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Twin Oaks Intentional Community
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Achieving Sustainable Development:

The Eco-Village Contribution

Report on a Study Tour July - December 1997

by

Malcolm Hollick

Senior Lecturer
Centre for Water Research
Department of Environmental Engineering
The University of Western Australia
Nedlands 6907


Western Australia

and

Christine Connelly

Research Associate

 

Centre for Water Research Publication: ED 1363 MH January 1998

3.5 Twin Oaks

Location

Near Louisa, Virginia, USA. Contact address: Twin Oaks Community, 138 Twin Oaks Road, Box W, Louisa, VA 23093, USA.

Statistics

Founded in 1967. About 500 acres; normally around 100 members, but down to about 80 in mid-1997.

Ecosystem

Gently sloping land bordering a river at the lower end. Mainly mixed deciduous woodland, with some pastures, orchard and vegetable gardens. Hot humid summers and moderately cold winters.

Beliefs and values

Twin Oaks was originally inspired by B F Skinner's utopian novel "Walden Two" which is based on behavioural psychology. Today, the philosophical basis is much wider, but some legacies remain in the management and work systems. There is no common spiritual basis but several spiritual traditions and new age ideals are now represented within the community

Twin Oaks believes strongly in three principles: egalitarianism, diversity and non-violence. Many of its complex rules are designed to ensure equality between members, and diversity of beliefs and values is welcomed. The ideal of non-violence extends to all aspects of relationships both within and outside the community.

Legal structure

Twin Oaks is a for-profit corporation but has special status similar to a religious order under s.501(D) of the tax act. This imposes some constraints on the community, but saves them paying income tax. Members are paid a 'dividend' which is taxable, but in most cases their total income does not exceed the tax threshold.

Financial structure

The original farm was bought by one member who was paid back later. All subsequent land purchases, building developments and equipment purchases have been made without loans.

There is no joining fee or payment on leaving. However, any assets owned by new members are frozen until they leave, and, in theory, income earned on them goes to the community. In practice, some people avoid this through family trusts and similar arrangements.

All members work within the community, although they are not forced to do so. Earnings of anyone who chooses to work outside go to the community. All income from community businesses is shared, but the community has found the need to maintain some personal incentives such as additional holidays in return for overtime, and permission to keep money earned in outside jobs whilst on holiday.

In return for their labour, members receive free accommodation and food, clothes, health care, education for their children, and any other needs, plus a monthly allowance of $60. Personal possessions are restricted to what they can keep in their rooms. Hence, there are no private cars or other major consumer items.

The community does not pay social security contributions for members, preferring to provide for aged care itself. However, this can cause serious problems for members who leave, particularly if they stay for many years, since they will have reduced or no pension entitlements.

Social Structure

There is often a waiting list for membership. Prospective members must take part in a 3 week visitor programme which includes special orientation sessions and experience in various work areas. During this period, applicants are interviewed by the membership committee which determines if they are suitable. Difficulties can be created by many factors such as expensive health problems, or maintenance payments to children of a previous marriage. The process is designed for screening individuals, which can create problems for couples. Difficulties also arise with families since Twin Oaks has a policy of allowing only 1 child for every 5 adults. In principle, the community is open to immigrants, the poor, and people from minority races. In practice, they have found that few black people wish to join, and behavioural norms rule out those from cultures which use verbal abuse and accept domestic violence. Following the visitor period, it is possible to spend up to 6 months in residence without becoming a member. For several years, turnover of members was quite low, but a sudden spate of departures, for no coherent reason, had reduced membership by about 20% in mid-1997.

Major decisions that affect the whole community are made by 3 'Planners' who serve 18 month staggered terms. New planners are chosen by the current ones from those nominated, but any appointment can be blocked by a vote of 20% of the members. Planners cannot serve two consecutive terms, and must be out of office for at least 6 months before reappointment. Usually there is only one candidate willing and able to take the position, and campaigning for office is not allowed.

A large part of the Planners' job is to be available to discuss issues with individuals, to become familiar with community feelings, to identify new issues, to ensure information is made available to members and to seek opinions and feedback. They meet 2-3 times a week for about 3 hours in open session to deliberate and make decisions. Because of their sensitivity to community concerns, decision-making can be very slow and appeals are rare. However, any decision of the planners can be overturned by a petition signed by a majority of members. Any member can initiate change by putting up ideas for discussion on the Opinions and Ideas board (O&I). There is some discussion about changing to a consensus decision-making process, but this would probably be too cumbersome for a community of this size.

As well as the Planners, there are several Managers who take responsibility for various aspects of community life. Managerial decisions can be appealed, first to a Council of Managers, then to the Planners, and ultimately to a meeting of all members as a voting body. A simple majority is adequate except for changing the by-laws which are very powerful and hard to change. Implementation of decisions is sometimes difficult because those who did not agree with them may continue their opposition.

The range of values which the community welcomes and encourages is a source of constant conflict. One to one feedback is common, but if this fails a feedback meeting may be held at which all criticisms and support are aired. Individuals also may resort to airing personal issues on the O&I Board, sometimes resulting in a nasty paper war. Some members become withdrawn, lonely and may even leave because of this atmosphere of conflict, although others find it stimulating. Personal and couples counselling and mediation are available to those who need them.

Each member has a private room with shared kitchen, living and bathroom facilities. There are several dwellings, each of which has a 'Small Living Group' (SLG) of 8-20 members. Several of the buildings also include workspaces, such as the hammock shop, community laundry and book indexing business. New members are initially assigned a room wherever there is space, but when a member leaves other members have the option of moving into that space. Hence, over time the SLGs become sub-communities of compatible people. The kitchens in the dwellings are used mainly for breakfasts and snacks. Most people gather at the main community building for prepared lunches and dinners. Most members are vegetarian, but the cooks also cater for vegans and meat-eaters, and regularly have dishes with and without onions.

Members do not have private cars and share a community pool of 15 vehicles. There is a daily shopping trip during which the shopper buys things requested by members, but anyone wanting to make a trip to town for recreational reasons must book a car and pay for it. The charges are quite low, but nevertheless few trips can be afforded on the personal allowance. This means that it is hard to form and maintain friendships outside the community, or to be actively involved in local affairs. This results in a somewhat inward-looking community, although groups of members are active in various charitable works (See section on Interaction with outside world).

Television is banned by mutual consent, although video recordings of some programmes are available. Recreational facilities include the Bijou theatre (used for films, yoga classes etc), basketball and volleyball courts, children's playgrounds, a swimming pond and river pool, canoes, surfing the internet, music (2 pianos and lots of guitars). The weekly gathering at the Compost Cafe is a lively scene in which members entertain each other.

Economic Structure

Twin Oaks has developed a self-sufficient economy which avoids the need for any members to have outside employment. This is very unusual amongst small communities. About 75% of their income comes from making around 12,000 hammocks a year for the Pier 21 chain of stores. They have achieved a high degree of vertical integration in this business, spinning much of their own rope from polypropylene yarn and undertaking all stages of stretcher and frame manufacture from milling of the oak logs to final finishing. The only components they buy in are the metal parts. Some of the hammock weaving is sub-contracted to other communities.

Hammock-making has provided a stable economic base for many years, but the community would suffer badly if Pier 21 decided to change to a different supplier. As they are mainly an import business, competition from third world countries is particularly strong. So far Twin Oaks has managed to hold the contract not only through competitive pricing, but also by maintaining consistently high quality and an after-sales service which repairs worn or damaged hammocks free of charge. They have managed to achieve this quality control through careful training and supervision while retaining a very relaxed, flexible and people-oriented work environment (see later) - no mean achievement! A further 10% of the community's income comes from production of tofu and tempeh products, and there are a variety of smaller businesses such as book indexing and the window method for teaching children to read.

The need for money is greatly reduced by the extensive internal economy which includes:
• Growing most vegetables
• Keeping a cattle herd for dairy products and some meat
• Food preserving, eg tomato sauce and salsa for winter
• Food preparation and cooking
• Drying herb teas
• Building construction and maintenance
• Motor vehicle, agricultural machinery and bicycle maintenance
• Firewood from sawmill and wood shop waste
• Primary health care with support from a local doctor
• Counselling services
• Aged care for members
• Self-insurance of buildings
• Book-keeping and other management functions

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Twin Oaks is the labour credit system. It has evolved from Skinner's ideas in Walden Two, but has become so complex that few people seem to understand it fully. All members work a basic 45.5 hour week (7 days at 6.5 hours average). This is actually a much lighter load than it appears because labour credits are given for many things which most people in the mainstream economy do in addition to their 40 hour jobs. These include cleaning, laundry, shopping, cooking, and child care. Also, there is no commuting time. Everything is accounted in hours, and hence no distinction is made between the value of different kinds of work, with a few exceptions. The biggest of these relates to child care. Young children can be looked after at least part of the day by 'metas' and 'primaries' who get full credit for their time. However, parents who take time to care for their own children get only a partial credit related to the age of the child. When all these factors are put together, it adds up to quite a lot of leisure time, and many members work for surplus credits which they can use to 'buy' extra holidays. As a result, most members have 6-8 weeks holiday a year. The work load for older members is reduced by one hour per week for each year over 50.

Each week, every member fills in a labour sheet setting out what work they want to do for the following week. Also, each area Manager submits requests for labour to do the necessary tasks. A labour assigner then goes through the complex task of matching these two sets of demands. Draft assignments are then issued, and members have a chance to ask for revisions before the final assignments are made. Members are able to do much of their work whenever they wish during the day or week. As a result, the 'work day' stretches from 8am to 10pm, or even into the small hours of the morning for 'night owls'. A common phenomenon is to walk into somewhere like the hammock weaving shop and find no-one there in the middle of the day, but for it to be a hive of activity in the evening.

At first one wonders how a business can possibly be run like this - but it works. Twin Oaks produces products to a consistently high standard, on time, and has held its contract for many years. One key is training. For example, the hammock nets are produced in 6 major and a few minor stages. The operations are not complex, but require the development of manual dexterity and consistent habits to ensure mistakes are not made. The training is careful and thorough, but patient. There is a strong emphasis on safety and good work practices to avoid fatigue as well as on product quality. Each stage is inspected. Mistakes are expected and gently corrected. Speed is not an issue, since it is the number of hours worked not the number of hammocks produced which counts.

Another key to success is 'multi-skilling' - everyone learns more than one job. In the hammock shop, for example, this means that anyone walking in can quickly assess what needs to be done and get on with it. There are no bottlenecks and no need for large stockpiles of parts between operations. Perhaps a third key is the vertical integration already described. If a large consignment is occasionally required, members are quite happy to work extra hours to meet the demand.

Despite this general success, there is little doubt that some operations are less efficient than in a normal company. Perhaps the most obvious is the rope spinning. This is the most profitable operation and yet the rope machine was often idle when we visited, and the community was buying some of its rope instead of selling surplus. The rope machine is unpopular because it is very noisy, and the operator must work alone and concentrate quite hard on keeping everything working smoothly. With the fall in membership, and hence high demand for labour from all sectors, it was easy to avoid this job.

Much of the work is repetitive and boring but, despite having many highly intelligent members, the community has chosen not to move into more professional work. Depending on noise levels in the workplace, work time can be an opportunity to listen to music or converse with friends. As an inducement to spend time in the hammock shop, where most hours are needed, it has been equipped with individual headphones at each work place, linked to a variety of sound sources so that individuals or small groups can choose their own entertainment while they work. Several members have succeeded in turning their 'hobbies' into work for which they receive labour credits. Examples include herb and flower gardens, furniture making and an artist.

One difficulty with the flexible work system is that it becomes even harder than usual to get members to meetings. One way around this is to use written discussion of issues via the O&I Board. Another is to schedule meetings in the hammock shop so that people can work while discussing business matters.

The labour credit system works on trust, depending on members to do the work they are assigned rather than managers recording work hours. Such recording would, in any case, be almost impossible given the flexibility of work hours. This makes it very easy for members to cheat, at least in the short term, and it is accepted as a price of the system that not everybody pulls their full weight. However, it was claimed that most cheats are uncovered in the long run.

The extent of sharing is high, as indicated by the fact that the only personal possessions are what can be fitted into a member's room. There is even a communal clothes store - 'commie clothes' - from which members can take clothes at any time. They can keep these for personal use, or simply put them back in the community laundry when finished and take other items.

Overall, the quality of life is high, but the standard of living by normal measures is quite low for the USA. Members adopt voluntary simplicity.

Interaction with outside world

The comment has been made above that its rural location and the limited availability of motor vehicles create a self-sufficient community from the social and cultural point of view. However, Twin Oaks is far from isolationist. They see themselves as a model alternative, and, indeed, have spawned a few 'daughter' communities which run on similar lines. They welcome anybody, not only prospective members, into their visitors' programme, and have a visitors' building which can accommodate about 8 people. They also organise large outdoor conferences, such as the annual WomenÕs Gather and Communities Conference. Twin Oaks is a major supporter of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) and the Fellowship of Intentional Communities (FIC), both financially and in terms of work hours. Work in all these areas receives labour credits.

Small groups are active in local affairs, such as cooking a meal once a week for the Freedom House refuge, helping with the local school 'Head Start' program, and contributing to the local animal rescue service. Several thousand dollars a year are donated to a diverse range of causes. Again, some labour credits are also available for this work.

The community is well equipped with computer systems, and maintains contact with other communities and organisations via e-mail as well as telephone and fax.

Technological systems

Money and other resources were scarce in the early days when the community was racing against time to provide shelter from the first winter. Hence early buildings paid little attention to environmental issues. However, each new building has become progressively more energy efficient. 'Tupelo' is a mid-70's experiment in passive solar design which has proved quite successful. Like all the buildings, it is constructed from local timber, but incorporates such features as water-filled drums to provide thermal mass, and glass roof sections with sliding panels to exclude the sun in the hot summers. The most recent building is 'Kuweah' which is a modern passive solar design. All dwellings have been built by community members, and they are currently extending the large warehouse. The original warehouse is the only building constructed by outside contractors.

Most buildings have been fitted with solar water heaters with propane gas boosters. Half of 'Kuweah' is powered by an array of photovoltaic cells. Sawmill and wood shop scraps are used for heating the buildings, augmented by some firewood harvested sustainably from their own woods. Cooking is done with propane. For further details see the Section on How Twin Oaks is an Ecovillage below.

The community has its own underground water supply. All sewage is transported to a central treatment plant from up to a mile away. This plant is being upgraded to meet environmental standards. An experimental composting toilet was not a success, and the building is now used as the Compost Cafe (for smokers). Most organic wastes, including 'wet' toilet paper, are composted; recycling is extensive.

The swimming hole, constructed in the last few years, has its own natural cleansing system. Water is pumped up to a pond and reed bed filter system, and is then aerated using 'flow forms' before re-entering the pool. Some difficulty was being experienced with algal growth at the end of summer when we visited, but the pool was clearly healthy to judge by the hundreds of large frogs which lived in it.

Organic farming methods are used, but even organic pest sprays are avoided. Kelp sprays are used to strengthen vegetable plants and deter pests. Tractors and a wide range of agricultural machinery are used. Much of the land is conserved as woodland.

As noted above, the community has no private cars and a pool of 15 motor vehicles for 100 members. Coupled with its economic self-sufficiency, this makes it one of the most efficient communities we visited from the transport energy perspective - the only other one which comes close is the Findhorn Foundation. The community is also very conscious of the need to minimise transport energy internally. The buildings are widespread, with the industrial 'Emerald City' being a mile uphill from the 'Courtyard' where many members live. The community provides and maintains a large pool of bicycles to overcome this problem. Any member may take a bicycle from a rack outside one of the buildings and leave it at their destination. The only restriction on this is that it is regarded as poor etiquette to ride a bicycle down the hill without later taking one back up. Without this norm, all cycles would end up at the bottom! Several elderly or disabled members have secondhand electric golf carts for getting around. Extensive use is also made of hand carts for moving things eg vegetables from the garden to the kitchen.

Community businesses are equipped with appropriate machinery, sometimes at substantial cost. Examples include the sawmill and woodwork shop, rope-making machine (an old one that was completely rebuilt), vehicle and machinery maintenance shops, and the tofu-making machinery.

How Twin Oaks Is an Eco-village

Twin Oaks was established decades before the term eco-village was invented. Nevertheless, in many ways it is an eco-village, as their recent self-assessment reveals.

Twin Oaks

What a thriving community, and what an aim - to be as egalitarian as possible. This radically different community has persisted in its ideals through much criticism and transient membership. The complicated rules aimed at achieving this goal have created a bureaucracy that some shy away from, but the underlying spirit is caring and just. The level of sharing is very high and works surprisingly well considering the western preoccupation with private ownership. Maintaining this shared equality is a challenge, particularly when new members with their unique needs arrive on the scene. Finding ways to deal with each new situation tends to add more layers of complexity to the rules.

Quite large as intentional communities go, we found this group to be highly organised and yet with a looseness which allows people to live in their own rhythms, even if that means working all night and sleeping all day. Perhaps their greatest achievement is the ability to employ all their members within their own businesses and internal services.

Established 25 years ago with few resources, its older buildings and technologies are not as 'green' as the community would like, and they are putting a lot of energy into improving their performance. They also put a lot of energy into networking with other communities and hosting gatherings to promote the development of the intentional communities movement. As a result, Twin Oaks has become famous, both through the honest, self-critical writings of Kat Kincade, one of the founders, and as a result of independent studies and regular media coverage.

As older people with a love of peace and quiet, we found the constant use of music to lift the mood in the less pleasant daily tasks a trial at times. We acknowledge how valuable music is but would suggest instead of blasting themselves with canned music for much of the day, they lift their mood from within by singing together as they work. The effect this can have is surprisingly strong especially if musically gifted individuals undertake to really develop a leadership skill in this craft.

We admired the energy with which members tackled mountains of washing up or huge vats of food processing. But we did feel there was a certain amount of dispiritedness which possibly comes from not making use of their high levels of intellect.

Personally we would prefer a community with a clearer spiritual basis. For the above and other reasons, we would not want to live at Twin Oaks, which is perhaps best suited to single people with no family ties. Nevertheless, we are filled with admiration for this community which has so much to teach the western world. May you and your daughter communities continue to flourish.

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