Village Homes

A model solar community proves its worth

by Bill Browning and Kim Hamilton

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Spring 1993, Page 33
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute | To order this issue ...

In 1973 renegade architect/developer Michael Corbett acquired a 70-acre site in Davis, California. His plan was to design a model community that would incorporate aggressive energy conservation with solar energy. Residential clusters of various types would be interspersed with commercial and agricultural uses, while common areas would enhance social interaction.

Village Homes was completed in 1982, and the community has become one of the most desirable in California's Central Valley. Bill Browning heads the Green Development Program at Rocky Mountain Institute and Kim Hamilton is a freelance writer.

Village Homes has vindicated many of the experimental architectural and land-use ideas of architect/developer Michael Corbett. Over the strenuous objections of city planning and public works departments and the FHA, Michael pressed for and accomplished a visionary design that has paid off in unexpected bonuses both for the environment and for the residents of Village Homes.

The narrow, tree-lined streets of Village Homes run east to west and feed out to an adjacent minor arterial street. Houses are oriented north-south along the streets to maximize solar exposure. Carports or garages and small fenced and landscaped courtyards face the street.

Streets are much narrower than conventional subdivision streets to discourage traffic and allow trees to shade the road during the Central Valley's intense summer heat.

The concept of using narrower streets is one example of Michael's holistic design approach, in which unexpected benefits arise from environmentally governed choices.

"You know you're on the right track when you notice that your solution for one problem accidentally solved several other problems," Michael says. "When you minimize the use of automobiles to conserve fossil fuels, for example, this also reduces noise, conserves land by minimizing streets and parking, beautifies the neighborhood, and makes it safer for children."

An additional unanticipated benefit of the narrower streets is that the air temperature over the street is 10 to 15 degrees lower than surrounding neighborhoods during the hot summer months. This is attributed both to a reduction in the heat-soaking asphalt mass and the mature trees, which shade more of the street area than would occur in a typical development.

Initial concerns on the part of city planning officials regarding the ability of emergency vehicles to negotiate the streets were met by mandatory 30-foot easements on both sides of the street.

Despite official concerns, the crime rate at Village Homes is only 10 percent of the average for Davis, according to the Police Department.

Village Homes site map (north is to the left). Two circulation networks interlock: one is a set of roads; the other is the pedestrian network. There are also eight orchards, two parks, a community garden, a vineyard, a community building, and an office building. (Illustration courtesy of Bill Browning and Michael Corbett.)


Although most homes are single-family detached, there are some duplexes and one co-op building. Styles vary from New Mexican and Northwestern wood to California modern, with a few earth-sheltered homes.

Solar energy contributes between 50 percent and 75 percent of heat needs. All of the houses have 60 percent or more of their glazing on the south side. The most basic solar features are calculated overhangs on south facades, which shade the houses in the summer, but allow sun into the homes in the winter. They also have extra insulation in roofs, and concrete slab construction for thermal mass. Almost all the homes have solar hot water systems with collector panels on the roof.

Some homes have other systems which contribute to further solar gains. For example, long-time resident Paul Tarzi's home has a sunroom/atrium with skylights between the entry and the house. Heated air from the atrium is blown through tubes under the house to the farthest corners of the house. It then filters back up through a rock and tile floor. This system provides about 10 percent of the household's heat.


Homeowners had the opportunity to provide input on the landscaping of the common areas between the clusters of houses. Grass, shrubbery, sandboxes, fire pits, and gardens were among the features chosen. All of the commons included some fruit-bearing trees and shrubs.

Residents grow vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs for home use and sale to markets and restaurants. Michael planted a vineyard and several orchards, which have matured, producing almonds, cherries, peaches, pears, persimmons, and plums. Residents may freely harvest all crops with the exception of almonds, which are harvested mechanically and sold, contributing about $3,000 annually to the maintenance fund.

"The aesthetics are remarkable now that the landscaping has matured," Michael says. "I think the pedestrian orientation and narrow streets give it a very picturesque, rather European feeling. In fact, Village Homes has become quite popular with non-residents who come often to stroll the grounds."


Running through the common areas is a network of drainage swales, a natural alternative to expensive and wasteful storm drains. The system works like this:

In the typical subdivision, lots are graded toward the street. In Village Homes, lots are graded away from the street so that rainwater trickling off roofs and lawns finds its way into shallow swales landscaped like seasonal streambeds with rocks, bushes, and trees. Runoff from the streets goes directly into these larger channels. Small check dams help slow the flow and prevent surges downstream. In heavier rains, the system empties some water into the city's storm drains, but not nearly as much as would run off a typical subdivision.

The design saved approximately $800 per household in up-front costs which was applied to landscaping enhancements. This system continues to provide savings; the landscaping requires just two-thirds the watering of surrounding developments because of the denser plantings and extra water provided by the drainage system.

Section through a commons. Rain water is collected in shallow swales where it can slowly percolate into the soil. (Illustration courtesy of Bill Browning.)


Village Homes was designed to facilitate neighborhood interaction within subgroups of eight homes. Each house in the grouping faces a shared green space linked to other green spaces by a network of pedestrian paths.

Paul Tarzi, a resident of Village Homes since 1979, says the design works well. "The open spaces and play areas are well used and provide casual meeting opportunities," he says. "You're just more accessible to your neighbors."

Paul's neighborhood group has had weekly potlucks for years. "It's something that people look forward to," he says. "Everyone has an orange flag they put out that day if they intend to come."

The architect's efforts to enhance community cohesion have worked, both at the neighborhood and the community-wide scale. Village Homes has community events both planned and spontaneous throughout the year, including an annual fall harvest party.

Playing fields and numerous playgrounds dot the common areas. There is a well-used solar-heated community center and swimming pool. The community center is used as a day-care center and meeting facility. Nearby is a small commercial building where residents rent space for their businesses.


Village Homes has proven to be a great environment for kids, according to Paul, who has raised two children there. "There's a play area right outside our house and the kids made lots of good friends. The only difficulty was, as they grew up and left, they had to adjust to the idea that the world is not like Village Homes."

Although turnover is very low, the few families who have left Village Homes have realized dramatic appreciation on their homes. In 1991, houses at Village Homes were selling for a premium of $11 per square foot over other Davis developments, demonstrating that features once considered of questionable value by some have become not only mainstream, but extremely desirable. More typical than moving away is movement within Village Homes or additions made to original structures.

"We're finding that because people feel they've benefitted from the community and enjoy where they are, they are committed to giving something back," Paul says. "This is paid out in terms of people's willingness to serve on the board or get involved in ongoing community projects.

"A community is more than a physical location. It's a feeling of kinship. Living at Village Homes has enhanced our lives in many ways. I guess I could say I'm looking forward to growing old here."


All contents copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute | To order this issue ...

Last Updated 29 June 2000.

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