Two things grabbed my attention as I approached the modest cape-style house and yard in Amherst billed as a “Beyond Sustainability Home.” I noticed the abundant vegetable and fruit garden growing in the 1/8-acre front yard and the array of 16 solar panels on the roof.
Seven years ago, Ryan Harb’s parents bought this house, and he lived there when he was an undergrad business student at UMass. Then Ryan got interested in “environmental stuff” and upon graduation enrolled in the new UMass Green Building program, and wrote his master’s thesis on the transformation of his grassy front lawn into a food garden.
Ryan invited friends over in the fall 2009 for two sheet-mulching parties. They put down three inches of compost, then big overlapping pieces of corrugated cardboard, and topped it all with woodchip mulch. By spring 2010, they were able to begin planting fruit bushes, herbs and vegetables, and plants that attract beneficial insects and add fertility to the soil.
Then for a few years Ryan lived at the Sirius Eco-Village in Shutesbury, where he took a Permaculture Design Course and met building contractor and herbalism student Tory Smith. Ryan and Tory decided to jointly buy the house and continue its development into a more sustainable model of living. They appear to be living their vision: “Imagine a suburban house that produces its own food, supplies its own electricity, and hosts educational workshops for the local community.”
Garden & Food: Although the warm-season annual vegetables in the front garden were already harvested when I visited, cool-season crops from lettuce to kale, chard and collards were nearing mature size. In other areas fruiting bushes (elderberry, nanking cherry, lowbush blueberry, currants and gooseberries), are interplanted with fertility plants like baptisia, pea shrub, and comfrey, nectary plants like yarrow and catmint, and groundcovers like roman chamomile. Near the house is a garden with culinary and medicinal herbs including tulsi, lemon balm, mint, California poppies, echinacea, sage, clary sage and fennel.
Energy: PV2, a local solar energy cooperative, installed the 16 PV panels on the garage and porch roofs in 2014. As of October they were producing 75 percent of the electrical load of the household, where four people live and have two refrigerators to accommodate all the food preservation they do. They expect that the savings in electrical expenses will have paid off their solar investment in four or five years.
Social and Economic Sustainability: What was hard for Ryan to achieve on his own seems possible now that he and Tory have teamed up to co-own the house and brought housemates and close friends into a community. Redefining the concept of family, these younger adults have begun holding weekly “family nights” where they eat and spend time together.
Like other communal living experiences, this Beyond Sustainable Home model satisfies human needs too often unmet in our individualistic society. Despite the struggles and challenges, living in community satisfies the need for connection, emotional support and achieving together what can’t be accomplished alone.
Ryan and Tory also hope to use their homestead as the base for micro-businesses such as an edible plant nursery and renting extra bedrooms to students and young professionals.
Through tours and their website, they hope to provide a model which others can replicate or adapt to their own circumstances and thus help make the world a better place, As Ryan says, “Anyone can do this stuff!”