New Alchemy Institute

Institution – Cape Cod, USA

The New Alchemy Institute was a research centre founded by John Todd, Nancy Jack Todd and William McLarney in 1969. It grew out of a critique of modern industrial agricultural processes, researching instead energy efficient, integrated systems of living that could operate in harmony with the planet. Their aim was to create self-sufficient, regionally autonomous communities without a dependence on fossil fuels. Since John Todd and William McLarney were both marine biologists the work took inspiration from wetland ecologies creating micro-environments or what they called 'living machines'.

Their research on agriculture focused on intensive organic farming techniques and types of planting that did not rely on machinery. 'Aquaculture' was fish farming in ponds that could happen on a small-scale in people's gardens and back yards. 'Bioshelters' were essentially large greenhouses adapted for food production that created an artificial environment for the ponds and planting, allowing food to be grown year round. From the humble beginning of a small inflatable pool covered with a plastic dome, bioshelters became highly sophisticated and specialised environments that could maintain a productive ecosystem. A number of these were realised, including the Ark for Prince Edward Island (PEI Ark) in Canada, built in 1974 and funded by the Canadian government. It became the site for testing many of the principles of 'living machines'.

Much of the research was published in the Journal of the New Alchemists as detailed guides and manuals in the hope that others would recreate their experiments. It was a radical vision for changing the way we live and crucially connecting humans back into the ecosystem, rather than trying to solve the problems of unsustainable lifestyles. The New Alchemy Institute closed in 1991 but its archives can be accessed via the Green Centre, also based in Cape Cod. John and Nancy Todd later founded the Oceans Ark International which continues with similar work.

Many of the ideas developed at the New Alchemy Institute are now seen as standard ecological design practice, such as the use of composting toilets, water purification using plants, solar collectors, or composting greenhouses that use the heat generated from compost to warm the greenhouse-a modern adaptation of the centuries old French method of heating glass cloches with horse manure. The New Alchemists combined a political anarchist view of self-sustaining, self-organising society, with an environmentalism that rejected urban life and saw humans inhabiting the earth with minimal impact. Spatial agency is located in this radical vision but more importantly perhaps in the production of practical research that made possible this other way of living. The work they produced is especially relevant in the current climate as the world once again focuses on ecologically sensitive design.

Key Projects

Cape Cod Ark
Ark for Prince Edward Island
Journal of the New Alchemists

Other Work

"Ecological Solutions for the Twenty-First Century - Ocean Arks International," (accessed November 25, 2009,).

"John Todd - The New Alchemists, from "Design Outlaws"," (accessed November 24, 2009).

"New Alchemy Publications Online," (accessed November 25, 2009,).

New Alchemy Institute, Gardening for All Seasons: The Complete Guide to Producing Food at Home 12 Months a Year. (Andover, Mass: Brick House Pub. Co, 1983).

Todd, Nancy Jack, A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design. (Washington: Island Press, 2005).

---, The Book of the New Alchemists. (New York: Dutton, 1977).

References About

Anker, P., "The Closed World of Ecological Architecture." The Journal of Architecture 10, no. 5 (2005): 527-552.

Borasi, Giovanna, et al., eds., Sorry, Out of Gas. (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2007).

Hix, John, "Energy Conservation and the Architect - Part 2.2: The Ark for Prince Edward Island." Canadian Architect 22, no. 3 (1977): 32-33.

Wehrle, Paul J, "Experimental Solar Houses--Exotica or Models." Bauwelt 67, no. 47: 1466-1469.


'We asked ourselves the question: Is it possible to grow the food needs of a small group of people in a small space without harming the environment and without enormous recourse to external sources of energy and materials on a continuing basis? The whole idea was: Could we design a system that is self-sustainable and capable of functioning as a system?'
- John Todd quoted in, "John Todd - The New Alchemists, from "Design Outlaws"," (accessed November 24, 2009).

'Among our major tasks is the creation of ecologically derived human support systems - renewable energy, agriculture aquaculture, housing and landscapes. The strategies we research emphasize a minimal reliance on fossil fuels and operate on a scale accessible to individuals, families, and small groups. It is our belief that ecological and social transformations must take place at the lowest functional levels of society if humankind is to direct its course towards a greener, saner world.'
- Bulletin of the New Alchemists, Autumn 1970;


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