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How high-end housing developments use sustainability as a selling point

New projects in California and Florida sell a better life now, and a better future tomorrow

Meritage Homes

“Why not have something great that you can be proud of?” says 57-year-old developer Marshall Gobuty, who’s building and selling a community on Florida’s Gulf Coast he hopes will set a new standard in luxury living.

Hunters Point Pearl Homes & Marina, in Cortez, Florida, promises a “life well-lived” near pristine beaches just south of St. Petersburg. But in addition to great weather and a waterfront location, the big selling point of this just-completed community is sustainability.

Built in concert with Sonnen, a German firm focused on home-energy storage, and the Florida Solar Energy Center, this collection of 86 homes start at $400,000 without a boat slip and boasts an array of efficiency features like solar panels, battery storage, and smart home technology.

The sales website greets potential buyers by anticipating their pride in making a responsible choice, reminding them that “only a select few will have the opportunity to be part of this movement—a giant leap into the future of homebuilding.”

“You’re not going to compromise luxury, but you also want to do the right thing,” Gobuty says. “This is an evolution, what homebuilding will be. We have a responsibility. We’re the generation that messed up the planet, and now you have the same generation trying to correct it, without any compromise.”

Can net-zero homes offer luxury living that’s also guilt-free?

Developments such as Hunters Point demonstrate how net-zero housing—homes that generate as much or more power through renewables than they use—is fast becoming not just a sustainable reality, but an incentive to high-end, luxury buyers. According to the Net-Zero Energy Coalition, the U.S. has only 5,000 certified net-zero energy single-family homes and over 7,000 net-zero multi-family homes. But that may soon change as calls to battle climate change and reduce emissions lead to more stringent building regulations.

A report last year from the Rocky Mountain institute found that net-zero housing costs between 6.7 and 8.1 percent more than standard construction, but as costs for this upgraded technology decreases, net-zero homes are close to making more financial sense over the lifetime of the home in many parts of the country. The Net-Zero Energy Coalition predicts that by 2020, California alone could have more than 100,000 net-zero energy homes, based on the average annual new home construction in the state and its new solar power mandate for new construction.

Think of these developments as the Teslas of the housing market; turn sustainable living into a status symbol, then, as the theory goes, watch the technology go mainstream and trickle down to mainstream buyers.

But just like Teslas and electric vehicles, there are larger questions about the ultimate sustainability of luxury green living. Energy efficient housing will play a huge role in plans to cut overall carbon emissions: Existing U.S. buildings are responsible for 40 percent of the country’s energy consumption, costing owners more than $230 billion annually for heating, cooling, and power, according to the Harvard Center for Green Building and Cities.

But compared to luxury single-family homes in the suburbs, building the same unit in a denser cluster downtown, near transit lines can leave an even smaller environmental footprint. Homes that use less power and cut down on emissions are certainly welcome. But offering luxury green homes sidesteps some the truly tough decisions about land use, zoning, and density.

The interior of a home in Hunters Point.
Pearl Homes

The desire for a responsible lifestyle

High-end housing developments with a more sustainable message are far from new. For years, developers have been promoting projects with extensive green space in hopes of creating sustainable communities, such as “farm-to-table” agrihoods or Serenbe, a farm-and-foodie community billed as a “Sonoma for the new South,” playing to potential buyers looking for health, wellness, and a sense they’re living a more responsible lifestyle. In Austin, the $2 billion Whisper Valley mega-development believes consumers want net-zero ready housing in one of the country’s hottest housing markets.

In April in Irvine, California, a new development comprised of high-end contemporary townhomes billed as one of the greenest options for homebuyers in Orange County opened within the heart of the Irvine Business Complex. Built by Meritage Homes, a homebuilder active in nine states, the CitySquare project offers all-electric solar-powered net-zero energy contemporary townhomes starting at $814,000. They have an array of luxury flourishes such as chic brick accents and home automation.

According to CR Herro, the vice president of innovation for Meritage, the challenge in selling and marketing CitySquare is selling the true value—and total cost—of the homes. According to data from Southern California Edison, the local utility that partnered with Meritage to help design new electrical systems for the development, these energy-generating, energy-efficient units can save homeowners between $63,000 and $67,000 over the lifetime of their mortgage.

“By being a little more sophisticated as a buyer and understanding the value of energy efficiency and generation, you can get a no-compromise home at a good market price,” Herro says. “Our challenge is inspiring buyers to make that sophisticated choice.”

Meritage has been working on more sustainable housing for much of the last decade; the company’s first net-zero home was sold in 2010. CitySquare shows how this market has evolved to encompass larger projects, and it’s figured out many of the challenged inherent in large-scale developments.

Working with Southern California Edison, Meritage worked through some of the complexities of large-scale solar projects, such as creating electrical systems that could handle an entire neighborhood feeding power back into the grid. Meritage designed CitySquare with a community solar grid, and it devised a system to share power between all the homes, guaranteeing each can obtain net-zero energy use.

“This sets the standard for how homes should be built for the market and represents the highest value to our customers,” says Herro. “I anticipate by this time next year, we’ll be part of a group of communities doing the same thing.”

Since California passed a new building code last May that mandated every home have rooftop solar starting in 2020, projects like CitySquare could be seen as simply getting ahead of regulatory changes. Herro doesn’t see it that way. He believes solar is the smart choice anywhere. Anytime a homeowner can front the money to install panels, they should, he says.

“Solar is an opportunity for consumers to spend a dollar and make a $1.20,” he says. “Meritage would have embarked on these opportunities regardless of the California mandate. We never do anything as a gimmick. We look at this project as an example of our intentions, and a learning experience that gives us the skills to take these lessons to homes across the country. It’s a testing ground for better building practices.”

A map of the Hunters Point development in Cortez, Florida. “The Hunters Point community will be the start of a revolution in homebuilding. You won’t need to be rich to live in a sustainable home.”
Pearl Homes

Is even the greenest single-family home truly sustainable?

While these homes offer a big improvement over traditional construction, it can be tricky to claim the mantle of sustainable living. Like chasing utopia, there’s always something better over the horizon.

Creating housing near transit may be one of the most valuable things builders can do, since transportation emissions continue to rise in concert with Americans’s ever-longer commutes. Denser living, as opposed to single-family homes, offers a substantial environmental benefit and can be a key part of cutting emissions.

A 2014 London School of Economics study determined that large global cities, with a “modest blend of pro-density housing and transit policies,” could cut their emissions by a third by 2030. Urbanist Peter Calthorpe calculated that through urban densification alone, the United States could achieve half the carbon reductions needed to hold global temperatures to a rise of 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit).

According to Meritage’s Elliot Mann, the CitySquare project is within a two-mile radius of 107,000 jobs, a mile from both the John Wayne International Airport and a bus station, and four miles from a rail station. It’s also walkable to shopping plazas, and each home is wired to charge electric vehicles.

Hunters Point, which promises a zero-carbon product, believes showcasing sustainability is more important. Getting people to buy these types of homes draws attention that helps popularize this type of building. Gobuty believes that within 20 years, this kind of home will be the standard, pushed forward by the first wave of sustainable luxury homes.

“As we begin to sell these homes, we want to parlay this brand into apartments and multifamily housing so everybody can live in these homes,” he says. “You’ll be able to lease them. The Hunters Point community will be the start of a revolution in homebuilding. You won’t need to be rich to live in a sustainable home.”