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The Canyons

Organic farm central to new residential community
By Molly Miller

Forget the Country Club. Give us an organic farm instead.

Hoping to attract high-end homebuyers seeking a green lifestyle, Denver developer Lee Alpert & Co's new 3,500-acre development near Castle Pines, Colo., will come complete with an organic farm and a focus on community-based principles, including "integrated sustainability, rural character, and the preservation of open spaces," the developer says.

With up to 2,500 residences, the development has a number of sustainability goals, but the organic farm is the biggest draw and most interesting feature. "The idea is to create an agricultural development that has enough area to grow food for all the residents," says RMI's Cara Carmichael, who, along with RMI's Elaine Adams and other members of RMI's Built Environment Team, is providing sustainability guidance to the developer.

RMI is first looking at the farm buildings' net energy use, exploring passive design measures to significantly reduce energy use and then looking at onsite renewables. RMI is making recommendations on the development's master plan and helping to craft design guidelines for the builders, weighing in on water, energy, and transportation issues. "RMI is asking, 'Can we design these houses to be efficient enough to require no natural gas?' This would save significant infrastructure costs," Carmichael says.

The houses will all be oriented to take advantage of passive solar gains. The homes' design is based on a Japanese model that can be flipped according to the solar orientation the homeowner wants. "Jeff Berkus [the project architect] is so creative. He is really encouraging a contemporary, contextual, regional design, rather than cookie-cutter design," says Adams. (RMI also worked with Jeff Berkus Architects on the Aspen Institute's Doerr-Hosier Center.)

The development will have commercial space sprinkled throughout. Like the farm, the village marketplace will be a community gathering spot. The marketplace will include a mix of shops, restaurants, cafés, services, galleries, studios and urban-style loft and condominium residences—and possibly a boutique hotel and offices, all oriented around a main public square.

The nodes of dense development will protect open space and wildlife corridors. "The development is equally energy efficient and ecologically sensitive," explains Adams. The idea is to make each of these nodes walkable...the developer plans to include about 37 miles of walkable and bikeable trails throughout The Canyons. Current plans also include an alternative transportation hub on site, and the developer is exploring a shuttle system to connect to nearby light rail.

In addition to significantly reducing the water use per house, the developer also wants The Canyons to be a pilot for a rainwater catchment project, and is working on plans to use non-potable water for irrigation. On average, Douglas County residents use approximately 245 gallons per day per home, but RMI estimates they may be able to reduce their water usage enough so that water supply and sewage piping can be downsized. "If we can prove that the development will use less water, we may be able to reduce tap rates by a third. Multiply that by 2,500 units and that really adds up," says Adams.

The residential portion of The Canyons should be complete in 10-15 years. The Farm, including a farm restaurant and farm stand, should be up and running in a couple of years. A professional farmer will tend the farm, but residents can be involved through volunteer opportunities, and The Canyons will offer formal internships for people who want to learn organic farming. Residents will be able take classes to learn canning and other farming and food production-related skills. The homeowners association (HOA) will be a conduit for education on sustainability, provide bulk pricing on energy efficient products for members, and possibly even offer group health insurance.

"They're looking at redefining the models in every way...the HOA model, the development model, the community model," Adams says of Lee Alpert & Co's approach.

"The developer is super enthusiastic and has set such aggressive goals from the outset that it makes this project pretty stellar. It rises above most other 'green' residential development efforts. And the reason is, leadership on their team has been really strong," says Carmichael.

(Find out more about the Canyons)

Molly Miller is a Communications Specialist at RMI

--Published July 2009

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