The ecological dividend

For years, many of the places designed by new urbanists have sat more lightly on the land than conventional developments usually do. Several principles of xeriscaping — landscaping in ways that reduce the need for watering — can be traced back to the beginning of Seaside. Robert Davis didn’t mandate native species in that Florida development primarily for high-minded ideals, however. Rather, he wanted to avoid the cost of an irrigation system.

That tradition has continued to this day in the work of many new urbanists. For example, the Waters, a development near Montgomery, Alabama, was replanned after having been laid out by its original designer in a sprawling pattern. The original plan called for bulldozing a hill at the south end of what became, after our redesign, the Lucas Point hamlet. I told the developer, “Let me save you the money of moving all that dirt; we’ll leave the hill, put a chapel on top, and line a street up with it to let the chapel terminate the vista.” Today Chapel Hill is the most memorable view at the Waters. But the rationale for doing it that way was purely economic.

Schooner Bay, rising now on the eastern shore of Abaco in the Bahamas, probably illustrates Original Green principles more clearly and broadly than any other place built in our time. The Original Green is the sustainability that existed before the Thermostat Age — which happens to be the era during which we developed really big bulldozers, dump trucks, and the like, allowing crushing environmental impacts that simply weren’t feasible before.

Orjan Lindroth, developer of Schooner Bay, isn’t simply doing the right thing. He has also analyzed the cost savings of many of these low-impact measures, which he calls the “Ecological Dividend.” Conventional development is driven by two things: asset inflation and bank liquidity. Consequently, these projects are primarily marketing exercises, designed to create as much sales velocity as possible.

The components of the Ecological Dividend don’t show up anywhere on a standard project pro-forma, but they can be immense, as we’ll see in the benefits that are accruing at Schooner Bay. Keep in mind that the same can be achieved elsewhere; the Ecological Dividend is not specific to Schooner Bay.

Time

Many elements of the Ecological Dividend cannot be achieved in a high-velocity development, bent on building out in 2 to 3 years. High-speed development is almost always high-debt development; the ticking interest clock forces decisions that are not good for the place. Orjan has chosen not to burden Schooner Bay with debt that requires a schedule dictated by cash flow. The market, rather than the debt, determines the pace of development. This is the way that the majority of Most-Loved Places were built.

Ultimately, the approach adopted by Orjan benefits both the developer and the community. Homebuyers are not paying significant bank finance and interest costs in their land prices. (Those items can amount to 30 percent of the cost of a new development.)

Diversity

Schooner Bay has, from the beginning, opened its doors to a diverse population: primarily Bahamians but also foreigners, across wide socio-economic strata. Because of this, it will not be subject to the generational risk faced by single-purpose developments such as gated golf course subdivisions. The broad demographics of Schooner Bay will more closely mirror those of the Most-Loved Places of the Bahamas, such as Harbour Island, Hope Town, and Man-of-War Cay.

Landscape

Developing more slowly, over more years, reduces the cost of landscaping. Schooner Bay runs an on-site nursery that provides all the needed plant material. Orjan plants heavily to create a subtropical paradise, but because the 200,000 trees he expects to plant will all be grown from seedlings in the nursery over several years rather than bought at mature size from elsewhere, the savings should be approximately $38.8 million ($6 to propagate and grow each tree vs. a cost of $200 to buy a large tree).

Earthwork

From the very beginning of Schooner Bay’s design, earthwork was conceived as having multiple purposes. Every bucket of dirt that needed to be moved was slated to be used where it could create an asset. Grading in a balanced way doesn’t just save on dump charges or borrow fees; it also saves large quantities of fuel spent hauling the material back and forth. The savings start when you leave much of the material where it is already, as at Chapel Hill at the Waters. At Schooner Bay, savings on earthwork alone (existing plant material is counted below) should be about $24.4 million. Elimination of mass grading also preserves wildlife habitat.

Forest

Thirty-eight acres of forest are being preserved at Schooner Bay. A narrow band through the center of the forest is a parrot migration route preserved in the original plan by Duany & Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). But once Orjan saw the beauty of the coppice, he dramatically expanded the preserved area. DPZ couldn’t at first believe how many lots he wanted to eliminate, but Orjan’s response was “you really must see this.” Planting a coppice like this one would cost at least $1 million/acre; preserving the whole thing cost only $200,000, for a net Ecological Dividend of $37.8 million.

Dune

Orjan took to heart what has been learned at Seaside about building behind dunes. He planted the first dune with thousands of native dune plants so that their collective root systems will reinforce it. He built a second dune a few dozen yards behind it, further strengthening the shoreline and providing a platform for houses just behind the second dune. The second dune turned lower-value lots with no view into oceanfront lots by elevating them, and was built using the sand spoil from harbor excavation. Building a dune by hauling sand onto the site would have cost about $7.5 million, but using harbor spoils cost only $200,000, for a dividend of $7.3 million.

Harbor

The harbor at Schooner Bay was the source of many feet of topsoil that had eroded over the centuries from higher, rocky land. Returning the topsoil to the higher land made that area more valuable. The harbor contributes food as well; it will be home to a small fishing fleet, making Schooner Bay an authentic fishing village. The dividend created by the harbor is estimated at $20 million.

Community cistern

Normally, water is stored in steel tanks with pressure equipment, all of which are subject to corrosion and wear and tear. Orjan took an alternative route, building a 2-acre sand tank on the ridge 60 feet above the town center and allowing the water to gravity-flow to its destinations. Net savings are $2 million, plus all the avoided maintenance in the future. Material excavated to create the cistern was used to make building pads.

Eco Machine

Sewer treatment in a remote location is usually expensive, as you have to construct your own plant, which normally is large and smelly. The Eco Machine lets nature do the job, digesting sewage below ground level in what appears to be nothing more than a long swale or rain garden planted with a variety of plants designed for each step of the digestion process. The Eco Machine trades odor for beauty and saves $2.5 million.

Smaller and smarter homes

Smaller, smarter homes satisfy customers in half the space they might otherwise have built. While other oceanfront developments in the Bahamas might average $800,000 in construction cost per house, Schooner Bay is doing enough clever things to average only $400,000 — and the houses are extremely well-built. At 500 dwellings, that’s a staggering $200 million difference.

Schooner Bay will have a completely unheard-of range of 40 to 1 from most expensive to least expensive homes — from around $4 million to just under $100,000. In short, it will feel like other great Bahamian towns rather than terminally boring subdivisions where everyone is wealthy.

Living traditions

Orjan and a group of fellow Bahamians commissioned A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas], which has since won a CNU Charter Award. Once a tradition begins to spring to life in the builder community, builders know why they’re doing better details, those details receive “standard pricing,” and bad details (which they don’t want to do anymore) get “custom pricing.” It’s not yet clear what the savings will be, but I would expect it to be the tens of millions of dollars.

Capital cost dividend

The total Ecological Dividend of building the Original Green way totals $332.8 million. That doesn’t even consider time benefits or the value of living traditions. But there are operating cost savings, summarized below.

Electricity and geothermal cooling

Smaller houses daylight better and cross-ventilate better because each room is likely to have more exterior walls. This reduces cooling loads and lighting loads, which is good, because electricity is expensive in the Bahamas.

Schooner Bay cools geothermally, which will save up to 50 percent versus standard heat pumps. Geothermal has a huge hidden benefit: because the units dump heat into water rather than into air, you don’t need condenser units sitting just outside, buzzing and blowing hot air most of the time. A quiet (and cooler) courtyard entices you outdoors, where you get acclimated to the Bahamas’ balmy climate, and therefore need less air conditioning when you return indoors. You might actually find that you need air conditioning only on the hottest days, and if so, you’ll discover that there is no equipment so efficient as a machine that is off.

Total electricity savings for cooling and everything else should be about $2 million per year on the roughly 500 houses that will populate Schooner Bay at build-out.

Water supply and reuse

Schooner Bay captures rainwater and treats it rather than buying it from elsewhere. Houses and other buildings reuse graywater for flushing toilets and irrigating gardens, reducing the need for treated water by about half. The water supply and reuse dividend should be about $2.5 million per year.

Waste water treatment

When you reuse water, and use less water to begin with, you don’t have to treat as much waste water. The dividend is estimated to be $1.44 million per year.

Food

In addition to being a true fishing village, Schooner Bay will be ringed by acres of organic gardens on the landward side. Farmed in a bio-intensive manner, they may make it possible to feed the entire town with food raised in gardens and fished from the sea. Would eating that way be worth a difference of a dollar a meal to you? If so, then that’s a food dividend of $1.5 million per year.

Transportation and the local economy

Orjan is working harder than any New Urbanist developer I have ever worked with to create a local economy. Schooner Bay has begun reaching out to its neighbors with the Schooner Spring-Fest, featuring foot races, bike races, and a day of food, music, and general good times attended by several hundred Abacoans.

Other ways of making shops self-sustaining early in the development process center on two questions: “How can you reduce the costs of operation?” and “Who can open a shop without needing a full income?” The principles of building smaller and smarter apply here. Tiny shops have a long history in the Bahamas. Potential shopkeepers include retirees looking for a second career. Also, some professionals who can live at Schooner Bay and work remotely might run a coffee shop or the like on the side. The goal is to reduce driving by 80 percent, which at full build-out would save $4.8 million per year.

Operating cost dividend

The total dividend from the things we’ve counted above is $12.24 million per year. But to really see what it means, you have to ask, “What can we buy, now that we don’t have to spend that money on operating expenses?” Using a capitalization rate of 5 percent, this computes to an operating-cost dividend of $244.8 million.

Simply put, the Ecological Dividend enhances all aspects of development. Those who want to build Most-Loved Places in a sustainable way should choose this lens to see the real impacts of their community-building choices.

Steve Mouzon is principal of Mouzon Design, an architecture and urban design firm, based in Miami Beach, Florida. All of the figures are in Bahamian dollars, which are keyed to the US dollar — but costs are higher due to import duties.