Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute: A Learning Model for Green Living

A little while back we reported on Greenbridge, a new high-density LEED Gold certified development that will be going up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the near future. While Greenbridge is certainly at the more luxurious end of the green living spectrum, it turns out that Tim Toben, one of the main players behind the scheme, also has an interest in the more experimental, grass-roots end of sustainability. Having bought 500 acres of land near Chapel Hill a number of years ago, and built a home for his family there, Toben turned over about a third of it to a conservation easement. The rest of the land has been dedicated for green building, and for Pickards Mountain Eco-institute, a hands-on community of residents, volunteers, interns and paid workers experimenting in green building, alternative energy, and permaculture gardening. The project shares its knowledge with educational facilities, and with government and community leaders, with the hope of serving as a learning model for the surrounding area. The website also features a number of slide-shows, giving a step-by-step view of some of the building projects that have so far been undertaken.One of the core aims of Pickards Mountain is to build knowledge of, and skills in, green energy and alternative fuels, and they have an ongoing experimental program incorporating wind, solar and biofuels. The day we visited, the wind was blowing, and electricity was feeding into the batteries. A sizeable solar tracking array was also contributing power. The renewable energy systems are monitored by interns and students from UNC, building up a collective knowledge of green power systems. Pickards Mountain also houses a small biodiesel production facility that produces enough fuel for about 8 families, along with a couple of farm vehicles. However, there is currently so much clean energy being generated from solar and wind that Toben is seriously thinking of trading in his Jetta in exchange for a plug-in hybrid.


Next to the renewable energy facilities is the community's garden — a small, fenced in area of intensive raised beds that grows enough food for a 40 member Community-Supported Agriculture Scheme. The garden was designed along permaculture principles by a visiting intern who trained the current residents in permaculture design. This is apparently how much of what goes on at Pickards Mountain happens, as Tim explained to us:

"People come here with a particular interest, whether it's permaculture, green building or earth ovens, and we let them develop that in a particular direction, so we all learn."

The garden is slowly expanding, aided by a moveable pen of young pigs, who are busy clearing, and fertilizing, the ground before they'll be moved on to another patch of land.


Down the hill from the garden lies the village area, which is where much of the project's natural building interests are concentrated. The site currently consists of a couple of low-impact Yomes - Yurt-like structures that are home to the interns - some compost toilets and a solar shower. There is also a covered kitchen area with an earth oven, where people gather in the summer for community dinners.

Pickards Mountain appears to be a hive of activity in various core aspects of sustainability. Aesthetically it could not be more different to the slick, up market approach of Greenbridge, but Toben sees no contradiction here. As we leave we discuss the need for everyone to embrace sustainability, and Tim is adamant that the grassroots must rise up to meet the mainstream as they both move towards a greener, more low impact, and ultimately more fun way of doing things. Hopefully, both Pickards Mountain and Greenbridge will play their part in this necessary transition.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth interview with Tim Toben in the coming weeks.

Tags: North Carolina | Permaculture

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