Five communities focus on living green

Five communities focus on living green

by Paul F. P. Pogue

Earth-friendly construction is no longer confined to individual homes, businesses, schools or churches. The next frontier for sustainability experts is the challenging task of greening entire communities.

"You can have a perfectly good green building, but if your employees and customers have to drive to get there, you end up wasting more money than you save," says John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Green neighborhoods have developed over the last 20 years from urban-village theories of smart growth, CNU's emphasis on walkability and mixed-use housing, and the U.S. Green Building Council's dedication to sustainable materials and techniques. LEED for Neighborhood Development, a joint project of the USGBC, CNU and Natural Resources Defense Council, is the first to bring all these aspects together on a national level.

"Nobody had defined the best of all worlds," says USGBC counsel Daniel Slone, who advises green communities about legal matters and serves on the LEED for Neighborhood Development committee.

Entering its pilot phase last year, LEED for Neighborhood Development involves more than 200 communities in 39 states and six countries. Here is a look at four of these neighborhoods and one small town embracing the program in the wake of disaster.

Austin, Texas — Mueller

It's hard to imagine a bigger shift in carbon emissions than converting an airport to a green community. This 711-acre development reboots the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport into a mixed-use urban village encompassing 10,000 residents and an array of businesses. Matt Whelan, senior vice president with Catellus Development Group, says all buildings will be either LEED-certified or receive at least a 3-star rating from the Austin Energy Green Building program.

The first homes went on the market last year, and 30 families have already moved in. Catellus' office building is LEED gold, and the regional children's hospital, completed and operating, is aiming for LEED platinum. Additionally, builders have reused a considerable amount of the airport's resources, including hangars and terminals redesigned for commercial use and runway asphalt recycled into roads.

"When you design from the ground up, you can take advantage of all aspects affecting sustainability," Whelan says.

North Charleston, S.C. — Navy Yard at Noisette

Developers of this community faced a distinct challenge: Retool a century-old Navy yard into a model green neighborhood. They tore down substandard, asbestos-laden structures and replaced them with homes and businesses built to at least LEED silver status.

The project's design and density emphasizes walkability and minimizes the need for a car. An innovative stormwater management system uses green roofs, bioswales and rain gardens to allow rain to percolate into the groundwater. "It's designed to mimic nature," says project manager Elias Deeb.

In addition, each building will include a solar water heater and a central chilled-water system will provide heating and cooling for all buildings, reducing energy waste by using a single source.

The first residents are expected to move into the 340-acre development in 2009. "It's a case study in revitalization," says Keith West, director of public affairs for the Noisette Company.

Portland, Ore. — Helensview

HOST Development, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping first-time homebuyers, is demonstrating that green homes aren't limited to wealthy neighborhoods. When they acquired 4 acres in the middle of Portland in 2006, group leaders knew they had a chance to raise the stakes.

HOST originally planned to build more than 50 homes and condos to LEED for Homes standards, but when the USGBC's neighborhood development pilot came along, they took matters a step further, planning green infrastructure, efficient water usage and adding mass transit and an on-site ride-sharing program called Flexcar. The first homes went on sale in January, and assistant project manager Devin Culbertson expects the community could be complete by year's end.

"Energy savings and indoor air quality for healthier kids really resonate with people," he says.

Grayslake, Ill. — Prairie Crossing

The "conservation community" at Prairie Crossing focused on green community building long before LEED came along. Ben Ranney, of Prairie Crossing development consultants Terra Firma Co., says the community's founders drafted a set of 10 guiding principles in 1987 that still hold true today — including aesthetic design and high quality construction, environmental protection and enhancement, energy conservation, a healthy lifestyle, and convenient and efficient transportation.

The founders completed the first homes in 1994 and the entire development last year. It currently includes 359 single-family homes and 36 condominium units mixed with retail shops, an organic farm and a geothermally-heated school. Located on 677 acres 40 miles northwest of Chicago, it retains commuter rail service straight to downtown.

"Most of the communities in the pilot are urban-centric, infill projects, and many of them are in their early stages of development," Ranney says. "We're atypical in this way."

Greensburg, Kan.

In May 2007, a massive tornado ripped through this small town of 1,400 about 60 miles west of Wichita, killing 10 and flattening nearly all of its homes and businesses. In the aftermath, town leaders decided on a bold initiative: Reconstruct all public buildings larger than 4,000 square feet to meet the LEED platinum standard — something no other city or town has yet tried. The project includes six structures as well as future public buildings.

"We were pretty much at a clean slate, and we decided, why not rebuild bigger and better and more environmentally friendly?" says Mayor John Janssen.

Only about 200 residents have returned to the town, but more than 500 live in temporary trailers on the outskirts and plan to move back as soon as they can. Although the city's commitment is limited to public buildings, the project has inspired many home and private business owners to build as green as possible.

"It took a while to get people past the idea that this was a tree-hugger project, but it's almost competitive now," Janssen says. "People want to be able to say, 'My house is greener than yours!'"

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