All In: Sustainable Gardening (and Living) at Babcock Ranch
Sustainability is a way of life at Babcock Ranch and it’s planted firmly in the garden.
By: Jamie Penn
It’s not at all surprising that residents of America’s first solar-powered town care where their food comes from, or that they want to be a part of the process. The only surprising thing about living in the garden at Babcock Ranch (about an hour from Naples), says community garden consultant, Whitney Tucker, is that residents can make things grow this time of year.
“It’s not easy, but it can be done,” said Tucker. Southwest Florida is known to get a little too steamy early to mid-summer for most varieties of vegetables. But, cherry tomatoes, like the sweet and savory yellow “Everglade,” many types of peppers, and most herbs can hang with the Florida heat. While summer isn’t the optimal time to grow along the Gulf-side of the panhandle, every other time of the year is, says Tucker. And, an eight-month optimal growing season is pretty darn good. Year-round harvesting includes tomatoes, bell peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, microgreens, and herbs.
Running the Show
There is one varietal harvested on Babcock Ranch land, however, that is more plentiful during summer months (as well as every other month) than in any other planned community in the country. 440 acres of land at Babcock Ranch is covered in 343,000 glistening blue, sun-loving solar panels that serve to produce 74.5 megawatts of power, enough solar energy to power the entire town. And, those numbers will soon double on land adjacent to current solar fields.
While this staple crop requires very little water, the farmland that provides produce for two restaurants and a general store does. Because Babcock Ranch is a 100% sustainably-developed community, Tucker said zero percent of well-generated freshwater is used to irrigate crops. All irrigation is sourced from wastewater and reused water located on the Ranch.
Sustainable is as Sustainable Does
Sustainable development is all about minimizing your impact and footprint on the natural environment. Whitney Tucker and her previous employers at Herban Gardens (Kitson family-owned) have been all about sustainable development since the inception of Herban Gardens. Tucker, age 26, worked for the Kitson family for over 10 years, starting her learning of “everything she knows” about growing microgreens and sustainable and organic gardening in general. She’s now a full-time employee at Slaters Restaurant and works as a community gardens consultant for the Babcock Ranch H.O.A. Herban Gardens continues to farm a large plot of land on Babcock Ranch, accounting for produce provisions for both restaurants.
“It’s pretty perfect, because I’m always on call, but I never feel like I am,” Tucker said. Community gardeners often come in to dine so that they can get a few garden tips. “I love being a part of their enthusiasm,” she said.
It’s residents like the Graham family, Tucker says, that remind her how important this process is. The Grahams visited Tucker recently at Slaters just so their four-year-old daughter could tell her that she got to eat the very first cherry tomato that she helped to grow.
The Grahams are one of 16-20 families growing and harvesting in Babcock Ranch Community Gardens. Twelve 4 ft. x 5 ft. metal containers and eight 4.5 ft. x 16 ft. are available to all residents on a first-come-first-serve basis. Thyme trails over metal and rosemary, and tomato plants still hold strong in raised garden plots in the heat of the summer sun next to acres and acres of solar panels. And, a teaching garden, planted and tended by Tucker, is available for all to watch and learn.
“It’s important to residents that they know where their food comes from when they sit down to eat at Slaters or pick up a few things from the General Store,” Tucker said. But, it’s another thing altogether, she said, when they get to learn how it all works as a family, and to reap the benefits of their labor.
“It feeds them in a different way,” Tucker said. “And, they constantly express how grateful they are to have access to it.”
Along with Herban Gardens’ farm plot, there are several tenant farmer plots, as well. A bee farm and a large-scale tomato and watermelon farm are among them. The honey from the bee farm provides honey for the general store and replaces sugar in all recipes used at both Babcock Ranch Restaurants.
In a sustainable environment, renewal and repurposing are consistent. And, at Babcock Ranch, it’s in everything residents do. It’s at the base of every program that’s created and in the blueprint of every house built.
Tucker says there’s no better way to experience sustainability’s progressive cycle than to hover around the table at a monthly S.L.E.T. (Slaters Babcock Ranch Eat and Talk) meeting.
Residents buzz about new sustainable solutions on the horizon and what they can do better and more consciously as a community. They ask questions – i.e., how and where to recycle X.Y.Z., or when and where to find organic and sustainably-produced products. And, Tucker is always there to mediate.
“It’s a pretty inspiring thing to watch,” she said.
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At a time when many seniors are as fit and well as some in their 30s, one retirement community is staying a step ahead of the game.
The design and functionality of retirement apartment complexes have changed almost as much as the senior population in recent years. Retirement facilities are now typically as vibrant, socially active, and wellness-centered as the average active adult.
But, Cambridge Village has taken things a step further by making their facilities both indiscernible at first glance from a fine resort hotel and spa, and simultaneously as comfortable, friendly, and social as a full-service college campus apartment complex. With locations in Apex, Wilmington, and a future location in Raleigh – Brier Creek, senior living innovation was well primed in these areas. The economy and health and wellness industries are booming in both cities, attracting young families and retirees from across the country and around the world. Then, of course, in Wilmington there’s the beach, which tends to be pretty popular among, well, everyone.
As we all know, where there are young grandchildren, grandparents are likely to follow. So, a high population of young, growing families tends to attract more seniors to an area by default.
Why Cambridge Village
Cambridge Village is intended to offer a low-maintenance, wellness-focused, resort-style living experience to seniors busy living some of the best years of their lives. And, this feeling is immediately conveyed when one enters the lobby at Cambridge’s Wilmington location. There’s a feeling of ease, and a sense of well-being that feels deliciously contagious. And, given that Cambridge Village in Wilmington is less than five minutes from Wrightsville Beach and a stone’s throw from Mayfaire Town Center, it’s in the mix with everything that tourists and residents flock to. Cambridge residents can take morning walks to nearby cafes and shops, or an evening bike ride to their favorite Wrightsville Beach restaurant.
What’s to Love
Community activities are integral to everyday life at Cambridge Village. Many residents have children and grandchildren in the area, and have moved to Cambridge to be close to them while maintaining autonomy and independence. Others simply chose Cambridge Village for the location, or to stay close to the town and an area they know and love. But, all residents chose Cambridge partially from a desire to surround themselves with people they can relate to, and to develop a sense of community.
“Our residents come from all over,” said Katie Manning, Chief Marketing Strategist at Cambridge Village. “We have snowbirds who came down for warmer weather, people who moved to Wilmington to retire, and lifelong Wilmingtonians.”
And, with such diverse backgrounds comes the perfect environment for community building. Residents meet up for lunch at the Village Restaurant with Chef Charlie Blake, or for shuffleboard at the pub. They play pool, walk at Wrightsville Beach on Friday mornings, organize dances, put together wine & cheese neighborhood socials, play Mahjong and poker, and watch movies in the theater. And, many hop on weekly group bike rides and shuttle trips around town.
The Center for Optimal Living
Not only is the Center for Optimal Living impressive in its own right, but the structure implemented therein also helps residents to “achieve optimal wellness in body, mind, and spirit.”
Dozens of machines line the windows in a bright sunlit fitness room. There’s an extensive weight room and a yoga and fitness room across the hall that’s super-spacious and beautifully designed. And, the grand finale is an indoor five-lane lap pool with glass lining one wall and an industrial but elegant ceiling that adds specific interest and inspiration. But, behind all the fancy fitness rooms and equipment is a physician-led concierge approach to living a healthy lifestyle. Trainers, instructors, and a physician all come together to design the optimal plan for each resident.
And, because nothing is optimal without a smoothie bar nearby, Cambridge Village hasn’t forgotten. The Village Smoothie Bar is just beyond the pool.
Cambridge Village resident, Ed Drew, is not alone when he says that the Center for Optimal Living is what sold him.
“We’d already visited several places. But, when we got to Cambridge, and I saw that wellness center downstairs, and that beautiful, magnificent pool, that did it…I said, ‘I love this place! Then I said, ‘Okay, now, let’s look at the rest of it’,” Drew said with a chuckle. “So we did. And, we totally fell in love with it.”
Center for Optimal Living memberships are available to the general public for those over the age of 45, and will soon be available to all adults, with a maximum of 350 total memberships available.
Medspa at Cambridge
If the Center for Optimal Living is going a step beyond, then the Medspa at Cambridge is a giant leap. Walking into this full-service Medspa is instantly as sensual and relaxing an experience as it is in any spa. From massage therapy, facials and mani/pedis, to botox, laser treatments, and more, residents can treat themselves, and take care of themselves, as often as they need or would like to. The Medspa also includes a full service hair salon frequented by residents as well as the general public. Families, children, and friends are beyond welcome at the Village. Cambridge Village is designed to accommodate and nurture such connections. “We love to see our residents spending time with their families, enjoying a nice dinner or holiday meal in the Village Restaurant, and enjoying our relaxing outdoor space by the fire pits,” said Manning.
Life comes together at Cambridge Village and it all meets seniors where they are. Just when folks are ready to say no to cooking and maintaining and yes to visiting and enjoying and exploring, Cambridge Village staff steps in to make that happen.
In addition to lavish 1-2 bedroom apartments (some complete with a sunroom), residency at Cambridge Village includes an extensive list of amenities.
Here’s a quick list:
Library, chapel, media room, and game rooms
MedSpa & Salon
Cafe and Pub/Lounge
Fitness Center Membership
Professional Directed Optimal Living Program
Housekeeping and linen services
Emergency response system
Washer and dryer in all apartments
Fire sprinkler and smoke detection
Luxurious wall-to-wall carpeting
All maintenance and repairs
Resident manager on site
Guest suites available
Individually controlled heat and air conditioning
Scheduled transportation by courtesy shuttle to appointments
Thousands of years ago, in a region now known as The Lowcountry of South Carolina, Native Americans discovered a paradise. The abundant woodlands offered easy hunting, the sparkling ponds teemed with fish, and the moist, sandy soil was ideal for growing Indian corn and the vines of squash and beans that spiral up its stalks.
Europeans exploring the nearby coastline in the 1600s sheltered from the sea along the banks of a gently flowing river. Englishmen in 1670 established a settlement there, called Charles Towne for their monarch, on the river named for fellow nobleman Lord Ashley. A decade later, the town was moved downstream to a strategic peninsula, and the rest is Charleston history.
Other settlers went upstream to the Ashley River’s headwaters, a network of large freshwater pools amid vast wetlands dubbed the Great Cypress Swamp. In 1682, the Lord Proprietors—without consulting the longtime residents—granted to another royal friend the surrounding 2,000-acre tract already known by the name of “The Ponds.”
Red and white people initially lived there together, and a trading post was established, which was later fortified when cooling relations resulted in the Yamassee War of 1715. Then, the land was found to be perfect for rice cultivation, which was accomplished with the know-how of enslaved West Africans, whose forebears had farmed it for centuries at home. When Eliza Pinckney discovered how to profitably grow indigo in Lowcountry conditions, that valuable blue-dye-producing plant was added to the agricultural mix, along with other imports like sweet potatoes and cotton.
For most of the 1800s, the Schulz family tilled the soil and raised livestock, building themselves a new two-story central home around 1850. After a generation of ownership by the Lotz family, James Simmons acquired title to the land in 1911. Farming continued for a time, supplemented by timber harvesting and sand mining, plus hunting and fishing forays with neighbors in the countryside that everyone called “the Ponds.”
By the 21st century, however, booming Charleston was expanding its urban reach with new bedroom communities in nearby Summerville. For some historic properties, the tide was overwhelming, but the Simmons family chose their buyer wisely: all 2,000 acres were purchased in 2005 by Greenwood Development Corporation, a South Carolina builder of golf resorts and residential communities. To their credit, the company decided to set aside more than half of its acquisition as a permanent nature preserve to plan for homes and amenities on land previously farmed and timbered and to respect the site’s heritage with a long-familiar name for the new community: The Ponds.
Greenwood then donated an entranceway parcel for a county fire/EMS/sheriff’s department substation and another for a new Summerville YMCA, along with substantial start-up funding. The company also retained Brockington and Associates, an Atlanta-based cultural resources consulting firm with Charleston-area offices, to intensively survey the property.
“With the wetlands already protected,” says Brockington historian Charlie Philips, “our primary work at The Ponds has been to ensure compliance with historic preservation regulations. We’ve identified 10 Native American sites there and recovered numerous artifacts from that time, and the Colonial and antebellum eras as well. Remnants of the old rice fields have been preserved, too.
“The most significant surviving structure was the house originally built by the Schulz family in the 1850s,” Philips says. “It had fallen into substantial disrepair—it had last been used as a hunting lodge—so Greenwood spent about $1 million to make it their new community center, moving it to a better location with a new foundation, rehabbing the bricks and boards, and even retaining the original rope-pulley windows. It’s called ‘adaptive reuse,’ and they did a great job.”
Formally known as the Schulz-Lotz Farmhouse, The Ponds’ residents today enjoy The Farmhouse as their hub of social activity, with spacious meeting rooms, homeowners association, offices, and museum-style displays about the property’s history that include artifacts recovered on-site. In 2008, The Ponds Conservancy was established as a non-profit organization, not only to maintain The Farmhouse and the 1,000+ acres of nature preserve, but also to build community spirit within The Ponds and in the Summerville area by sponsoring educational-enrichment and outreach programs.
Therese Munroe was among the development’s first employees and is now a resident herself. “The Ponds Conservancy was modeled on a similar Greenwood program for The Reserve at Lake Keowee,” she says. “We have over 20 miles of community walking trails with paths in the preserve where people can enjoy a genuinely natural experience every day. We also have many songbirds, turkeys, storks, herons, deer, and other wildlife on the property—including even three bald eagle nests. And, with the waterways throughout and over 30 species of fish in Schultz Lake [largest of the original ponds], kayaking and fishing are among our most popular resident activities.”
National developer Kolter Homes bought The Ponds in 2013 to add the active-adult Cresswind Charleston community to the site, but any apprehension about changes by the new owner was quickly dispelled. “The Kolter folks really liked what we had done with the Conservancy and even wanted to expand its mission,” says Munroe, now Executive Assistant to Project Director Jeff Vandewiel. “One early test was an area designated for new homes that turned out to be a significant archeological site. So, Kolter changed their plans to protect the site, and now it’s a neighborhood park.”
Such good work did not go unnoticed by The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, which honored The Ponds Conservancy with its prestigious 2015 Stewardship Award for the restoration of The Farmhouse and preservation of the surrounding grounds. Equally important are the organization’s educational programs that include monthly lectures by historians from Brockington and local museums, as well as Schulz, Lotz, and Simmons family members who still live in the region. The Conservancy also hosts guided nature walks through the wildlife refuge and former rice fields, music concerts and movie nights at the outdoor amphitheater, arts-and-crafts workshops and fairs, and annual charity fundraisers like a 5K race and a Miracle League BBQ competition, plus youth events like a fishing rodeo and a triathlon co-sponsored with the YMCA. All of the activities are designed to include Ponds and Cresswind residents, as well as other neighbors from the greater Summerville area.
“The Ponds Conservancy is an outstanding showcase for what can be done,” says Philips, “when you combine good development strategy, historic preservation, environmental conservation, and community involvement.”
“It all just makes you proud to live here,” Munroe concludes.
At least three bald eagle families seem to think so, too.
Located along the banks of the Tuckasegee River in the North Carolina mountains, you’ll find a quaint mountain haven of Cullowhee River Club with phenomenal views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and close proximity to numerous small towns. This is exactly what Dr. James Spirito and his wife, Cher were looking for. A home on the river in the heart of the Blue Ridge.
“For us, it was like all of the stars fell in line. We wanted to live in North Carolina on a river, where there was a continuity in neighborhood design, and we found it at Cullowhee River Club,” said Cher. They are currently building a cottage that should be ready by late June, just in time for summer months in the mountains.
The Spiritos will use this home as a vacation home as a nice getaway for “fun, casual, relaxation.” It will enable them to have more free time to enjoy their “antiquing” hobby. From this mountain location, Cher says its an easy day’s drive in any direction for antiques with all of the historic towns in neighboring states.
Cullowhee River Club is designed as a respite from the world with a Grand River Lodge and the River Park Pavilion where residents can enjoy one another’s company or simply relax along the river. The Property Owners Association even rents boat racks monthly on a first come, first served basis. And, because 60% of the land surrounding the Cullowhee River Club will be perpetually protected open space placed in a conservation easement, the community will have groomed hiking and biking trails for its residents to enjoy. The trails will also connect to the planned Jackson County Greenway Trail System.
While the Spirito’s primary home will remain in Florida, the Spiritos love to travel the world and have been to just about everywhere except the Middle East. “I have recently retired from Delta Airlines and am still in the stage of missing it very much. There is a reason there is a club called Clipped Wings … you never quite get over the longing for taking to the skies,” says Cher. They even own a condo in Thailand, from where they travel about. With Cher being a former flight attendant, the Spiritos have been able to take advantage of world travel, even many times to her favorite country of Japan, where the people are known for their honesty and respectful nature.
The Spiritos just celebrated their 39th wedding anniversary. Dr. James Spirito (Dr. “J”), a retired engineer, inventor, defense contractor, and professor still has much to offer the world. He is currently building a 1933 Hot Rod. For Dr. “J” life and retirement have taken him down many roads, some straight and some curvy but always an adventure. He is a refreshing example of work hard and play hard.
The Spiritos have a great love and admiration for one another, have built an enviable life, and are looking forward to enjoying their next phase in the mountains of North Carolina.
“You don’t need a retirement home, you need a great home for retirement,” ~ Francisca Alonso
There is the passion of an artist, the preciseness of an engineer, and a profound empathy for the human condition that informs a conversation with architect Francisca Alonso, one that is as captivating as the transformative vision she has for residential design in the 21st century.
Francisca and her husband/architect partner of 30 years, Antonio, are co-founders of AV Architects + Builders, established in 2001 and based in Great Falls, VA, just outside of Washington, D.C.
Francisca’s father was the famous architect Melvin Villarroel Roldan, who has designed luxury resorts and hotels on the Mediterranean coast and all over the world. When Francisca and Antonio launched their business in 2001, they decided to carry on the legacy of resort-style living. The company’s mission is, “Building custom dream homes designed around your lifestyle, that make you feel like you are on vacation, every day of the year.”
While there are many formative pillars of AV’s design philosophy, Francisca sums them up with the following tenets:
Removal of Clutter
Control of clutter is a key ingredient to a happy house. It’s rejuvenating. It’s like a detox. At the end of the day we don’t need so much. When have you ever walked into a luxury vacation home that had clutter? When you are staring at clutter, it creates distractions, so make certain that multiple storage solutions are a part of your home design.
Every indoor space that we design has a mirror image in an outdoor related space. A master bedroom has a patio. A great room may have an outdoor grotto. A front entrance will have a front porch.
A 2,000 sq. ft., home, for instance, should have at least a third of that – 700-800 sq. ft. – set for designed outdoor space.
Double the Windows, plus Limited Hallways and Doors
Our designs call for double the amount of window space in a standard home in our area. And there should be at least two viewpoints to the outdoors and nature in every spot in the house, all of which reduces stress and adds to your well-being. This requires broad open-concept floor plans, multi-use spaces, and the limiting of hallways and doors.
(Many of Francisca’s window designs, especially in bedrooms where windows have to provide egress in case of emergency, have an almost Mondrian quality, with offset panels virtually creating a piece of art in glass. The offset allows for one large casement window – facilitating egress and allowing for cross ventilation – while smaller windows of different sizes and shapes infuse design interest.)
Quality of Materials
We don’t want you to have a lifetime membership at the hardware store, so we build with materials that last. Instead of using pine trim we use PVC, which is rot-free. We use aluminum windows, so you don’t keep painting them, and engineered quartz or porcelain instead of granite so you don’t have to keep treating it. You should enjoy your home, not have to maintain it.
Smart Home Peace of Mind
Home security from your smartphone is so easy to do nowadays. We design a fully integrated system that controls lighting, alarms, temperature settings, and locking systems. The system can even detect moisture in specific areas and will send a message to your phone that will tell you if there is water under you dishwasher. It’s all about safety and energy efficiency.
But Francisca and her team have added another layer to the concept of stylish resort living, and it is outlined in a book she authored called, Nesting for Empty Nesters, The Vacation Style Living Approach to Aging in Place.
A magna cum laude graduate of The School of Architecture at The Catholic University, Francisca is also CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) certified, a prestigious designation bestowed by the National Association of Home Builders. It is with that training that she imagines a residence that uses smart design to prepare your home now for a better quality of life in retirement and beyond.
Francisca explains, “People are living much longer and more active lives these days. If we design or remodel a house for a couple in their 50s, they may live there until they’re 90. So why not build blocking now behind a wall that can anchor a grab bar or handrail in 20 years? Why not build a curbless shower with no doors that looks sleek now, but will allow disabled access in 30 years? There are hundreds of beneficial manifestations of Aging in Place design.”
In this regard, Francisca seems to think of everything. She is currently working with researchers at a Washington D.C. area university on building a sensor into a shower floor, or any space, that will detect an unusual compression of the floor that might be consistent with a fall, which can then be signaled to a family member for follow-up.
In addition to her father’s influence, Francisca admits to an affinity for Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, which is hinted at with some of her flowing horizontal rooflines. “Wright designed a home that was built for the end-user,” she describes. “Architecture is not monumental or ornamental, it’s designing for a person and how they will operate in their home.”
And like its co-founder, the company is passionate, precise, and profoundly empathetic in bringing trusted and flexible home design solutions to those of us approaching a fulfilling and active life as seniora. In Francisca’s sage affirmation, “You don’t need a retirement home, you need a great home for retirement.”