Mike Shannon approaches the Common House at the Ecovillage. (Photos by C. Parrish)
Mike Shannon approaches the Common House at the Ecovillage. (Photos by C. Parrish)
The expansive view of the fields sloping down to the Little River from Mike and Margie Shannon’s place outside of Belfast looks as isolated and contemplative as a scene in an Andrew Wyeth painting.

That’s a little deceptive.

It was raw outside those windows, the kind of damp that weasels in through the walls to shiver the spine. There wasn’t a breath of a draft in the Shannons’ home, though, which doesn’t sit alone at the top of the field. It’s a super energy-efficient duplex in a development with 36 homes clustered together on a 42-acre farm called the Ecovillage.

Ten years ago the Ecovillage was an experiment on paper. Now, it’s a fully occupied fact.

The Shannons, now in their 80s, started thinking about giving up their remote off-the-grid house on the side of Frye Mountain in Knox where they had lived for 25 years over a decade ago. They were getting older and planning their future. They didn’t want to live in a retirement community and considered moving into Belfast, where they had a wide circle of friends.

Their decision to move coincided with a homegrown effort to establish a new kind of development with houses designed to have a light impact on the environment and where people of all ages could live together in a community-minded village.

That appealed to the Shannons, retired educators who were environmentally inclined and wanted people of all ages nearby.

The path from idea in 2007 to breaking ground wasn’t smooth. Meetings took up all day Saturdays, then half of Sundays. No bank was writing mortgages for the project, and a financial consultant advised the group that they could manage to self-fund the project. When it came time to put the money down — $30,000 each to buy a share of the land and start building the development in 2009 — four or five long-time enthusiasts dropped out. Others joined.

“We started out using consensus on all decisions,” said Margie Shannon. “We read books on cohousing and tried to go by the books. Eventually, we decided not everybody had to be involved in every little decision.”

It was like incorporating a new town, said Mike Shannon.

“It was all about trust,” he said. “We were all different, and we had to meld different values and get on the same page. In the end, facilitation was crucial to making it happen. We were close to breaking ground and couldn’t agree on whether to do it in the fall or wait until spring.”

The $8 million development that became the Ecovillage three miles from downtown Belfast did come together. In 2012, the Shannons were the first to move in. The cost for their share of the community and its assets was $80,000. Their 900-square-foot duplex cost $160,000 and feels like a well-crafted boat. They’ll have no trouble selling it when the time comes. The view pours in the ample windows, but it is so tightly built it could be heated with a hair dryer.

“When I used to light a candle in the house on Frye Mountain, the drafts would blow the flame around,” Mike Shannon said. “Here, the flame goes straight up.”

In fact, the houses at the Belfast Ecovillage, which were designed by G.O. Logic in Belfast, have 14-inch-thick walls, triple-glazed German windows and R-80 roof insulation. They’re almost soundproof. The Shannons can’t hear their neighbors, even though they share a wall.

An air-exchange system brings fresh air in continually, without losing heat.

“I have never lived in a house so comfortable,” said Mike Shannon. Or so inexpensive to operate. G.O. Logic houses are designed to be ‘Net Zero,’ that is, to produce as much energy from a solar array on the roof as they consume.

The Shannons’ home is not quite Net Zero, but close. The Shannons get a credit for the electricity produced from solar panels on the roof that feed into the CMP electric grid and end up paying about $350 a year for power.

They have electric heat.

The Belfast Ecovillage is technically a condo association with a shared mission of living lighter on the land while increasing joy through sharing community chores and helping each other out.

The houses are clustered together and surrounded by gardens and fields where a community-supported farm has produced crops for sale.

Recycling, composting, living in smaller houses than most Americans do, generating power, growing vegetables and raising chickens all adds up to a community that consumes less and wastes less.

The modern inception of cohousing, which comes from Denmark and started to make a mark in America in the 1980s, values living in a community and building relationships with less constraints than religious communities tend to have and more autonomy and organization than many communes managed. Ecovillage residents are expected to contribute a few hours a month to community upkeep. The Common House, with its woodstove, large kitchen, laundry, children’s play rooms, offices, and two guest suites, is the social center that allows people to make connections and feel comfortable living in smaller homes.

Residents in the Ecovillage own their homes and can sell them or rent them out, if they choose, though there are constraints on the profit they can make: three percent over what they paid, plus the cost of any improvements.

Each household is responsible for their own finances and welfare — this isn’t a commune — but folks who choose to live at the Ecovillage keep an eye out for each other.

Shannon said people are always curious about the Net Zero houses with their Scandinavian aesthetic. At its heart, though, the Ecovillage isn’t so much about housing as it is about learning how to live together and get along.

Sarah Lozanoca, 39, moved to the Ecovillage from Wisconsin five years ago after a nationwide search to find a cooperative community with a natural setting where she could raise her two children

“I wanted to be in a town I liked, too, and this allowed my kids to have relationships with other kids and people of all ages. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned neighborhood,” she said. “There is a spirit of generosity among the people who live here. People come together and help those who have disabilities or hardships or who have given birth or fallen ill. They help.”

But individuals also have to have a high level of commitment to work through conflict.

“That becomes extra important when you live in a community like this,” she said.

Mike Shannon agreed.

“You have to think about ‘We,’ not ‘I want this.’ It’s no longer my yard or your yard. Where is the boundary? There isn’t one. When you haven’t grown up that way, it’s hard.”

“Have you heard that saying? ‘Collaboration comes at the speed of trust.’ That’s the way decisions are made here,” said Shannon. “And that forces you to continue to grow.”