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Austin eco-development Whisper Valley bets big on sustainable suburbs

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The planned community wants to offer affordability and sustainability

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In booming Austin, Texas—a red-hot real estate market primed by tech-sector-startup money and a staggering 159 new arrivals daily in 2016—the quickly coalescing mega-development of Whisper Valley seems perfectly normal.

A Texas-sized tract of land east of downtown has broken ground, with a handful of finished model homes foreshadowing a massive planned community, now on sale and set to open later this year. When it’s completed, it will will encompass more than 7,500 single and multi-family homes and more than two million square feet of commercial space.

But it’s not the size or scale that sets this development apart. With geothermal wells being dug, Google Fiber high-speed internet cables being laid, and solar panels shipped in by the truckload, Whisper Valley offers something new: a sustainable, large-scale, and, most importantly, affordable suburban development. Homes start at $190,000, well below the market median of $311,000.

Built by EcoSmart Solutions, a new subsidiary of mega-builder Taurus Investment Holdings, a global real estate giant, Whisper Valley is a $2 billion dollar bet that going green isn’t just an upscale luxury for “coastal elites,” or the providence of custom homebuilders. In the words of Peter Merrigan, Taurus’s co-founder and CEO, it’s a “big opportunity.”

“We think this kind of development is scalable, and will become the industry norm,” he says.

Site plan for Whisper Valley

Whisper Valley represents a sea change in suburban and master-planned communities. Though it’s not the first large project to focus on green homes, it’s the largest and one of the most ambitious, aiming to provide net-zero energy capable homes (which produce as much energy as they use) squarely aimed at the mass market.

“What differentiates it is the price point,” says Nick Brousse, a policy specialist at the U.S. Green Building Council. “It’s on par with the cost of new homes in Texas. Green homes have traditionally had a rich tinge to them for years, but here, they’re incorporating things that were once radical, at a price that most home buyers actually want to pay.”

Whisper Valley’s backers hope it will serve as the largest reminder that sustainable construction—through a combination of new technology, regulations, and consumer sentiment—could start becoming as ubiquitous as the cookie-cutter tract homes that line the side streets of suburbia.

“The only thing as powerful as Mother Nature is Father Profit,” says Ed McMahon, a sustainable housing expert at the Urban Land Institute. “When people figure out they can make money doing the right thing, they’ll do it.”

Pacesetter Duplex, one of the model homes at Whisper Valley
The Hudson Model, by M-AVI Homes

Whisper Valley began to take shape a decade ago, when Taurus purchased 2,063 acres in East Austin, betting that the then-recent completion of nearby State Highway 130, the “Pickle Parkway,” would lure those seeking a quick, 20 minute drive to jobs downtown. Buyers want a high quality of living at an affordable price, says Merrigan, and this part of Austin offered the unique combination of available land as well as a progressive zoning code.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that Taurus would go green on such a large project, but with the city pushing sustainable building practices, including the Zero-Energy Ready requirement, and the City Council pledging to make the entire city net-zero by the year 2050, the numbers add up for green subdivisions, especially when done to scale.

To lower its carbon footprint, Whisper Valley buildings are both low-energy and high-tech. All the homes feature high-tech Nest thermostats and smart home sensors to monitor and reduce energy use. Underground, a massive geothermal well connected to every building will significantly cut heating and cooling costs, the biggest part of any consumer electric bill. This technology package is expected to save $150-$300 every month, depending on the size of the home (EcoSmart utilized a unique financing model, fronting the cost for all the green technology, which will be paid back by customers via the savings on their energy bill).

Along with energy-generating solar panels on every roof, a 600-acre park and trail system, and a community farming platform that will let residents raise their own produce, Whisper Valley seeks to create a long-term, sustainable environment, an affordable chance for owners to live their values.

Whisper Valley is indicative of the way green building has quickly grown from a niche concern to a significant sector of U.S. residential construction: In 2005, only two percent of new residential construction could be considered green, according to stats compiled by McGraw Hill Construction. By 2018, the firm predicts an exponential jump to 40 percent.

Examples of larger sustainable communities have sprung up across the country: Grow Community, a village of prefab, solar panel-covered homes on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle; Stapleton, a massive, sustainable-minded infill project on a former Denver-area airport; and the 700-acre Mueller development, another Austin community that recently became the largest neighborhood to earn LEED-Gold certification.

The EcoSmart game plan includes greenspace, solar power, and geothermal heating and cooling
EcoSmart

While growing environmental awareness plays a big role in the popularity of these communities, another important factor is the demise of the golf course, a significant land-use trend, according to McMahon. Grafting 18 holes onto an upscale housing project gave real estate developers a excuse to charge a premium. But building and maintaining a golf course costs millions.

McMahon says developers also eventually realized that homeowners weren’t spending their time playing golf, they were just attracted to living next to protected, open land. That’s led to the growth of what he calls “conservation communities,” which are designed around green spaces that add value without soaking up excess development costs. Recently, the trend has become intertwined with the foodie movement, the “experience economy,” and local sustainability in the form of agrihoods, housing developments built around working farms.

“Recent development news has been focused on the resurgence of cities, but everyone hasn’t moved back into the cities,” says McMahon. “Suburbs are innovating and differentiating themselves, and the successful ones are embracing walkable, mixed-use town centers. In the past, everything was one-size fits all. Now, some are real centers of experimentation.”

No place has come to symbolize this strain of community-oriented, environmentally centered experimentation—or how mainstream it’s become—more than Serenbe, founded on a stretch of former farmland in the town of Chattahoochee Hills, near Atlanta. Successful restauranteurs Steve and Marie Nygren began buying land in the area in 1994 and soon opened a bed-and-breakfast.

They eventually expanded their mission and vision, buying hundreds of additional acres of adjoining land to develop a sprawling eco-friendly community, modeled after English farm villages.

Now a series of bucolic homes arranged in “hamlets,” the idyllic community, called the “Pinterest version of suburbia,” boasts 600 full-time residents, won multiple awards, and been cited as an inspiration by numerous sustainable developers. It may look too good to be true, with community gardens, perfectly manicured trails, and a general store. But near the turn of the millennium, the idea of a large-scale sustainable development seemingly staged for the rustic-chic set didn’t click with local developers and financiers.

“People thought we were tree-hugging liberals and overgrown hippies building straw bale houses,” says Steve Nygren. “I realized there were no models for what we’re doing, so we just just did the best that we could to demonstrate the economic genius of sustainability and balanced growth.”

Decades later, Serenbe has started to install office buildings, a second apartment building, and additional restaurants. Built with sustainable construction methods and planning—native landscaping and a lack of private lawns cuts upkeep costs by 40 percent—it has become the kind of close-knit community that Nguyen envisioned.

Nygren would be the first to admit this is a premium project, with homes and residences starting at $475,000. But that’s the point: bring in thought leaders and influencers, model a different way of developing, and hope the ideas start seeping into and influencing the wider culture.

“In this country, we make regulations out of fear of what happened in the past, and only invest in what worked before,” he says.

Nygren even hosts annual conferences that brings together developers and local government officials looking to learn how to recreate (albeit in a smaller scale) the Serenbe formula.

Current home construction at Whisper Valley
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While Whisper Valley offers a different lifestyle and has a different development plan, it’s not hard to see the new Austin development as proof of Nguyen’s trickle-down theory. Built around a large nature preserve, the in-the-works Austin neighborhood offers a similar connection to the outdoors, though perhaps a little more forced than the giant project in Georgia.

According to Brousse, the wave of similar developments is just beginning. Major financial institutions are seeing the value of green-certified homes. The multifamily space has already benefited from local government incentives, which have attracted more capital and fueled experimentation. The next frontier is the single-family world.

The real trick to making that market work, according to Axel Lerche, CEO of EcoSmart, is working at scale. Whisper Valley’s community energy infrastructure cuts costs for everyone; built in this manner, a large suburban development may actually be better for the environment. And EcoSmart sees a bigger market beyond Austin. Local developers hired for the project are select production builders, not specialized contractors, because EcoSmart wants to perfect a cookie-cutter system that can be replicated across the country. The firm already has eyes on potential projects in Denver, California, and the D.C. area.

“I can’t think of any other development in Austin with this price point and these amenities, that’s so close to downtown,” Lerche says. “This program is designed to be used in any development in America, and any climate zone. The interest is expanding is overwhelming, and remember, we’re part of a large, traditional real estate investment firm.”

With construction in Whisper Valley picking up, the first owners should begin moving in within the next eight weeks. At that point, Lerche says, they’ll be finishing a home a day. Eventually, the development will includes a sustainable technology learning center, which will demo all the behind-the-scenes tech making the suburb so eco-friendly.