When Sustainability Starts Underground

This 2,000-acre Austin development is one of the biggest of its kind in the U.S. Here’s a deep dive into its innovative energy system.

In East Austin, along State Highway 130, just 10 miles away from the Austin-Bergstrom Airport and less than 20 miles from downtown Austin, a massive master-planned community has been taking shape over the past few years. Spanning more than 2,000 acres, Whisper Valley encompasses creatively designed residential neighborhoods and business districts, set among 700 acres of green space and new parks. It is one of the 10 biggest developments of its kind in the U.S.

Whisper Valley. Image courtesy of Taurus Investment Holdings

The first piece of news about the project surfaced in 2015, announcing an ambitious plan comprising 7,500 net-zero-ready single-family homes and apartments, two schools and more than 2 million square feet of retail and office space.

Taurus Investment Holdings and its subsidiary EcoSmart Solution are behind the project. EcoSmart designed, built and operates Whisper Valley’s innovative energy supply system—a geothermal loop system combined with ground-source heat pumps and solar photovoltaic arrays. More recently, Shell New Energies joined the development team.

“As one of the world’s largest energy companies, Shell was originally attracted to ESS’ role at the intersection of real estate and renewable energy,” Peter Merrigan, CEO of Taurus Investment Holdings, told Multi-Housing News. “As the energy transition in the U.S. develops in the years to come, real estate solutions will be critical to successfully addressing decarbonization,” he said.

Tech specs

It’s Taurus’ European roots that inspired this amazing ecocentric project, Merrigan said, and it’s been a well-deserved, first-mover advantage in terms of technology, expertise and successful on-the-ground implementation experience at Whisper Valley.

“We have stuck to the original plan in developing on-site renewable energy infrastructure and highly efficient homes. We have not had to modify that successful model as all stakeholders in the value chain benefit: the landowner, the home builder, the homeowner and society as a whole,” Merrigan said. 

All homes in Whisper Valley must be constructed to meet Austin Energy Green Building 2-star requirements, Greg Wolfson, CTO of EcoSmart Solutions, told MHN. And these requirements include higher efficiency building envelopes and high-performance ductwork.

Moreover, EcoSmart’s GeoGrid geothermal system that conditions the home interior and heats the domestic hot water and the solar photovoltaic system—every home has a 4kW to 6kW PV system installed—delivers Zero Energy Capable homes.

What is geothermal energy?

This renewable energy source draws from the thermal properties of the earth. The heat pumps—which are connected to a network of geothermal piping—remove heat from the residences. The heat goes into water, which is sent down the pump and released into the earth, where it is cooled and sent back. During the cold winter months, the process is reversed so the natural heat of the earth rises through the heat pump into the home. This process alone reduces electric consumption by up to 65 percent.

 
Image courtesy of EcoSmart Solution

In addition, Whisper Valley residences are equipped with smart-home technology and energy-saving home appliances to help reduce home energy usage to zero based upon individual energy behavior. However, the buildings’ mechanical and electrical elements require homeowner behavior to achieve net-zero energy consumption. Hence, every residence at Whisper Valley includes a comprehensive energy monitoring platform to help residents behave in an energy-efficient manner.

The GeoGrid geothermal system passed the most rigorous tests and performed remarkably well during the harsh conditions recorded across the state last February. 

“Except for a 4-hour electrical grid outage, all systems were online providing heating to the homes in Whisper Valley. In fact, despite temperatures in the teens, the ground source heat pumps operated at high efficiency, drawing remarkably modest power from the overly strained electrical grid,” detailed Wolfson.  

Whisper Valley homeowners will incur no upfront costs for the geothermal system, as the ground loop infrastructure is pre-installed throughout the community. Homeowners will enjoy peace of mind with an extended warranty and no maintenance costs for the first three years.

More green

Whisper Valley’s community spirit is highlighted by its organic gardens—one of the more unique amenities a master-planned community can have. Currently, the project features a network of five gardens and an orchard, spread across 15,000 square feet. The program will continue to grow and expand as the community adds more phases, Kara Weinstein, community director of Whisper Valley, told MHN.

Whisper Valley. Image courtesy of Taurus Investment Holdings

“The gardens are managed by a professional farm manager. They are completely organic and managed with permaculture guidelines, growing food seasonally and in harmony with our regional soil. In 2021 so far, over 800 pounds of food has been harvested,” Weinstein said.

Conveniently, the gardens are fed with a “formula build” compost system made of materials from the gardens and from homeowners. The gardens are the cherry on top of the development’s holistic lifestyle approach. In addition to providing vegetables to be used in cooking and food preservation classes, these are used as locations for weekly homeowner volunteer events, and planting and harvest parties, as well as educational events.

Evolution and near-term progression

Such an expansive project can only be handled in phases. The first two phases are well underway: The first one totals 237 homes, 216 of which are already finalized, and the second has 78 homes ready out of a total of 267.

Whisper Valley. Image courtesy of Taurus Investment Holdings

Construction of the following two phases has started and, most excitingly, construction on the multifamily component is scheduled to begin next year.

Merrigan expects to roll out this prototype nationwide. “We hope that this development will redefine the carbon footprint expectation for the rental market throughout the U.S. and become the market standard and expectation,” he said. 

Despite its many qualities, the project hasn’t come to fruition without challenges. The entitlement process is quite arduous and high demand significantly restraints the ability to deliver fully permitted inventory to the market. Merrigan admits that COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue.

“Another challenge is educating large-scale production builders to think in terms of sustainability and incorporating these elements into their design,” he noted.

With Tesla building its Gigafactory less than 10 minutes away from Whisper Valley, demand is skyrocketing. “The east side of Austin is no longer considered a “pioneering” location, but a major focus of commercial and residential development,” Merrigan said.