Whisper Valley: Setting A New Standard for Sustainable Planned Communities

By Peter Kelly-Detwiler - Storyteller in Residence

The Whisper Valley sustainable community project first came onto my radar screen at last year’s GridNEXT event. There I met Axel Lerche, an articulate and passionate spokesman talking about a new way of creating sustainable communities.

I kept hearing about Whisper Valley over the next year, and on a July trip to Austin I accompanied TREIA development officer Julie Beggs and TREIA president Melissa Miller to the rolling hills of East Austin just off of State Highway 130 (proximity to the highway – with its posted 80 mph speed limit - is a critical factor in the project’s success).

Off the highway, we headed south through the small town of Manor, past the local garage, taco truck, and piñata store and down the road. About a mile down, Whisper Valley banners lined the thoroughfare, and we turned left onto an empty paved road leading into the planned development.

A few hundred yards on, we slowed for a large turtle lumbering slowly across the pavement, intent on some unknown mission. We continued on until we came to the main building, a combination of fitness center and sales headquarters looking out past a swimming pool to a line of trees that descended down to the creek and beyond to a clearing in the distance where some of the first houses were being erected.

Inside, we met Lerche, who graciously made us comfortable and explained the genesis of the project, its current focus on sustainability, and the longer-term vision of creating a better way of building more efficient housing in the future.

The financial crash that led to a better outcome

Whisper Valley is owned by Taurus Investment Holdings, a Boston-based investment real estate firm with holdings around the world. Foreseeing the future economic boom in Austin, Taurus bought 2,062 acres of land for development eleven years ago. What the company did not foresee was the global financial debacle of 2008. Fortunately, Taurus was able to wait out the recession until the economic tide – and real estate prices – turned in their favor.

By 2011, Taurus was considering moving ahead, but it was also looking for a differentiator, something that would draw residents to commit to Whisper Valley. After much discussion Taurus started EcoSmart Solution, an energy service company within the land development team. Together they determined that Whisper Valley would be created with a focus on energy sustainability and locally grown food.

Why Whisper Valley may create a lot of noise in the housing industry

In order to understand the potential significance of this development, it is critical to gain a sense of its size, how the economics generally work, and how the players fit together. To begin with, Taurus owns the 2,062 acres and has set aside about 700 acres - some in the flood plan of the creek running through the valley - which will include open space and hiking trails.

The tract will be a sub-divided into seven separate villages, with plans for a fire station, two schools, and two million square feet of commercial space (no big box stores are envisioned). When completed, the villages will encompass 7,500 units and house approximately 30,000 inhabitants. Approximately two-thirds of the buildings will be single-family dwellings with the remainder being multi family.

As the dwellings in the community are built, they are located next to access roads and on top of an integrated geothermal loop that will significantly reduce energy costs (more on that later). The modified land is then sold to homebuilders, who are expected to conform to specific aesthetics and make other commitments as well – especially as relates to sustainable construction. The end result is the creation of ‘net-zero capable’ homes that are highly efficient and enjoy very low energy costs.

Since Whisper Valley construction commenced, Taurus has received multiple inquiries and visits from some of the larger homebuilders in the country. This fact is critically important: Lerche indicates that approximately 80% of U.S. residential home construction occurs in production-scale housing developments. So if the Whisper Valley model is widely replicated, it could have a significant impact on how we build our dwellings in the future.

Sustainable energy: integrated upfront planning and economies of scale

Before any foundations were poured, EcoSmart as part of the Taurus team sensibly approached the energy challenge in a holistic fashion. The company began with a focus on minimizing future energy demand so that smaller investments in renewables are required.

Step one was to ensure that every new house was built to the City of Austin’s stringent efficiency codes, but also to require the homebuilding companies to go beyond code and spray each attic with a thick layer of insulating foam. In addition, to keep appliance energy use down, each home is also equipped with a high-efficiency Bosch kitchen and a Nest thermostat and other smart Nest products.

Step two, and the most critical element of the project’s efficiency component was the development of the geothermal loop to condition the homes. Lerche commented that geothermal conditioning can be a highly cost-effective technology, but not if it’s done as a one-off. So EcoSmart brought a systemic approach to the game where they built a larger integrated ‘geo loop’ reinforced by a central chiller for back-up in extreme heat events.

This involves drilling a separate 360 foot deep borehole on each lot (to date, 237 holes have been drilled), and connecting all of the boreholes and homes through a single system of pipes (Whisper Valley is also the only planned community to date with Google Fiber – whose economies were improved by laying the fiber simultaneously into the trenches created for the geo-loop).

The geothermal system piping is covered by a 50-year warranty with homeowners paying a monthly service fee of $60 for access to the system. The cost of the EcoSmart package, including the rooftop solar panels, Bosch appliances and Google Nest products, can be rolled into the monthly mortgage payments. The result is that households receive significantly lower electricity bills from local cooperative Bluebonnet. Lerche indicated average electric bills fell well short of $100 and showed us one monthly bill under $9.00.

Homeowners attracted to sustainability and affordability

Taurus also created a partnership with Austin-based farming company Lettuce Networks. Lettuce will create community gardens and also (for a monthly fee) maintain a raised bed garden on the property of each homeowner.

Lerche commented that about two-thirds of buyers surveyed indicated they had been attracted to Whisper Valley for sustainability reasons. So far the project has been a success, with the first 60 homes already sold, and another 25 or so under construction.

While sustainability is a helpful differentiator, homebuyers obviously have to look to the bottom line. Lerche indicated that the process of planning ahead and building efficiently at scale has allowed Taurus to work with its partner homebuilders to offer affordable homes. A 1,100 square foot version comes in at $219,500 (this price includes the EcoSmart products and the homeowner is also eligible for estimated tax credits of approximately $7,000) and higher end homes reach into the high three hundred to low four hundred thousand dollar range, figures that compare quite favorably with the Austin real estate market.

With affordable prices, 700 acres of open space and net zero-ready high efficiency homes, Whisper valley might be that rare community that both humans and wildlife, including that wandering turtle, may truly call home.