Planning an Alternative Community *EDIT





Jonathon Duggan



Some people have an idea and look for other people, others start with the people and the idea grows. Whichever the case, in order to continue to grow and actualise you must attempt to put your beliefs into practice. For those of us who seek to adopt an alternative life style, the immediate implication is to acquire the physical conditions to facilitate the proposed way of life. This will almost invariably begin with a search for a suitable rural site. The acquisition of such a site and an approach to site planning and farm and dwelling design for alternative communities is the subject of this article.


Resolution of Aspirations and Ideals From the outset community members should be individually and collectively engaged in accumulating and sharing an inventory of knowledge, skills and resources. 'Knowledge is the basis of choice through an analysis of alternatives and their predictable outcome.' 1 The project must be seen in a global context, for only then can the worth of the proposed alternative be assessed. To keep animals as meat-producers, for example, is to provide for a luxury diet denied to millions across the world. If we are talking survival criteria, then a vegetarian diet is imperative, for a greater number of people can be fed from a hectare of vegetables than from meat-producing animals grazing on a hectare of pasture.


At an early stage ideas, aspirations and ideals should be resolved in principle. This includes such issues as standard of living, the degree to which contact with the existing social fabric is to be retained and the level of commitment to social, educational and ecological objectives. Community members however, must remain sufficiently flexible to change their ideas as they change with the project. The process of decision-making is most important.


If a team of planners, architects or other advisers are engaged to work on the project they should work in close collaboration with the client group and develop all aspects of the project by a group effort. 'The people for whom the design team works should be part of the design team.' (Papenek). 'If you're not part of the answer you're part of the problem.' (Cleaver).


Choosing a Site Should the community buy existing accommodation and convert it to suit its needs or should it seek unimproved land on which it can build new accommodation? Generally speaking, if a suitable house on suitable land is not available then it is advisable to take the place where the land is appropriate, for it is easier to build accommodation than it is to make land fertile and productive. The first step in the exercise of securing a suitable site is to determine the general areas in which the group should direct their initial enquiries. Some of the major considerations are:

1.  Access to community facilities, employment and public transport arteries. Maximum tolerable commuting time is the limiting factor.

2.  Aesthetic value

3.  Price

4.  Agricultural suitability Rainfall and soil interact to determine the suitability of the land for food production. Soil should be fertile to minimise hardships.

5.  Space requirements A 0.5 hectare plot (200 metres x 25 metres) can supply 75% of food requirements for a family of four if intensively farmed. Comfortable provision for full subsistence would amount to 1.5 2.0 hectares.

6.  Zoning Planning controls may specify limits of land use, allotment size, maximum number of dwellings per site and may impose various aesthetic and conservation controls. Likely locations of future urban growth corridors should be determined.


Inspection and Assessment of Site The above considerations can be mapped on separate sheets and overlayed to determine the general areas most suited to the future community's activities. Prospective sites within these areas can now be inspected and assessed. Consider:

1.  Access Quality of roads.

2.  Aesthetics

3.  Topography North-east to north-west slopes are advantageous for placement of accommodation and for growing food as they extend the growing season by delaying frosts.

4.  Soil Dark-coloured soils are generally the most fertile, yellow-brown soils indicate low fertility. Sand and clay are poor producers.

5.  Water supply If the annual rainfall exceeds 750 mm sufficient water for household needs can be collected by house and shed roofs. The potential of the site for the development of water catchments for agricultural purposes should be assessed.

6.  Power Location with respect to centralised power sources may or may not be desirable. If solar energy is likely to be used, ensure that possible positions of collectors are not shaded from low-altitude winter suns by hills. The use of wind to generate electricity is really only feasible when the average daily wind speed exceeds twenty four kilometres per hour and thus suitable sites for wind generators in Australia are mostly only on mountains and coastal areas.

7.  Shelter Investigate the availability of local building materials. Timber and rocks on-site may be advantageous. Most soils can be adapted to earth construction. Old disused buildings in the area could be purchased, dismantled, transported and rebuilt. Old quarries could be utilised.

8.  Local regulations Consult the local council on the use of unconventional building methods (e.g. earth wall) and on permissible sewage disposal methods.

9.  Costs To prospective farmers, cleared land is worth about $250 per hectare more than natural bush. Assess the saving in capital investment by existing dams, buildings and fences.


Legal Implications While searching for a suitable site, the group needs to be considering the legal implications of their proposed life style. They could base their relationship for common ownership of property on a verbal agreement of trust, but many feel that such reliance on trust is difficult to maintain over an extended period of time and can only lead to the dissolution of the community group. A written contractual basis would seem to be the most secure. In Australia there are four traditional legally acceptable ways of owning group property:

1.  Joint tenancy Each owner of the shared property holds an individual share of that property. Recommended only for groups with strong legal blood ties (e.g. family communes).

2.  Tenancy in common Each owner of the property has a specified and divided share of that property, the shares usually being divided according to the proportion of the total outlay. Suitable when there are not more than eight people involved, all of whom have a reasonably stable relationship.

3.  Cooperative Society Must be established according to the rules laid down in the Cooperatives Acts in various states and must be registered with the State Registrar of Cooperatives. Cooperative Societies are recommended for larger communities (of at least seven members) where there is a likelihood of a transient membership.

4.   Private company Must be formed in accordance with the various States' Companies Acts and must be registered with the State Registrar of Companies. Companies, however, are generally not recommended for communalists due to the initial expense in forming them and the rather more complicated management procedures.


Planning Once a suitable site has been purchased planning can begin. The basic starting point is a site survey which involves the compilation and ma p p in g of the physical characteristics of the site. It may include:

1.  Microclimate Sunshine, radiation, wind velocity and distribution must be determined for both summer and winter, and the location of rain shadow areas and frost pockets may be important. It would be helpful to establish automatic recording instruments on the site to monitor the microclimate.

2.  Soils State Departments of Agriculture are usually prepared to carry out free soil tests.

3.  Vegetation Location, type and extent. Aerial photographs of all land in Australia are readily available from the State Government Crown Lands Departments.

4.  Wildlife habitats

5.  Water supply Existing and potential sources.

6.  Existing land uses

7.  Topography Contour maps available from various sources—State Crown Lands Departments, Australian Department of Minerals and Energy (National Mapping Division).

8.  Local building materials and human resources A composite map of this physiographic data will indicate the physical capacity for development of the land, its susceptibility for despoilation and its inherent restraints and opportunities for single and multiple land uses.


The social aspect of planning can be treated by establishing the hierarchy of privacy in the proposed community. There might be four levels of social interaction to be provided for—the individual, the family, the cluster and the community. This analysis, together with a checklist of activities of the community, can be used to prepare an activities relationship diagram which consists of circles representing activities which are joined by lines where interaction occurs.


From the site survey the alternative possible locations of all accomodation and servicing facilities on the site are determined. In the light of the hierarchy of privacy and the activities relationship analyses, the combination of elements which comes the closest to satisfying all of the requirements simultaneously is then selected. Frequent visits to the site at all stages of planning are essential so that  drawing board design and on-site experience mutually reinforce each other.


Most alternative community groups are concerned with environmental issues and seek to minimise their own impact on the environment in their new life style.  In terms of farm design and the domestic service installation this means taking the closed system approach. Plants, animals and humans all live together in association, forming an ecological loop, simulating the natural closed cycles of energy and materials in the biosphere. The farm is seen as an integrated life support system where the waste products of each activity feed the next activity. There is minimum wastage of energy and matter (nutrients). There is minimum pollution.


The design of each individual dwelling, cluster or community will attempt to accomplish an autonomous life-support servicing unit independent of the conventional network services. The common features of such schemes are:

1.  Utilisation of solar, wind and other forms of ambient energy as sources of heat and power.

2.  Design integration of domestic equipment and fittings to reduce energy requirements.

3.  Recycling of heat, water and certain waste products to achieve maximum efficiency.

4.  Utilisation of human and household waste by conversion to energy and other useful components.


The importance of minimising the energy cost of servicing becomes clearly apparent when it is realised that the annual consumption of energy to service a conventional house approximately equals the total amount of energy required to build it in the first place.2 This enormous annual energy ex- penditure can be reduced by an estimated fifty per cent by carefully designing the house to suit the local climate.

A further consideration implicit in the quest for a low impact technology is the utilisation of building materials which require least energy to transport, manufacture and install, and which are capable of being recycled at low energy cost.




Two alternative life style projects in which I have been involved in a design capacity have been the Cottlesbridge Alternative Life Style Project and the Moora-Moora Cooperative Community at Healesville , both in Victoria. 


The Cottlesbridge Project was focused on three specific aspects:


1.   A life style where three urban nuclear families we re to be combined into one expanded rural family. They sought to provide 'an environment where adults care and children see caring as an integral part of their lives'.3

2.  Application of low-impact technologies and independent means of power supply to domestic, rural and transport services.

3.  Client and architect being part of one design team.


In July 1973 the three families enlisted our help—five final year architecture students from Melbourne University—to assist them in working out the design implications of their proposed life style. They might buy an old house and renovate it or they might design and build new accommodation. They wished to grow as much of their own foodas possible and pass any excess on to urban consumers. They were not intending to abandon their professional occupations or social and cultural involvement in the city. They simply wanted for their home life a more natural rural environment than the inner city or suburbia could offer.


The development of the project followed closely the general guidelines recommended in this article. An 8.1 hectare site at Cottlesbridge was selected, a site survey prepared, and site planning was almost completed when the project unfortunately folded due to unforeseen personal and financial difficulties.


The Moora-Moora Cooperative Community at Mt Toole-be-wong near Healesville is of a much larger scale (likely number of shareholders to be 60 on 250 hectares) and their primary concerns have a slightly different emphasis. They seek to:

1.  Create a social environment which calls forth humanity and creativity in surroundings where there is privacy and community. The basic unit of the community is to be the cluster.

2.  Create 'a learning environment that facilitates full realisation of the member's potential, a centre that involves people of all ages, where learning is throughout life and integrated within one's living situation.'

3.  Minimise impact on the existing natural systems by recycling wastes, utilising natural energies, designing buildings to fit in to the natural environment and adopting a low-impact life style in general.4


The architect group involved with Moora-Moora comprises three of the five who worked on Cottlesbridge plus one Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology student. The approach being taken to problem-solving and design remains much the same as it was for Cottlesbridge, although the issues involved are far more complex because of the need to provide for a greater number of people with more diverse interests and backgrounds. We have been individually and collectively involved with the Moora-Moora members in conducting a site survey and compiling an inventory of human and material resources. We are now moving into an analysis of the collected information, and expect to have site planning completed and the autonomous energy systems designed well before the end of 1974.


In conclusion it should be said that the physical conditions which facilitate the life style of an alternative community are not independent of what is already known. Science and technology are simply being redirected from the hard to the soft, from the high impact to the low impact, from the mega scale to a scale of human comprehension and involvement. As members of an alternative community, we are not attempting to prescribe a way of life or mode of operation for anyone else—indeed, it may not even be the answer for ourselves. But the only way we can find the answer is by giving it a try.



This article is based on the following sources: Billord, Ron: Burns, Mask; Dawson, Geoff; Demarte , Roger; and Duggar, Jon, Alternative Life Style: Interim Report Stage Vols 1 and 2.

Final Year Design Thesis, School of Architecture and Building, Melbourne University, 1973.

Dawson , Geoffrey and Duggan, Jonathon, What's the Use of a House if You Haven't Got a DecentPlanet to Put it On? Vols 1, 2 and 3. Final Year Design Thesis, School of Architecture and Building , Melbourne University, 1973.


1. Extract of paper entitled 'Aspects of Housing for an Alternative Life-style' delivered by client group to an open seminar 'Alternatives in Architecture' at the School of Architecture. Melbourne University, 30 Nov. 1973.

2. From a paper entitled 'House Construction and Ecology' delivered at the same seminar by William Barlow, 29 Nov. 1973.

3. 'Aspects of Housing for an Alternative Life-style', Ibid.

4. Moora-Moora Cooperative Community Plans. 

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