Many have said Babcock Ranch in Florida was lucky regarding how well it faired during Hurricane Ian, which made landfall on September 28, 2022. Yes, it did feel lucky watching from the living room as the storm and devastation happened. The sliding glass doors bowed in and out, tapping the back of the chair as the wind pressures changed. But while it may feel lucky – the location, planning, design, engineering, and implementation of resilience and sustainability are all very intentional in the growing town of Babcock Ranch.
Strategically working with what nature has provided versus trying to fight what the land and water want to do is a recipe for success.
Based on over 25 years of working in the green building sustainable development sector, there are three reasons builders and developers modify their traditional practices in favor of sustainable design. The first reason is regulation. The construction industry does not like the stick versus the carrot approach, but it works. The second reason is money. Increasingly, a financial partner or funding source requires green building certification or projects that help achieve investors’ newly established Environmental Sustainability Goals (ESGs). If funding for a project comes from the federal, state, or local government, there is often a green building certification requirement. The third reason, which is usually a very small percentage, is corporate culture. Some corporations believe there is a business case for resilience and sustainability and are incorporating this into all aspects of their companies.
Sydney Kitson, chairman and chief executive officer of Kitson & Partners, falls in that third category. He had a remarkable vision to create a new multi-generational town that proves it is possible to develop while both protecting and improving the quality of the natural environment. The original land purchase of Babcock Ranch included approximately 91,000 acres, of which 73,000 acres were sold back to the State for permanent preservation. Under the direction of Kitson, teams of design and engineering professionals began the process of visioning and planning a sustainable new town.
The process started with research, looking at historical maps, topographical and soil maps, tree and timber surveys, land use, connectivity, wildlife, and hydrology reports of the land identifying the natural flow ways. Strategically working with what nature has provided versus trying to fight what the land and water want to do is a recipe for success. Communication, partnerships, and a cross-curricular approach to the planning and design process are also fundamental to creating a sustainable design. The planners, design team, and engineers work together versus in silos, no one makes decisions in a vacuum.
From this process, a master plan evolved for the 17,000-acre new town of Babcock Ranch, which would include 19,500 residences, six million square feet of commercial space, and roughly 50,000 people. The most impacted land, areas previously used for mining rock and agriculture, are those being developed. The plan sets an additional 60% of that land aside as open green space such as preserved wetlands, uplands, greenways, lakes, parks, and wildlife corridors. Most of the land sits at an elevation of roughly 30 feet above sea level. Combining the elevation with the natural beauty of the land and being non-coastal, the team had a perfect canvas to create a storm-safe, resilient, and sustainable new town.
Restoring the natural flow ways and wetlands are only one component of the multi-faceted stormwater management system. Amy Wicks, P.E., the civil engineer of record, designed the innovative system that includes an interconnected lake system, created wetlands, rain gardens, and bioswales. Open spaces, such as parks, were designed with a lower elevation to store water in extreme events. While traditional systems may rely on berms and pipes connecting lakes in series, the system at Babcock Ranch interconnects all the lakes allowing the system to operate both in parallel and in series. The advantage of this approach is that during extreme events, if one part of the system is blocked or fails, the water can easily find an alternative path. The homes’ finished floor elevations are intentionally two feet higher than the road so that if lakes were to rise past capacity, the roads provide additional storage capacity to protect the homes and buildings. Using natural and engineered systems creates the redundancy that protects the infrastructure, resulting in resilience.
Partnerships play a large role in the success of the infrastructure. In partnership with Florida Power and Light (FPL), the town is powered by a solar farm that generates 150 MW. This is roughly 880 acres of land containing 680,000 photovoltaic (PV) panels, enough to power 30,000 homes. In 2017, before any residents lived at Babcock Ranch, Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma and Babcock Ranch lost power. Lessons learned from Irma resulted in hardened transmission poles (concrete), which now run the power directly from the PV array and from the grid to an FPL substation located at Babcock Ranch. From that point, transmission lines within Babcock Ranch are all underground. The PV array also consists of 10 MW of battery storage that was intentionally not discharged during Hurricane Ian. The batteries were kept charged just in case the power was needed post-storm. When the sun is not shining and the battery backup is spent, power for Babcock Ranch comes from a nearby natural gas plant via the grid. The three sources of power – PV array, battery backup, and the grid – provide the redundancy necessary to have a resilient electrical delivery system. During the team’s post-Ian debriefing, discussion included a key vulnerability – the substation. Had lightning hit the substation, Babcock Ranch would have lost power. FPL and Babcock Ranch are currently working on a second substation so that, should one fail, power can be rerouted and continue to serve the town.
The Babcock Ranch water utility, Town & Country Utilities (TCU), is onsite, operating in a hardened structure at an elevation consistent with the rest of the town, which keeps it safe from flooding. With power online, the town continued to have normal water and sewer operations. The utility has also won awards for outstanding accomplishments on water reclamation – transforming wastewater into reusable water for irrigation, which is critical to the mission of creating a town that respects the environment and conserves natural resources. Treating water to potable standards also is energy intensive. By using reclaimed water, TCU is also saving energy.
In partnership with Quantum Fiber, formerly Century Link, Babcock Ranch provides 1-Gig internet speeds via a fiber optic network. Having access to the internet while in the middle of a Category 4 hurricane delivered multiple advantages. It allowed Wicks to monitor lake levels during the storm and provide real-time updates to the team. Regular communication with family members elsewhere, who were watching the devastation in real-time, provided reassurance and hourly status updates. The ability to communicate for the Babcock Ranch team and its residents allowed the community to become a resource that ultimately provided cooked meals, showers, refuge, laundry services, internet, and power to as many as asked post-storm.
Babcock Ranch is the only community-certified Platinum by the Florida Green Building Coalition (FGBC) Green Land Development Standard. All homes and buildings are required to certify using the FGBC Standards. The FGBC standards are the only third-party program that is specific to a hot, humid climate and contains a disaster mitigation section. During the builder orientation, emphasis is on durability and the importance of being storm-safe, so the residents can shelter in place. Florida has a strong building code, and it works. However, these homes perform, on average, at an efficiency 25% better than Florida Energy Code, and an ongoing effort to continually improve. The town has recently opened the Southwest Florida Regional Emergency Center to serve evacuees from neighboring communities. Designed and constructed under rigorous International Code Council (ICC 500-2014) requirements, the building doubles as a gym and cafeteria for the new Babcock High School when not in service as a shelter.
Landscaping is another important part of the town’s sustainable design. Each home must have 75% native and drought-tolerant vegetation and 90% for common areas. The landscape is planned to mimic what is found in nature, understanding that these species have survived for hundreds of years withstanding hurricanes. Additionally, these plants can survive with minimal supplemental irrigation – providing significant water savings. For example, the Muhly grass bloomed just days after the storm as though nothing had happened.
Lessons learned are always a key component to doing better. However, having a team that not only finds the lessons learned but uses them to improve is a game changer. The Babcock Ranch team has been challenged by Syd Kitson to think about the “what ifs” (e.g., What if there was more rain? What if the winds were stronger?). The marching orders were clear: the town would not sacrifice safety, durability, resilience, or sustainability at any cost.
Jennifer Languell, Ph.D., is president and owner of Trifecta, which she founded in 2003 to help develop sustainable development and green building solutions. Her work has included the creation of award-winning high-rise, multi-family, and single-family residential projects, commercial projects, and some of the world’s largest and most sustainable land developments. She has also become a trusted consultant to governments and municipalities that are rapidly moving toward more sustainable and fiscally prudent operating and management practices. Dr. Languell and Trifecta have received numerous awards from government and industry organizations such as the Urban Land Institute, National Association of Home Builders, Center for Sustainable Florida, and the Florida Green Building Coalition. She is also an award-winning author and was selected as a technical advisor and star for the Discovery Channel’s environmental series Discovery “Project Earth.” She holds a bachelor’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering, a master’s in Civil Engineering and Construction Management, and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering and Sustainable Construction.