Interview: Dan Naef and the Development of Creative Social Ecosystems

Nestled between the Texas towns of Manvel and Iowa Colony, the state’s tallest meridian tower casts a short shadow at solar noon. The 60-foot tower, which uses physics, mathematics, and astronomy to act as a solar observatory sits at the heart of Meridiana, one of Rise Communities’ newest master-planned developments. Designed precisely by a local research scientist, this meridian tower is accurate to within two seconds of the atomic clock; it is not only the result of careful research and attention to its environment, but it is also a beautiful piece of art that brings the surrounding neighborhoods together.

 

And, as it turns out, it’s a pretty accurate metaphor for the long-term growth and viability of master planned communities.

 

“When they are done right, master planned communities will look gorgeous at the end of construction, and they’ll look even better twenty years down the road,” said Dan Naef, president of Rise Communities in a recent interview.

 

In the days where every subdivision can hang a “master planned” label on its entrance, Naef and his team continue to think beyond the community fitness center and park areas to provide ways for residents to not only connect with their neighbors, but with their environment at large. “We’ve worked hard to shift what it means to live in a master-planned community,” he added. “It’s one thing to provide amenities, but it’s another to build a creative social ecosystem, one that exists in harmony with both the natural and residential surroundings.”

 

As cool as a ‘creative social ecosystem’ sounds, what does it actually look like? For Naef and his team, it means embedding a conservatory at the center of their Cane Island community which hosts 8,000 plants as well as receptions, weddings, and contemplative afternoons. It means providing luxury on-site guest quarters at all of their communities. It means approaching land development with residents’ needs in mind, as was the case with Meridiana; to provide a more supportive framework for local education, this Houston community not only features outdoor laboratories that incorporate habitat, physics, and weather, it also has an elementary school built right into the plans.

 

Yet the trick for success isn’t just solid building practices and unparalleled amenities, or even adding schools and exceptional social centers.

 

“We learned very early that it was important to get behind instead of in front of people,” Naef added. “Developing land in established towns can feel like a personal process, especially to city planners, and so we take it personally.” He and his team set themselves apart by dedicating time to strengthening relationships within the city and its representatives, understanding where a development and its resources could provide added value, and getting ingrained into the local landscape. “If the school district auctions off a cow at the school fundraiser, you do what you can to pay top dollar for that cow,” he adds.

 

Naef and Rise Communities also understand that creating the right capital structure for their developments is just as important as the relationships they build; they know a project is only successful if it can deliver on all of its commitments during both strong and challenging markets. Developers must be equipped to handle the upswings and downtowns of financial and employment cycles during what can be a potentially lengthy process. It requires a flexible capital structure with a prudent use of debt to protect the potential long-term gains for its owners, which is why developing quality master plans isn’t for small developers or the faint of heart.

 

While Houston’s housing market has temporarily cooled with recent oil prices and weather conditions, the country’s fourth-largest city continues to thrive with significantly diverse markets in healthcare, engineering, and manufacturing. The oil boom caused unprecedented growth over the last few years; downturns, while inevitable, now underscore the energy capital’s potential instead of its challenges.

 

This potential is what motivates developers like Rise Communities. Just like constructing an accurate solar observatory, the achievement of large-scale land development is driven by a passion for addressing relationships and decisions with exceptional attention to detail. “The success of a master planned community is simple,” adds Naef. “It’s a million decisions all made correctly.”