If you happen to be cruising down a valley-snaking road about an hour’s drive east of Reykjavík, there’s a chance you’ll curl around a grassy embankment and notice, nestled among rolling hills, Iceland’s lone ecovillage. The Sólheimar Ecovillage has existed sustainably since it was founded in 1931 by trailblazing humanitarian Sesselja Hreindís Sigmundsdóttir. Tucked between hills clustered with spruce trees and dapples of wild-flowers, Sólheimar’s fertile locale, as well as its commitment to innovating Sesselja’s early vision, allows it to create a place that is truly unique, not only for Iceland, but the world.
About 100 people live and work in the community, all of whom play an important role in keeping it running and moving forward. Indeed, Sólheimar (meaning “sunny worlds”) places an emphasis on community, its population including people with special needs (nearly half of the residents), volunteers, instructors, administrators, and guests. And while Sólheimar, like every community, must work to improve its sustainability going forward, it occupies a refreshing niche for guests who travel with the goal of seeing life through a new lens.
This “intentional community,” as is increasingly the preferred nomenclature (considering that “ecovillages”—small, sustainable communities—have existed for thousands of years without necessarily placing focus on eco-friendliness) was started by an eager 29-year-old with a vision. Often credited as Iceland’s first environmentalist, Sesselja was one of the first in the region to successfully implement permaculture and organic horticulture, as well as a Nordic pioneer in care and education methods for people with mental challenges. Furthermore, she was ahead of her time with regard to her implementation of Rudolf Steiner’s teaching methods, her insistence on practising reverse-integration (essentially basing the structure of the community around those with special needs) and—almost as controversial at the time—pushing a vegetable-heavy diet. Today, Sesselja’s spirit lives on at Sólheimar through a community-based, integrated approach and a focus on environmental sustainability.
In Sesselja’s spirit
Situated at one of the highest points of Sólheimar’s verdant swath of land, Sesseljuhús resembles a modern Nordic ski lodge, angular and driftwood-clad. As the nucleus of Sólheimar’s environmental emphasis, the building is used to host conferences and meetings, and is home to exhibitions that focus on placing environmental topics, such as electric cars and renewable energy, in an Icelandic context. Furthermore, Sesseljuhús leads by example, as it is partially powered by solar cells and a wind turbine, supports Iceland’s first natural waste treatment system, and was Iceland’s first modern PVC-free building. Constructed from driftwood found on Iceland’s beaches and insulated with Icelandic lamb’s wool, old phone books and newspapers, Sesseljuhús represents Iceland in its most deliberately sustainable form.
According to Sesseljuhús Project Manager, Herdís Friðriksdóttir, the building functions as an ecocentre and regularly welcomes groups of students interested in environmentalism in Iceland. “Our task is to spread the word and teach other people about sustainability,” she says. Last year’s recycling exhibition ran in conjunction with an initiative to improve awareness within the ecovillage, which led to a 63% reduction of general waste output after the first few months.
Herdís and her fellow Sesseljuhús employees are able to test out these initiatives in an Icelandic microcosm, though, admittedly, one with inherently heavier environmental leanings than its macro counterparts. For a possible future exhibition, Herdís sees water usage as an area in which Sólheimar, and Iceland as a whole, can improve its awareness: “Another thing we could do with the community is focus on water conservation, because I don’t really think Icelanders truly understand the value of water.” She continues, “Because we have so much water in Iceland, people think that they can just keep the tap running.” In keeping with Sólheimar’s longstanding mission, Herdís emphasises the importance of establishing habits that will assure a healthy future for the community.
Though they place an emphasis on living sustainably, Sólheimar is not entirely sustainable. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a community anywhere in the world that is sustainable in the truest sense of the word. However, in order to be recognised as an ecovillage, a community must satisfy one of three pillars of sustainability: environmental sustainability, financial sustainability, or social sustainability.
While Sólheimar uses photovoltaic solar cells, a windmill, and, unique amongst ecovillages, a geothermally heated water borehole, they still depend on the grid for much of their electricity. Though they make money from their guesthouses and workshops, Sólheimar relies on government funding, rendering them not truly financially sustainable, either. Where the “ecovillage” designation comes from is where Sólheimar’s real magic lies—within the community itself. They are considered socially sustainable due to employment opportunities, skill development programs, enriching social activities and therapeutic programs for all citizens. These elements are reflected at features such as the church, theatre, and market, but most of all, their workshops.
Sólheimar has six separate workshops, devoted to candlemaking, woodworking, painting, ceramics, weaving and soap-making, all of which emphasize reuse and recycling. Although they employ a few professional artists and instructors, much of the work is done by Sólheimar’s citizens with special needs. Some of the artwork is on display in a fantastic ongoing exhibition and a wide variety of homemade products can be purchased at the on-site market, though some are sold in Reykjavík as well. In the workshops, as well as in the greenhouse and kitchen, Sesselja’s core Steiner-inspired teachings are flourishing in combination with her enduring concentration on sustainability. It is this ever-present mixture that makes Sólheimar a remarkable place.
These days, most people in first world countries are able to keep environmental issues at arm’s length. In a society of “end users,” we don’t see our food as coming from a farm (or factory) and having a carbon footprint of its own—to many of us, food comes from the colourful, shimmering aisles of Bónus and other supermarkets. With society’s help, we’ve built up strategically placed ignorance regarding the things that sustain us. Due to this insulation, those rare moments when we break through our cognitive dissonance are valuable and can be strangely satisfying.
Even as a guest at Sólheimar, it is easy to appreciate a community so focused on making a difference. While Sólheimar isn’t perfect, it is refreshing to be immersed in the spirit of trying to do the right thing, from practising basic human respect to developing a deeper environmental consciousness. We become so dependent on certain securities—our comfort zone, our habits, our image of the world. It’s easy to subconsciously use them like a flashlight, illuminating what we keep straight ahead of us in order to get through the day.
At Sólheimar, the flashlight becomes dimmer. It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust, but once you do the view is wholly rewarding.
If you’re looking to volunteer, head to www.solheimar.is to fill out an application.
Overnight guests are welcome to stay in the guesthouses, but prospective guests are asked to book their accommodation beforehand.
In addition to clean, spacious guesthouses, Sólheimar features:
- A café serving locally grown organic food.
- One of the area’s largest forest preserves.
- A church that regularly hosts concerts in the summer.
- An organic food and craft market, and more.