In the summer of 2012, Israeli earthquake-readiness expert Ephraim Laor recruited Israeli green-construction expert Victor Haym Hajaj to help make housing for 1 million refugees of the civil war in Congo. Hajaj had unique expertise in building fast, affordable, earthquake-proof houses known as monolithic domes.

Hajaj didn’t have any problem building the houses, but there was no supporting infrastructure nearby to provide water, food and energy. After searching fruitlessly for a company that could provide such solutions to off-grid rural areas, he decided to create one himself.

“Our venture grew out of Victor’s conviction that all people should have an economic and existential safety net,” says Jonathan Haran, Hajaj’s partner in The Sustainable Group, founded in 2017.

The startup’s flagship project is Village in a Box, a holistic residential renewable energy-based infrastructure system to provide off-grid communities with environmentally friendly affordable housing and clean sustainable solutions for water, food, energy and waste treatment.

“I fell in love with the idea because it represents a big hope for humanity,” says Haran, previously head of Engineers Without Borders Israel, a social-impact NGO that designs projects to improve life in developing countries.

“Our aim is to build a better future without hurting the environment,” Haran tells ISRAEL21c. “Our planet is in a very problematic situation with lack of resources, population growth and climate-change challenges. We decided to address these challenges by creating technological solutions for communities that are self-sustained, productive, resilient and happy.”

The Sustainable Group cofounders Jonathan Haran and Victor Haym Hajaj. Photo: courtesy

The founders gathered a team of Israeli infrastructure, engineering and software experts to create a synergetic system that combines high-tech and ecological approaches.

A proof-of-concept Village in a Box is under development in the Negev desert town of Mitzpeh Ramon, home of the famous Ramon Crater. The Sustainable Group will set up 200 modular houses and infrastructure including communal areas, industry and agriculture.

“Mayor Roni Marom agreed to help us build the first community of its kind in the world to be fully self-sufficient. It will also incorporate tourism and job creation. People from all over will want to come and see it,” Haran tells ISRAEL21c.

Village in a Box was chosen as one of 20 finalists — from among 6,000 nominations from six continents — in the recent $1 million 2019 Chivas Regal Ventures competition for social entrepreneurship ventures.

Eight hours per month

Haran says every adult resident of the village, to be called Qayma, will be encouraged to give eight hours per month to agriculture, maintenance or other tasks. Other than that, they will be able to pursue careers on or off the village.

“Eight hours is not a lot of time, but it allows everyone to be involved and resilient, and there will be no need to outsource maintenance,” says Haran.

Each household will receive a weekly basket of organic vegetables and fruits grown onsite in a large closed biodome greenhouse, assuring basic food security. Residents will be free to buy or grow whatever else they want; each house will have a 250-square-meter garden.

Qayma will recycle water drawn from the national carrier as close to 100 percent as possible. Graywater from showers and dishwashing will go to flushing toilets, and a complete waste-treatment system will create clean water for irrigation, biogas for cooking and heating, and fertilizer for crops.

The group also hopes to develop a system for active rain harvesting.

The village will be powered with 100% renewable energy from the sun and wind, using lithium-ion batteries for energy storage and a biodiesel generator for backup.

Village in a Box will be powered by renewable sun and wind energy, with lithium-ion batteries for energy storage and a biodiesel generator for backup. Photo: courtesy

Smart-home technology – some of it Israeli — will enable residents to see exactly how much water they and the rest of the village are consuming in real time. Hot water will be provided according to preset needs of each resident, using available energy instead of storing the energy in expensive batteries.

A computerized management system will control all the technology at work in Qayma, able to respond to real-time weather conditions and user needs using artificial intelligence.

“The central control system is the brain of the village,” says Haran.

“The heart is the community. Because of the eight-hour model there will be a lot of personal interaction intended to create a strong community that can handle its own future, grow its own food and be a tourist attraction. We will have a big community center and will organize activities using co-living principles such as shared spaces and gardens.”

Reusable balloons

The monolithic domes that comprise Village in a Box houses, each 120 square meters, are constructed using an inflatable balloon sprayed with a thin layer of cement.

“When it dries, you have an arched shape that’s earthquake proof. You then deflate the balloon and can use it again many times,” Haran explains.

Qayma is meant to be not just carbon neutral but carbon negative and pollution-free, thanks to abundant trees and bushes as well as a policy of no cars allowed in the neighborhood.

“Only bicycles and scooters will be permitted. Electric vehicles can be parked outside the neighborhood for shared use,” says Haran.

He estimates that each 200-household neighborhood would have a carbon-negative impact of about 3,800 tons of carbon dioxide.

The Sustainable Group cofounders Jonathan Haran and Victor Haym Hajaj with solar panels. Photo: courtesy

With the education of the village’s children in mind, the group is working with an organization that is designing new models for education, he adds.

“The idea is to create a complete infrastructure and construction system as a shippable plug-and-play solution in a container, including all the required systems, which can be sent to any place in the world. It could also be used in disaster relief. Organizations such as Natan International Humanitarian Aid are very interested.”

The Sustainable Group plans a beta R&D site in the Arava region of the Negev, where one priority will be devising new green-construction materials and methods. Israeli cleantech companies will be invited to use the site as a hub for testing innovative solutions.

Thus far, the 11-person Sustainable Group has been bootstrapped from the profits of several green construction projects.

“We have filed for a government grant, and if we win the Chivas Ventures competition it will allow us to do everything we need,” says Haran.

“We want to spark people’s imaginations about solutions they can implement to create a big impact on their lives and on the planet.”

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