Colina Noua: How Europe’s Most Sustainable Town is Being Built in Romania.

/ November 12, 2020 / Translated by Antonia Sampalean
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It has taken some time to realize that the way we have built our homes and cities over the last hundred years perpetuates a lifestyle that is alienating, making us sick as well as unhappy.

Whether it be crowded apartments where we don’t know our neighbors or the suburbs where we spend 2-3 hours a day stuck in traffic, we are continuing to run on the same hamster wheel and acting surprised about the skyrocketing rates of depression and illness.

Our cities have been built for cars, not people. This evidenced by the land use in cities.  Streets and parking spaces occupy about 50 percent of the land in an average-sized European city, even though only 20% of the citizens commute by car.

There is a lot of talk about sustainable cities in Europe.

In Romania, they are actually building one.

From scratch.

I find it fascinating that a 30 minute car ride from Cluj-Napoca, a group of Romanian, American and European entrepreneurs are building a small town with a specific purpose: to reset not only Romania’s, but the entire world’s way of life. 

So why Romania?  It is the abundance of inexpensive land with very healthy air, water and soil. While most of Europe and America is investing lots of money transforming unhealthy places into green spaces, Romania has the advantage of beginning with beautiful green spaces.  This is difficult for Romanians to grasp, but we are beginning to understand it.

Green “smart” homes; infrastructure that is designed and built to last the next 100 years, and most importantly, a community of people determined to positively create their future in Romania.  This is what is being brought to life at Colina Noua.

As the Cluj economy becomes even more connected to Europe  though asphalt, high speed rail and digital networks, the chaotic real estate boom of the last 20 years will seem trite compared to what is to follow over the next two decades. If things are not built sustainably – the area will suffocate in its own success.

At Colina Noua, something entirely different is coming to life.

Something like a suburb in Austria. But it isn’t just a suburb, nor is it Austria.

A 140 hectare plot of land that includes the surrounding hills, on which this photo is taken.  Most of the town will be nestled in the valley, but some of the homes will have a panoramic view of the valley.

The first time I heard about the Colina Noua project, two years ago, the only enterprise on the property was Colina Farms, focused on organic agriculture. A year later, 2 model homes emerged, along with the foundations for another 26 homes.  I finally visited in September and saw 26 homes, many near completion.  Two of them are designated for the school that will be opening here.   By the spring, they will be ready – turnkey.  When I visited, over half the homes had been sold.

The feel is reminiscent of Austria but the surrounding villages serve as a reminder that you are still in Romania. When the sounds of the construction winds down in the evening, the silence, fresh air and surrounding hills make you feel at home. 

Colina Noua is not being built as a suburb of Cluj-Napoca. It will be a small, self-sufficient community for over 3,000 inhabitants.

Common areas, such as the barbeque pavilion, have been designed to develop a sense of community.  This is not a suburb where people build big fences and attempt to avoid their neighbors.

From the project’s outset, there will be a school, an office space, and a fresh food market.   Over time, the people living here will either be working from home, from offices in the shared workspace or within the companies that will be established here.

Here, they began with a €3 million investment in the infrastructure.

The largest infrastructure investment is a 1.1 kilometer entrance road that allows for peaceful strolls and connects the development with the neighboring roads.

It also includes a stormwater drainage system, designed to withstand the floods that occur every 100 years. It was coordinated by American Craig Avery, who redesigned of the New Orleans flood prevention system after the catastrophic floods that took place in 2005. Judging by the look of the drainage ditches, not only Colina Noua, but also the nearby village, will be spared of ever having to face floods again.

After the construction of the drainage system, the sewage system was built, equipped with a sewage treatment plant, with the goal of becoming Romania’s first certified Zero Waste community. Colina Noua will use the sewage compost to fertilize the farming soil.  The drinking water from wells over 100m deep, is alkaline rich and so pure that it requires minimal treatment.

The water treatment plant is set up to deal with the next phases of the project.

In addition to all of this infrastructure, fibre optic cables were pulled in order to get the entire community connected to high-speed internet. I would like to see this become a norm in all parts of Romania, a country where entire neighborhoods have no infrastructure. 

Build for people, not cars, walking paths are designed so children can safely walk to school and the park without encountering crazy drivers.

The entire infrastructure was designed for walkability, health and getting to know your neighbor. There is no need for fences them because private areas are surrounded by plants, hedges and narrow cobbled alleys like in a resort.

The landscaping was thoughtfully designed by landscape architects with extensive international experience. Homes will not be surrounded by concrete nor by plants that may cause allergies.

Over 80 of the project’s 140 hectares will be designated green space.

These green areas have already been put into place by the landscapers around the homes and in the common areas. In total, there will be 16 kilometers of sidewalks and bike paths at Colina Noua. Many of them can be found on the surrounding hills, with a panoramic view of the Transylvanian landscape.

Fir trees grow alongside many other tree species in Colina Noua’s nursery.

There is also a nursery where several thousand trees are now being replanted in the neighborhood. Over the next 7 years, 18,000 trees will be transplanted from nursery in 3 year growing cycle, into the landscaping plan. I am emphasizing this fact because landscape design is a new concept in our own country.

Colina Farms lies in the center of the project.  The greenhouses produce over 20 different vegetables, without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. I got acquainted with the tomato greenhouse, which smelled absolutely divine. These greenhouses will be able to sustain a large part of the community’s fresh food consumption.

The Colina Learning Center is major attraction to homebuyers. The vision for the school is as innovative and big as Colina Noua. School Director Andreia Mitrea sees the Colina Learning Center as the foundation of a broader project, which will establish Colina Learning Hubs across the country and to make the transformative effects of global learning available to all Romanians.

The houses in Colina Noua

The architecture is inspired by local houses – with a modern twist. Local wood and stone are used not only for decorative purposes but also to allow for direct contact with nature, without using plastic or harmful materials.

I have visited many residential complexes in Romania and I always approach them with a tightness in my chest. Inevitably, I come face to face with either brightly colored monstrosities that pretend to offer something new or tasteless homes with no concept of urban design.

This is not the case at Colina Noua.  Local Architects from Arhimar have collaborated with Michael McInturf, a Professor at the internationally recognized College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning in Cincinnati, Ohio – to create something unique not just in Romania, but in the world.  The architecture at Colina Noua is not American in any way. On the contrary, it is a combination of the traditional Transylvanian style and into new lifestyle centered on well-being, community and education.

Most of the workers are from the area, and the project will have generated dozens of jobs, during construction and afterwards.

The first 28 homes are almost finished and the project began similarly to Elon Musk’s cars: the most expensive and luxurious buildings were first, setting a tone of prestige for the project. Despite their size, all these homes are green. From the initial stages, they have been designed for very low energy consumption (less than 35 kWh/m2 per year) and in compliance with “wellness” rules, which exclude materials that are harmful to health.

What do green homes mean? Firstly, all the homes are faced in such a way that they receive enough sunlight over the winter and the living areas can be naturally shaded during the summer months.

The homes have ventilation systems with heat transfer, underfloor heating and cooling with radiant ceiling panels. This means that the temperature within the houses is constant, with a minimum consumption of energy, regardless of how cold or hot it is outside. In addition, they are integrated into a landscape that will emphasize greenery, tranquility and fresh air.

The finished homes are already inhabitable. Spring of 2021 will witness an entire community abiding here, having moved into the initial homes.

As more homes are added, they will be smaller in size and more affordable but still built on the same principles.

The future of living

I often write about the cities of the future and the way that housing has been transforming in the most progressive countries.  In an editorial for PressOne, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission wrote about the New European Bauhaus, a massive investment program to transform the European continent into a sustainable ecosystem.

Amazing that in Romania, this project is already in the making. In fact, Colina Noua in not only a new Bauhaus, it meets almost all the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

If we want to sustain the next 100 years of capitalism, then it must bring about a transformation in the way we live harmoniously with nature and meet our individual needs in practical ways.

Did the Colina Noua founders try to accomplish too much? Based on the speed with which the infrastructure is being built and the systematic way the homes are designed, I would say no.

By spring 2021, the first stage of Colina Noua will be ready

Quite the contrary. The fact that there are people in Romania who can dream this big and execute their dreams into reality gives me hope. And that’s exactly what we need: to learn how to dream about a future that looks much better than the present moment.

At Colina Noua, our future is being built right now.

Note: one of the founders of Colina Noua, Don Lothrop, is also PressOne’s main fuonder. Neither Don, nor any of the founders of Colina Noua had a say about the above content.