The Cape Cod Ark
The snow is shin deep, the mercury well below freezing. In the stunning clarity of winter sunshine, a complex triangle of glass rises from among the dazzling white drifts. A layer of condensation obscures the details of the verdant world inside, but as I draw closer, the green takes shape: a forest of kale, hanging baskets of alyssum, beguiling arch of pole beans. Hyacinths float atop vats of greenish water, as catfish swim in lazy circles.
In contrast with the cold, white world I just stepped out of, this winter landscape feels like paradise. As I quickly shed layers, my muscles release their frigid tension and my face relaxes into a smile. The air is humid, teeming with the sweet smell of soil, of respiring plants, of life. I take a seat at a table next to a sandbox filled with toys. A faint gurgle of water disguises any sound of the outside world.
If paradise is a place where the impossible becomes tangible, Hilde Maingay and Earle Barnhart’s Cape Cod Ark is heaven on Earth. But it’s not just a pleasure for winter-deprived senses. True to its name, the Ark is a study in self-sufficiency, an ecosystem unto itself.
“I call it my Club Med,” Maingay is fond of saying. But “vacation” isn’t part of the spry, smiling Dutchwoman’s vocabulary. As we talk, she neatly cuts fronds of kale and trims parsley for dinner. She climbs onto a rock embankment to pluck two ripe lemons from a tree heavy with fruit. “We’ll have lemon mousse for dessert, I think.”
Unlike Noah’s Ark, the Cape Cod Ark isn’t a myth based on catastrophe. It’s the product of years of research by scientists like Maingay and Barnhart at the New Alchemy Institute, a research and education non-profit that operated in the Falmouth village of Hatchville from 1971 to 1991. For the past four decades, the Ark has served as an example of how people living in cold climates can sustain themselves—without relying on fossil fuels—year round.
Founded by former scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on a defunct dairy farm, researchers at New Alchemy spent two decades teaching and studying “ecologically-derived human support systems”. While wind turbines and solar panels are familiar sights these days, and composting and organic food are generally accepted tenets of “green living”, the New Alchemists conducted some of the first scientific studies into these alternatives, and put them into practice. They received grants to develop everything from renewable energy to energy-efficient housing, from agriculture and aquaculture to aesthetically-pleasing permaculture landscapes. In other words, the New Alchemists looked to nature to understand how humans could live more sustainably—and healthfully—on a small scale.
What began in 1971 as a small plastic dome over a wading pool filled with tilapia evolved five years later into the Cape Cod Ark. By slowly tweaking the design, adding this plant and replacing that material, the Ark became a self-sustaining machine for supporting human, plant and fish life, year-round. Based on an original concept developed by architects Sean Wellesley-Miller and Day Chahroudi, several bioshelter prototypes were designed or presented at New Alchemy, including the Prince Edward Island Ark and the Arkipelago Bioshelter Apartments in Maine.
Combining a range of theories in physics, biology and ecology, the Cape Cod Ark remains New Alchemy’s crowning achievement. Now measuring 1800 square feet, the Ark contains a plethora of plants arranged in neat terraces, some for cooking, some for encouraging beneficial insects, and others for their sheer beauty. Frogs lurk in an in-ground pond, eating pests and filling the space with song. Nine solar hot water tanks double as fish ponds, providing thermal mass and habitat for edible fish. The water, warmed by the sun and full of nutrients from fish waste, circulates around the Ark with a solar-powered pump, irrigating the vegetable and herb beds.
On a late fall day, tomatoes were thriving happily in pots, and kale and pak choi pressed against the windows. Alongside a flowering ginger plant, a rosemary bush with a stem the size of a fist thrust its fragrant spikes into the humid air. Tall piles of Indian corn and winter squash harvested from the outdoor garden took up every available space. Maingay has even grown bananas and loquat in the Ark, an experiment so successful that she decided these luxury items took up too much room. Though the waning sunlight slows down production from December to February, Maingay and Barnhart are delighted to have a source of fresh greens and herbs from their Ark garden all winter.
“Our grand plan is to grow food all the time, and eat it as fresh as possible,” explains Barnhart in his calmly proud manner. “To be able to go out and pick food and eat it immediately is the greatest luxury in the world.”
As vegetarians, Maingay and Barnhart raise koi and catfish in the solar fish ponds for pleasure, but theoretically they could harvest 40 pounds per year. In the New Alchemy studies, the fish ponds doubled as mini hydroponic farms, growing up to 18 heads of lettuce per week. Now, water hyacinths grow on the surface of the tanks, which helps filter the fish waste, and makes great chicken feed.
While the Ark was first developed in the wake of the 1970s oil shortages, its energy-efficient design is perhaps even more relevant today. The main light source is the sun, which fills not only the greenhouse, but also Barnhart and Maingay’s adjoining home with plentiful and free natural light. Photovoltaic cells perched on top of the Ark supply all their electricity needs. Combined with the stone and cement walls and walkways—and the soil and plants themselves—the water in the fish ponds soaks up heat during the day, releasing it slowly during the night. When the sun is shining, the temperature hovers around 90 degrees, and no lower than 40 degrees at night, no matter how cold it is outside. Not only do these balmy conditions allow the couple to grow herbs and greens year-round, it gives them a serious head start on their outdoor seedlings.
As miraculous as this indoor ecosystem is, it very nearly didn’t survive—in fact, it was only designed to last a couple years. Due to a lack of funding, the New Alchemy Institute dissolved in 1991, and the Ark was abandoned while the property transformed into a private co-housing community. It wasn’t until 1999, when Maingay and Barnhart built their own home in the development, that the Ark got new wind in its sails. Working with Maingay’s son, architect Ate Atema, the couple built their energy-efficient house onto the north side of the greenhouse. They replaced the weakened wood structure with steel framing, and replaced the fiberglass windows with triple-layered glass and polycarbonate.
More than an architectural and biological marvel, the Ark represents a vision in which humans do not simply consume, waste and pollute. It’s living proof that we can be an integral part of a closed-loop system in which our survival does not come at the expense of other living things or the climate. After Barnhart and Maingay eat the vegetables from their indoor and outdoor gardens and the eggs from their chickens, they compost the food scraps or feed them to the chickens. They use sterilized, diluted urine from their urine-diverting toilet to fertilize their vegetable gardens. Maingay and Barnhart see this unconventional fertilizer as no different from using composted chicken manure or water from their fish ponds, with results that are unparalleled in organic food production (think chest-high kale and sweet potatoes the size of a forearm). All that’s required, they say, is re-thinking the idea of waste.
“Growing food is a system,” Barnhart explains. “The waste from one system gives inputs to another.” Maingay elaborates. “Cheap fertilizer from fossil fuels has changed our whole society, especially the small farms that recycled all the waste from humans, animals, and plants,” she says. “We’ve lost touch with what nature intended to do, which is always recycling.”
For Maingay and Barnhart, the fact that Cape Cod is essentially an island perfectly illustrates our tenuous food security. Whether the issue is climate change or wastewater pollution, the ecologists point out a main root of the problem: the bridges, traversed multiple times a day by trucks carrying food destined for the supermarket. According to the United Nations Environment Program, food grown commercially in the United States is transported an average of 2000 miles from farm to table, a grossly unbalanced scenario that requires ten times the energy from fossil fuels to grow and transport the food than it contains in calories.
“Food is a one-way stream on the Cape that we try to make up for by using fossil fuels. This one-way flow of nutrients only harms the environment,” Maingay says. “We keep the loop as close to home as possible, and try to hold on to the nutrients as long as possible.”
Aware that most Cape Codders don’t have the space or means to build their own Ark, Barnhart and Maingay recommend trying smaller-scale options like cold frames, hoop houses or a small plastic greenhouse for extending the growing season—and nutrient cycle—as long as possible.
As the crisp afternoon sunshine mellows into a golden haze around the Ark, my thoughts turn to what I should make for dinner, but the store-bought ingredients in my refrigerator pale in comparison to the bright greens and luminous winter squash I’ve been basking in all day. Thanking my hosts, I head out into the early twilight. A soft glow emanates from the Ark, a beacon of possibility in the still winter night.
More information about the Cape Cod Ark is available through The Green Center, a non-profit organization run by Maingay and Barnhart to continue and maintain archives of New Alchemy Institute research. Visit greencenter.net.
Elise Hugus is a writer and video producer based in her hometown of Falmouth. When not pondering local connections to global issues, she enjoys growing food in her ever-expanding garden. More of her work can be viewed on her company’s website, undercurrent-productions.com.