Project: Emerson Green
Location: Devens, Mass.
Architect: Union Studio Architecture & Community Design, Providence, R.I.
Developer: NOW Communities, Concord, Mass.

Dan Gainsboro and Don Powers are one of the country’s most innovative land planning teams, known for award-winning traditional neighborhood developments that foster social interaction, lessen dependence on cars, and alleviate the sense of isolation found in many traditional suburbs. Next up for their New Urbanist placemaking is the site of a decommissioned Army base in central Massachusetts.

The Emerson Green community is part of the transformation of Fort Devens, which closed in 1996. The 4,400-acre site is being repurposed as a lively mixed-use development that already includes offices, a community college, and golf course. Still on the boards, NOW Communities’ $35 million residential phase will encompass 40 single-family homes, 40 townhouses, and 40 rental apartments. Designed by Powers’ firm, the site plan incorporates the base’s original street grids to create a new 35-acre residential community of centrally sited houses surrounded by green space. (Click here for their tips on transforming suburban communities.)

A Sense of Place

NOW Communities’ unique approach to land planning minimizes the use of cars, supports walkable streets, and encourages a sense of community. These “pocket neighborhoods” of dense clusters of cottage-style houses take up less land but require a special approach to siting. Here are some of the methods Gainsboro and Powers employ in their projects:

1. Nested houses To ensure residents’ privacy, houses “nest” together with the open side of one house facing the closed, windowless side of the next.

2. Layered spaces The careful use of layered public-to-private areas defines personal boundaries, from the open common area to the front porch and into the house. Within the home, the layering continues with active spaces in front and private spaces in back and above.

3. Cars are hidden Parking areas are placed away from the homes in common areas or alley-loaded garages that are screened from the street.

4. Cottage scale The houses are one-and-a-half stories to limit their impact on the surrounding neighborhood. “A small house can feel and function large when there is ample light and adequate storage space,” says Gainsboro.

5. Individuality Because the houses are close together and similarly designed, NOW Communities makes sure each one is slightly different from its neighbors in style and color. Residents create their own landscaping, which also helps set each unit apart.

The compact single-family homes—designed in the spirit of architect Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House principles—will range in size from 1,500 square feet to 2,000 square feet and be priced from $200,000 to $400,000. Open floor plans will allow interior spaces to serve multiple purposes, explains Gainsboro, NOW Communities’ CEO, “with well-detailed finishes designed to be durable and healthy.”

Central to Boston, Providence, R.I., Worcester, Mass., and several small towns, the development is located at the nexus of tech, academia, and industry, which will make targeting a specific buyer profile difficult, Gainsboro says.

“We are working hard to understand our market and come up with a very aggressive pricing structure that is competitive for the different economic demographics we’ll be selling to,” Gainsboro adds. “It boils down to creating an awareness of what the community is about.”

Two messages the team will focus on are the community’s commitment to superior energy efficiency—nearly net zero—and its location in the sought-after Harvard School District. Groundbreaking is planned for summer and phase one—11 homes and six townhouses—will be complete by the end of the year for buyers who are ready for something different. “The idea is about living deliberately and having quality over quantity,” Gainsboro says.