Kailash Eco-village, Portland, Oregon, USA


I had the great opportunity to stay at Kailash Eco-village for ten days in August last year. It was the last stop on my trip around eco-buildings in the USA and it did not disappoint. Kailash shares some similarities with Los Angeles Eco-Village – in that it is a deliberately urban project which enables people to rent eco-units and participate in some collective activities. What was most appealing was the explicit focus on affordability – using a rental rather than owner model.

Situated in south east Portland in what a realtor might call an ‘up and coming’ neighbourhood (Creston-Kenilworth), Kailash took over an old 32-unit apartment building built in 1959 on a one acre site. Bought by Ole and Maitri Ersson in 2007 they explicitly wanted to create an affordable and accessible way for those on low incomes to participate in a sustainable community. In effect it allows people to try out community living without the risks (or barrier) of capital investment.

All the units are one-bedroom apartments with a typical living area of 565 square foot. Units can be rented at approximately $650 a month in 2010, low for the area. They have also added a dorm room “as not all residents are able to afford their own private unit” (www.kailashecovillage.com). There are currently 48 residents, ten of whom were resident when the block was bought. Those who have joined since the Ersson’s took over have had to pass a selection procedure and agree to certain stipulations.


Inside a refurbished unit and a typical floor plan

Each apartment is gradually being remodelled using ecological principles in order to increase energy efficiency – using eco-materials, fitting low-flow shower heads, installing water metres in each unit, adding extra insulation and double-pained windows. They are experimenting with materials, trying to balance low cost with ecological properties. For example, they trialled using carpets but the wear has been too high and so have moved to using laminate flooring (which uses more glue but is likely to last longer). Fundamentally however the very act of retrofitting rather than demolishing has proved both ecological and cost-effective.

There are a great many other future projects which Ole and Maitri would like to do as Kailash is only three years old; including rainwater harvesting and an exterior make-over. The whole block faces south and so benefits from passive solar but they are hoping to install external blinds to prevent overheating in summer.


Bike racks and communal compost

Kailash have deliberately tried to create lots of different types of communal space. There is a community meeting room with a large kitchen and another next to it. There is a laundry room which has storage spaces, post boxes, recycling bins (including items not normally recycled like plastics, styrofoam and shredded paper), and communal equipment like a vacuum cleaner. There is also a separate garden and tool room. There is collective bike storage and composting. Other areas like the balconies and walkways are also explicitly considered communal and this is used for things like a ‘freebie’ shelf where people put things they no longer want for others to use. Community is encouraged through people encountering each other in these spaces, getting to know their neighbours, a weekly community night and work parties. Perhaps most interestingly, however, was the decision by Ole and Maitri to not have collective decision making. Instead Maitri is the Community Manager and they make all decisions. This has simplified and speeded-up their ability to get Kaliash off the ground and to make renovations.


A variety of communal spaces: balcony and walkways, garden seats, community meeting room

Gardens space is segmented into individual plots (ten are available in total), with communal tables and chairs. Gardens are important here to the extent that one of the first changes was to turn an old swimming pool into a new terraced garden area. Encouraging gardening is core to the eco-village and with this is mind they made the choice to limit the amount of communal garden – instead hoping that individual plots would encourage people to be creative and invest time in their own space. It seems to have worked. All lawn (bar one tenants) has been turned into active garden and despite being small the gardens are a wonder of colour, production (strawberries, tomatoes, bees) and calm retreat from the city. This emphasis on creating a beautiful place is evident throughout the site and is an important part of Kailash – making eco-living seem attractive and appealing, a ‘shining example’ for others to follow.


The whole site is arranged to encourage tenants to participate, to encourage people to get involved, but not to penalise if they do not. There is an interesting balance here between rules which might enforce ‘green behaviour’ and the benefits of people deciding to take green actions themselves. The eco-village has mission and values statements which encourage residents to value ‘the diversity of our community’, ‘regular community gatherings’, ‘common facilities’, ‘frugal use of energy and resources’ and ‘human powered transport and its infrastructure’ among many other things. There is a monthly pot-luck vegan meal and veganism is encouraged but not enforced. Likewise ample bike storage is offered, external clothes lines and wooden clothes dryers are communal, and car parking spaces limited. It is a subtle process of leading by example.

On the other hand individual unit water metres are gradually being installed to encourage reductions in water use, and tenants have to commit to recycling as part of their rental agreement and agree that all communal spaces are vegan (including the garden which excludes the keeping of chickens). Overall, the emphasis is on behaviour change rather than relying upon the ecological features of the building to reduce energy use. Many of these changes are also low-cost, so cycling rather than driving, not using a tumble dryer and reducing water use all save money.

When I first arrived at Kailash I had struggled to understand how it was a ‘village’ or a ‘community’ in the sense that I had understood other eco-projects I had visited. But after ten days I really began to value the different approach taken here. Everyone I had met had been immediately welcoming but there was also a beautiful slowness in getting to know Kailash and understand it’s perhaps more subtle sense of community. Its emphasis on affordability has also opened it up to a more diverse range of people than other projects, and although the small size of the units might ultimately limit who can stay (as in there are limited possibilities for large families) this also creates a much needed space for singles, couples and the younger and older generations.

There is also merit in not using all the collective energy of a place to make each decision and allowing others to take the lead. It opens community to those who are busy and committed to work or projects elsewhere. Perhaps this does lead to a slight sense of disengagement for some residents, but it is unclear to me whether the lack of engagement in work parties (for example) is an effect of the lack of individual ownership, or participation in decision making, or simple reflects the slow process of growing a community. My experience of Kaliash suggests that this divergent form of being an eco-village opens up sustainable living to more possibilities and far more people.

For further information about Kailash eco-village see their website: www.kailashecovillage.com

[23rd April 2011]

8 thoughts on “Kailash Eco-village, Portland, Oregon, USA

  1. Affordability is still a major issue with Eco Buildings. Many people are still under the illusion that Eco means cheap and this is simply not the case. the only way to make something cheap is to mass produce it and have a mass audience to sell it to. Altough there is a mass audience ( everybody in the world) there is a lack of promotion from governments and authorities, I hpoe this changes soon and Eco buildings get more exposure in our lives. This site seems to be showing the first property with a reasonable rental cost which is a massive leap forward. Going to show this to a few people.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for your comments and I agree totally, there are lots of misconceptions about costs of eco-housing. On this site I am trying to compile alternative examples of what is possible. If you come across any other examples please let me know!

  2. Even the design is traditional and usual, the environmental friendly facilities are valuable. The residents are also can grow some plants at the back yard and no need to buy vegetables from supermarket any more.

  3. I had struggled to understand how it was a ‘village’ or a ‘community’ in the sense that I had understood other eco-projects I had visited. But after ten days I really began to value the different approach taken here. Everyone I had met had been immediately welcoming but there was also a beautiful slowness in getting to know Kailash and understand it’s perhaps more subtle sense of community.

    1. Hi Allen, I agree. When I first arrived I felt that it was mis-named, but actually the community aspects are subtle and the freedom to participate or have more freedom in your life actually gives this place a very nice and real feel. People take part in things because they want to not because it is on a roster. As a result there is a nicely diverse range of people who have different lives, and the community feels stronger for it.

  4. There is a great event coming up in Portland at the Japanese Gardens that your readers might really enjoy. Andy Couturier will be speaking about his book, A Different Kind of Luxury, which is a book of eleven portraits from rural Japan that offer new pathways to meaningful work, creativity, and sustainable living. Here’s a short URL: http://bit.ly/jKevBE
    The talk is on October 27th. If you have any questions please email me:
    Thank you!

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