Just a couple of decades ago, getting a driver’s license was a turning point in life. It changed one's outlook, independence, and freedom. Today, the access to technology and the interconnectedness that it affords us is making driving a lower priority.
The question is, who would have anticipated this 20 years ago? Who would have predicted this shift in what for decades was a milestone in American life?
Anticipating these shifts is what Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson and Partners, wants to do with Babcock Ranch. The project—a HIVE 100 Innovator—was formulated as a living lab to improve the future of housing design.
Located in Fort Meyers, Fla., the project started in 2005, when sustainability and wellness were not commonplace on a builder’s checklist. Now, they are critically important, and so is what Kitson calls a “sense of place.”
Kitson grew up in a small town in New Jersey, where the high school was in the middle of the town. He walked to school and was kicked out of the house by his mom to entertain himself until dinner time. Kitson was inspired for the need to recreate this type of community and sense of place. He now wants to also make it sustainable and leave a legacy to start to change the way people view developing.
Kitson remarks, “When you say the word 'developer,' there are things that are conjured up in people’s minds, often negative, and we want to change that.”
So why Florida and why Babcock Ranch?
“If you look at Florida, which is growing and growing quickly—as an example, we have 1,000 people per day moving into the state,” Kitson explains. “Six million moving in between now and 2040. If you took a helicopter and looked around at development and housing, you are going to see a sameness to many of the projects. A lot of typical subdivisions, so, the affordability is very positive, but you lose certain things with the similarities. Traffic issues. Sense of place. People have to get in their cars to go somewhere. So creating a place that is connected is very important.”
Starting more than 10 years ago, Kitson wanted to prove that sustainability, and his way of thinking, made economic sense. He notes that for the project to get traction, it also had to make economic sense. Otherwise, no one would pay attention.
He started strong with a purchase of 143 square miles. Kitson then sold 73,000 acres to the state of Florida in the largest land purchase in the history of the state. “We ended up with 18,000 acres and we are preserving half of them. Over 90% of the original ranch is in preservation forever. We have concentrated all of the development in already disturbed land—farming, mining, sod farming,” Kitson says.
The next most important part of Kitson’s ranch development is the partnerships he has formed. He looks for and leverages the expertise of partners to develop first-class product in his community. For instance, Babcock Ranch offers clean energy based on a partnership with and a more than $130 million investment from Florida Power and Light.
“We started looking at energy and we wanted the cleanest form of energy possible,” Kitson says. “We looked at a lot of things and each had its challenges. Not a good location for wind farming. Geothermal was also challenging. Biofuel and biomass was leading to too much pollution. The obvious choice was solar, pure photovoltaics. We just installed a total of 343,000 panels. It will power the town for many years to come. It will be all solar energy and natural gas.”
Babcock Ranch also has a partnership with CenturyLink to provide gigabit internet service to every home in the development. This fiber option claims to be nearly 10 times faster and a lower cost than traditional internet options.
“It’s our way of future proofing,” Kitson says. “It gives people the ability to do more from home—work from home.”
The technology extends into all aspects of life at Babcock Ranch. There are 50 miles of trails, called the Living Trails, on the ranch. Technology allows residents to use their devices to identify the landscape around them, to track their distance, to pinpoint where they are, and to look at how fast they are going.
Another key partnership is with Florida Gulf Coast University. Babcock Ranch is funding a research facility, delivering on innovation through collaboration and borrowing the research expertise of a prestigious university and its students to support the ranch. The Florida Gulf Coast students are able to design and build the center, giving them hands-on experience.
Another Florida school—The University of Central Florida—is diving into the research and innovation of autonomous vehicles at Babcock Ranch. John Lambert, leading consultant on the project and research associate, Unmanned and Robotic Systems at the Institute for Simulation and Training, University of Central Florida, said the university has arranged a partnership with the ranch to study how the advent of autonomous vehicles will impact housing.
"Part of what needs to happen in this technology development is what's the trust factor?" Lambert says. "They sit in the car and the car makes all the decisions. What is the right level of engagement and attention in order to be responsible for the vehicle that software is driving? If you make it too comfortable and confident, then the driver could fall asleep."
As Lambert suggests, the biggest aspect is consumer acceptance. The group will be thinking about where and how the drivers will use the autonomous vehicles. In their situational research they want to see if users will get in with passengers to go to dinner, or go solo to the store. In addition, will they find it reliable? Will it arrive on time and be fully charged? And, maybe most important, will they trust it enough to put their children in it?
Kitson wants this to be part of the community and looks forward to the impact that it could have—migratory residents may not have to bring a vehicle. Households at Babcock Ranch could move from two to one vehicle and similarly, garages could go from two- to one-car stalls. This community will be the experimental lab to provide the data necessary for the rest of the industry to understand the impact. Toward the end of 2017, Lambert believes they will have two- or four-person pods available, maybe even larger shuttles.
Babcock Ranch is now under construction to deliver different types of homes to serve every income level and every housing type. All of the homes will be “FGBC Florida Green” certified and will have minimal turf, be irrigated with graywater, and use native landscape materials that require less water.
“The first phase has mid-priced homes in the $300,000 to $600,000 range,” Kitson says. “The first neighborhood will offer smaller lot, single-family homes. Then, they will build medium-sized homes on large lakes. Soon we are going to add some alley-loaded homes. We want to see how the market reacts to the alley-loaded; we aren’t sure, so we have to experiment with it. Then, we'll also experiment with rental single-family homes.”
These homes will be part of the living, learning lab. Kitson wants to find out how sensors are used within the home. Their data will show where and how savings are possible, and with what products. After the products are in, there still is the basic element of determining what consumers will use. He wants to know why they use what products and what is valuable.
Just like the shift in the attitude toward driving, there are dozens of shifts on the horizon. “People are turning off cable now and just getting all content online,” Kitson says. “It’s a huge sea change in the way things are headed. At Babcock Ranch, we want to anticipate those changes and build a community to speak to them.”