In 2004, Rick Tollakson attended a meeting of developers, city planners and pie-in-the-sky thinkers out to convince their cohorts that there had to be a way to build large subdivisions that did not abuse the landscape, that kept pollutants out of waterways and that created a strong sense of community among residents.

Such developments tended to fly in the face of standard practices, especially in terms of reducing the amount of land covered by concrete and other impermeable surfaces.

In these developments, lot sizes would be smaller and houses would snuggle up to streets, leaving large expanses of green space beyond the backdoor. Houses would be tucked closer together. Storm water runoff could be controlled by possibly eliminating sidewalks and planting prairie grasses and wildflowers, whose deep-root systems act as sponges with water runoff.  

Although not radical, the format was different from conventional development of tidy neighborhoods laid out on neat rectangular grids  with lawns that bring to mind crew cuts and starched shirts.

Tollakson, ever mindful of construction trends that would set his company apart from others, was receptive to the idea, but also more than a little skeptical. He saw big fights ahead with planners and, possibly, with new homeowners who might resist the idea of prairie plantings. Such landscapes can look raggedy for a few years as they develop, exactly opposite of lawns that seem to turn a luxuriant green overnight.

“No one wants to go through the brain damage of doing conservation development just to have city staff and planning and zoning just beat the crap out of them,” Tollakson said about his initial reaction to the idea of an environmentally friendly housing community.

Still, Tollakson and others brought in engineers to study the feasibility of development situated on a site’s natural topography, where streets would be modified with altered rights-of-way so houses sit closer to those streets. If city planners would agree, sidewalks would be eliminated in deference to recreation trails.

Specifically, houses would be 25 feet from a street rather than the conventional 35 feet. They would stand nine or 10 feet apart instead of 14 or 15 feet. Lot depths would be reduced to 100 feet, and prairie grasses would be planted beyond that.
 
“Our biggest concern was how people would react to nontraditional development. Rather than have a large sodded lot that they would mow, they would have smaller lots with more open space,” Tollakson said.

Conservation communities also required special zoning designations called planned unit developments, but the city of Grimes was eager to take on such a project, Tollakson said.

As the company proceeded, it found that its development costs were roughly the same as a traditional neighborhood development, said Joe Pietruszynski, Hubbell’s vice president of land development.

Since then, Hubbell has found little resistance in the market for the conservation communities, which it now has developed in Altoona, Carlisle and Waukee, in addition to Grimes and Johnston.

“When it comes to sustainability, when it comes to green concepts, that part of the environment, the market understands that part,” Tollakson said. “A conservation development where they can actually see prairie grass and see how it works, they understand that.”

And they like it.