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Case Study: Davenport Park

By Jonathan Poston on 03/22/2010

In the last decade, West Asheville has made great strides in its revitalization, and that includes green building. Haywood Road, one of the neighborhood's main arteries, is bursting with a medley of trendy eateries, unique shops and micro-brew pubs. Not far from the ever-more popular hub, you'll find Davenport Park, one builder's attempt to build his first green subdivision.

Build with purpose: Jody Guokas, owner of JAG Construction, says green building "means building for a purpose, for people and for the planet, rather than simply for profit."
photo by Jonathan Welch

But the neighborhood's known for its older homes. Across from trendy Westville Pub on Haywood is Vermont Avenue, where 1920s bungalows display the neighborhood's traditional character. According to Realtor Karen Gleason, it's easy to see that many of these historic homes have been renovated to preserve that character. At the end of Vermont lies Davenport Road, where the neighborhood transitions to 1950s ranches, she continues. Take a right onto Davenport and just down on the left is a JAG Construction project — Davenport Park, for which Gleason, of The Real Estate Center, is the listing agent.

Here, the old growth stops and the green sprigs begin.

In August 2006, JAG developer and Warren Wilson College graduate Jody Guokas and a partner purchased the 2.4 acres that is now Davenport Park. Before then, he had built one home at a time. "This is the first large-scale, multi-unit I've done," he says. With a crew of seven workers and help from a variety of consultants, he set a goal to "make a green development from the very beginning." Equinox Environmental Consultation and Design became one of the first consultants on the scene. "They designed the shape of the lots and the road to maximize the number of lots we could get in here, while minimizing the impact on the local stream and surrounding ecosystem," Guokas says.

Urban density — though not often considered a direct aspect of green building and often controversial in Asheville — reduces urban sprawl, cuts building costs and otherwise contributes to sustainability. Davenport Park is an infill development: It makes use of a vacant lot in an established residential area.

In Davenport, there are four house plans — all of them designed for sustainability, starting with their cozy size, ranging from 1,250 to 1,600 square feet. An architect can make custom adjustments, but what attracts buyers to this West Asheville eco-development is not so much the chance to upgrade the standard-option package: It's in Guokas' green planning, right down to street level.

"When we develop, we create non-pervious surfaces like roads, driveways, and roofs," says Guokas, speaking of the typical approach to building a subdivision. All the water that hits the non-pervious surface runs off, taking with it non-point source contaminants, he continues. Normally, stormwater would be channeled into pipes and dumped into the nearby creek without any processing, which can create flash-flooding and damage local waterways. He emphasizes, "Ideally, you want to treat that run off water onsite. We try to slow the water down, so our stormwater runs along side of the road, in what we call a bio-swale, and ends up in a pipe that takes it to a bio-retention area. We'll put a special soil mix in there and plant it with water-loving species," Guokas explains.

Size matters: Davenport Park homes range in size from 1,250 to 1,600 square feet and are sited to take advantage of sunlight in the mini-neighborhood.
photo by Jonathan Poston

Those features set up a natural process: Sediment and contaminants — such as oil-drips from cars and household waste —make their way into the bio-retention area. There, special waste-eating bacteria will be waiting, Guokas details. Eventually the water makes it to the creek, but by that time it's been through a methodical, natural cleansing process.

The greening doesn't stop there: "All of our houses were designed to maximize passive solar gain," the builder continues. "A normal planner would place these houses perpendicular to the road, not really thinking about the importance of the long axis facing south. We took them all and shifted the lot lines so the houses would face south," says Guokas. "Then with the architects, we designed the houses to increase the effect by placing most of our glass on the south side of the house."

Additionally, to create an active solar element, every house is outfitted with a two-panel, solar hot-water system installed by Sundance Power System.

Other green-built features include aluminum-clad, double-pane windows and high-quality, low-VOC paint. "We do high-efficiency framing, which means we leave as much space as possible for insulation," Guokas points out. "We also use Superior Walls for our basements, which is a pre-cast-concrete, basement-wall system." The walls "actually show up on a truck in panels. A crew sets them up with a crane and bolts them together." The method uses a lot less concrete than a poured wall, the structures come pre-insulated, and they're a lot more waterproof than the typical wall, Guokas adds.

Also, spray foam is used as insulation in the roofs instead of standard fiberglass insulation because the spray variety is known to act as a superior air sealant. This is a crucial area to seal too, as most homes lose most of their heat through air leakage. Another green feature is the high-efficiency HVAC systems, partnered with ductwork that's well-insulated and meticulously sealed for maximum operating efficiency.

All of these measures mean less waste and more energy efficiency for the eco-community. In fact, toward the end of the building process, each home gets a blower-door test, which entails putting the house under pressure and testing the airflow through the house. A passing score indicates that the house is sealed tight and protected against leakage, which is a strict requirement of the NC HealthyBuilt Homes certification Davenport homes earn. Going back in and attempting to fix leaks after a failed blower-door test can be a huge drain of energy and time, but thankfully Goukas has never received an unsatisfactory score. "We build a very tight house," he says.

There's another design touch that balances urban density with a very Western North Carolina aesthetic: Davenport includes a city-greenway easement along Rhododendron Creek and West Asheville Park along the property perimeter, so that these NC HealthyBuilt-certified homes — situated on their respective, small .08 to .12-acre lots — appear to be tucked away in a wilderness of their own.

But a big green challenge of another sort, perhaps, for the new, 15-lot development — which began back in 2006 — has been the economy. When JAG first broke ground back in late 2006, real estate was still booming. "We were taking building reservations and as of the end of 2006, we had all these houses spoken for."

Sales commitments slowed, however, and, to further complicate the project, Guokas wasn't able to complete the infrastructure in the few months he had estimated. The reality of planning, combined with the looming economic crisis, slowed him down: "It took us a year and a half to get all our city approvals and the water, sewer and roads all in. By the time that year and a half rolled around, every single one of those [initial] buyers was gone. It's challenging in this economy, but now we're doing well," he continues. In 2009, he sold six houses.

Prices in Davenport range a bit higher than average in Buncombe County, but the combination of multiple tax credits and home-energy savings presents an enticing package. "We love living here," says homeowner Jim Grode. "We have a beautiful house, and our utility bills are next to nothing. We and our neighbors have developed a real sense of community through doing our small part to help keep the planet healthy."

[Jonathan Poston is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]