By John Boivin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice
A Slocan Valley couple is hoping their new housing development will attract high-tech workers and others looking for a simpler life.
And their project is only one of several that are looking to launch a new generation of alternative community living in the region.
“The tiny homes will be spaced out along this ridge here,” says Steve Hardy, pointing across a field of white and yellow sub-alpine flowers. “We want to give each unit lots of space.”
Hardy and his partner Abby gave the Valley Voice a tour of their 37-acre property recently. They purchased the acreage between Slocan City and Winlaw two years ago, after getting disillusioned with life in Calgary.
“We were making regular trips to the Kootenays and Okanagan, seeing what each place had to offer, the culture of each area, and we kept coming back to the Slocan Valley,” says Steve Hardy. “We liked the charm, the locals we met, the beauty of the area. And then we found a piece of property that we thought would be a great pocket neighbourhood for people who could work remotely and would like to do so in a nice place.”
The pandemic just reinforced their determination to try to find a new way of life. And they figured others shared their vision.
There wasn’t much on the property: an old cabin that has to be torn down, a second that needs major overhaul, and some fencing. But there is an organic garden, spring water, spectacular views, and a cool breeze not felt on the valley bottom on a hot day. Out of a somewhat unremarkable piece of property on the east slope of the Slocan Valley, however, they hope to create something special.
They call it ‘Big Calm,’ a “permaculture-guided tiny homestead community” for remote digital workers in the heart of the Kootenays.
“It’s a fairly modest community, within the natural landscape of the property,” says Hardy. “The majority would be long-term renters, and a couple would be guest-stays.”
The Big Calm Tiny Homesteads website outlines the project’s scope.
“We envision an ecologically sustainable, self-reliant tiny home community guided by the ‘Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share’ ethics of permaculture; and strengthened by collaboration, mutual support and the diversity and skills of its members,” it says. “Hands-on work is a feature, not a bug.”
There’s no shortage of hands-on work to do. Before the first community member arrives, the concrete pads for 10 tiny homes have to be poured, and utilities like water and electricity hooked up. The septic system is going to be top-of-the-line when it’s installed, but the last part of that project’s been delayed by red tape and supply problems.
It’s a complicated bit of development for two admitted amateurs, who are managing the building project while trying to attract residents and investors in a timely manner. But Hardy says it’s going well.
“Most of the development will take shape next year, and we’re currently putting out an investment raise – dividend-producing shares so that we can accelerate the build actually. Our business plan was perhaps too conservative. The interest is certainly there to fill the spots as we can build them.”
The Hardys hope to welcome their first tenant in the fall. That person has already purchased a tiny home for placement on the property.
It won’t be cheap to be a resident of Big Calm. At $1,500 a month for pad fees – which includes utilities – the Hardys are working to attract upscale, higher-income knowledge workers like themselves. Steve ran a software company and now consults high-tech start-ups, while Abby was a communication specialist for biotech companies.
They plan to build Big Calm to allow residents to live the Slocan lifestyle, while still earning a good living.
“This has been one of the best parts of the process for us, the people who have been reaching out to us because they are interested,” he says. “It’s from all across the country and the US.
“We have geochemists, social innovators, arts fundraisers… all across the board. But they all have a similar appreciation of wanting to make a smaller footprint in a nice natural location and still be able to effectively do their jobs.”
The Hardys have been surprised by the potential for communities like this to help grow the local economy.
“There’s actually quite a pent-up demand for it. Our sense is it’s an enormous economic development opportunity for the valley… it’s people with a commitment to the local area, who bring a net income from outside because they already have their jobs from elsewhere.”
Alternative options growing
The pandemic has created a wave of people moving out of the cities to places like the Slocan Valley. But that’s driven up house and land prices significantly, and only the well-financed can afford to buy or build these days.
That’s what’s made places like Big Calm Tiny Homesteads attractive to some. Offering a small space for a tiny home or RV, sharing the cost of services and supporting each other in a community has become an appealing idea.
Similar projects are starting or being contemplated along the valley, aimed at a more local audience.
“Off-the-grid site rental available in exchange for work trade outside of Slocan City,” a post advertised on Facebook recently read. “…We are asking for 30 hours a month in exchange for the site.”
With 150 acres on Perry’s Ridge, the developer plans to create a 15- to 20-unit permaculture community on part of the property.
While the Hardys across the valley work with contractors and hope to attract higher-income residents, this developer is pulling his project up by its bootstraps, offering space for people with chainsaw and other skills to build the community themselves.
“Skills with building, energy systems and all trades are desirable at this phase,” the post says. “Long-term, the community will require skills with permaculture, agroforestry, livestock management, medicine making, fibre arts, practical crafts, communication, facilitation, etc.”
The post makes no bones about what’s involved.
“We are looking for hardy folks to help us pioneer this effort. Experience roughing it is required,” it notes.
The post says they hope to have six sites ready for occupancy with tiny homes or RVs by this winter. Eventually a community centre will be built on site, with a kitchen, bathing and laundry facilities. The dream is to run the community as a co-op.
The carrot is building a community with others who share the same values.
“We are a group of people passionate about ecovillages, healing nature, and the arts. Looking for other passionate and inspired folks who are open-hearted and open-minded,” the post says.
The developer declined to be interviewed by the Valley Voice at this time, saying after the original post he was inundated with inquiries.
Other projects are popping up along the Valley and elsewhere in the West Kootenay. In Winlaw, the Raven’s Perch offers a single vacation unit at this time, but has plans to “build more space on the property to live and work.”
The pitch the Winlaw property makes has a familiar ring: “We’re creating an environment that encourages those who visit to reconnect with nature – the forest, lakes, rivers and mountains,” their website says. “We encourage visitors to disconnect from the outer world reality so that they might reconnect with their own nature.”
A century ago, cheap land and a desire to live communally brought thousands of Doukhobors to the region; counter-culture hippies and draft dodgers 50 years later established communes across the valley (there’s even an old one neighbouring the Hardys’ property).
The drivers may be different today – concerns about climate change, the cost of housing, and technology enabling remote work – but the attraction is the same: a desire to live in peace, in beauty, and in support of each other.
But just like past immigrants, the newcomers bring the promise of both change and growth.
“The type of people being attracted to the pitch we have would be great additions to the community; they share the values that are already here,” says Steve Hardy, who notes jurisdictions like Nova Scotia have whole campaigns devoted to attracting those kind of workers.
“I don’t’ think it’s fully set in how amazing this opportunity can be and how strong a contributor these folks would be, and how much they want to be kind of outside of the fray.”
Despite modern trappings, some things don’t change.