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whisper valley community

A Look at Austin's Net-Zero Neighborhood - Whisper Valley

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Jan 9, 2020

The poet, writer, and farmer Wendell Berry once defined community as “the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.” One trap people can fall into is believing that personal change is all that’s needed to confront the myriad problems we collectively face. 

Homeowners across the country, for instance, can invest their Christmas bonus in solar panels to help power their home’s electrical needs, or a passive house retrofit to reduce energy costs. Those, of course, are significant decisions to make. In an ideal society, however, communities would come together to manage their natural resources and energy use. Instead of relying on municipal water and electrical grids, which may be unable to scale up to optimum sustainability levels, community-level grids and water projects could be designed and implemented for better and more sustainable resource management.  

net zero texas
Photo Credit: Whisper Valley

Whisper Valley Neighborhood is one such community. A planned housing community in Austin, Texas, Whisper Valley seeks to take sustainability beyond the level of the individual household. The 2,000-acre, master-planned development requires every home built to net-zero capability. 

Austin’s first “eco-smart, zero-energy” community offers “an integrated technology package engineered to provide a clean and zero-energy capable solution for entire communities like Whisper Valley,” according to its website. “There are multiple components to this comprehensive system that all work together to reduce consumption, protect the environment, eliminate noise, and save you money.”

The development also works to make homeownership affordable. “We want to make sure this type of technology is available to as many people as possible,” says Kara Weinstein, community manager, about the importance of providing zero-energy capable housing at an affordable price point. 

“Inspired by a desire to combat climate change and preserve natural resources,” according to the website, Whisper Valley includes 700 acres of parks, trails, and other natural areas. The community also has a geothermal heated resort-style swimming pool, fitness center, electric vehicle charging stations, and a community education center.

whisper valley amenities
Photo Credit: Whisper Valley

Sustainable Home in a Sustainable Community

Every home built in Whisper Valley adheres to the Austin Energy Green Building Program (AEGB). While numerous national green building certification programs exist, several cities and regions across the country have recently started developing certification programs, which respond to specific and contextual sustainability issues. 

Austin’s city-based program offers several pathways to receiving required points for certification, including recycling programs to reduce waste on-site, modeling the home for HVAC efficiency based on its orientation, and energy-efficient appliances, lights, and fans. 

AHA Dream Homes
Photo Credit: AHA Dream Homes

One homeowner, Jessie Gardner, took her house above and beyond these requirements. Gardner’s home includes high-efficiency insulation to avoid thermal bridging into living areas. The home has a solar panel array, along with the connection to the geothermal grid system, which allows the home to use renewable and clean energy sources. As a result, Gardner’s home uses up to 65 percent less energy than a “normal” house in the same region. 

Several builders are involved in Whisper Valley, including Avi Homes, Buffington Homes, GFO Home, and Pacesetter Homes. Gardner worked with AHA Dream Homes to help her meet the zero-emissions standard that Whisper Valley Neighborhood requires. According to AHA Dream Homes’ website, the company utilizes cutting-edge design technologies and eco-friendly building practices to create innovative sustainable homes.  

To achieve a net-zero emission rating, Gardner and AHA relied on ZIP System sheathing and roofing materials to reduce air leakage in the building envelope. They also incorporated spray-foam insulation in the attic, Energy Star double pane windows, and HVAC duct testing. 

net zero austin texas
Photo Credit: AHA Dream Homes

Gardner moved into the Whisper Valley Neighborhood because “organic gardening is the center point of the community,” she says. Some homeowners might start up a backyard garden or install a worm composting bin for their kitchen scraps. Gardner fell in love with the idea of a community that was committed to growing healthy, organic food in gardens located throughout the neighborhood. 

Moreover, the cost of living in Whisper Valley was significantly less than living in San Diego, CA, where Gardner previously lived. The neighborhood’s proximity to the airport and downtown Austin offers urban convenience, while Whisper Valley’s ecological focus gives it a rural charm. 

Gardener also enjoys “the significant economic savings from the sustainability and energy efficiency features built into the home,” she says, “which is important given the extreme summer temperatures in Austin.” She loves “the layout and custom design elements” in her modern farmhouse. Large windows in her kitchen flood the home with natural light. The wood flooring and white interior offer warmth and modernity. 

Net-Zero Ready

The ordinary course of urban and suburban development usually follows this trajectory. A farmer nearing retirement sells his agricultural acreage, or a family decides to sell the ranch they’ve held for generations. A developer or contractor offers and receives a good deal. The company subsequently subdivides the property into as many lots as possible—ranchettes, as they’re referred to in the West. 

The property is plotted out to maximize the amount of potential income, usually without regard for solar orientation or other sustainability considerations. Once the individual lots are sold off to building companies, those companies produce fast-track luxury homes that sell at a premium—homes often built with little if any sustainability strategies in mind. 

The Whisper Valley Neighborhood challenges this path through the careful design of a community meant to become a regenerative part of the landscape. Fred Herrejon of AHA Dream Homes, LLC, says that Whisper Valley is the “first eco-friendly community targeted to the entry and move-up market.” He’s referring to first-time home buyers and current homeowners ready to move to a larger or different home that meets their needs. 

Pacesetter geothermal
Photo Credit: Whisper Valley

Many homeowners continue to believe that sustainable homes come at a premium price. The Whisper Valley Neighborhood, however, offers competitively priced homes with net-zero ready capability. The homes have energy-efficient BOSCH kitchen appliances and ultra-efficient geothermal heat pumps; PV solar panels; a Nest thermostat; a video doorbell powered by Google Fiber; and an Electric Vehicle (EV) Charger. The community also boasts miles of bike and hiking trails, as well as those on-site organic gardens that attracted Gardner. 

aha dream home
Photo Credit: AHA Dream Homes

Supporting a Sustainable World 

For Gardner, the most satisfying part of living in a sustainable and energy-efficient home is “knowing I’m positively impacting the planet.” For homeowners interested in upgrading to a more sustainable living environment, Gardner says that the “benefits are phenomenal, and you feel like an active player in making decisions with your dollar to support a more sustainable world.” 

Herrejon adds that net-zero sustainable homes are attractive to “eco-friendly and technology-friendly clients. These clients are people who generally like to be involved in his or her community. They like to know that they’re living in a place that not only saves them money, but that also promotes healthy living that aligns with their lifestyle.” 

Whisper Valley’s builder partners continue to construct new net-zero ready homes in the community, combining modern amenities, high-end finishes, and sustainable materials into homes that function as good neighbors in the locally and globally. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-07-14T14:15:09+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.