Ashevillage: A Living Laboratory

Photos by Max Cooper

Push the envelope beyond green living and green building: The Ashevillage Institute and Sanctuary aims to create “resilient” living, says founder Janell Kapoor. She describes Ashevillage as a “living laboratory,” located on an acre in the downtown-Asheville area.

“The vision … was to create both a living demonstration of sustainable solutions in action in the urban environment [and] a sanctuary — a place of beauty, respite and inspiration,” says Kapoor.

The Institute is the organization’s nonprofit half, offering workshops, tours and programs. The more recently formed Sanctuary offers guests lodging and accommodations and provides site maintenance, she explains.

Ashevillage “was originally inspired to be a local model of what I was doing internationally,” says Kapoor. She got her start in permaculture and natural building after attending a 1997 natural-building workshop. Since then, Kapoor has taught natural-building workshops stateside and across the globe in Southeast Asia, South America and Europe. In 2004, she founded the nonprofit Kleiwerks International as an organizational umbrella for her worldwide work; in 2006, she started buying the three adjacent, downtown Asheville properties that would become a home for Ashevillage.

“It was the headquarters for Kleiwerks, but really, in time, it’s [developed] its own identity, and it’s less tied to the international work,” she notes.

Although Kleiwerks still fiscally sponsors Ashevilleage, Kapoor explains, she hopes to have it financially independent within the next year and gain a board of directors. She describes the process as an exciting time, saying, “It feels, in some ways, like we’re at the beginning, because a lot of the first years have been developing the site, most of which has come to completion.”

Renovating Sanctuary: Waste-stream redirection

The Sanctuary branch is comprised of two houses that were built in the 1920s, and both and were renovated mainly with materials from the waste stream — that is, discarded materials. Kapoor and a revolving team of craftspeople used discarded materials to make their own earthen plasters and paints for interior walls and ceilings, as well as exterior surfaces.

Retrofitting “is something that is most important in the green-building world,” she says. “The property was trashed, totally trashed [when purchased]. We have, I think, really done a lot to heal [it] and show what’s possible in a backyard using, again, mostly salvaged materials along the way.”

The earthen plasters and paints were made with such ingredients as recycled clay, sand, marble dust or mica, wheat paste, milk and water. The resulting natural plasters and paints were used over different surfaces, including the original plasters, wood lath and drywall that were in the house. The natural materials have endured six years of living, she notes.

“This is a practice that is applicable in conventional building,” Kapoor says. “We also did the exterior over the brick with earthen plaster using a subsoil clay. … For a year, we had no gutters, and we’ve had all kinds of weather, and it’s just held up beautifully.” The exteriors were finished with a 1-to-5 mixture of Elmer’s glue and water. “It was maybe $10 of Elmer’s in the end,” she recalls. “It’s certainly a way to replace the really toxic paint[s]. These solutions work in any environment; they can be done in office buildings [and] any kind of new buildings.”

Ashevillage also tapped the waste stream for the backyard stonescaping. The courtyard and amphitheater were constructed mainly with salvaged or donated stone. “About half of it was made with what’s called ‘urbanite,’ which is a recycled concrete; it’s old, ripped-up sidewalk,” Kapoor says. “It’s replacing mining up a new mountain for its stone by using and rerouting the waste stream into usable material.”

For the Sanctuary, the renovation team also used salvaged and recycled furniture, windows, curtain fabrics and other such goods to furnish the sanctuary interior. “We don’t participate much in buying new things unless we really need to,” says Kapoor, describing this as a “hidden, but very ecological practice: [It’s] less we’re buying into the [new-product consumerism], and using what’s already there.” She points out some curtain material, noting that it came from a friend who had an old organic-diaper company. “She donated these fabrics,” says Kapoor. “And the curtain rods are local bamboo that we harvested.”

Permaculture, aquaponics and water bio-filtration

Part of Ashevillage’s living laboratory is a near 18,000-gallon stormwater-catchment system that includes a bio-filtration canal and aquaponic system. Site engineer Ash Aymond and former Ashevillage colleague Shawn Jadrnicek designed and developed the canal system that taps into the overflow of water after storms.

When the stormwater is initially captured, it will be channeled through a 100-foot system that has a 10,000-gallon holding capacity, including a bioswale component that will consist of edible and medicinal plants and fungi. The water will then travel via small canals to another 6,000-gallon pond that acts as a central holding tank. The system includes a pump to keep the water moving and prevent stagnation or pests, Aymond explains.

The aquaponic system (which combines aquaculture fish farming and hydroponic plant gardening) includes the fish farm and greenhouse, an estuary and a pond. For the time being, the two water systems are separate, but Aymond plans to have them connected, with the canal system fully operationally by summer 2013. “Everywhere that you walk on the property you’ll hear water, you’ll see water,” he says, “The next phase would be to really populate it with fish — catfish, bass and tilapia. We’ll have tilapia [only] in the greenhouse, because they’re an invasive species.”

The long-term goal is to eventually have an effective natural-filtering system in place that converts polluted stormwater into fresh drinking water.

As a permaculture model, this system doesn’t exist for filtration only. It is a living mini-ecosystem with fish, mushrooms and plants that have culinary and/or medicinal use; the only input to the system will be nutrients, Aymond adds. “The only thing you have to feed in the system is the fish, and the fish feed the plants, and you can eat the fish and the plants,” he says. The fish food will come from the Sanctuary by way of food scraps. There’s a solider fly larva composter on site that “converts” food scraps into fish food (soldier flies eat and lay their eggs in the compost; the eggs hatch into solider fly larvae; and those larvae are fed directly to the fish). This closed, self-aerating system is “kind of the way to go with composting,” he says.

In addition, the property is plumbed for a gray-water system, although it’s not currently active because North Carolina code doesn’t allow for it, Aymond says. “Eventually, I think it’s going to happen, and so when it does … we can just turn the knob and start using [it].” Gray water is considered biodegradable, coming from the non- and low-toxic detergents and soaps used in hand washing, dishwashing, bathing or washing clothes; it’s a liquid biological waste that can be used as lawn and garden fertilizer. Using gray water keeps it out of the local sewer system, which treats “black” water — solid human waste, heavy salts, toxic detergents or chemicals.

The system depends on a small yet mighty element: microbes. These beneficial bacteria are what make a permaculture model possible. “You put all your gray water into the ground, these microbes chomp it down,” Aymond says, adding, “They actually make plant food. They convert it directly into plant food. The same thing with the aquaponics system: You have the fish and the plants, but what sits in between the fish and the plants are the microbes.”

Intensives, immersions and initiative programs

The Institute focuses on a wide array of educational programs, offering tours to schools, community organizations and private visitors. “We’ve had Evergreen [Charter School] eighth graders come. There were 60 of them,” Kapoor says. “We were their favorite field trip ever.”

The Institute is also developing a new platform of one- or two-week-long Applied Ecology and Resilient Living programs that will include seven different workshops, such Bee City, Urban Food Security, Wise Water Management, Natural Building, Community Place-Making, Transitional Economy and Leadership and Deep Ecology, Permaculture and Wild Living. Groups of local specialists — or “practivists,” as Kapoor calls them — will run each immersion program. “The goal is, people will be coming from out of town who intend to learn from what Asheville has to offer, and then take back what they learn and put it to action in their own communities.”

Along with exporting Asheville’s green innovations to other communities, the immersion prorams will help strengthen the local sustainable-living community by bringing together like-minded people who share information and create the workshops. “There’s things happening here that aren’t happening in other areas in the South, for example. But we’re on a spectrum,” Kapoor says, referencing Jason F. McLennan, who started the International Living Future Institute and the Living Building Challenge. “I’d love to see [Asheville] become really a serious hub — a dedicated city of what [a living building city] would look like. … We have the right ingredients.”

In addition, the Institute is exploring a potential partnership with the new Sustainability Studies graduate program at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville campus.

“I think it was Einstein who said, ‘The solution to the problem is much more complex than the problem itself,’” Aymond says.“A problem that was created out of a certain complexity, to create the solution for it, you’ve got to really understand it at a higher level. … We want to bring in the people that are on the cutting edge and studying this stuff, and they know about the 50,000 pollutants that are in the water and what kind of plants you need to take those pollutants out.”

System Designers:
Janell Kapoor, Shawn Jadrnicek, Sunil Patel, Steveo Brodmerkel, Ashley Aymond,
Project Design-Builders: Jarad Barkeim, Reida Sage,; Aaron Maret,; Eva Edleson, Meka Bunch,

Jo-Jackson is a freelance writer.