| by Joseph Grove
Serenbe shows sustainability gaining ground with wellness movement

A recent Time magazine special edition held up Serenbe, a bespoke community just outside of Atlanta, as a leading example of a resurgent way of living characterized by focus on providing citizens meaningful connections to the earth and to one another.

Readers of this site may be familiar with that name. Over the past several years, we’ve published dozens of stories, slideshows and videos concerning the development generally and one special home inside of it in particular: the Proud Green Home of Serenbe.

To see more about the Proud Green Home at Serenbe, view our video here.

Now the development outside of Atlanta is being noticed by the mainstream press not just because of the eco-efficient homes, but how this approach to “place” benefits the overall quality of life for its residents. Where once many saw a progressive experiment, they realize now they were seeing the future.

One entire section of the TIME special report is dedicated to the growing trend of Serenbe-like communities (there are more than 350 such developments in various stages of growth) and the impact they have on the people who live, work and play there.

The philosophy that seems to be common in the design and development of these neighborhoods is to support and maximize:

  • Physical health
  • Emotional wellness
  • Mental well-being
  • Environmental sustainability

Before these benefits were well-documented and trendy, Serenbe founder Steve Nygren intuitively came to understand them on his own when he intervened to stop the development of property surrounding his farm in the 1990s. Now including 1,200 acres and several small “hamlets”—tightly knit groups of houses around one of eight main streets—the overarching community is home for more than 700 residents and features an organic farm, local retail, a theater, farm-to-table restaurants, a Montessori school and an artist-in-residence program.

The Proud Green Home at Serenbe

Nygren’s aspirations were the primary reason the publishers of ProudGreenHome.com were so interested in a project that would set a new standard for homes designed from the first stroke of the architect’s pencil to be ultra-high-performance and sustainable. It worked with builder Luis Imery of the Imery Group, and architect Chris Laumer-Giddens of LG Squared to design and build the 2,750-square foot showcase home with the support of major manufacturers such as LG Electronics, Metal Sales and many others.

“The Proud Green Home, at first, it’s a home,” said Chris Laumer-Giddens, the home’s architect. “Efficiency isn’t just about elements, but how does it perform as a piece of the community?”

The aspiration was to show that achieving what was then was an idyllic dream was far more realistic than thought: that it was as possible as it was desirable to build a house that could return as much energy to the grid as it used. The name for the nascent concept was “net-zero,” and the Proud Green Home at Serenbe team made a commitment to it—and accomplished it.

It was to be one of Imery’s first net-zero homes—and the most integrated at that time—and certainly not his last.

It featured:

  • SunPower Solar panels
  • Ultra-efficient insulation
  • Native, drought-resistant landscaping
  • Solar-thermal water-heating system
  • Tight building envelope
  • Ducted, mini-split HVAC system

The aggregate of those features and others resulted in a net contribution of nine kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy a year. In fact, the owner of the home, Chris Yerbeck, who bought the house shortly after its completion and continues to live it in with his family, said, “If we hadn’t put the pool in, I probably wouldn’t have any energy bill at all even now,” he said.

The home, unveiled in August 2013, was easily among the cleanest, greenest new homes constructed in the Southeast at that time and still is in the top 1% today. It was hailed as proof to builders and consumers alike that sustainable philosophies and techniques can be achieved through proper planning, design and system integration.

Several honors and certifications have been awarded. It received a Home Efficiency Rating Score (HERS) of -2, meaning that, in most circumstances it should produce at least as much energy as it consumes. The structure also earned EarthCraft platinum status, the organization’s highest rating, based on factors such as site planning, resource efficiency, indoor air quality and durability and moisture management. The National Association of Homebuilders named it Project of the Year in the single-family/small-volume category. The Department of Energy's Zero Energy Ready Home Program awarded the Imery Group for meeting rigorous requirements that ensure outstanding levels of energy savings, comfort, health and durability.

“This is a better way of developing and building,” Imery said.

Good for the Planet—And the Heart

Observers should note, however, that the Proud Green Home of Serenbe was more than an earth-friendly science project.

“The Proud Green Home, at first, it’s a home,” said Chris Laumer-Giddens, the home’s architect. “Efficiency isn’t just about elements, but how does it perform as a piece of the community?”

The architects maintained that duality through the design phase. The resulting 2,700-square-foot dwelling features walls of windows with lake views; flex space for entertainment or office work; his and hers walk-in closets; a kitchen with bar seating and custom cabinets.

The home was listed at $699,900 but eventually sold for just over 5 percent below that asking price. Imery said that at the time, the market wasn’t quite ready for the higher sticker price for high-performance homes.

Nygren said that since the project launched, he has learned that many homebuyers in Serenbe are attracted to the components that make the living better, not just more sustainable.

“Our use of anti-depressants has quadrupled over the past few years, but we’re sicker than ever,” he said. The antidote, according to research, is restoring our lifestyle to embrace two components that were common before the advent of the urban/suburban culture.

People need exposure to community and exposure to nature, he said. They can have that without necessarily investing in the high-performance upgrades up front, but the high-performance components certainly contribute. Not only is there is a satisfaction for many in knowing their footprint on the planet and its resources has been reduced, real physical benefits can be enjoyed.

Radiant heating from floors and walls not only saves energy, but also provides more even temperature distribution and eliminates draft. A well-ventilated tight thermal envelope can improve indoor air quality dramatically by eliminating allergens and other contaminants. The benefits even can be found in the fact that low-energy appliances and systems produce less noise.

Instead of focusing on the hard costs of upgrades either in remodel jobs or designing from scratch, Nygren said, they should change the way they evaluate the economics of sustainability.

“Homeowners ought to look at it in terms of becoming cash-flow positive when it comes to things like appliances,” he said. Most people will ask how long it will take for an appliance to pay for itself with savings in energy consumption.

What they really need to do, he said, is evaluate how much more money they have in their pockets at the end of the month.

And, one might add, based on the overall aspirations of the community, have much joy they have left in their souls.

Topics: Building Green, Certification / LEED, Cost of Ownership, GREAT GREEN HOMES, Proud Green Home at Serenbe, Sustainable Communities

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