Wildhorse Dragging Davis Back to Green

My town, Davis, California, adopted an ordinance requiring a 44% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from new homes by 2020. It was a daring move since all our homebuilders told us it couldn’t be done.

Davis has a history of being on the cutting edge of environmental challenges. But most innovations since the 1960s have been resisted, understandably, by builders who are sure the green embellishments will price their product out of the market. We don’t always call their bluff since we don’t know what they know, and we have no living examples to refute them.

That may be about to change. A developer has proposed 191 units on a horse ranch — which gives the subdivision its name, Wildhorse — at the edge of the city. Since in Davis a city-wide vote is required to convert agricultural land to residential, he was smart to hire a local company that knows how to meet the city’s strict new ordinance — and double the bet. 

Talbott Solar principals Dean Newberry and David Galbraith think it would be possible to reduce GHG emissions to zero, but says Galbraith: “We don’t want to reduce emissions to zero since homeowners wouldn’t fully appreciate their savings unless they got a utility bill.”  Instead, the developer is committed to a reduction of 90%, twice the city requirement.

The GHG reductions will start with planning the development for optimal orientation to the sun for passive solar design, which will minimize heating and cooling needs. Cooling demand will be further reduced by the “Night Breeze” system which was developed by the Davis Energy Group, another local company. Night Breeze brings in outside air when it detects that outside air is cooler than inside.  A bonus for hay fever sufferers is that it filters the air.  Many of the houses will have no ductwork.  Radiant heating and cooling or super efficient HVAC systems will be used.  Highly reflectant roof and wall colors will reduce solar gain.

Super insulating panels were rejected as too expensive compared with hyper attic and wall insulation.  The local utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, has just finished outfitting the city with smart meters, which will allow homeowners to monitor their energy usage 24/7. If new cost-effective technology comes along — such as a new generation of evaporative coolers being studied at UC Davis — they may be used. 

Finally, each unit will have its own photovoltaic system, averaging 2.4 kW. Where rooftop systems are not practical, as in apartment buildings, parking canopies will used, although the energy produced will be metered for each apartment.  Solar and high efficiency water heaters will be used. Ten of the project’s 29 acres will be reserved for an orchard where trees can reduce temperatures, capture and sequester carbon. This will contribute up to 10% of the committed reduction.

Pavement will be minimized by streets that are narrower than the old city standard. Storm water run-off will be cleaned and reduced by bioswales — stream-like features that remove pollution and silt — in green belts. Much of Davis has nearly impermeable clay soils that generally prevent reducing run-off to zero, but the city is preparing a map of all its soils to determine which sites are suitable for zero run-off.

Much of this is far from new in Davis. Village Homes put the city on the green map in the 1960s, introducing zero-runoff, passive solar design and community gardens. At one point its fame attracted the President of France for an inspection. One of its homes has the city’s only living green roof.

We’ve not seen anything like it since then, as the forces of habit and risk avoidance reasserted themselves. Wildhorse may be our new Village Homes, updated to include advances in technology in the decades since then.

Davis has always been good at talking the talk while sometimes lacking in walk. For all its impact on the world of planning and sustainability, Village Holmes failed to influence Davis’ growth very much.  Developers insisted that such a project could not be repeated because its homes would be too expensive to sell. This was despite the fact that Village Homes houses had always sold for a hefty above-market premium. When the housing bubble burst it left the Sacramento area with one of the nation’s biggest inventories of unsold homes. And yet one home builder told UC Davis conference attendees that his green houses,though more expensive than the competition, were the only ones selling.

The stress of slow markets created good timing for a new Village Homes in Davis.

But Davis has many aspirations. It wants to be green, yes, but it also wants to be a bucolic college town buying organic food slowly at its well known farmers’ market. It wants to offer a variety of housing for all income levels. It does not want to spread out into the surrounding farms, yet loves big lawns and light traffic.

The City has a policy of growing up, not out. It has even ranked its infill sites in terms of the suitability for development. City staff nudges developers toward higher density, but requires them to work closely with neighbors of the project who want nothing in their backyards – or at least nothing more dense than their neighborhood.

The neighbors usually prevail, but they may not in the case of the Wildhorse project. Parlin and its consultants say they want to develop a neighborhood where design wipes out the perceived negatives of density.

Other cutting edge technology, such as geothermal energy, may be used in West Village, a mixed-use development that is located on the campus of UC Davis. This, too, ran into heavy opposition from neighbors who preferred their vistas of open fields when it was first proposed. Unmoved by the university’s visionary plans, participants at public meetings shouted down speakers and one fist fight broke out.

And we learned recently that for some Davisites, sloped roofs and overhangs are more important than cutting energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Maria Ogryziak, an MIT-trained local architect, lost her bid to build zero-emission townhouses with a living, green roof in the city’s center. She was trumped by design guidelines for this historic area.

Even though many Davis residents will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new green energy era, my town is own its way.

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Mark Braly was energy advisor to the mayor of Los Angeles during the 70s energy shock, author of the city's prize-winning energy plan, and president of a State of California non-profit corporation which made loans to renewable energy businesses. Now retired, he is a City of Davis, California, planning commissioner working on the city's zero-carbon program. He is president of the non-profit Valley Climate Action Center.

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