I also knew that Krager, 41, who heads a six-person design/build firm and has a talent for erecting elegant low-cost homes, had long been dreaming of subdivisions, much the way a magazine writer dreams of novels. But the phrase "net zero" meant nothing. Krager had to explain—slowly—that he was planning to build a development in which the houses generate as much energy as they consume over the course of a year. Net energy use: zero. At the time, it sounded like magic.
Now, of course, "net zero" is part of the familiar lingo of green development. And by the time you read this, nearly a third of the homes in Krager's development, Sol (which also stands for Solutions Oriented Living), should be nearing completion. Located about three miles northeast of downtown Austin, Sol will ultimately consist of 40 fetching little modern houses with photovoltaic arrays on the rooftops, extra-dense insulation in the walls and highly efficient heating and cooling systems. Some of the houses will be modular, built at a factory less than a mile away, and others will be site built. The units will range in size from 1,000 to 1,800 square feet, priced from the low $200Ks to the mid $300Ks, although eight of the units will be sold at subsidized prices and another eight will be retained by a local nonprofit as rentals. "We don't ensure sustainable communities just by building green," Krager contends. "There have to be economic and social justice components."
Krager's dream development positions him at the leading edge of a new movement to build green subdivisions, one that might help some home builders weather the downturn as it addresses the thorny issue of sustainability. In recent years, financial incentives from the federal government and many states have encouraged even the most conventional builders to mount photovoltaics atop a handful of their faux Mediterraneans and Tudors. And a mini boom in green development was spurred by the official launch in January 2008 of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Homes, a residential version of the most widely recognized green rating system for commercial buildings.
The U.S. Green Buildings Council, the sponsor of LEED, and McGraw-Hill Construction released a study in July 2008 claiming that 330,000 homes with green features had been built in the past three years and indicating that 70 percent of buyers are "more inclined to purchase a green home over a conventional home in a down housing market." One of the LEED case studies on the U.S. Green Buildings Council website is Carsten Crossings, part of an utterly typical-looking suburban development called Whitney Ranch, in Rocklin, a central California town some 30 miles northeast of Sacramento. The homes have names like Grasslands and Meadowfield and are the usual hodgepodge of watered-down historic styles. With two-car garages out front and 2,500-square-foot floor plans, these homes appear to be no different from other tract houses.
What you don't see at first glance are the SunTiles photovoltaic collectors hidden on the rooftops. The houses use two-thirds less energy than a comparable suburban home because they each generate a couple of kilowatts. Each house also has a coating called TechShield under the roof that reflects back the sun's heat and an energy-saving tankless water heater, as well as extra-dense soy-based insulation.
When asked why the developer, the Gruppe Company, decided to incorporate green features, Mark Fischer, the firm's chief financial officer and the senior vice president for construction and sales, gives an archetypal home-builder answer, "I just thought, in a sea of widgets, wouldn't it be nice to have a widget that stands out." So far, Gruppe has built 80 of the LEED-certified homes, and even as the downturn hit in 2007, it sold its widgets twice as fast as its non-green competition.
Happily, not every extraordinary development looks quite so ordinary. Alys Beach, for example, a luxury resort community on the Florida Panhandle, is rather exotic. This pedestrian-oriented town was planned by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, the firm that famously kicked off the New Urbanist trend with its 1980s scheme for Seaside, a few miles down the road. The first thing you'll notice about the million-dollar- homes in Alys Beach is that they look as if they were airlifted from a Spanish-influenced place in the Caribbean and are a brilliant shade of white. Mike Ragsdale, Alys Beach's "town evangelist" (meaning he practices public relations, not religion), argues that the architectural style itself signals that the development is green, but maybe not in ways we've come to expect. "I think it's incredibly unfortunate that in the '70s and '80s we got it stuck in our heads that to be green means having big, ugly solar panels on the rooftop. And we all have this preconceived notion that being green means making sacrifices, and it doesn't."
He argues that the very whiteness of the houses—in particular, the white concrete shingles on the roofs—is one green aspect, helping to keep the houses cool in the Florida sun. And the "timelessness" of the architecture, coupled with the "fortified" (hurricane-hardened) construction, means, Ragsdale contends, that they'll last much longer than typical American houses. And durable, by definition, is sustainable.
But the 1970s model Ragsdale derides hasn't gone away. It's just grown up to be much more refined, technologically and aesthetically. Take Verde Village, a middle-class, affordable community in Ashland, Oregon, that broke ground early this year. The development is a labor of love for Greg and Valri Williams, a couple in their early 50s, who were, until recently, in the business of selling herbaceous annuals; they used to own actual greenhouses. The 12 acres on which the greenhouses once stood, formerly rural but now zoned residential, will be redeveloped. The couple started out four years ago—the Oregon land-use review process moves slowly—with the intention of building something that, in Greg's words, "sticks to our values."
The couple sat down with a landscape architect, a planner and an engineer. "We put all our values up on the wall," says Greg. The result will be 68 homes designed by Solarc, a Eugene-based architecture and engineering firm, each priced at about $300 a square foot. The smallest cottages will be about 900 square feet; some of the homes will be as large as 2,400 square feet. As with Sol, a portion of the project (15 homes) will be subsidized. All will have lots of glass on the south walls and photovoltaic arrays on every rooftop. Most of the homes will be hooked up to a geothermal loop that will pump fluid at constant ground temperature (56 degrees in Oregon) through pipes embedded in the floors. Cisterns will capture rainwater, and storm water will be managed by bioswales. And each of the smaller cottages comes with a raised bed for gardening. "It's anti- American not to have a garden," says Greg, only half joking. The architectural style is cheerfully contemporary but adventurous, with fashionable gestures Plike standing-seam metal roofs.
Personally, I'm of two minds. While I think that green strategies should be incor porated into everything, whether we're talking a tract house or a yurt, retrofitting cul-de-sac subdivisions with energy-saving features doesn't feel like a very momentous change. What I admire about Verde Village and most especially about Sol is not just the good intentions of the developers, but that they're examples of taking the subdivision concept and completely rethinking it. As Krager puts it, "The intention of this project was twofold. One, to put all of our interests as architects working in the urban environment into one project." I think it's particularly significant that Krager's architectural style, even before he was talking green, was about coupling highly efficient layouts with strategic management of the strong Texas sunlight. Sol's houses aren't sustainable just because they have bamboo floors or Energy Star appliances or low-flow toilets. These homes are sustainable really because they're designed by someone committed to making small houses work: they have open floor plans, modest bedrooms and larger public areas and thoughtful features like built-in desks in hallways. The second intention of the project, Krager continues, is to "propose a model for sustainable development that we can take on the road. If we can bring a model to the market that is profitable and also leverages the momentum of the sustain-ability dialogue," Krager reflects, "I think we can take that a long way."