Photo by Hannah Phillips
The locks are changed and the rooms are empty and, as of July, the Florida House Institute, the first green demonstration house in the United States, is no more. The Sarasota County Commission chose to end its 28-year partnership with the sustainability nonprofit, located at 4454 S. Beneva Road, and hand the keys of the county-owned house over to the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, a lobbyist organization for area developers. The commission believed that a private industry group would be a better steward of the building and its core mission.
But things aren’t going as intended. The house sits empty and unused, without any concrete plans on the horizon, and that has left many people wondering: Just what the hell happened to the Florida House?
For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Florida House is—well, was—the first green demonstration house open to the public in the country. Created in 1994, the building was intended to educate members of the public about energy-efficient design, sustainable architecture and state-of-the-art green technology. Over the years, it had its ups and downs, struggling financially and organizationally at times. Many local Sarasotans volunteered their time and donated many hundreds of thousands of dollars to the project.
Then, in 2019, the Florida House Institute entered into a “strategic partnership” with Southface, a multimillion-dollar Atlanta nonprofit that works with “nonprofits, businesses, government agencies, universities and technical experts to implement sustainable, high-performance and scalable solutions in homes, workplaces and communities" around the country.
Amber Whittle, the executive director of the Florida House, lists many recent accomplishments since Southface came onboard.
“In 2021 alone, the Florida House and Southface provided 2,500 hours of green trade trainings with Suncoast Technical College,” she says. “We gave mor than 100 tours of the Florida House for citizens, homeowners, students and homeowner associations as a part of our effort to restart the green demonstration and education mission.” The house also partnered with nonprofits like All Faiths Food Bank and the Boys & Girls Clubs.
The trouble started in May 2021, when Jon Mast, the chief executive officer of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, sent a letter to County Commissioner Alan Maio. In the letter, he criticized the direction and operations of the Florida House Institute, writing that “the Florida House building [has] come into disrepair due to non-continuous operations and a severe lack of consistent maintenance.” Mast claimed that the association deserved to take control of the building because, over the years, the organization and its members had donated “materials, labor and expertise” to the house.
“For the last several years Florida House Institute (FHI) has been working to reinvent themselves, moving away from their core mission of being a ‘model home’ to demonstrate new and innovative ways to be energy efficient,” Mast wrote. He proposed that the county sell the Florida House building to the Building Industry Association and that the organization would move the structure off of the Sarasota County School Board property where it sits, at the expense of the association.
In another letter the following month, this time to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Mast laid out his organization’s plan for the Florida House. The association would purchase a county-owned parcel near the Celery Fields and add the Florida House building to the property “as a home for a whole host of various construction and sustainability educational programming, along with apprenticeship education, new licensure education and other continuing-education opportunities for the industry.”
Whittle says that once it became clear the Building Industry Association wanted to take over the house, she tried many times to meet with members of the County Commission to make a case to renew the lease with the Florida House Institute and Southface.
“They declined to meet or speak with me,” says Whittle.
The commission did, however, meet with Mast on April 11. According to a public records request made by the Sarasota News Leader, the day before the commission’s regular April 12 meeting, Mast and the Building Industry Association’s membership director, David Ballard, “were to meet with all of the commissioners, one at a time, as required by the state’s Sunshine Laws.” It is not known what was discussed.
Later that month, at another county meeting, Commissioner Mike Moran motioned to authorize county staff to begin negotiations with the association to take over the Florida House. Commissioner Nancy Detert objected, reminding the board that county staff had not yet presented all of the options for the future of the Florida House.
“You’re kind of writing a motion in favor of one corporation,” she told Moran.
Moran brushed off Detert’s objections and said that he would allow for “much public comment” in a future meeting for anyone who might have “beef” with the proposal.
The board voted 4-1 in favor of Moran’s motion, with Detert the lone dissenter. The move authorized county staff to begin negotiations with the association, with the ultimate intention of moving the house off the property owned by the School Board and onto the land near the Celery Fields.
This angered a lot of people. Not only were they outraged that the county handed over the Florida House to a private lobbying group, but the land near the Celery Fields was set for “re-wilding” and has become a popular birdwatching venue.
Over the phone, Mast told me that local media outlets got it wrong and were being unfair to the County Commission and the building industry. He said people in the construction industry are "painted as rapist developers," but "the fact is that we are responsible for building the house that you live in."
So he wanted to clear up a few things. First, that the media was wrong that the association and the county wanted to move the building to the Celery Fields.
“That was on the table a while ago,” Mast said. “We have agreed to not do that.” (The county administrator later cleared up any confusion about development of the property, stating that a conservation easement on the land “does not allow for a private, non-governmental, or third party organization or office use,” and so would not be suitable for the house.)
Mast believes that the Florida House Institute has been “profligate” and that leaders there “have not managed their money.” Instead of a demonstration home, Mast claims, the Florida House was mostly used as an example of gardening. “We are not against master gardening and landscaping,” he told me, “but what the industry and county government were told was that it would be used for a green demonstration home to show the public how to build a green, sustainable product. It’s not being used for that.”
The other thing Mast wanted corrected was the notion that the association and its members have not been involved in the the Florida House. “They’re wrong in the fact that our members have not been involved in the construction and remodeling of that building over and over again,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is walk about the building. Look at that nice handicap ramp. Look at the windows and siding. And that’s just a cursory review of what was done and donated by our members.”
According to Whittle and Florida House Institute records, the association donated less that $5,000 since 1994, but many members of the association did donate at the request of the Florida House, not through their affiliation with the association.
I asked Mast if he had any documentation or an estimate of how much was donated to the Florida House over the past three decades. While he couldn’t provide documents or contact information for members who had donated, he estimated that association members donated “several hundred thousand dollars since 1997, bro,” Mast said. “Every time [the Florida House Institute] asked for donations of material and labor, they tell the suppliers and builders, ‘Hey, we are going to promote green building and we are going to promote your company in this endeavor.' Well, they never do.”
Mast believes that the association’s 60-year history in the area and the work he says his members have performed makes his organization more deserving of the building than Southface. “They just moved here from Atlanta,” he told me. “They’re not a local group. We asked for the building because my members are the ones who did it. Southface did nothing for that building.”
Others felt deserving of the house, as well. In one report prepared by county staff, they suggested the board consider other stewards for the building. Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan Asplen said school administrators were “ardently interested” in keeping the building on School Board property, so they could continue to use the Florida House as a place to teach students. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences staff and members of the county’s sustainability department were also interested, since they have outgrown their current office space at Twin Lakes Park and are in need of new, larger accommodations.
Since 2015, philanthropist Elizabeth Moore has donated more than $200,000 to the Florida House. She wonders if, by that logic, she might also be deserving of the building.
“When I first arrived and saw the Florida House, I loved the concept,” says Moore. “It didn’t have enough money behind it at the time, so I figured if I got the programs going and hired the right people, we could get it back on track.”
Moore believes that, over the past several years, her investment paid off, and that Florida House operations improved. Now, she says she is “totally disillusioned” with the decisions of local officials.
“This is contrary to what we were trying to do,” she says. “The great big hand of the County Commission has overruled all the good work and good decisions that the Florida House board and citizens were working toward.”
So why did the County Commission go against common practice and give the Florida House to the Building Industry Association with a non-competitive bid? In an email to me, Commissioner Moran called that a fair question, but defended the board’s actions. “All roads for me lead back to who can carry out the mission of ‘green building’ education, promoting local contractors that do green building, and developing careers for young adults,” Moran wrote. “As we sit today, I feel MSBIA is best suited to carry out that mission.”
I asked Moran why he agreed with Mast’s assessment that the house was in poor shape and needed new stewardship. “Our staff’s assessment of the facility will carry weight with me, not an interested party,” Moran wrote. But county staff’s assessment of the facility, released in late April, deemed the structures in “generally good condition” with “approximately 7-10 years of remaining life.”
One vital element missing from the discussion of who would take over the Florida House was the question of whether the School Board would lease the property to another organization. According to the School Board’s agreement with the county, whoever occupied the building on the property had to receive the approval of the board. At a June 7 meeting, the School Board voted 3-2 not to consent to sublease to the Building Industry Association.
So now what?
On July 13, assistant county administrator Mark Cunningham presented four options for what to do with the Florida House to the County Commission:
- Direct the county administrator to develop a plan to operate the Florida House consistent with the terms of the existing lease.
- Continue to negotiate with the Building Industry Association to take ownership and move the structure.
- Enter into negotiations to consider transferring ownership of the Florida House to the School Board.
- Solicit proposals from outside agencies to operate the Florida House.
These are nearly the exact same options that county staff presented to the commission months ago, recommending option No. 1.
This turn of events was clearly a touchy subject. Immediately after the presentation, Maio felt compelled to note that he had been “attacked the most” because of the trouble with the Florida House. Commissioner Moran said he was “disappointed” with the School Board’s decision and that “there are a lot of emotions going.”
The board voted unanimously for option number one, essentially kicking the can down the road. Now, county taxpayers will have to cover the costs of maintenance and landscaping—expenses that were once paid by the Florida House Institute. If the goal was to rid Sarasota of Southface, it didn’t work. The nonprofit has since moved operations to the New College of Florida campus. “Why would the County Commission uproot a perfectly effective and growing nonprofit?” asks Moore.
When I spoke with Moran, he emphasized that his goal was to “go back to the original intent of this entire project.” Instead, the Florida House now sits empty, with no discernible future.