Florida Developer Hits Home With Green Mirabella Community

Florida Developer Hits Home With Green Mirabella Community

 

Mirabella, a new community in Florida, creates 158 sustainable houses specified to USGBC’s highest standards.

 

Winter 2018   PDF   Written by Lorne Bell


Last September, as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida’s west coast, Marshall Gobuty’s phone started ringing. Residents of the developer’s new Mirabella community in Bradenton, Florida, wanted to thank him for building homes that could weather a Category 4 hurricane.

“They said, ‘We sat in our homes and we were shocked—we didn’t even hear the wind,’” says Gobuty.

In addition to meeting the latest hurricane construction standards, Mirabella’s homes achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) highest mark of sustainability. And while airtight building envelopes mean peace and quiet in a storm, Gobuty has accomplished something far more impressive.

Of the 5,823 projects that achieved LEED certification in the United States in 2016, 9 percent designated themselves as single-family homes. Many of those were custom-built homes for discerning buyers. In Mirabella, Gobuty pioneered a new paradigm: a production-built development of 158 single-family homes that achieve USGBC’s most rigorous benchmarks for sustainability. (The homes also achieve ENERGY STAR and Home Energy Ratings System certification.) From highly insulated walls and roofs, to high-efficiency HVAC and irrigation systems, to interior air quality, Mirabella offers sustainability and savings that few single-family home developments can deliver.

“It’s a phenomenal achievement,” says Marc Heisterkamp, vice president of strategic relationships at USGBC. “Mirabella has been able to bring scalability to the process and not just achieve LEED Certified, Silver, or Gold homes, but go all the way to LEED Platinum. And they got there through sheer determination and persistence.”

Heisterkamp oversees the growth of residential (LEED for Homes) and community-scale (LEED for Neighborhood Development) programs at USGBC. He says several factors have hindered the adoption of LEED in the single-family production-building sector. First, LEED for Homes launched just as the housing market collapsed and production builders bore the brunt of the downturn. Heisterkamp says USGBC was forced to “pivot” to the mixed-use and multifamily sectors, which adopted LEED in earnest. Domestically, about 25 percent of new multifamily units now certify through LEED.

Scalability has also been a challenge. Production homebuilders’ emphasis on speedy construction is often at odds with the planning, design, testing, oversight, and documentation needed to achieve LEED certification. To address that challenge, USGBC recently streamlined the LEED for Homes certification ratings and process.

The rating system for single-family homebuilders now emphasizes energy and water use, the most in-demand features for buyers interested in sustainable homes. And while each production-built home must still be tested and verified, a new group certification process allows builders to test and certify model homes and then roll the process out to the entire project. The changes, says Heisterkamp, will increase efficiency and access to LEED certification for production developers, builders, and homeowners.

“With folks like Marshall leading the market, we’ve built those lessons learned into the process,” says Heisterkamp.

Developer Marshall Gobuty.Developer Marshall Gobuty.
Mirabella’s LEED-certified homes use nearly 40 percent less energy than what is used in a typical home.Mirabella’s LEED-certified homes use nearly 40 percent less energy than what is used in a typical home.
Peggy Christ is the owner of BEE Green Realty.Peggy Christ is the owner of BEE Green Realty.

Platinum Profit and Principle

Gobuty hasn’t always been driven to develop sustainable homes. In the late 1990s, he and his family moved from Los Angeles to Israel after selling his garment company, Arizona Jeans, to JCPenney. It was in Israel—and later in Thailand and London—where the Gobuty made his first moves as a developer. By the time he moved back to the U.S., he had developed commercial and residential property from England to South Asia.

The 57-year-old never considered himself a green homebuilder, or even an environmentally conscious citizen, until he purchased the Mirabella land in 2005. When he consulted with a developer friend and mentioned his plans for an active adult community of 160 single-family homes, the response was emphatic.

“He said, ‘Don’t do LEED,’” Gobuty remembers. “So I thought, ‘I have to do it. I have to do something different.’ It was a marketing strategy.”

Gobuty’s firm, Koral & Gobuty Development Co., spearheaded the project, and Sarasota-based JKing Designs LLC was the architect for all 158 LEED Platinum homes. Gobuty acts as both developer and builder, allowing him to more closely oversee quality control.

And that marketing strategy? Some 130 homes at Mirabella have sold since construction began in 2015, and 36 of those sales are homes still being built. While LEED Platinum houses typically fetch a premium, Mirabella homes are deliberately priced within $5,000 of a traditionally built new home of comparable size and amenities. Two-bedroom houses start at $297,530, and three-bedroom houses start at $341,730.

Peggy Christ, owner of BEE Green Realty LLC in Bradenton and a member of the Myakka River branch of the USGBC Florida chapter, has listed several Mirabella homes for sale. She says they could easily sell for 15 to 20 percent more than new non-LEED-certified homes. “It’s an expense to Marshall, and he’s not passing that off to his buyers,” says Christ.

That’s largely because Mirabella’s target demographic of homebuyers is 55 and older, and many are on fixed incomes. Gobuty’s pitch to his cohort is simple: Reduce your energy consumption and utility bills, experience healthier indoor air quality, and increase your home’s long-term resale value.

Kenneth King embraced that vision. In 2016, King and his wife, Beth, bought their Mirabella home for $313,000. The 1,526-sq-ft house has two bedrooms and two bathrooms spread across one floor with an entrance foyer opening to a wide kitchen and great room. The home was a downsize from the couple’s 2,400-sq-ft home in Richmond, Virginia, and its price was a value compared to similarly sized homes in Florida.

“We didn’t find anything affordable that was comparable in quality,” King says. “The operating costs are also greatly reduced compared to what I was paying in Richmond, and the consistency of air movement, air temperature, and air quality is even within the whole house.”

Last August, at the peak of Florida’s summer heat, King’s utility bills topped out at $105. It was less than half of the $225 he paid in August in Virginia. “It’s fantastic,” he says.

But Mirabella’s price point and savings are also about principle. What began as a marketing strategy for Gobuty has become a personal mission to spread LEED certification and sustainable design and construction across the production homebuilding industry.

“You can’t charge for LEED,” he says. “Believe me, I have the numbers and could. But if you do that, now you’re selling something that should be included. We’re supposed to be building green houses.”

Mirabella’s LEED-certified homes feature ENERGY STAR appliances manufactured by companies including GE, Carrier, Argos, Shaw, and Atrium.

Mirabella’s LEED-certified homes feature ENERGY STAR appliances manufactured by companies including GE, Carrier, Argos, Shaw, and Atrium.

Building LEED Platinum

For architect Justin King, Mirabella was more than an opportunity to design some of the most sustainable homes on the market. King’s firm works with production builders across the Sarasota region, and he says Gobuty’s vision of a development of single-family homes at the LEED Platinum level is “unheard of.” As the project’s architect, King saw the chance to create a blueprint for integrating LEED certification and sustainability across the production homebuilding industry.

“It’s exciting for us,” says King. “There’s an education that people aren’t familiar with, but the more we talk about the process and strive toward green building and LEED-certified homes, the more people will understand how simple it can be.”

At Mirabella, that process began with a streamlined home design, one that reduced the construction timeline by keeping floorplans simple and consistent with few modifications. Gobuty then sought out vendors with experience in green building practices, reducing costly training and potential construction mistakes.

What followed was a series of charrettes among the developer, designer, construction managers, subcontractors, and LEED certifiers. These meetings were part of the LEED requirements and focused on the products, installation, oversight, testing, and documentation needed to achieve LEED-certified homes. They reinforced the importance of using only preapproved materials—low- or no-VOC sealants, for example—and the risks of losing certification if substitutions were made.

Ongoing meetings keep the project’s processes consistent, and Jeremy Gary plays a leading role. As a building science consultant and LEED Green Rater at the third-party ratings company Calcs-Plus, Gary educates and provides guidance to Mirabella’s team and inspects, tests, and certifies every home.

“It’s a challenge to get LEED worked into a production building sequence—where inspections need to go, the sourcing of materials, multiple design charrettes and meetings,” says Gary. “But many [developers] would be surprised to see that with the right commitment and the right team, LEED certification isn’t nearly as difficult as they’d imagine.”

Part of that commitment includes daily construction site monitoring, something Gary can easily provide for clients building one-off LEED-certified homes. With a project as large as Mirabella, a team of site managers is needed to provide oversight, documentation, and accountability. It’s a lesson that Gobuty learned early on. During one of the first home’s blower door tests—a requirement for ensuring minimal air intrusion into the building envelope— subcontractors had to open up the home’s drywall to reseal gaps with caulking.

“While I could negotiate with DOW and other companies to reduce the costs of materials, we had to make sure they’re installed right,” says Gobuty. “We realized after the first few homes that we had to triple up on our supervision.”

Mirabella’s Director of Building Operations Jim Dick now oversees a team of construction managers. Each is assigned a set of homes and conducts daily onsite monitoring to ensure compliance with materials, installation, and testing that are essential to LEED certification. Dick admits that learning and implementing those processes “was a steep curve and very challenging at the outset.” Every detail—from caulking drywall at the top plates to paints and adhesives—had to be checked and documented to ensure that sustainable designs resulted in sustainable results and LEED-certified homes.

Now, with almost 100 homes completed, Dick’s team has found its way to consistent LEED Platinum certification on a production builder schedule. Homes are submitted for LEED certification in batches of 10, instead of one at a time, and each Mirabella home takes just five and a half months to build.

“It’s certainly more complicated and detailed than building a standard home,” says Dick, “but it’s exciting at the same time. It’s a very integrated, team approach, and having that integrative team is enjoyable.”

Living LEED Platinum

For most residents, the benefits of living in a Mirabella home became clear after they moved in: lower energy bills and water bills, improved thermal comfort, reduced humidity. But Don Viehman is not most residents. He’s a Florida home inspector, and he and his wife, Barbara, watched their Mirabella home as it was built.

“I came here every day and watched the process,” says Viehman, who owns a two-bedroom, two-bathroom Mirabella home. “All of the lumber was top quality. Any time a hole was drilled for a wire, it was sealed with spray foam. There’s no penetration of any moisture into these homes. And my attic has 12 inches of sprayfoam at the roof, so even in summer it’s just two degrees warmer than the house.”

But Viehman didn’t just buy a Mirabella home for its construction quality and green profile. While he enjoys the energy savings, the 61-year-old says he and his wife wanted a maintenance-free home. When he moved his fridge for the first time last January, the coils had hardly any dust on them.

“We joke that our home is the Igloo cooler,” he says. “Because the house is tighter, there’s no dust. The appliances don’t work as hard. A fan comes on to [circulate outside air]. We can program the air conditioning or heat. The house runs itself.”

Mirabella homes offer a spray foam insulation that provides a barrier up to 50 percent tighter and more effective against moisture and allergens. High-end vinyl windows keep cool air indoors and drastically reduce bleaching of floors and furniture—which in turn help drive energy costs further down.

Mirabella homes offer a spray foam insulation that provides a barrier up to 50 percent tighter and more effective against moisture and allergens. High-end vinyl windows keep cool air indoors and drastically reduce bleaching of floors and furniture—which in turn help drive energy costs further down.

That’s because Mirabella homes feature an impressive lineup of energy- and water-efficient technologies: Carrier heat pumps; GE ENERGY STAR–certified appliances; Rheem 0.95 efficiency water heaters; dual flush WaterSense toilets; low flow showers and faucets; Broan ENERGY STAR–certified bath exhaust fans with Honeywell smart controllers; LED fixtures and bulbs; and spray foam and R30 insulation throughout. Outside, Hunter micro-drip irrigation systems use recycled water to irrigate the landscape and employ high-efficiency nozzles, smart irrigation controllers, and sensors that turn off irrigation when it rains.

These features, along with sustainable designs, help Mirabella homeowners use 30 to 40 percent less energy each year compared to traditionally built homes. They also help earn LEED Energy and Atmosphere credits for exceptional energy performance (EA1.2) and significantly reduce homeowners’ utility bills.

When it comes to water, Mirabella’s designs and technologies save an estimated 2,500 gallons of water per person every year, earning LEED Water Efficiency credits for water reuse (WEc1.3), irrigation systems (WEc2.1), and indoor water use (WEc3.1 and 3.2). All of the homes’ energy and water data are tracked to fine-tune systems for maximum efficiency.

Of course, LEED Platinum signifies more than just an energy- and water-efficient home. Mirabella homes are built with sustainable materials and located on previously developed land (a former golf course), earning LEED Materials and Resources credits (MRc2) and Location and Linkages credits (LL 3.2 and 3.3). Inside the homes, LEED benchmarks look to the health and well-being of residents, with credits awarded for everything from moisture control to minimizing exposure to environmental toxins.

Gobuty boasts that while traditional homes use paints, adhesives, and sealants with a range of potentially hazardous Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Mirabella homes use low-VOC products. The homes also earn LEED Sustainable Sites credits for nontoxic pest control (SSc5), and Gobuty turned his sales office into a sustainability education center, earning enhanced homeowner education credits (AEc1) and encouraging advocacy for sustainable homebuilding.

It’s a long way from the developer’s days building a jeans empire, but it’s also a testament to where LEED is headed. Mirabella may be the project that catalyzes a major shift in the sustainable homebuilding industry. And Gobuty isn’t done yet. His next project is Hunters Point, a “modern, environmentally respectful, and energy-efficient fishing village style community” in the nearby coastal village of Cortez.

The proposed development will comprise 148 cottage-style homes, each with under 500 square feet of interior space and 1,200 square feet of deck and outside leisure space. And of course, Hunters Point will seek LEED Platinum, this time under both the LEED for Homes and LEED for Neighborhood Development programs.

“We’re in such a transitional time,” says Gobuty, “where people who are buying homes now are actually getting that it’s better to live healthier and to use less energy and water. LEED isn’t just passing your certification and earning your points. It’s about creating an environment where people care about where they live.”

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