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Re-Imaging the Future

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Re-Imaging the Future

This is a tale of the lessons learned from four communities: the quarter century old Village Homes in Tucson, Ariz.; the grand plans of Coffee Creek Center in Chesterton, Ind., and the urban infill Village in Armory Park, also in Tucson.

By Christina B. Farnsworth May 31, 1999
This article first appeared in the PB June 1999 issue of Pro Builder.

This is a tale of the lessons learned from four communities: the quarter-century old Village Homes in Davis, Calif.; the newly-opened community of Civano in Tucson, Ariz.; the grand plans of Coffee Creek Center in Chesterton, Ind., and the urban infill Village in Armory Park, also in Tucson. Each of these communities represents a new way to view and use the land.

As the century turns, the building equation is changing. What it is becoming has many names: sustainable, livable, ecological, green. However, no matter what label its practitioners use, the goal of these forward-thinking planners is to employ building techniques that nourish rather than deplete land. These earth-conscious communities encourage green building and lifestyle habits. They encourage pedestrian over automobile traffic. These developers and builders practice the United Nations definition of sustainable:

"Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."

Though sustainable and green building are not new concepts, they have languished outside the mainstream - until now. Several recent forces have come together to make popular - and possible - what was once only a fad for tree-huggers and land lovers. Concerns about unchecked growth and sprawl are convincing planning departments and regulatory agencies to look again at land plans all would have dismissed just a decade ago. Consumers are becoming more sensitive to the way their homes are built and how they operate. Coupled with this awareness is the home buyer’s growing desire for an environment different than the conventional subdivision. New product technologies are emerging and sound field research is being done so that the building industry can embrace these concepts without fear of compromising quality and durability. Programs like the government-backed PATH, the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, Build America, and efforts by groups like the NAHB Research Center, are fast-track platforms for this critical component in completing the resource-efficient building loop.

Village Homes
The roots of the current U.S. movement for sustainable living sprout from the 1960s in theory and the 1970s in practice. The 60s brought "hippies" and "back to nature movement" communes. The few of these that survive label themselves "intentional communities." The 70s brought the Arab oil embargo, energy tax breaks and the first attempt at building sustainable communities.

It was then in Davis, Calif. that Village Homes, the dream of Michael and Judy Corbett, was actually under construction. Now a mature community, Davis’ Village Homes was among the earliest of what are now called "ecoburbs," communities that respond to and respect native vegetation, plan their land to harvest water from natural drainage, and site homes and other buildings with respect to climate. The houses at Village Homes were designed to take advantage of passive solar for heating, and depending on local climate and topography, siting for wind protection and natural ventilation.

Michael and Judy Corbett were an idealistic young couple just out of school when they conceived Village Homes. Their goal was to combine environmental and social ecology. In their efforts the Corbetts encountered and overcame the same roadblocks that continue to plague developers and builders today: the fire department didn’t like narrow, 23-foot-wide streets; the public works department didn’t like mixing agriculture and residential. Banks didn’t want to loan them money. They finally got loans by not mentioning all of the ecological details.

Construction began in 1973. Now, 25 years later, the community has weathered well. Using resale value as a measure of success, Village Homes resell for $11 more per square foot and sell in just half the time of other Davis homes, Judy Corbett reports.

The Corbetts have documented the process of building an ecoburb in Designing Sustainable Communities: Learning from Village Homes. Their very success has taught them several life lessons. If Village Homes were new today, the Corbetts would include:

  • higher density;
  • newer more ecologically sound construction materials;
  • more energy-efficient insulation;
  • photovoltaics, and
  • garages instead of the now-cluttered carports.

The Community of Civano
Civano, lauded as the first sustainable community, has been gestating in Tucson, Ariz., for nearly 20 years. It was in the early 1980s, as Village Homes neared completion, that Arizona builder John Wesley Miller was helping to create a Solar Parade of Homes on Tucson’s East Side. When then Governor Bruce Babbitt asked Miller for the encore, Miller dreamed what is being built at Civano today.

"I don’t take credit for the community now known as Civano, but the dream was mine," he says. Civano, then known as Tucson Solar Village, was just an idea, a conversation, numerous meetings and a plot of land filled with hope, ultimately taking nearly two decades to reach fruition.

Civano is now a public/private partnership embodying both sustainability and new urbanism. Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Corporation, is part owner. Fannie Mae is a congressionally chartered, shareholder-owned company and the largest source of home mortgage funds. Fannie Mae co-owns Civano through their American Communities Fund (ACF). Founded in 1996, the ACF devotes a portion of its $100 million in venture capital to breakthrough projects in affordable housing. And they are committed to Civano for the long haul.

"Civano redefines how we build communities," says residential developer Kevin Kelly. Part of that redefinition is deploying practical psychology to educate and recruit code officials and lenders. Civano’s collaborative effort involved some 17 heavyweight consultants, the City of Tucson and the expertise of developer Case Enterprises.

The land plan for Civano evolved through a series of private charrettes. There, local officials, lenders and builders rubbed shoulders with internationally famous architects and town planners. The constellation of international planners who has had some say in the design of this one-of-kind community include:


  • Andres Duany, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, Miami;

  • Stefanos Polyzoides, architect, new urbanist and associate professor at USC’s School of Architecture, and

  • Architect William McDonough, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia and founder of William McDonough + Partners.

    These experts encouraged local thinkers to develop a plan for Civano that answers quality of life questions raised by the Ahwahnee Principles (so named because these ideas were originally presented in 1991 at a conference at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park). Civano, they said, could be an antidote to urban sprawl’s five banes: traffic congestion, air pollution, loss of open space, inequitable distribution of economic resources and loss of a sense of community. It has also proved to be an antidote to ancient antagonisms among thinkers and lenders, developers and neighborhoods, technologists and pragmatic builders.

    Civano community planning completely integrates diverse housing types with shops, workplaces, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents, as well as open space, squares, greens and parks. Most of these are within walking distance. The community design conserves resources and minimizes waste. It also mandates energy efficiency through passive solar principles, energy-efficient building envelopes and other new technologies, such as "enzyme paving."

    The Civano principles work like a three-legged stool, balancing economic, social and environmental issues. Thirty-five percent of the land will be preserved as natural desert. The master plan foresees as many as 5000 people in 2600 homes, plus more than one million square feet of commercial space. Global Solar is the first business to open in the commercial area, manufacturing photovoltaic panels. Every neighborhood will have gathering places such as coffee shops and small commercial enterprises.

    The social context of the plan encourages tele- commuting along with energy conservation. Civano requires all buildings, including homes, to use 50 percent less energy than current model codes require and deploy standard structural wiring. Civano has installed two sets of water systems: one potable and the other to distribute reclaimed water for non-edible plant irrigation. Potable water will not be used for irrigation. Civano is also moving to incorporate "bundled communication services" from U.S. West.

    "We recognize that the meaning of ‘sustainable community’ varies depending on who’s talking or listening," says Kelly. "To some, sustainability means energy savings. To others, it’s utilizing indigenous and renewable building materials like straw bale or adobe. Still others say sustainable living must account for the relationship between indoor/outdoor space, the impact on the land, an analysis of the regional economy, and use of natural and human resources. Exploring these various aspects of sustainable living has led me to one conclusion: sustainability is a continuum, and we must see our work as part of a process of moving toward, rather than defining, sustainable living."

    In early March Newport Beach, Calif.-based RGC became the first of five Civano builders to open its merchandised models in a "pre-grand opening." The following week Sierra-Vista, Ariz.-based K E & G Homes followed suit. Shopper traffic has been remarkable. The first weekend 434 potential purchasing families visited. By April 1st, Civano had chalked up more than 40 sales - more than half of these during March - and all before the official April 16 grand opening.

    The American Lung Association has chosen Civano for two of its Health House Demonstration homes. Healthy indoor air quality is a Civano mandate. Both of these demonstration homes currently are under construction.

    "Sustainability has a cult following," says RGC’s Jim Murar, "but it is really just good engineering and smart business. We view Civano as a unique opportunity that can be replicated in other places." Murar’s sentiments herald the arrival of "total investment planning," using a return on investment approach to overcome resistance to concepts seen as radical and unconventional. If it makes money, it must be practical. Civano’s challenge is to maintain affordability while emphasizing quality, design and conservation of resources. To meet this mandate, RGC’s homes employ structural insulated panels (SIPs). Other builders are using RASTRA, burnt adobe and even straw bale.

    The Village of Armory Park
    Meanwhile, the man who gave birth to the idea of Civano, builder John Wesley Miller, The Miller Companies, is taking his dream where he always intended it to go. "We always thought we would take the lessons learned from communities like Civano and apply them in the city." Miller is doing just that in The Village of Armory Park, an affordable, infill, solar community designed to blend into a historic neighborhood in Tucson. On this 14.98-acre parcel of land, Miller will build housing for 99 families that is traditional and historically compatible, yet offers the highest in technical performance.

    In this project, Miller is answering the question so many architects and builders ask: Why tear up more outlying land to build sustainable communities when there are so many ravaged inner-city sites in need of revitalization?

    "Three concerns govern the neighborhood design: environmental, economical and cultural equity," he adds. The Village homes are priced from $80,000 to $150,000" all to be owner-occupied by a diverse range of neighbors varying widely in age and income.

    These will be electric Energy Star homes built two or three levels above Tucson Electric Power Company’s already stringent Heating, Cooling & Comfort Guarantee standards. Each home will also feature photovoltaic panels from Tucson’s Global Solar (the first Civano business) that will generate one kilowatt of electricity. Homes will have solar hot water and space heating. Walls are the standard Miller wall - concrete masonry units (CMUs) insulated on the exterior with two inches of foam followed by stucco. This construction creates the thermal mass that holds temperature. Miller’s goal is zero utility bills.

    The community will be a pilot for the government-sponsored Partnership for Advanced Technology in Housing (PATH) and may even use an innovative cistern system to collect drainage water for re-use in irrigation.

    In bringing this community to life, Miller says, "I’ve had amazing cooperation from the city."

    Coffee Creek

    One of the newest sustainable communities is taking shape in the Midwest. Coffee Creek Center encompasses more than 640 acres near the southern shores of Lake Michigan, in Chesterton, Ind. (Porter County). In addition to land restoration, the community focuses on traditional neighborhood design elements including residential, retail, office buildings, an eco-industrial park and shared community facilities. The overall plan decreases dependence on automobiles. Architect William McDonough - man Time magazine recently named one of its Heroes for the Planet - is the lead planner at Coffee Creek Center. McDonough is working with a team of architects, planners, wetland specialists and botanists at Coffee Creek. These include Conservation Design Forum, a Naperville, Ill., firm that specializes in sustainable land planning; Martin Architectural Group, Philadelphia; Howard Engineers, Austin, Texas; and J.F. New & Associates, Walkerton, Ind., an ecological restoration and conservation company. "In Coffee Creek, we asked, What if a town were like a forest?" explains McDonough. He envisions Coffee Creek as the first step toward creating "a green world with connecting gray zones."

    This sustainable community is taking an even more unusual approach to land development than is the case at Civano. Master developer Lake Erie Land Company (the real estate development arm of Nipsco Industries Inc., the utility company recently renamed NiSource Inc.), is restoring the site - not just to what some might regard as its agrarian roots, but rather to its condition prior to European American settlement. Coffee Creek Center is "an environmental stewardship show piece" returning from farmland and vestigial prairie to its origins as the confluence of woodland, prairie/meadow, wetland and savanna, says Coffee Creek spokesperson Kevin Warren. There are ideas and prototypes but not yet firm plans for home designs and specifications. "We’ll ask builders to create homes at the state of the shelf, and choose among eight of 20 items," Warren says, adding that restoration of the land must come first.

    Just as in Village Homes, Civano and The Village of Armory Park, Coffee Creek Center has narrower streets, tighter curves, wider sidewalks and emphasis on pedestrian over automobile traffic. Like Civano and The Village of Armory Park, homes will include really usable front porches.

    The community aims for sustainability in energy and environmental impact. Building guidelines will emphasize reliance on natural energy flows from sun and wind, careful selection of building materials, energy efficiency and environmental intelligence. Just how the community will do all that is still being determined. The key public space at Coffee Creek is the 40-acre Village Green complex with a 60-by-100 foot outdoor pavilion, outdoor amphitheater and sundial garden. These are under construction with an expected completion of summer 1999. The Coffee Creek riparian corridor will include a model stormwater system to absorb all rainfall on site and eliminate run-off into the creek.

    Setting A Standard
    Though developers and planners immersed in these projects are true believers who see what they are doing as the normal path of the future, their journeys have been lengthy, arduous and sometimes expensive. Total investment building is sometimes baptism by immersion in skepticism. Even as John Wesley Miller praises the cooperation of city officials, he still has to ask for and receive every pedestrian- and ecologically-friendly planning element. It is clear that the public wants and will buy these ideas. Homes built to these standards and sold for the same price actually appreciate more than today’s typical homes.

    The unanswered question is, when will this type of planning be the ordinary instead of the extraordinary?

    Also See:
    The McDonough Philosophy

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