THE ARK FOR CAPE COD
The New Alchemists, Cape Cod, MA, 1976
ARE THE PHYSICAL PROPERTIES OF THE ATMOSPHERE A RESULT OF THE BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION OF ITS SPECIES?
The Ark for Cape Cod was an experimental community of practicing year-round contained agriculture, aquaculture and passive solar heating. One of several ‘Arks’ built, The Ark for Cape Cod opened in 1976 by the radical environmental and anarchist group “The New Alchemists” formed by John Todd and William McLarney. Trained in agriculture, comparative psychology, and ethnology, the New Alchemists emerged from a critical perspective on modern agriculture and a fear of not surviving the prophecy of Earth’s imminent ecological collapse (Anker, “The closed world of ecological architecture”). The group’s goals were to avoid famine caused by exploitation of resources, rampant capitalism and population growth by creating alternative food production systems. The name ‘Ark’ can be exchanged with ‘bioshelter’; named to describe biological diversity and autonomy, the Ark would serve as a lifeboat, like Noah’s Ark, should the existing agriculture system on earth fail (Wade, “New Alchemy Institute: Search for an Alternate Agriculture”).
The Ark was in many aspects a material testbed for The New Alchemist’s research to maintain a healthy livable interior environment within the harsh climate of Cape Cod, aiming to produce food year-round, in order to support a small colony of people. It consisted of three main greenhouse-covered ponds, which together produced a water recycling system. The third pond contained fish for protein. Water in the third pond was cycled into the first, which acted as a filter. Within the first pond, water passed through crushed shells and bacteria to detoxify waste and chemicals produced by the fish. The second pond contained algae-eating crustaceans, and water was purified and nutrient rich when cycled back into the third pond. In addition to raising fish for food, the ponds acted as a store for solar heat and supply warm water to agriculture.
Other elements of the Ark’s design layout were intended to reduce energy consumption and to create interior microclimates of light, temperature and moisture (The New Alchemists, “Bioshelter Primer”). The roof had a steep slope upwards towards the south to maximize southern solar exposure. The southern facing roof and east-west walls were made of double-glazed fiberglass to let in diffuse light with minimal heat loss, while the inside surface of the north-facing roof was painted white in order to maximize solar reflectivity. The roof peak had opening panels for ventilation in the summer, and the ponds helped regulate moisture and temperature from their thermal mass.
Though Cape Cod Ark can be measured on its successes, it also had many failures as a sustainable model for agriculture. According to its founders in their recollection “From Our Experience: The First Three Years Aboard the Cape Cod Ark” in The New Alchemist’s Journal 6, the ventilation was poor and in the summer the Ark could heat to above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The bacteria in the ponds would die when the wind was low in the winter, since energy from the windmill was not producing circulation. The Ark was relatively high cost and had a short life span: in current prices the Ark would cost about $40 per square foot to build, and the high internal moisture content would cause rotting of the wood structure. Resultantly, the Ark could not last as a model more than fifteen to twenty years without substantial renovation of its original structure.
Captain Robert Freitag, deputy director of the Manned Space Flight Center at NASA, declared in a conference at Princeton University in the late 1970s that much is yet unknown in many areas of interaction associated with the development of a closed ecosystem. He proposed that algorithms had to be developed to define the basic supporting relationships between man, animals, plants, and microorganisms in order to define the conditions under which ecological closure might exist. This area could prove to be the single most demanding technology to be developed in the 20th century. After years of experimentation with ecological closure, biologists at the time came to similar conclusions: despite the rigor of mathematical formulas, contained artificial ecosystems were unpredictable in their evolution. If subtle ruptures occurred in any of the systems’ parameters, closed worlds had no “healing mechanism.” Notwithstanding a decade of investment in ecological research, Stewart Brand confessed that self-sufficiency as an idea was a kind of hysteria.
POOR SUMMER VENTILATION: In the summer, the ventilation was poor and the Ark could heat to above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
WIND CIRCULATION CONSTRAINTS: The bacteria in the ponds would die when the wind was low in the winter, since energy from the windmill was not producing circulation.
HIGH PRICE TAG: The Ark was relatively high cost and had a short life span: in current prices the Ark would cost about $40 per square foot to build, and the high internal moisture content would cause rotting of the