Arizona Builders Bring Solar Age to 'Our Town'

Imagine homes so well-designed and insulated that utilities will cost practically nothing. Residents will recycle or compost almost all their trash and use reclaimed water for outdoor irrigation. Best of all, they won't need to use their cars because jobs, schools, churches, and stores all will only be a short walk or bike ride away.

After 15 years on the drawing board, the utopian project of Civano is nearing reality in Tucson, Ariz. If all goes according to schedule, construction on what is touted as the most ambitious, energy-saving, and self-sufficient community ever attempted will begin here in a few months.

"People will be coming from all over the world to see this project," says John Wesley Miller, a solar-home builder in Tucson, Ariz., who is one of the visionaries behind the new development.

The 2,500-home project on Tucson's southeast side - called Civano after the golden age of the Hohokam Indians - will be a sustainable community where up to 6,000 people can enjoy a small-town atmosphere while saving resources and cutting pollution.

Some of the design elements of Civano, such as narrow streets, smaller lots, and a village center, have already been employed in Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands, Md. Energy-saving features such as solar hot-water heaters and double-paned windows also are increasingly being used in homes throughout the Southwest. But Civano is the first project to combine the latest concepts in both urban planning and energy-efficiency on such a large scale.

As such, it underscores Arizona's emerging role as a laboratory for the so-called "green home" movement - technologies that are resource-wise and environmentally sensitive.

These include everything from an experimental home in Tucson in which the carpeting is manufactured from recycled soft-drink containers to a development north of Phoenix that will be a cluster of solar "skyscrapers."

For Civano, Tucson has zoned the land and set specific goals for reduced energy and water use, more recycling, and less air pollution, but how to achieve these goals will be up to the developer. "We want to encourage innovation by not being too prescriptive," says John Laswick, Civano project manager for the city.

The problem, developers say, is cost. They're not sure they can afford to build energy-efficient homes, offices, stores, and community centers without raising the home prices beyond what people would be willing to pay.

"The real history of pioneers is they end up dead on the prairie," says David Butterfield of the Trust for Sustainable Development in Victoria, British Columbia. Mr. Butterfield, who also is planning a similar community near Victoria called Bamberton, is one of two developers expected to bid for the right to build Civano when the state-owned land goes to auction June 26. The other is Phoenix-based SunCor Development Co.

Civano's developer won't have to face all the risks alone. The city is expected to make up some of the cost through infrastructure improvements and in-kind contributions, and home buyers also will probably have to pay a few thousand dollars more to live in Civano. Housing prices will range from $70,000 for a small townhouse near the village center to $200,000 for a custom home on the development's edge.

The hope is that the money the city saves on road maintenance, trash disposal, pollution abatement, water treatment, and other costs will more than make up for its initial investment in Civano.

"The spinoff from all this could be very beneficial," says city councilmember Janet Marcus. "We could apply what we've learned at Civano to rebuilding the inner city."

Beside the additional cost of making the homes energy efficient, whoever builds Civano also must attract one job for every two homes. Both developers say several high-tech and alternative-energy firms are interested in locating in Civano, and the city is expected to help with recruiting.

Another potential difficulty lies in the requirement that Civano attract people of mixed incomes. Often wealthier people, concerned about crime and housing values, don't want to live close to lower-income people. But Mike Corbett, the architect of Village Homes, a 240-home development in Davis, Calif., similar to Civano, says home values are higher and crime lower in his neighborhood than in surrounding ones because people know each other better.

Mr. Miller and others say they have received inquiries from all over the country about buying a home in Civano. "Arizona really owns it, but the nation as a whole will benefit from what we do here," he says.

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