Sustainable Community – Village Homes by David Bainbridge

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Sustainable Community – Village Homes, Davis, California

By David A. Bainbridge
(Former Planner in Davis, VH Resident,
& VH Community Board Member)
Associate Professor
United States International College of Business
Alliant International University
San Diego, CA 92131

Village Homes is an innovative mixed use planned unit development that was started in 1974 on 60 acres in Davis, California. It was designed and built by developers Michael and Judy Corbett, with help from many others. It was financed by Sacramento Savings and Loan and building was phased in over 5 years to allow for careful construction and sustained work for builders. At build-out it includes 220 single family homes, 20 apartments and a cooperative house, most incorporating solar design features and solar hot water. Business space is included in the community center and an inn was recently completed. There is a comprehensive community center, with pool, meeting and party rooms, and large playing field. The developer allowed individual builders to buy lots, although 60% of the homes were built by the Village Homes company. This added diversity in design and an opportunity for innovation. Several builders who got their start in Village Homes were able to build their own homes in the development and have become major local builders in the community. The developer also built a home and he and his family have always lived in the community.

The primary focus of the development plan was on community building. Shared ownership of common areas and common spaces, shared laundry space for some units, shared gardens, community gardens, community fruit and nut trees and vineyards, and bicycling (much of the City of Davis commute is by bicycle) and walking orientation have been very successful in building community. In a study comparing Village Homes to surrounding contemporary development (standard suburbia) the residents of the Village Homes development knew 42 people in their neighborhood, compared to 17 in other areas. The average resident identifies 4 of their best friends in the community, compared to 0.4 for people in the conventional development. This community spirit and people orientation has also virtually eliminated crime (only 10% of the city average). Density is almost double surrounding areas, but the quality of life is much higher. This is reflected in increased home value (a $10-15 per square foot premium) and much quicker home sales in Village Homes.

Aerial View of Village Homes

The orientation of streets and paths was also designed to facilitate natural heating and cooling using winter sun for solar heating and shade and night-time ventilation cooling for relief from the summer heat. This followed suggestions made by the consulting firm Living Systems in reports to the City of Davis on the performance of conventional apartments and homes and an innovative climate adapted building code and workbook (since supplanted by the much less sophisticated and cumbersome Title 24 state standards). The original program worked very well and included training for builders and building officials. Homes are known for improved comfort and bills average about 50-60% of surrounding developments. The comfort is also aided by narrow streets which reduce the urban heat island effect.

Energy conservation, comfort and safety are also aided by bicycle and pedestrian orientation and narrow streets. The fight for narrow streets was difficult, and succeeded only after Living Systems developed guidelines for street design for the City of Davis based on European research showing that narrower streets were safer. Off street parking, a focus of houses toward the bikeways not the street, and limited through traffic enabled street width to be cut from 44-52 feet in conventional developments to 20-26 feet in Village Homes. This also reduces cost, minimizes overheating during the hot summer, reduces stormwater drainage problems, and improves the quality of life by minimizing traffic and noise.

The second biggest struggle was over above-ground storm water drainage in natural looking swales with infiltration basins. This was considered heretical by the City engineers, but after a long fight it was approved. It was tested by very heavy rains not long after it was completed and Village Homes was one of the only areas in the City that didn’t flood. Subsequent developments have added even larger retention basins and infiltration ponds. On many evenings muskrats, ducks, geese and other birds can be seen enjoying these park features, and they conserve water and return it to the groundwater resource for use.

Village Homes demonstrated to all involved that development can work for people and the environment. It is a lasting tribute to the energy, wisdom and persistence of the Corbetts. It set a standard for new villages to match or equal. As the Corbetts say, “We do not view Village Homes as an ideal. We see it as a step in the right direction.” We know much more know and can and should do much better today.

Further Reading:
(Prepared by David Bainbridge and Val Czapelski Okerstrom, Research Assistant)

Corbett, Judy and Corbett, Michael. 2000. Designing Sustainable Communities:
Learning from Village Homes. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 235 p.
Bainbridge, D.A. 1987. Energy self-reliant neighborhoods. pp. 398-402. In D.A.
Andrejko and J. Hayes, eds. 12th Passive Solar Conference Proceedings,
American Section International Solar Energy Society (ASISES), Boulder,
Corbett, M. 1981. A Better Place to Live. Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania.
Bainbridge, D.A., Corbett, J. and J. Hofacre. 1979. Village Homes’ Solar House
Designs. Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania.
Bainbridge, D.A. 1976. Planning for energy conservation. Living Systems for the
City of Davis, California, 83 p.
Bainbridge, D.A. 1976. Street design for energy conservation. Living Systems for
the City of Davis, California. 19 p.
Melzer, B., M. Hunt, D.A. Bainbridge. 1976. Energy conservation in building: code
workbook. Living Systems for the City of Davis, California
Bainbridge, D.A. 1976. Towards an environmental new town. Council of Planning
Libraries Exchange Bibliography #967, 6 p.

Internet Source:

Corbett, J. and M. Corbett. 1999. Toward better neighborhood design. College of
Human Ecology, Michigan State University.

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