A blueprint for a new kind of planned community, Whisper Valley is an environmentally-sensitive development dedicated to energy efficiency and cutting-edge technology
By TAMARA PHILIPS
The votes are in—Whisper Valley in Austin, Texas, has won the Green Home Builder magazine award for Community of the Year 2017. This stands out from other eco-developments because of the size and scale of Whisper Valley and the ability to offer high-tech, sustainable homes utilizing renewable energy sources without sacrificing affordability.
“What really distinguishes us is that we have created a business model that allows volume production builders to easily ‘tap into’ our geothermal loop field without disturbing their precise production approach to building affordable homes,” says Managing Partner of Taurus of Texas Holdings, Douglas Gilliland. “By installing the system at the same time as other infrastructure, we dramatically reduce the cost of providing geothermal, and we efficiently provide access for mainstream builders to the system.”
This breakthrough approach allows first and second time buyers, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the technology and enjoy the benefits of sustainable living—making this a game changer in the homebuilding industry.
By the same token, Taurus is committed to key several sustainable principles that increase the quality of life for Whisper Valley’s residents. These include sustainable low-cost energy that is environmentally friendly; technology that allows homes to be smarter and more efficient; healthy living programs that reconnect our residents to the earth; and a commitment to provide this lifestyle on an affordable basis.
In pursuing these goals, Taurus has aligned themselves with world-class strategic partners such as Bosch, Rehau, Tesla, and Google; and uses experts in the industry to design and implement these programs like Geo-Enterprises, Francis Renewable Energy and Lettuce Network (urban farming). “We work closely with innovative builders that are ready to take the next step in creating a new kind of community with homes and lifestyles of the future,” says Douglas. The land was originally purchased in 2006 (just before the Great Recession). While waiting for the market recovery, Taurus spent time creating value with a unique land plan that celebrates the rolling hills, dense forests, open meadow and meandering creeks. A Planned Unit Development (PUD) was created that includes 700 acres (out of 2,063 total) of open space and a series of mixeduse villages that intermingle many lot sizes with retail and commercial services.
The foundation of the plan is the creation of trails and neighborhood parks that tie together clustered densities. A unique Public Improvement District (PID) was created to assist in the cost of building infrastructure. The PID allows improvements to be made with innovative financing that helps retain affordability. The actual development of on-site infrastructure took place in 2015 and 2016. Prior to that, significant off-site utilities were constructed from 2012-2015. This included almost seven miles of water lines, a wastewater treatment plant, two miles of wastewater lines, and a major four-lane boulevard.
Whisper Valley slightly changes the relationship between the developer, builder, and architect—an “energy system” was installed using a subsidiary company of Taurus called EcoSmart Solution (ESS), which combines infrastructure in regard to the geothermal loop field with sustainable improvements inside and on the house using Bosch ground source heat pumps and solar PV panels.
The key challenges to the building and design process are to provide the ESS energy system in a way that does not disturb the super-efficient home production process with builders that allows homes to be built affordably and quickly. By solving the infrastructure process of pre-installing the loop field and knowing how to size the heat pump and solar systems to allow zero-energy capable homes, builders can adapt to this super-efficient program without radically changing their culture. The result is improved efficiency and only minimally increasing the price of the home. The reality is that the increase in the cost of the home and resulting increase in the monthly payments (that can be financed through green mortgages and appraised using green appraisals), is offset by a reduction of monthly utility bills. The home becomes more valuable and more resalable and yet the total monthly costs are the same or lower than homes without the green investment.
Another challenge was creating a sustainable development that was affordable, which required getting maximum efficiency on every level to achieve our goal of zero-energy capable homes from the low $200s.
“We had to think differently and design our systems differently as well as work closely with the City of Austin to educate them on our new ideas and work with them to meet their goals for creating zero-energy capable homes,” says CEO of EcoSmart Solution Axel Lerche. “We had to create a comprehensive package of all the technology, products and systems and purchase it in bulk to provide to the builder. That was a huge challenge/undertaking that is unique to creating a typical new home development.”
As a result, every home is EcoSmart Certified, includes third party HERS rating and meets Austin Energy Green Build 2 Star requirements.
“We are bringing a new product to the market that meets the budget and lifestyles of first and second time buyers and growing families as well as reducing the carbon footprint,” says Douglas. “While some competitors are removing features to reduce costs in Austin, Whisper Valley is adding in more innovative technology and energy efficient systems and products. The whisper is growing about Whisper Valley.”
Tamara Philips is Managing Editor for Green Home Builder magazine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.