Discovering the Joy of Living Well at the Garden Atriums

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The residents use the community space in various ways depending on their family members. The children love running through the park and playing by the pond, whereas teens play sports and adults walk pets.
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Trina says the home's gigantic central skylight has helped her connect more closely with the rhythms of the sun and moon and improved her sleep.
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The bedroom opens onto the home's central atrium, offering stunning views.
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Stu and Trina's neighbors are two young twins who love running on the trails and picking the fresh fruits that grow in the orchard.
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Stu and Trina's dining room table is surrounded by growing plants, some of which make their way into the dishes they prepare.
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Waterways offer the opportunity for small boats and fishing.
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The homes' exteriors are beautifully landscaped.
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A community farmer grows fresh produce that everyone in the Garden Atriums enjoys. At Saturday morning "Market Time," residents gather to pick up their produce and chat.
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A gazebo offers a relaxing spot to rest near the water.
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Some of Stu and Trina's favorite plants growing inside the atrium include their orange and lemon trees, which provide food as well as beautiful blooms and scents. Because of its many hours of sunlight—even in winter—the atrium is an ideal environment for tropical plants.
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Just steps away from growing fruits, the kitchen was made with materials that won't offgas chemicals into the air.
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The atrium in each Garden Atriums home seamlessly connects with all the other rooms.
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Garden Atriums includes a shared space that features an aquaculture pond.
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Daily walks on the trails help Trina and Stu connect with nature and relax.

What are the components of healthy living? Although that wasn’t necessarily what Stuart W. Rose and Trina C. Duncan set out to discover when they built their home in Poquoson, Virginia, their sustainable housing project ended up revealing the answers: namely, healthy air, fresh food and a commitment to finding joy.

About 10 years ago, when they realized we were on course to burn out the planet’s resources if we didn’t change our ways, Stuart (who goes by Stu) and Trina wanted to do something to be part of the solution. Because Stu is an architect and Trina got her undergraduate degree in interior design, they decided to build the most sustainable home they could—for themselves and others. Leaving their home in Washington, D.C., the couple moved to Poquoson, where they would develop the sustainable living community Garden Atriums—starting with a home for themselves.

Garden of Health

Wanting the most efficient home possible, Stu and Trina superinsulated the house and nixed exterior windows on the north side to block cold winter wind and hot summer sun. But they also wanted the interior spaces to be sunny, which led them to the idea of building a garden atrium—a light-filled space in the center of the home filled with plants.

The atrium became the focal point for the entire home. But more than bringing in sunshine and beautiful plants, the atrium made for a much healthier home, something the couple hadn’t anticipated, but something Trina desperately needed.

Having suffered a debilitating illness throughout childhood, Trina had a weakened immune system and is sensitive to chemical exposure. She hoped to improve her health by choosing materials that wouldn’t offgas into their home’s interior, such as zero-VOC paint, solid-wood cabinetry and dye-free wool carpet. Trina and Stu also sourced locally as much as possible. “We wanted to be able to say, ‘Oh, we got this at your local whatever store,’ so people could see that building this way is easy,” Trina says.

While those choices were crucial to improving their home’s air, installing the atrium—which they chose for its efficiency and aesthetic qualities—may actually have had the biggest effect on air quality. “Somebody visiting our house made the comment that these plants have got to be really good for the air, so we hired a toxicologist to come see,” Stu says. “He has these devices for testing carbon dioxide and oxygen content, but without even measuring he said, ‘My gosh, you have an oxygenated environment.’ When he measured, we ran about 300 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide, which is about the same as outside air. Most houses run between 1,000 ppm and 1,500 ppm, and over 1,500 is when you have rashes and other problems. Our oxygen levels are two to three times higher than outside air!”

Trina says living in the space has dramatically improved her well-being. “When I lived in D.C., I’d be around anyone sick and I’d come down with whatever they had,” she says. “That has changed significantly since I’ve lived here…I used to get constant hives and they’re gone. They weren’t gone before we moved here. My immune system is stronger, and I think breathing air that has a lot more oxygen helps. It’s pretty significant for me.”

Trina also credits the home’s quietude—with superinsulation and landscape plantings strategically placed to buffer sound, she says the home is the quietest place she’s ever lived—and its connection with the cycles of nature for her improved health. “When you’ve got a humongous skylight over your house, you’re aware of when the sun is up and down and your body gets really in sync with the sun. My rhythm of when I go to bed and wake up and how much I sleep has significantly improved. Here we’re really aware of moon cycles and sun cycles and weather and all of that. We’re in tune with the earth and its rhythms, which I think is how we’re designed.”

Community by Design

Stu and Trina aren’t the only ones who benefit from their home’s health effects. Determined to help showcase the feasibility of selling sustainable homes, they developed several homes for others, all centered around a community park, to create the Garden Atriums community. Today, six of seven home sites are built and occupied; one remains available to develop. “None of the residents who are here now have any allergies anymore,” Stu says. “I have a friend I grew up with who was visiting us for 10 or 11 days. On day three, he came down for breakfast and he said, ‘My allergy symptoms are gone. I take a lot of pills and I get a shot once a week.’ Before he left he was off all of his medication.”

A healthier indoor environment isn’t the only benefit the Garden Atriums homes offer their residents. Designed for community living, the homes are clustered together (although all have private yards), leaving room for large areas of shared space. In the center of the commmunity lies a 3-acre park area that includes an organic garden space, a recreational grass area, a fruit orchard, a solar-powered greenhouse, a boat dock and a pond.

Although several community members enjoy gardening, others didn’t have time to take advantage of their garden plot.

Wanting everyone to have access to fresh produce, the residents pooled resources to hire a permaculture-certified farmer who grows food for the community. “We all go down on Saturday mornings for ‘Market Time’ when farmer Jonathan has everything out in baskets,” Stu says. “There will be a long white thing and someone says ‘What’s that?’ It’s a parsnip. ‘What do you do with it?’ There’s an exchange of information going on.”

The farmer distributes the fruits and veggies, talks about the plants, and lets the children try different foods. A pair of young twins live next door to Stu and Trina, and they love tasting the food that grows on the property. “We have an orchard around the pond and these kids know when something is ready and they can pick it,” Stu says. “The upper branches are for the adults and the lower ones for the kids. They have a greater knowledge of food than I ever did as a kid.”

For Trina and Stu, it was important that they and their neighbors felt a sense of community, so they worked on ways to enhance connectedness as they developed the space. “There’s a firm in Milwaukee and their target is to make boring communities lively,” Stu says. “I had some work to do about a two-hour drive from there, so I said ‘Can I hire you and just pick your brains?’ They said the key is crossroads—what do you have that allows you to bump into somebody? That’s where cul-de-sacs lose.”

With open spaces to play sports, trails for walking, a pond for fishing, a solar-powered greenhouse for growing year-round and more, there are plenty of spots for community members to come together. “I love to garden,” Trina says. “Part of what’s been really nice for me is that not everyone who moves here knows how to garden, so I’ve been kind of the local expert. People learn from each other and teach each other.”

Stu and Trina’s education and careers make facilitating community relatively easy for them. Stu’s doctorate is in organizational development, and he and Trina are partners in a consulting firm in which they teach client relations and coach CEOs and associates on leadership and team development. Therefore, communication was crucial to their vision in building community. Rather than being run by a committee, all decisions involving shared Garden Atriums land are made by consensus. “As a society, we’re not really good at ‘how do we work together’ and ‘how do we work through something if we’re uncomfortable,’” Trina says. “Our society is so fast, sometimes you have to slow down a bit to deeply communicate.”

Yet with its emphasis on community engagement, residents at Garden Atriums can also find plenty of quiet time. Every bedroom on every home has an attached private patio, and each home also offers a private garden space. The level of activity and community is entirely up to the individual. “The people next door have twins who are young, so they’re everywhere,” Stu says. “Some others have 13-year-olds and they’re out playing softball. Others enjoy walking the dog, and others just sit and watch the pond.”

Finding the Joy

As they examined lifestyles of sustainability within the community, Stu and Trina realized there was one other element of sustainability many people don’t talk about: joyfulness. “It’s really getting to the heart of why we’re alive,” Trina says. “Our premise is that if you are happy, joyful and feel fulfilled, you feel more of a need to take care of the earth and take care of others and be more generous. Without that, people pull in and become angry and frustrated.”

Hoping to share these thoughts with their community members, Stu developed a course that Trina taught on exploring individual passion. They invited Garden Atriums community members and some other friends to sign up. “It was a 10-week course,” Trina says. “Everyone did work on their own and then we did group sharing and support. For instance, one woman was just working too much. She had no life outside of work. She took one room in her house and made it into a yoga and meditation room. One person changed jobs. She was a nurse in a hospital and it was draining her. She started working as a hospice worker instead. Another person decided to take a vacation to a place he always wanted to go. It was just about getting people to think about who they are and what’s important to them, helping find balance in a world that can sometimes overwhelm us.”

Despite its many healthy qualities, Trina says the most important benefit of her home is its calming nature. “I’ve always felt a house should be one’s sanctuary,” she says. “This home actually feels like a sanctuary. There’s a calming effect. It doesn’t matter how insane my day has been, the plants, the light, the sound—there’s something that is just nurturing to the soul here.”

Jessica Kellner is the editor-in-chief of Mother Earth Living. She loves talking about the many ways people find to integrate nature into their lives to better their health.