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Greenest of All

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Greenest of All

The most remarkable aspect of Dewees Island is the way developer John Knott sells greenness, and how well that sales pitch works.

August 31, 1999
This article first appeared in the PB September 1999 issue of Pro Builder.
The most remarkable aspect of Dewees Island is the way developer John Knott sells greenness, and how well that sales pitch works.

In Knott’s marketing plan, every negative associated with sustainability becomes a positive. "We sell the fact that we’re boat-access-only," says Knott. "We sell the fact there’s no golf course, and no cars are allowed on the island. We sell driving golf carts on sand-based roads topped with crushed shell."

And guess what? It really does sell: 107 of the 150 building lots on the 1206-acre barrier island--12 miles north of Charleston, S.C.--are sold. "Our lot prices and profits are almost triple what we had in our pro-forma when we started in 1992," Knott says. "Our home sites average two acres, including those on the ocean. We started with a top price of $267,000 for three acres on the ocean. Today, those lots sell for $1,250,000. The whole Charleston sea islands market has escalated dramatically this decade, but the growth of our property values exceeds the market. When we started, the highest price ever paid for a lot here was $65,000."

When Knott first visited the island, he quickly decided to limit development and make Dewees a model for man and nature living in harmony.

"We formed Island Preservation Partnership to develop the island in 1991, and began sales the next year," says Knott, whose background is in historic preservation and urban development in Washington, D.C. "I’ve always looked first to inventory the assets of the site that need to be protected. When I came here, I was just blown away by the physical beauty of this island. It’s absolutely spiritual. And since IPP was put together as an equity-based joint venture of the existing landowners and outside investors, we’re not under any pressure to rush development."

Tight Controls
The environmental and architectural controls Knott instituted on Dewees are mind-boggling. Of the 1206 acres, only 420 acres will be touched. Development is limited to only the most robust ecosystem--the maritime forest. Setbacks, wetland bridging, and other protective measures are employed on sites with mixed ecosystems. Construction may not permanently disturb more than 7500 square feet of ground. No house may exceed 5000 square feet. When development is complete, 93% of the island will remain in a natural state, and the barrier island will function ecologically as if no humans live there. Even on oceanfront lots, houses are set back into the trees, away from the beach. Every house is designed and built to deal with the inevitability of hurricanes and tropical storms hitting the island.

Owners must engage a licensed architect and landscape architect, then proceed through a design process to orient their proposed house to its site and existing foliage. Passive solar heating principles, daylighting, and orientation to prevailing summer breezes must be incorporated into the design. Environmentally-responsible building materials--such as recycled drywall--are highly encouraged. Waste management programs have been developed for both the construction phase and after the home is occupied, including source reduction through use of water-conserving fixtures, recycling, and composting (no garbage disposals are permitted on the island).

The island has its own water and sewage treatment systems. The water system utilizes two wells--350 feet deep--feeding into a public works center where the water is treated and distributed to each home site. "Because of water-conserving fixtures and our separate, rainwater system for irrigation, we end up with about a 75% reduction in water use from the overall regional market," explains Knott.

The sewage treatment system starts inside a compost bin in each house, then feeds into a 1000-gallon septic tank outside, for pre-treatment and solids reduction. "That feeds into two upflow rock filters in an aerobic and anaerobic system that then feeds into a pump house on each site, with a one-horsepower pump that will pressurize the entire island system," says Knott. "From there, the effluent moves into our public works area, where it is treated with hydrogen peroxide and moved into a below-ground, 7500-gallon tank. After several days, it’s injected into a two-acre absorption field."

The system’s price tag was approximately $400,000, including absorption field, storage tanks, the treatment facility, and all mains and street lines. Each homeowner is levied a $5000 fee for residential components, then pays a flat rate of $20 per month, plus $2 for every 1000 gallons of water used.

Homeowners must seek approval (rarely granted) to remove any tree, or even understory growth. No lawns are permitted. Any new plantings must come from a list of native plants indigenous to the South Carolina coast. Irrigation is permitted only through cistern collection of rainwater, distributed through a below-ground drip system.

Concrete construction and stucco as a finishing material are not allowed. All homes are built on pressure-treated wood pilings to raise them above flood levels. To stay non-toxic and avoid impacting island ecosystems, asphalt roof shingles are also prohibited, along with most other petroleum-based external construction materials. The architectural vernacular is South Carolina Lowcountry, with metal or tile roofs. Designs must include porches, eaves, and operable shutters.

Turning Back The Clock
Residents reach the island via a 20-minute public ferry ride from the Dewees Marina on nearby, heavily developed Isle of Palms. Each resident has one parking space in a lot at the marina. On Dewees, they ride around in specially-designed electric golf carts with enough storage capacity to handle groceries or luggage. There are no private docks or beaches.

"There’s a strong social process on the island--triggered by a series of accidental meeting places that are carefully planned," says Knott. "That’s why we keep all boat and beach access public. The community post office is another accidental meeting place. Mail is delivered there once a day. Every resident has a mailbox. We are a registered part of the U.S. Postal Service, contracted for rural delivery. We deliver mail off the island twice each day."

With such tight controls, living on Dewees is, in many ways, like traveling back in time. "Residents often comment that the 20-minute ferry ride to Dewees is like a decompression chamber for them," says Knott. "I’ve had visitors ask me, ‘What in the world do you do out here?’ Then three days later, I’ll see them on the ferry heading back, and they’ll say, ‘We didn’t have enough time to get in all the things we wanted to do.’"

However, Dewees is not as isolated as it may seem. Modem connections via underwater telephone lines keep computers humming. The current generation of small satellite dishes keeps television on the agenda, along with swimming, fishing, boating, crabbing, and bird-watching.

This may partly explain why Knott badly missed his planned target market. "We thought we would get pre-retirement empty nesters--second-home buyers from up north," he says. "Instead, our buyers are much younger, with ages as low as 33. Our mean age is 44. Many are permanent residents. And 80% come from the Carolinas and Georgia. We have lots of children under the age of 12 on the island."

"Many of our owners are Charleston professionals--doctors and lawyers. They can get downtown quicker from Dewees than from Kiawah Island, even including our ferry ride, because we are only 12 miles away compared to Kiawah’s 26 miles. We have no Fortune 500 management types here. Most of our buyers are independent entrepreneurs. Even the doctors are mostly in their own small practices."

Knott believes his buyers are trendsetters in a housing market about to be deeply impacted by a search for communities with real value systems. "We have to get back to building communities rather than commodity housing," he says. "There’s a deep sense of concern for the natural environment, maybe even interest in enjoying it before it disappears. All our buyers have a love of nature, but they’re not Audubon Society or Sierra Club members. None of them are looking for a place to chew bark and graze. They’re more mainstream than you might think."

The psychographic trends Knott believes they represent are:

  • Desire for a real sense of community.
  • Connection to life-long learning.
  • Connection to real nature.
  • Search for truth and realness.

"They want a value system deeply rooted in community, not just a house," says Knott.

"As developers and builders, we also ought to be aware of the high cost of maintaining infrastructure that we are imposing on home buyers in many of our master-planned communities," he says. "The reason we screw up the environment is that we’re just so totally disconnected from it. How many people even realize that storm sewers flow into rivers and streams? How many know that when it rains on their fertilized lawns, chemicals flow into a stream somewhere--along with oil residues from the roads? On Dewees, we have minimal infrastructure. And our homeowners will also pay very little to maintain it."

Building Houses On Green Islands
Dewees lot owners are not required to build houses, but 33 houses are now complete, and seven more are under construction. They average 3000 square feet, built at an average hard cost of $200 per square foot. Building $600,000 houses on an island reached only by boat, with severe architectural and construction controls, presents plenty of challenges for a home builder.

"The biggest difference between building on Dewees and elsewhere along the Charleston coast is the transportation of both workers and construction materials," says builder George Van Cott, who builds two houses per year on the island. "Planning and scheduling are critical. For instance, when we pay the trades for an eight-hour day, we’re lucky to get six hours of actual work because of the travel time."

"Since they come and go on the ferry, if they forget something, it’s a major problem. And the whole Charleston market is so hot, it’s hard to get the mechanical trades out here at all. They’re in and out of a job in a few hours, so they’d rather work where they can jump from one job to the next. They charge a premium for Dewees."

All construction materials must be transported by privately-contracted barges--the delivery trucks drive right on, then off again at the island. "Hard costs are probably 15% more on Dewees," says Van Cott. "The limited drop areas are a big problem. Originally, we could store materials along a road right-of-way, so we could ship pilings and the entire framing pack all at once. We could put four or five trucks on one big barge. But now that there are residents on the island, they don’t want to see stockpiled materials, and the development controls allow us very little space for temporary disturbance. So we have to make more trips, with smaller loads on each barge."

Since Van Cott now builds only on Dewees, one house at a time, he has turned back the clock in one aspect of his operational methods--he has his own carpentry crews rather than subcontracting. "We do framing, siding, and trim ourselves," he says. "The shortage of labor is one reason. The way we work here is another. We’re more into craftsmanship. Our guys enjoy that, and a lot of them just enjoy spending time here. That allows us to attract good people."

There are a few other eccentricities to island construction. Fire sprinkler systems are mandatory in all houses, since the island has limited fire-fighting equipment. About half of the buyers opt for ground-source heat pump systems for heat and air conditioning. But builder Sam Smith, who heads Dewees Island’s in-house home building operation, says time is the biggest issue of all.

"It just takes longer to build here," Smith says. "We build houses in six to nine months that would take four or five (months) on the mainland. We’re at the mercy of the weather in many cases. Coordinating the delivery of materials with the availability of the trades is a huge issue. Then we’re building 10 to 12 feet above grade to get over the flood zone."

"The pilings go in first, then the floor system and decks. We build the walls mostly from decks that will eventually be outdoor living spaces, but we always have to use scaffolding somewhere."

"Green building is also new to many of the crews who come out here, so they have a lot of learning to do," Smith says. "But a lot of them love to hunt and fish, so taking care of the environment appeals to them. The houses here are all wonderful designs, oriented to capture the sea breezes and nested into surrounding trees, so the working conditions are pleasant."

"We try to nurture their pride in each job they work on. And we learn from them. I learned that in the service, dealing with NCOs [non-commissioned officers]. They will teach you, but they have to know that you want to learn." Knott is well aware that building million-dollar homes on a pristine coastal island is a long way from the mainstream American housing market, where builders struggle to keep their product affordable for entry-level and first move-up buyers. But he is adamant that the lessons Dewees Island teaches are applicable to the mainstream.

"I’ve done production building and commercial work. There are lessons here for every price point," he says. "Think about how our suburbs are designed. They’re designed for automobiles, not people. They separate people from each other, and discourage the sharing of resources and sense of community that always existed in small farming towns before World War II. They are incredibly infrastructure-intensive. Much of what we do on Dewees Island is not only friendly to the environment, it’s also low-cost because it treads so lightly on the land."

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