When architect James Meyer set about to create a master plan for Pringle Creek Community, he was working off a fairly ambitious request from the property owner: design a walkable, mixed-use, sustainable development with the community-enhancing aspects of old city neighborhoods; have it reflect the most comprehensive thinking and best practices in the field of green infrastructure; and save, for re-use, as many of the pre-existing buildings as possible. Oh, and save every tree that you can.
“It was bit daunting,” Meyer admits, “being asked to put it all together like that, but my feeling was, and still is, that sustainability requires laying out a plan that respects and restores natural resources while fostering a robust sense of community.” Meyer, who is a principal of Opsis Architecture in Portland, Oregon, adds, “Another way to put it—a sustainable neighborhood will also be a better, more social, more fun, place to live.”
Reimagining the Legacy of the Site
Pringle Creek Community’s 32 acres are part of the 275-acre campus of the former Oregon Home for Developmentally Disabled Children. When the State sold the entire property, which sits on gentle hills just three miles from downtown Salem, it was to a group of community investors committed to green development. Whether the other 243 acres will eventually be developed as a walkable neighborhood is unclear—it’s still the hope—but in December of 2004, Sustainable Development Inc. (SDI), a local company, purchased the 32-acre parcel and was ready to get started.
Pringle Creek Community’s portion of the old institution had been used for growing food in the gardens and in the two historic Lord and Burnham glass greenhouses, each more than 2,500 square feet in size, and contained the institution’s central steam-heat plant and a number of construction support facilities.
When SDI and the design team began their discussions about the project they realized it would be focused on the very things—food, energy, and construction—that were the legacy of the property. The new neighborhood would have extensive community gardens and the greenhouses would be restored to active use. The greenhouses and many of the homes would have geothermal heating and cooling, making use of an existing high-capacity well. Many of the homes and buildings would use solar energy for hot water and electricity. Construction on the project would showcase craftsmanship, durability, and state-of-the-art green materials and technology.
These elements became central to the basis of design and were joined by a much longer list of sustainability goals and principles that were adopted to guide the project. In an effort to learn the aspirations of the local community, the development team met several times with a small group of potential residents. The Friends of Pringle Creek Community became a valuable sounding board for ideas and energy. “The ‘Friends’ reinforced the point that designing infrastructure and building homes responsibly was just part of their broader goal of participating in a truly livable community,” says Tony Nielsen, Pringle Creek Community master plan coordinator. “More than anything, they talked about a walkable neighborhood that is active and vibrant, fun to come home to.”
With consideration of the project goals and the Friends input, and after careful analysis of natural and built features (e.g., existing trees, riparian areas, topography, solar exposure, prevailing winds, and existing buildings and roadways), Meyer and the design team created a master plan that includes a fine-grain mix of 139 lots and community common spaces linked by paths, trails, and sidewalks.
In the autumn of 2006, construction of utilities and streets began. That was completed in summer 2007. The infrastructure, including extensive landscape work, was completed in fall 2007. By that point, though, the project had already received a significant accolade: in March 2007, it won the inaugural “Green Land Development of the Year” award from the National Association of Home Builders.
Achieving the Goals
The planning and infrastructure work on Pringle Creek Community was guided by a the list of goals that was created at the beginning of the project, including:
Examples of the careful work that has been done show the breadth of the community’s commitment to its goals:
Mature trees, including 80-year-old fir and sequoia groves, a stand of 250-year-old oaks, and two rare yew trees estimated at 1,500 years of age were preserved and protected as part of an active open space plan.
Smaller neighborhoods within the project were defined by natural features and pedestrian and vehicle connectivity.
Pringle Creek’s green street system is among the country’s largest residential applications of porous asphalt. The design features narrow roads to reduce hard surface area and construction costs while slowing traffic.
Rainwater management and protecting water quality were included in the detailed plan. Each lot is designed to reduce offsite flow. The porous streets and series of small bio-swales are designed to manage runoff and provide natural rainwater infiltration. This is a development where you will find no stormwater piped off site. The entire project has been designed to maximize distributed infiltration of stormwater, eliminating the concentration of pollutants found in typical collected stormwater systems.
The Oregon Department of Energy provided a lot-by-lot analysis of solar capacity, leading to building orientations that maximize each home’s potential to capture the renewable energy of the sun.
An integrated landscape irrigation system has been created using untreated well water for the initial watering period of native plants in the common landscape.
Throughout infrastructure construction, some heavy equipment that operated onsite used biodiesel fuel.
Five unique buildings were preserved for restoration and use as community and commercial spaces. Each of the buildings, built between 1938 and 1964, is located within the Village Center and offers a sense of history and authenticity while preserving embedded energy and creating economic opportunity.
One brick-and-concrete building was deconstructed and recycled while two metal buildings were deconstructed and relocated to other sites. Concrete foundations were demolished and the material was reused onsite, providing a unique porous parking area.
Interesting Times in the Housing Market
Have there ever been such interesting times, to put it mildly, for developers? Just a few years ago when work began on Pringle Creek Community, the housing market was hot, the economy was strong, and energy prices were a non-issue. By mid 2007 it became apparent we were in a housing bubble and the bubble had been breached; the air was rushing out. Energy prices were on their way to tripling in three years and were predicted to continue rising—forever.
That spike in energy prices might have become a boon for green developments. Smaller, more energy-efficient houses in neighborhoods designed for walking started making sense to more people.
The spike didn’t last long. Energy prices have plummeted back to the old “ridiculously cheap” levels. But it might not be much of a setback for green development. When a sharp drop in energy prices is part of an international financial meltdown, people don’t start singing “Happy Days are Here Again.” In fact, people have heightened concerns.
Don Myers, the project manager, puts it this way: “Despite the return to low prices, people know that energy efficiency is the future. It’s not just price; it’s carbon, it’s national security. A lot of people would like to see their government incentivize efficiency—and with the new administration, that might happen.”
Although house prices in Salem are still up almost 50 percent over the past five years and only down a little over one percent from third quarter 2007 to third quarter 2008, the housing market is slow. Lot sales at Pringle Creek reflect the current wait-and-see attitude of consumers. In response, the development team is focusing on the refurbishing of the pre-existing buildings that will be a big part of the commercial Village Center. Work is being done on those elegant greenhouses, the community gardens, and the geothermal heating and cooling system, as well.
No Shortage of Activity
An early decision of the project team was to build a house that represented healthy, energy-efficient features in a beautiful, livable design. The home is a two-story, 1,400 square-foot cottage that was designed by Opsis Architecture. It includes photovoltaic panels on the roof, sustainable wall and insulation systems, rainwater harvesters, high performance windows, and maximized daylighting. The Learning Home was a Grand Award recipient in the October 2008 Builder Magazine Builder’s Choice Awards. The home was just the sixth LEED-Platinum house in the country—and the highest scorer. “LEED” stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is the certification program of the U.S. Green Building Council.
Recently, two custom homes have been built at Pringle Creek Community by local green builders and are on track to achieve LEED-Gold status, an exciting prospect for the buyers, who look forward to lower energy costs and reduced carbon emissions. More prospective buyers are looking to move forward, even as they cautiously watch the world economy.
A buyer who decides to build a home at Pringle Creek Community can choose from a long list of green features. Other housing types to choose from include row houses, loft apartments, and a range of single-family homes. Opsis is designing various models—some that will be quite traditional, like the cottage house, and others that will have a more modern look. The designs will serve as templates for builders. New designs by outside architects are welcome, in conjunction with the Pringle Creek Community Design Review Committee.
Something that isn’t optional, however, is a commitment to sustainability. All new buildings must be rated at LEED-Silver or better. Another requirement is that all lumber used in every home comes from forests that are sustainably managed. In fact, the charter of the Design Review Committee is much more oriented to sustainability, and less focused on a particular architectural style, than is typical of today’s housing developments. That will enable the community to grow and develop more organically, capturing “a certain serendipitous nature,” as Meyer puts it.
And so it grows, not rigidly but with thoughtfulness and creative energy that moves back and forth between the planners, owner, architects, builders, and residents. Led by architect and planner James Meyer, the development team has embraced the opportunity to look at every decision through the lens of sustainability, integrated with fostering social stewardship. From land use to green infrastructure, and from housing diversity to building restoration, from renewable energy to energy-efficiency, at Pringle Creek Community one green thing always leads to another.
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