The Willowsford MPC Gives Residents a Taste of the Farm Life

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This article was featured in our December 2014 issue of BUILDER Magazine.

Apologies to golf fanatics, but the original theme of this community was indeed a farming village. Agriculture, after all, was what led our hunter-gatherer ancestors to settle down in the first place. That was 10,000 years ago, but a surge of interest in locally grown food has given the idea new currency. Clear proof is the success of Willowsford, a 2,100-unit master planned community in Loudoun County, Va., centered on a farm-to-table model.

Committed to maintaining half of the 4,000 acres as open space, developer Corbelis Management located four villages in distinct “agricultural theaters,” which they share with the fields and infrastructure of a working farm. “Ultimately we’ll have 300 acres devoted to food production,” says Corbelis president Brian Cullen. The surrounding woods include fishing ponds, campsites, and trails.

Project Credits: Willowsford

Location: Loudoun County, Va.; Builders: Arcadia Communities; Beazer Homes; Camberley Homes; Integrity Homes; K. Hovnanian Homes; Mitchell & Best; Pulte Homes; Richmond American Homes; Architect: Rust|Orling Architecture, Alexandra, Va.; Developer: Corbellis Management, Roxbury, Mass.; Landscape Architects: LandDesign, Washington, D.C.; Farm Operations: Michael Snow

What We Love: 11. 
The farm as place-maker 12. No herbicides: goats do the weeding 13. 2,000 acres of woods surround the community 14. 45 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and running

Leap of Faith

Willowsford is worlds away from a typical master planned community, though its business plan was hardly exotic. “We invested in the farm, lots of trails, two pool complexes, and two community center buildings, instead of in a golf course. The financial model wasn’t all that different.” The marketing proposition, however, required a leap of faith in an uncertain economy. It has translated to sales of more than 400 houses sold since 2011, “It’s working ahead of plan,” Cullen says.

Corbelis’ market research identified a target demographic of wealthy, educated home buyers more interested in relationships and experiences than in material goods. “They care a lot about where their food comes from,” Cullen says, and Willowsford is a locavore’s dream come true. A farm stand offers sustainable and site-grown produce, chicken, and eggs, along with locally sourced meat, cheese, milk, and ice cream. The farm offers a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which operates like a weekly seasonal-produce subscription. Teaching kitchens in the two community center buildings host cooking demonstrations and occasional pop-up restaurants with local celebrity chefs.

Harvest Commons, Chicago

Farm-to-table housing may evoke pastoral imagery, but the model also is viable in the heart of the city, says Nadia Underhill, associate director of real estate development for Chicago-based Heartland Housing. The nonprofit developer’s Harvest Commons project, a gut-rehab of a historic hotel on the city’s Near West Side, includes a 3,500-square-foot vegetable farm, a small orchard, and six laying hens. “It’s for people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness,” says Underhill, who calls raising and preparing high-quality food “a catalyst to make their lives healthier.” A half-time farm manager conducts regular gardening workshops, while a staff dietitian teaches nutrition, cooking, and healthy living in the building’s community kitchen. Participation is optional, Underhill says, “but we have a dedicated group of volunteers.” And the garden is a magnet for the building’s 89 residents. “It builds community,” Underhill says. “It’s not just a lawn; it’s a living, growing, changing space.”

Alexandria, Va.–based Rust|Orling Architecture took inspiration from the architecture of old Loudoun County towns for Willowsford’s public buildings. Residential design guidelines favor local vernacular styles but are flexible enough for contemporary designs. “We allow any architectural style you want,” says firm principal John Rust, who reviews every proposed plan. “Our premise is that you have to be true to that style.”

The back-to-the-land ethos is manifest in site planning mindful of topography and drainage. “We used grass-lined ditches and culverts rather than curbs and gutters,” Cullen says. “We’ve kept our impervious areas as small as we can, and we’re restoring meadows with vernal pools.”