Good to go

Local green developer wants to change how people look at communities

Levi Benkert lives the Good life.

Levi Benkert lives the Good life.


SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

Some good has come to town. Literally. LJ Urban, our friendly neighborhood green developers, recently began accepting contracts for its Good housing project in the Washington neighborhood of West Sacramento. This LEED-certified development located at Fourth and B streets, right across the river from downtown, will eventually contain 35 units when it’s completed by the end of next year. LJ Urban built the development around eco-friendly measures, but more so around people, which is why plans incorporate porches, a community garden and a park with a bike path weaving around the space.

“We don’t want to just build and sell houses. We want to change how people think about communities. We want to make cities better,” said Levi Benkert, co-founder of LJ Urban.

The project began three years ago, back when there was a trailer park on the site and green building had not quite hit the mainstream here in Sacramento. LJ Urban bought the trailers and relocated the handful of residents to apartments, then set to work researching the heck out of every possible option for the green houses, looking for the most reasonably priced sustainable choice.

Designed by Craig Stradley of local architecture firm Mogavero Notestine Associates, with interiors by Sacramento-based BlankBlank, the houses are prime examples of modern eco-urban living. The houses have dual-flush toilets and tankless water heaters to conserve water. Kitchens are equipped with Energy Star appliances and countertops made from recycled paper and resin. Concrete floors are made with fly ash (a byproduct of the coal-burning process). Recycled insulation made of used phone books and denim jeans keeps building shells efficient, and NightBreeze systems create natural ventilation and limit air-conditioning use. Reflecting aluminum roof sheathing frames the buildings, which helps prevent heat from penetrating through roofs and walls during the summer and escaping during winter.

The developers decided to leave three large oak trees, and although they had to remove several walnut and cedar trees, the wood was reclaimed and transformed into shelving and exterior window shades. A vegetable garden will be planted next to the oaks.

“We want community gardens all around,” Benkert said. “We love them.”

To keep the houses comparatively affordable (units range from $339,000 to $450,000), solar panels are optional, and LJ Urban will pay a substantial portion of the cost for those who choose this feature. Even without photovoltaics, LJ Urban estimates the monthly gas and electric bill will average $15.

Good isn’t claiming to be the greenest housing project in existence. It’s not entirely off-the-grid and biodegradable. But then again, that was never the point. Yes, sustainability means green products and design, but the concept also means creating a community where people want, and can afford, to stay over the long haul.

The company’s mantra is “Dream big, live small and do good,” and the folks at LJ Urban mean it. They partnered with a nonprofit in Burkina Faso—a West African nation, and one of the poorest in the world—and funded the organization to train 38 masons through the Good project.

Benkert and his wife, Jessie (LJ Urban co-founder) will relocate from their home in East Sacramento to Good in September, downsizing by 900 square feet, which they don’t see as a sacrifice. Because what they get instead is a bike path for their three kids to ride on and a park right across the street, and hopefully, a collection of friendly neighbors.

When the Benkerts moved here from San Francisco 10 years ago, they started up two coffee shops before establishing Asante Homes in a garage in West Sacramento. For several years, they were land developers, but frustration with all the crazy suburban sprawl in the area prompted them to become builders as well and rename themselves LJ Urban.

“Making [green] lifestyle changes are simply impossible in a suburban home,” Benkert said. Suburbs require new roads, new sewers and significantly more resources than infill, where developers can tap into infrastructure already there. LJ Urban currently has 11 projects in the works, all within a mile-and-a-half of the state Capitol building.

“Sacramento has an opportunity to be a leader in the sustainable-urban model,” Benkert said. “If you want a low-footprint lifestyle, you can really do it here.”