection painting by everyone in the neighborhood.

That is when we focused on our site’s unexcelled solar potential. The main building has an east-west axis and is perched on a small hill with no trees or other solar obstructions to the south. In 2013, Sunbridge Solar installed our initial 18kW to power the community spaces, including laundry, as well as a dormitory living space. The next year we added an additional 7kW for a second community living space. Because of weatherization upgrades these projects ending up producing more power than they could use. This lead us to the idea of using the excess for transportation and we began acquiring electric vehicles for community sharing. This year, 2020, we are adding an additional 32kW to power 10 or so residential units. Our goal is to add an additional 50kW next year to fully power the remaining units. At that point our community will become fully net zero, including our community’s three shared electric vehicles as well as a proposed shared e-bicycles program.

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The main building has great south exposure with minimal obstructions, ideal for photovoltaic power, and can power half the building’s needs, including for electric transportation. The remaining power to become net zero will come from an awning over the upper parking lot.

A natural question for anyone considering solar is how to pay for green energy investments. With the attractive federal tax credits (historically 30%, now slightly less) and Energy Trust of Oregon rebates, one should perhaps ask: how can any business afford not to make such favorable investments? In our case, we diverted from a retirement account to come up with the initial funds. This has allowed us to keep our rents substantially below market value, thereby serving our lower income population. Ultimately, isn’t this locally focused strategy wiser than leaving assets in far off mutual or other traditional funds?

For the technical specifications, and to get a taste of some of our other sustainable and community projects, please check out Kailash Ecovillage solar net zero plan 2013–2021. You can also check out our web page at kailashecovillage.org.

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