It's one thing to design a new residential development. It's quite another to try to revolutionize the way such developments are planned and built. But that's the ambitious goal of the University of Arkansas Community Design Center (UACDC), which is currently working on a Habitat for Humanity project it hopes will alter conventional wisdom about community design. “Instead of just solving a problem for one community, we're trying to do something that can be applied elsewhere,” says project designer Katie Breshears, AIA, LEED AP, one of the center's four full-time staffers.

The UACDC constitutes the community outreach wing of the school's architecture program, which makes it a perfect match for Habitat. Located near downtown Fayetteville, Ark., the as-yet-unnamed project will consist of 50 single-family homes, some attached and some detached. “All the units are based on Habitat's standard single-family model of three to four bedrooms and about 1,200 square feet,” says Stephen Luoni, Assoc. AIA, UACDC's director. To make construction easier, he and his staff limited variation among the floor plans, designing (along with the many U of A students who also worked on the project) four separate front porch types to differentiate the buildings. Each porch will feel like a full-sized room, which will enlarge the units' living space and enhance their relationship to the street. “It's almost as if the streets are designed for the porches and then the houses are plugged in,” Luoni adds. The community's proposed density of 8.5 units per acre exceeds local limits, but UACDC and Habitat are counting on the city of Fayetteville to give them the legal leeway they need to proceed.

Another unorthodox element is the project's shared street system, based on the Dutch circulation model known as woonerf. In addition to accommodating vehicles, the streets function as pedestrian and biking thoroughfares, public gathering places, and parking areas. In short, “the street becomes a park for pedestrians,” Luoni explains. The multiple uses work to calm traffic, as does a strict speed limit of 17 miles per hour.

Sophisticated landscaping techniques will also turn the streets into stormwater-management tools. Rather than the conventional method of using curbs and gutters to collect runoff and piping it to off-site retention ponds, the development employs rain gardens and other bioretention areas to hold the water on the site. A series of permeable surfaces help filter the water, and the bioretention areas contain plants and soils that naturally remove pollutants. The landscaping will promote evapotranspiration for almost half of the retained rain. And the rest will gradually recharge the groundwater or feed the constructed stream on the site. The system greatly reduces pollution and flooding—and costs 40 percent less than a standard stormwater-management plan. “Plants are cheap, comparatively,” Breshears says.

The university-affiliated Ecological Engineering Group is working closely with UACDC on the project's hydrology, and local firm McClelland Consulting Engineers is assisting with civil engineering issues. The design and engineering processes are funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which came through the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. The latter organization plans to work with UACDC on a low-impact development manual for the state of Arkansas. Currently the Habitat project is under review by the city. Assuming the necessary approvals come through, UACDC hopes to get started on construction by the end of 2008.