Sustainable Sanctuary

Can you imagine pitching songbirds, geese and ducks as the friendly neighbors of future homeowners? How about offering expanses of green space, bounteous with native grasses and plantings? Or wetlands dotted with ponds and cascading streams? How about ...

By Meghan Stromberg, Senior Editor | February 27, 2001
RTrails, open space and recreation parks, as well as streams, ponds and waterfalls, dot The Meadows Sanctuary. Several bridges, constructed with wood taken from a local forest damaged by fire, were constructed as part of a local Boy Scout troopÆs service project.


Can you imagine pitching songbirds, geese and ducks as the friendly neighbors of future homeowners? How about offering expanses of green space, bounteous with native grasses and plantings? Or wetlands dotted with ponds and cascading streams? How about all this in the midst of a major metropolitan area?

Sounds almost like some kind of sanctuary doesnÆt it? ThatÆs just what theyÆre hoping buyers will think at a community under development outside of Denver, Colorado.

The Meadows Sanctuary is the vision of Bill Swalling, a man who found a rare thing: situated in an already developed area was an unoccupied, 40-acre chunk of land in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Scared away by the logistical nightmare of bringing together the properties owned by some eight or nine different entities, developers time and again didnÆt see any reason to waste their time on it. But when Swalling bought the land in unincorporated Jefferson County five years ago, all he saw was potential.


He let it sit for about two years, deciding what to do with it and massaging his goals for the development so they synced with those of the people in the surrounding communities. The Canadian-born president of Skyland Meadows Developments was new to the area, but it didnÆt take long for him to understand the localsÆ priorities: "I needed to see what was important to Coloradans, and overwhelmingly that answer was the same: preserve open space."

In an area not too friendly to new developments, and with no-growth proponents popping up everywhere, Swalling had to pound the pavement talking up his plans for a different kind of development.

And what he came up with is different. He says heÆs doing nothing short of fulfilling his vision: create a sustainable community in which all residents can live peaceably - not just the homeowners, but birds, wildlife and indigenous plants.

The homes, built by two local builders, are being constructed to the Built Green Colorado standards, and the land plan, features and extensive landscaping of the community reflect SwallingÆs vision of sustainable living.

The centerpiece of The Meadows Sanctuary - and the selling point for neighbors and the adjacent Foothills Park and Recreation District - is the 11-acre park. In addition to several ponds, Sanctuary Park includes over 9000 native trees and shrubs and over 30,000 wetland plants, creating a habitat for a variety of migratory birds and other wildlife indigenous to Colorado. According to project manager Joe Hemmelgarn, 12 species of birds make their homes there, including ducks, geese, blue heron and cormorants. Muskrats and coyotes have also been spotted.

Besides its role as a safe harbor for wildlife, Sanctuary Park, which was donated by Skyland Meadows to the local park district, plays an important part in water conservation - an issue extremely important to residents and municipalities in Colorado and most of the West. Rather than lush lawns of Kentucky bluegrass and manicured flower beds, Skyland Meadows has employed xeriscaping, the use of indigenous plants in dry regions to minimize the need for watering.

"Most people used to think xeriscaping was just cactus and rocks, but there are really beautiful plants throughout the dry West that you can incorporate," says Swalling. "TheyÆll bloom when others wonÆt and they attract wildlife because theyÆre native to the area. Plus, they reduce the risk of having expansion in the soil because they donÆt need any irrigation water."

The only drawback, he says, is that xeriscaped plantings take longer to establish themselves than other plants, but when they do - within four to five years - they require little to no maintenance. "Creating a natural environment is a process, and it takes longer than just rolling out the green carpet," says Swalling.

SwallingÆs use of xeriscaping attracted the attention of the Denver Water Conservation Department. According to Jim Reed with Denver Water, 50 percent of the total annual water use in the area goes to landscape irrigation, and thatÆs fairly typical of the arid West, he says.


As the Rockies formed, the bedrock supporting the foothills tilted and cracked (top), making Denver soil prone to heaving. As a result, the developer excavated the site, pre-expanded the fill with water and then replaced the soil in thin layers (middle). Basements at The Meadows Sanctuary use a self-contained concrete structural floor.


The Meadows Sanctuary is the first development in the area to submit a proposal to participate in the departmentÆs New Home Water Conservation Incentive Program, started in 1997. In addition to xeriscaping in public areas and reducing the irrigated greenbelt to eight acres, requirements for homeowners include restricting the amount of turf to 50 percent of the lot, ameliorating the soil for proper drainage, scarifying the ground to prevent compaction and following certain landscape guidelines for mulching and using native plants. The end goal is reducing the number of acre-feet of water consumed, and if they succeed, says Reed, the development is eligible for payment incentives.

A Soil Solution
SwallingÆs special attention to water conservation and minimizing irrigation zones was not just an environmental consideration, but a pragmatic response to a regional problem. Being so close to the Rocky Mountains, all of the Denver area is plagued by problems related to expansive soils and tipping bedrock.

To remedy this, all of The Meadows Sanctuary was overexcavated to a minimum depth of 16 feet below the finish grade and an overburden of 10 feet, meaning there is a 10-foot distance between the bedrock and the foundations of the 86 homes planned for the development. The removed soil and bedrock was pulverized, oversaturated with water and replaced in multiple thin layers for a uniform distribution of the pre-expanded soils to reduce swell and act as a shock absorber over the undisturbed bedrock, which has the disastrous potential of heaving.

Excavation under streets and sidewalks was done at the same time and to the same depth for greater stability. By excavating the whole development en masse, says Swalling, costs were almost half what it would cost builders to excavate lots one at a time.

Builder Larry Larsen, one of the two builders in The Meadows Sanctuary, says Larsen Homes has been using this overexcavation method for two years. With the same concerns in mind, he has also opted for a concrete structural floor rather than slab-on-grade or the wood structural floor typical in the area. He is using the FlorSPAN system, which is a structural concrete base floor on 10-inch thick concrete beams, so that the basement slab is supported by this foundation and not the soil.

If You Build It, They Will Come

All of the 86 homes in The Meadows Sanctuary, like the Austin model by Larsen Homes, above, are built according to the requirements of Built Green Colorado.


In keeping with the care that went into designing a pleasant, natural environment in The Meadows Sanctuary, Swalling wanted the homes to be just as livable. And to him, that means a lot of things, like tucking back garages to minimize their streetscape presence, adding porches for a sense of community and security and, most notably, building green.

Both Larsen, who is doing 74 semi-custom homes starting in the upper $300s and custom builder Campbell Homes, which will build $400,000 to $700,000 homes on the remaining 12 lots, are participants in the Built Green program. Started in 1995 by the HBA of Metro Denver, the Built Green Colorado program specifies a checklist for builders that includes requirements for energy efficiency, land use, water efficiency, indoor air quality and resource-efficient materials.

Larsen, who is taking his first crack at green building with this development, remains somewhat skeptical about the benefits versus the costs of green building, saying most of his customers havenÆt asked about it before. DeWayne and Kaye Campbell, however, had no hesitations about going green. "It turns out that when we looked at the requirements for the Built Green program, we found that we were doing almost all of that anyway," says DeWayne Campbell. "It wasnÆt much of a switch at all." Besides, he adds, "it just seemed like the right thing to do."

And home buyers agree. Although most donÆt specifically demand green homes, says Campbell, they do ask about it and seem relieved that the builders have done all the thinking for them in that area. Campbell Homes currently has two homes under construction and two more in the final design stages. Larsen, after having had just three models open since July, has had steady sales of one or two each month.

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