New University of Florida program helps developers build environmentally friendly communities
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As the boom in residential construction alters the landscape and boosts demand for energy and water, a new University of Florida program is helping developers build communities that protect the environment while maintaining the economic benefits of growth.
The Program for Resource Efficient Communities, sponsored by UF’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, encourages sustainable development practices by working with builders, architects and other professionals involved in all phases of residential community development.
“Many new developments are master-planned communities with thousands of homes consuming large amounts of energy and raw materials,” said Pierce Jones, a professor in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and director of the program. “These communities represent a major change in land use from agricultural and natural areas to urban or suburban. Developers buy large tracts of land, and their decisions can affect important ecological systems.”
The program matches the knowledge of UF faculty with the needs of developers. Participating faculty have expertise in many disciplines, including environmental engineering, energy, water, wildlife, forestry, landscape architecture and building construction.
Stephen Mulkey, director of research and outreach for the natural resources and environment school, said the school helps the program gain access to UF county extension offices to address the issue of growth in the state. “The program has shown that we can meet the needs of development and do it in a sustainable way,” he said.
The Program for Resource Efficient Communities recently worked with developers of the Harmony community in Central Florida. All 7,200 homes in Harmony will be built to meet or exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star standards.
“This means lower electric bills for each homeowner,” Jones said. “The overall result is a reduction in the demand for power generation and the need to burn fossil fuels.”
More than 7,000 of Harmony’s 11,000 acres are devoted to woods, wetlands, lakes, parks and recreation areas available to residents, he said. The golf course, which wraps around existing wetlands, was designed to preserve the area’s diverse plant and animal life.
“Developers are beginning to realize that they can offer open space as an amenity and add other features such as golf courses to enhance the natural environment rather than degrade it,” Jones said.
Some cities in Florida are providing additional incentives for builders to use “green” building methods, he said. The City of Gainesville recently implemented a green building program to promote the voluntary use of sustainable and environmentally friendly practices in design and construction. The city uses standards developed by the Florida Green Building Coalition and the U.S. Green Building Council.
“The Program for Resource Efficient Communities evaluates these certification standards for best design and management practices,” Jones said. “Builders who follow the standards receive fast-track permitting and a 50 percent reduction in permitting fees.”
He said UF faculty also participated in the design and development of Madera, an 88-home community developed by GreenTrust, LLC, on a wooded 44-acre site adjacent to the UF campus.
“The first home built in the Madera community took advantage of the Gainesville Green Building Program and saved the builder $650 in permit fees after accounting for the fast- tracking and 50 percent discount,” Jones said.
Those who buy Madera homes can choose from a range of construction and appliance packages that reduce electricity and water usage as compared to a typical home, Jones said. Durable and recyclable construction materials reduce the amount of waste going into landfills. Landscaping with native and drought-tolerant plants further reduces water consumption and the amount of turf, pesticides and fertilizers needed.
The Program for Resource Efficient Communities evaluates and promotes several other green certification programs and standards, including Audubon International’s Signature Programs, a series of nonprofit education and assistance programs to help landowners, managers and developers follow sustainable practices.
In addition to reviewing certification standards, the program creates and teaches continuing education courses that satisfy Florida licensing and professional association requirements.
Some of the course topics include construction techniques to improve indoor air quality, deter termites and limit building moisture problems such as mold and mildew. Other areas focus on windstorm-resistant housing, durable materials and renewable and recyclable resources for building construction.
Jones said the program also develops environmental education for homeowners, supports applied research and provides case studies. The program screens research at UF to identify projects of interest to developers and leverages collaborative efforts in the private sector to determine new areas of potential research for UF faculty.
“We want to show everyone from developers and homeowners to realtors and mortgage bankers that energy efficiency adds value to a home while helping conserve our natural resources,” Jones said. “We want to make people aware that alternative methods of design and construction are available. In the face of Florida’s rapid growth, green building methods can help to preserve and even enhance our quality of life.”