At home in Hickory Nut Forest: Creating a net-zero eco-community

Photos courtesy of Hickory Nut Forest

When we first walked the land that is now Hickory Nut Forest Eco-Community, we had to bushwhack our way through an overgrown forest that appeared to have had no human inhabitants for quite some time. We discovered a jewel, a wild mountain forest cut through by a tumbling, boulder-strewn creek. We discovered the stone foundation of an old gristmill that had washed away in the flood of 1916. Romantic notions arose of recreating the gristmill, as well as using the power of the stream to create electricity.

Our neighbor, Hazel, helped fill in some of the history about the place. She and her family were the last to live in the farmhouse, the ruins of which are adjacent to the gristmill site, and her uncle had worked in the mill grinding grain.

In addition to preserving the vast majority of the forest in its natural state, we wanted to create a small community where people could live in harmony with the land. We envisioned a net-zero community with green homes using renewable energy from the sun, wind and water. We bought an old apple orchard adjacent to the property and added a garden for growing our own food and herbs. Wanting to share this beautiful land with the greater community, we created five miles of hiking trails connected to 10 more miles on our neighbors’ land. A few years later, we built a community center and retreat site, Laughing Waters, for educational and community events.

Since then, our journey has evolved in many exciting ways. We began building Laughing Waters at a spot overlooking Hickory Nut Creek and planned to power it using the energy of the stream. We built it as an energy-efficient structure that received a Green Built N.C. Gold certification. We looked for a way to recreate a working gristmill, and with a crew of friends went to the Piedmont and took down an old log cabin built in the 1840s, marking all the pieces and transporting them back to Hickory Nut Forest. We reassembled it next to the stone foundation of the original gristmill and added a working water wheel. Eventurally, we hope to use it to press apple cider from our orchard downstream.

Over the next couple of years, residents of Hickory Nut Forest completed two more energy-efficient solar homes. These both have a passive-solar design, solar hot-water panels and solar photovoltaic (PV panels) to make electricity from the sun. They are now close to net-zero, generating nearly as much energy as they use. A third solar house is currently under construction.

Another homeowner has installed a whole-house rainwater collection and plumbing system. A wood stove provides most of the heat all winter, and the rainwater system can take care of the water needs.

Our most recent accomplishment has been creating a micro-hydro generator to power Laughing Waters. We spent several years researching various system designs to find out which ones were most suitable for harnessing the power of Hickory Nut Creek, while honoring and preserving the ecosystem in its natural beauty. There were lots of things to consider: how much water to divert for energy generation, what size pipe to lay, which turbine to use, how much power could be created, how to design a pond and return the water to the creek, how to install everything within the ecosystem of Hickory Nut Gorge to cause minimal disturbance, and how to best store and use the power once it was generated.

We were excited about using hydropower, as it has many advantages. Besides being a renewable resource, it involves no burning of fossil fuels and leaves no toxic byproducts or waste of any kind (all the water returns to the creek). It tends to be cheaper than solar or wind power, and once the system is running, it can produce free energy for years.

Our goal was to generate enough power to fulfill the needs of Laughing Waters and then sell the excess directly back to the utility. We settled on a 6 kilowatt-hour turbine and 6-inch pipeline for the water feed. This was based on calculations we had made of stream flow and the amount of drop in the creek, the “head.” The more vertical drop there is and the greater the volume of water, the more power can be created. To keep the trout happy, however, we could only take a portion of the flow, leaving the majority of the water in the creek.

In 2012, when we began to install the system, we faced many challenges. To get the most vertical drop, we needed to run more than 900 feet of pipeline from the stream intake down to the turbine site. Laying this pipe required fusing together 40-foot sections one at a time and then pulling the whole pipe through the woods using a 900-foot rope. Once the main pipeline was in place, the next task was to prepare the intake from the stream, including a larger intake pipe, leaf screens and a silt-collection box.

At the lower end of the pipeline, we built a shed for the turbine and dug a pond for the water to flow into before returning to the stream. Due to the rocky nature of the land, we hit large boulders almost everywhere while burying pipe and digging the pond. These giant rocks now ring our pond as a reminder of the work that went into creating it.

The final step was installing and hooking up the turbine and its related electronics. It became a huge challenge to get the various components to work together properly with the right balance of water flow, pressure, voltage and current output so it would run steadily at full power. This is still a work in progress, but we are now powering Laughing Waters from the stream, and are one step closer to achieving net-zero. With the excess energy, we also plan to heat hot water to warm the radiant floor in the retreat center, and someday we may even get an electric car and charge it from the stream!

The third leg of our net-zero plan is using the wind. Last year, we received permits to erect a wind turbine above the cliffs. We put up a monitoring pole to measure wind speeds and hope to get a grant to install a wind turbine in the future.

In our minds, being net-zero also means using permaculture throughout the community. This means taking into consideration the entire ecosystem — the plants, animals, water, soils and human structures — in our designs to work in harmony with nature rather than against it. In the community garden, we are growing organic vegetables, flowers and herbs along with fruit trees of various varieties. We recently set up a community chicken coop to share the eggs the hens lay. We hope to begin some aquaculture in the near future by stocking the pond.

The journey toward net-zero has been quite an adventure for us, and we are eager to share our hard-earned lessons with others. We welcome visitors to come out and see for themselves firsthand, and get inspired to take back ideas for their own homes and communities.

Developer/Designer/Project Manager: John Myers
Builders/Installers: Nathan Okorn, David Mount, Tommy Harris, Bill Maurer, Nate Ballinger, Bearwallow Construction

Jane Lawson and John Myers are founders of Hickory Nut Forest Eco-Community in Gerton, near Asheville, on 240 acres with waterfalls, wildflowers and mountain vistas. The community includes 23 home sites with green, solar homes surrounded by forever-wild land, an organic orchard and gardens, hiking trails and the Laughing Waters Retreat Center.