In late August 2002, about 100 people, representing about 10 big builders, gathered at the Radisson Hotel near John Wayne Airport in Newport Beach, Calif., for an unusual project. The topic? Working together to build the village of Terramor, one of the most environmentally advanced communities in the United States. Terramor is part of Ladera Ranch, the 23,000-acre former cattle ranch being developed by Rancho Mission Viejo.

Typically, only project managers would be present at a kickoff meeting, says Maggie McIntee, vice president of marketing for Hovnanian Enterprises' Coastal California division. But Paul Johnson, senior vice president of community development for Rancho Mission Viejo, the master developer of Ladera Ranch, convened everyone from building presidents to architects to employees at local utilities, who talked about the Energy Star program. "Marketing staffs were required to be there," marvels McIntee. "It established a unified approach for all departments."

Getting everyone on the same team and lined up along the same starting line was an important part of the building process for Rancho Mission Viejo. It was particularly key for this distinctive project: The master developer required every builder that wanted to construct any of the 1,260 homes in 12 distinct neighborhoods to build green. "These were brand new requirements for high-volume builders," notes Johnson. "There was no textbook which we could rely on, so we needed input from everyone."

Green guidance

After hearing presentations about green building initiatives by Pardee Homes of Los Angeles, John Laing Homes of Newport Beach, and Centex Corp. of Dallas, the builders set to work. They met at least once a month for about 15 months. While builders have collaborated before, the work process involving so many builders in sharing construction techniques, ideas for public education, and even recycling dumpsters resulted in a creative synergy that Johnson describes as sizzling.

The green guidelines had to work for everyone, recalls Johnson, though the builders were free to interpret them differently. The requirements started during construction, when all builders had to recycle materials, and continued through every room in the house. Each kitchen had to have a two-bin trash center drawer recycling center, and all homes had to use low-flow water fixtures. The exterior of the home was not exempt: Landscaped areas had to be planted with drought-resistant plants.

Furthermore, builders had to document precisely how they intended to meet the standards. The documentation could be burdensome. "But one of the things I like about the Ladera Ranch group is that they do hold you accountable," says Joyce Mason, Pardee's vice president of marketing. "And they do want to make sure that everyone is doing what they'd say they'd do. That keeps the quality high."

Hovnanian's McIntee found that the clarity of communication eased the new experience of working with competitors. "I really do think that communication is the biggest item that created the success," she insists. The meetings and clear guidelines "kept everyone on the same page," she says.

Because of the complexity of green building, much of the meetings was devoted to research about products and methods and brainstorming about how to present the benefits to the public. "Ultimately, green building is about educating," says Pardee's Mason. "As a builder, we have to learn what to do, then we have to teach potential home buyers. And jurisdictions in which you build don't always have they knowledge that you'd hope they'd have."

The common branding solution for the village of Terramor is "360 degree living," which encompasses "recycling, conserving, and preserving" the values of a community. "Even bigger than the green issues was the idea of conservation for future generations," says McIntee.

Each builder captured the essence of the concept in the sales collateral, yet in distinctly different expressions. More fundamentally, the concept was infused in the construction process, says McIntee. As a result, it fostered a new level of collaboration among competitors in addressing ideas that might be easy for customized homes but difficult to implement on a large production scale.

McIntee found the teamwork and the unified marketing approach equaled very successful sales. Hovnanian's detached single-family homes opened in November to a lottery, she notes.

Common problems

The biggest problem, ironically, was with the green products, says McIntee. Many of the materials were new, and finding installers was problematic. "We were educating our own design center staff on the benefits of these products, while helping the installers get over the fear of installing, say, a bamboo floor," says McIntee. The flooring company had concerns that bamboo would swell with weather changes and that there would be warping or customer service issues. But none of that has materialized, she says.

Hovnanian wanted its lots to be 100 percent solar, but sometimes the lots, which had been set in place years before Terramor was even conceived, were not oriented in the proper direction in order to take advantage of solar panels. Hovnanian ended up with 68 percent of its homes using solar energy.

Rancho's Johnson says he believes that the common approach was the only way to build a green community. "Builders in this new arena face a high risk when building many units," he noted. "The building process brought a sense of comfort that they were all pulling together."

Green Players Terramor, an environmentally advanced community in Ladera Ranch, Calif., includes homes from the following builders:

* The Arborage, by Richmond American Homes: Courtyard homes from approximately 1,794 to 2,118 square feet, priced from the mid-$400,000s;

* Bannister Street, by Standard Pacific Homes: Attached live/work homes sized from approximately 2,100 total square feet, priced from the high $400,000s.

* Branches, by Standard Pacific Homes: Attached and detached townhomes from approximately 1,610 to 2,100 square feet, priced from the mid-$400,000s;

* Briar Rose, by MBK Homes: Two-story townhomes sized from approximately 1,647 to 1,748 square feet, priced from the high $300,000s;

* Claiborne, by Pulte Homes: Detached single-family homes sized from approximately 2,550 to 3,000 square feet, priced from the high $500,000s;

* Evergreen, by Pardee Homes: Detached single-family homes sized from approximately 2,770 to 3,919 square feet, priced from the $700,000s;

* Mosaic, by Hovnanian Enterprises: Detached single-family homes sized from approximately 2,361 to 2,982 square feet, priced from the low $600,000s;

* Sedona, by Shea Homes: Detached single-family homes sized from approximately 3,712 to 4,168 square feet, priced from the high $800,000s;

* Sutter's Mill, by Centex Homes: Single-level townhomes sized from approximately 1,327 to 1,686 square feet, priced from the mid-$300,000s;

* Tarleton, by D.R. Horton: Courtyard/cluster homes sized from approximately 1,662 to 2,205 square feet, priced from the mid-$400,000s;

* Valmont, by D.R. Horton: Single-level attached homes sized from approximately 926 to 1,312 square feet, priced from the high $200,000s;

* Walden Park, by William Lyon Homes: Detached single-family homes sized from 2,111 to 2,613 square feet, priced from the low $500,000s

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.