At a Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC) presentation this week, the Alamo Creek development in Danville, Calif., served as a standout example of the level of water conservation that can be achieved by a dedicated developer. But the effort required new technologies, extensive planning, an innovative public-private partnership, and a virtually unprecedented devotion to saving water by everyone involved in the project.
The 600-acre community, developed primarily by Shapell Homes with houses designed by Robert Hidey Architects and Dahlin Group, straddles the service-area boundaries of water supplier East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD). Incorporating the additional project area into the service boundaries was controversial because the utility didn't have a long-term water supply.
To meet the utility's water-conservation goals, Shapell developed a plan that combined on-site measures and off-site mitigation to reduce the development's net-water demand to zero.
"This project is unique," said Richard Harris, manager of water conservation for EBMUD. "It really is a good answer for a water-short area. It allows communities to accept a project more readily."
The 1,400-unit development, which includes a variety of house types (ranging from $450,000 for townhomes to $800,000 to $1.4 million for single-family dwellings), artificial-turf soccer fields, a school, a fire station, and parks, was originally projected to require about 0.7 million gallons of water per day (mgd). Reconsidering actual water use and other factors lowered the baseline to 0.63 mgd, and the impacts of on-site conservation and recycled water used in common landscaped areas reduced the estimated demand to 0.45 mgd.
Reducing water consumption in the community called for both water-saving products in the homes and an inventive landscaping plan that required rethinking the traditional yard. Homes were built with dual-flush or high-efficiency toilets and low-flow showerheads, and water-saving washing machines and dishwashers were included in the higher-priced houses. Smart, low-water-use landscaping and outdoor water management were keys to reducing the community's water footprint, however, Harris said.
"We had to demonstrate to the public that water efficiency is not drab, gray, or weedy" lawns and landscaping, said Leslee Temple, FASLA, a landscape architect and vice president of Nuvis Landscape Architecture and Planning, which was involved in landscape design for the community's model homes. Turf was only allowed in the backyard and other functional yard areas, and the number of pools and water features was restricted.
Nuvis put together an extensive palette of water-efficient plants in a variety of colors and seasonal interests, as well as a series of landscape designs that would enhance the 13 home plans' curb appeal. In addition, the firm developed signage to educate buyers about subsurface irrigation and other features, and EBMUD provided each homeowner with a book and a CD listing the plant types they could choose.
"One of the things we're really proud of was dedicating the first 10 model homes as demonstration homes for water conservation," Harris said. The garage of one of the models became a water exhibit hall.
The water-saving measures were popular with both homebuyers and the water utility, according to Jim Gold, vice president and landscape coordinator for Shapell Homes. "With everything happening with water demand, buyers are very receptive," he said. "They understand the need to conserve water."
"Homeowners have definitely bought into this lifestyle," Temple adds. She was even pleased that one aspect of her landscape designs went unobserved by prospective home buyers: "A lot of them didn't even notice there was no turf in the front yard," she noted.
To offset remaining water demand, Shapell and the other developers are paying EBMUD more than $6,000 per new home to sponsor conservation projects within EBMUD's service area. The money will fund measures such as toilet flapper replacement in apartment buildings to reduce leakage and evapotranspiration irrigation controllers for single-family homes that reduce landscape irrigation water use by 10 percent to 25 percent.
Jeffrey Lee is associate editor of Building Products magazine and ebuild.com, and a regular contributor to EcoHome magazine.