Village Homes: Sustainability, Hobbits and Jane Fonda

This post marks the first in a series about housing developments that we think you might find interesting. For the inaugural post I’ve chosen to write about Village Homes in Davis California, a place that many consider to be the grand-daddy of modern sustainable developments. It’s always a good idea to begin with a classic, enjoy.

Philadelphia's GPIC Project at the Naval Yard

The Development:
Village Homes in Davis California, constructed in 1975

Fifty for Five: Rough Cut of Sheila Hyde Interview

How it measures up:
There are about 220 houses resting on 70 acres, 23 of which are agricultural. And by ‘agricultural’ I actually mean it is an idyllic paradise full of lakes, pools, and something called an “edible garden”  where children, animals, and faeries reside peacefully.

Day 1 at Fifty for Five in NOLA

Who lives there:
University professors and apparently once Jane Fonda (when she still wore legwarmers).

Don’t live here if:
You hate anything remotely new age. Their motto is “live in peace” and their streets are named after characters from The Lord of the Rings. So until Ikea starts a custom line of modernist Wiccan altars those of you who prefer a clean, modern aesthetic should probably hold back on your deposit.

“The Deal”:
Built on principles of community and sustainability Village Homes has been famously described by the press as the ‘perfect place to live’.  To the right is a picture of Village Homes. They don’t even have sidewalks, instead residents use their many bike paths and walking paths, which lackadaisically curve through the ether of Village Homes. Actually, they don’t have grocery stores either, instead they have acres of land devoted to orchards, vineyards, and farmland. These places work on the honor system, where residents can take what they feel they need and leave the rest for their neighbors. Homes are arranged in groups of eight, with each home sharing green space and community space with their neighbors. Actually, 40% of land is communal, a pretty unheard of number in planned developments. Their laundry services, playgrounds, pools, and gardens are all semi-shared.

As a result Village Homes is a pretty friendly place to live. Their crime rate is only 10% of the city average, and a recent study showed that residents tended to know an average of 42 people in their neighborhood, whereas the average number in other developments is around 11. In the same study residents identified four of their best friends who lived in Village Homes, compared to others in more conventional developments who only identified 0.4 of their neighbors as best friends. Do you dream of having friends? Maybe you should move to Village Homes.

Michael Corbett developed Village Homes so that the streets and homes were oriented to the south. Thus, winter sun tends to heat homes, while shade and nightly ventilation cool homes in Summer. Narrow streets greatly diminish urban heat island effect, further reducing the need for air conditioning. Many homes in the development are also equipped with active solar technology and rooftop solar water heaters. Even the pool is heated by solar energy. Overall, food and energy bills average at about half or one third of other residents in Davis.

Not only that, but Village Homes was designed without a sewer system. In an extremely controversial move developer Michael Corbett decided to do away with conventional water management strategies and instead used a series of above-ground natural swales with infiltration basins and collection ponds. This encourages water to seep down into the local water table rather than being pumped through the sewer system. After a series of heavy rains in 1977 it not only proved to be just as effective as conventional methods, but actually more so. It prevented the flooding of Davis by absorbing and draining excess water when surrounding sewer systems were completely overwhelmed and inundated. Also, more importantly cute muskrats, ducks, and geese hang out in there.

Additional bragging rights:
Living in a sustainable development before sustainable developments got hip.

The last word:
If Village Homes is held up as a paragon of what housing developments should aspire to, why hasn’t it been more widely copied? Founder Michael Corbett wonders the same thing. For the most part he chalks it up to difficulty in working with zoning law, unyielding developers, and an apathetic bureaucracy. He says it just isn’t worth it for most people.

Bonus Footage:

For some of the projects we cover we will be lucky enough to have visited and taken some video. Fortunately, this is one of those projects. Here is a quick video by Mark from his visit to Village Homes . . .

Let us know what you think in the comments.