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Green for Centuries: Alys Beach

"I take particular care when designing resort towns. They provide the platform where town planning moves to the next level," said Andrés Duany, the designer of Alys Beach, located on the Florida Panhandle between his original brainchild, Seaside, and Rosemary Beach, another neighborhood designed by his firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. "Because residents expect virtually utopian lifestyles in resorts, we can push the envelope in ways that would be resisted in a conventional, full-time community. In a resort town the normal, everyday life is just not good enough -- else why would people displace themselves so far, and to spend the precious few weeks of their vacations? Resorts are the laboratories of the new urbanism -- over time, they become full-time, 'real' communities while retaining the best aspects of their ambitious conception."

Alys Beach certainly pushes the envelope. It has claimed the title of the world's first officially "fortified" community, as certified by the Institute for Business & Home Safety. Its innovative efforts surrounding environmentally sustainable development are far above par. And its striking appearance -- born of architectural influences from Guatemala and Bermuda -- makes it one of the most beautiful new towns in the country.

The homes and other buildings that comprise Alys Beach are built to last for centuries -- not mere decades. Every structure includes the latest disaster-resistant features, enhancements and construction technologies, from the ground up. All are constructed using cinder block, with steel rods inserted into the cavities for further strength; the cinder blocks are then backfilled with concrete. Hurricane-proof windows are employed, too, as are masonry roofs. The result is a landscape of buildings that appear at first glance to be whitewashed from head to toe.

That durability is a major reason why Alys Beach is more environmentally sound, said Christian Wagley, the town's environmental program manager. Wagley's job is to make Alys Beach "better environmentally -- any way I can," he said. Daily, he monitors new technologies, materials and methods, determines their feasibility for Alys Beach, and brings them to the development team if they can be used to make the town greener and a better place to buy and live.

"Ultimately, this is a business -- we're differentiating ourselves in the marketplace," said Wagley.

Wagley points to three major elements of the development team's green strategy:

At the most basic level, Alys Beach is a town, rather than sprawl. It uses the land wisely and efficiently, creating a community that's accessible on foot or by bike, clustering development, and preserving open spaces that are much larger for wildlife and water quality. "Almost every single environmental problem we have is related to the way we use our land," said Wagley.

Focusing on building durable structures, because the biggest environmental impact comes not from what's going into building the town, but its operation and maintenance costs over the life of its buildings. "Masonry takes more time and money on the front end, but ultimately it's more efficent to build something that lasts," said Wagley. "By choosing to build this way, these homes need less input over time to maintain them -- that's environmentally smart."

Energy conservation measures minimize usage. "Much of the impact of a home is energy consumed for heating, cooling and hot water," said Wagley. "So we use spray foam insulation in the walls and install very tight-fitting windows, combined with HVAC systems that pull in fresh air. This minimizes energy waste. Plus, the white rooftops reflect the sun -- they even keep the urban heat island effect at bay." The town also works with the Building America program, part of the U.S. Dept. of Energy, to get free advice and technical consulting on the homes to make them even more comfortable, durable and long-lasting.

All homes and streets in Alys Beach are carefully oriented to allow passive heating and cooling from the sun, as well as from the steady Gulf breezes (every major street is an open thoroughfare to the Gulf). Storm water runoff is minimized through the use of streets and parking courts made from pavers hand-set in gravel, allowing 35 percent of all rainfall to filter directly into the ground.

Because light can be a form of pollution, all exterior lighting is carefully planned and regulated to illuminate only where needed and to avoid glare, thus reducing energy use, preserving the view of the night sky and minimizing intrusive light on the beaches. Even the landscaping is carefully managed to be drought-tolerant and pest-resistant, including extensive use of native plants.

Wagley doesn't give the sheer beauty of Alys Beach short shrift, either. "Beauty is an intrinsically green feature," he said. "I've learned the value of building something beautiful, because beautiful things endure. Throughout history, we've rallied around beautiful things and we keep them. We tear everything else down."

The land on which Alys Beach sits has been owned outright by the Stephens family for decades. But in the 1950s, the site was simply a vacation destination for Alys Stephens and her husband, Elton; they didn't own it. In the 1970s, Alys' son and his wife were driving along what is now Scenic 30A and saw that the land was for sale at auction. They placed a bid and won the 160-acre tract.

In the 1980s, Seaside was founded -- Ground Zero for the new urbanism movement -- and the Stephens family paid attention. They waited until every other major tract of beachfront property in the county had been developed, they watched the mistakes and the successes all around them, and finally made a decision in the early 2000s to develop their land. By then, they knew what they wanted to do with Alys Beach -- so named for the family matriarch -- and they knew EBSCO Development, Inc., the company founded by their parents, would be the developer. They retained DPZ and gave them a blank slate. They said, "Let's create a dream community."

Andrés Duany and DPZ formed an architectural palette for Alys Beach during the initial design charrette, said Marieanne Khoury-Vogt, who shares the title of town architect -- and a home in Alys Beach -- with her husband, Erik Vogt. "Andres had talked to Seaside and Rosemary Beach residents and asked them what DPZ had gotten right. They liked the idea of shared civic realm, but wanted more privacy. To address this, courtyard houses from Antigua, Guatemala, were chosen as the typology; he looked to Bermuda for the style, the architectural language. It's a much simpler architecture, but very beautiful.

"The Bermuda style is characterized by uncomplicated, whitewashed volumes of masonry and stucco, versatile and sculptural in its massing and restrained in its use of ornamentation. Together with the use of one color and material, the white stuccoed masonry helps unify the architecture into a simple, harmonious and coherent streetscape.

"Today, five years into this, we're constantly looking for more inspirations, such as southern Spain, Moorish architecture -- both are influencing some of the new work here. As we go along, I think we'll see even more."

Three residential house types are being developed: courtyard houses, villas and compounds, with the courtyard house as most predominant. Build to the edges of its lot, it is organized around a private, central courtyard, with attached outdoor galleries, loggias, fountains and pools. The villa is freestanding on its lot with yards all around. The compound, also detached, is composed of multiple, smaller, pavilion buildings joined together by loggias, porches and continuous perimeter garden walls.

Three years into its 20-year build-out plan, Alys Beach has its town center under way; the first tenant moves in July 1. An eventual, separate "Village" will create a pedestrian-only environment complete with ground-level retail and living spaces above. Several pools already exist, including the awe-inspiring Caliza pool. Other amenities include fitness facilities, kids camps, a beach club, a 21-acre nature preserve, an environmental center with interactive activities for kids, tennis courts, spa offerings, numerous parks and reserves, and an amphitheater on Scenic 30A, which will open later this summer.

The architectural integrity of the community will stay intact under the watchful eye of the town architects, who also have designed several buildings, including the sales center (their first project), the Fonville Press building, two or three houses, the Compound, the Caliza pool, a bridge that's currently under construction, and a series of row houses that should begin construction soon.

Charged by Duany, charrette consultant Doug Farr of Chicago-based Farr Associates, and a mandate from EBSCO officials to "be green," the entire development team strives daily to carry out the philosophy and intent of Alys Beach. "It's a challenge, but fun," said Khoury-Vogt. "We're seeing, with sustainability, balancing and seamlessly combining the performance with environmental sensitivity to enhance the character of the buildings."

Meanwhile, DPZ remains closely involved, helping to guide the architectural decisions so that the urbanism "stays right," said Khoury-Vogt. "There's also been a strong emphasis placed on the composing the overall street, as opposed to individual buildings. Because we have zero lot lines and courtyard homes, our task is to make sure the street is composed as harmoniously and coherently as possible."

"There's a challenge in the world at large, and that's helping people understand the tremendous environmental benefits of new urbanism," said Christian Wagley. "It's counterintuitive. People see sprawl and they see green around the houses, and they somehow think that's better. So the challenge is educating the world at large that new urbanism is greener. You have to look at the big picture.

"My biggest mission is to educate the world at large about the environmental values of building new urbanism."

Alys Beach Town Architect Marieanne Khoury-Vogt contributed to this article.