By Lew Sichelman. Eighteen months after deciding to create nothing but low-impact developments -- even if preserving or even enhancing natural environments required spending extra time with zoning officials -- Bielinski Homes has never looked back.
And with good reason: Not only is it costing Wisconsin's largest home-grown builder 15 percent to 20 percent less to develop projects than it would if it was flattening the ground and putting up cookie-cutter subdivisions, it has been able to charge a 5 percent to 25 percent lot premium, depending on the community.
"We made a corporate decision from the top down, and we really embraced it," says Steven L. Bruskiewicz, senior director of development for the Waukesha, Wis.-based company, which will build about 600 single-family houses this year in an 11-county area in the Southeast part of the state. "There's a big demand for this type of product in this area," said Bruskiewicz.
Of course, it helps that Bielinski's market is Wisconsin, the home state of Gaylord Nelson, the former Democratic Senator who founded Earth Day, which was first held on April 22, 1970. "The housing market here is different," says Bruskiewicz. "We have a land ethic, and our buyers tend to be very discriminate."
Prices for a Bielinski home start at $175,000 and average in the mid $200,000s, according to the development director.
As many builders have learned, though, buyers sometimes are more enthusiastic about the environment than government officials. "It's not easy to get everyone to warm to the concept," especially municipalities where conservation ordinance doesn't exist, Bielinski CEO Bob Brownell admitted at the National Green Building Conference this spring in Baltimore.
But using a variety of techniques, from working closely with national organizations that share its mission of mainstreaming low-impact development to promoting the concept at local, regional, and national events, the company has been successful in convincing local Wisconsin authorities that it can have a positive impact on the land.
In one instance, it used a model ordinance developed by the University of Wisconsin to persuade city fathers to give low-impact development a try. In another, a team of specialists helped make the case. And in a third case, Bielinski dug out old aerial photos to show how it intended to restore the property to what was there originally.
Form Over Function
"The message we're trying to get out is let the land dictate," says Bruskiewicz. "It's form over function. Let the land talk to you."
Often, the ground has a lot to say. Among other things, it tells the developer to direct storm water over the entire project so the flow is slowed and the water can seep down into the ground. It asks that there be minimal disturbance and that degraded ecological systems be restored. And it pleads that only native landscaping be used to boost infiltration and reduce runoff.
Bruskiewicz says he's always on the lookout for land, especially pieces that have gently rolling hills, a water feature, and maybe even some of the wetlands other builders tend to dread.
But the message his company wants to convey to his colleagues is that just about any site can be turned into a high-quality neighborhood where residents can live, work, and recreate while preserving the natural resources for future generations. "We feel everyone should embrace that philosophy," he says.
Of course, low-impact development works best on a larger scale. But the development director says "we feel we can make it work" on sites as small as 30 acres.