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Think about community as an environmentalist’s dream come true: off-the-grid-living, net-zero architecture, solar photovoltaics, and urban agriculture—sustainable living at its most utopian. To build such a community would, of course, take a team of interdisciplinary experts working together on every level. Its control systems would need to interact seamlessly to achieve maximum efficiency. One could compare such a future colony to a living organism—a modern new urbanism for the evolution of humankind.
Lyons was always interested in science. Born and raised in Lancaster, and a third generation Lancastrian, he was an Eagle Scout. He liked camping, hiking, fishing, and being outdoors. He studied Biology and Pre-Med at Gettysburg College and after graduation was unsure of what to do next. His aunt was in real estate and just one year out of college, he decided to give it a try. “By 1985 I already started my first small development for a client. It was a farmer north of Lititz who had several farms and wanted to subdivide one. I had no experience with land development, but decided to figure it out and used a good landscape architect,” he says. By 1987 he had done his second project. Lyons admits that by the early 90s real estate was turning into a volume-based business. “I couldn’t treat people that way.” As a Realtor, he recognized that people are more than just a number and their homes are more than just an address. “I also felt very strongly about how communities interrelate,” he says. This notion of not only creating, but also enriching existing communities was always on his mind.
For twelve years, Lyons started to put the pieces together. With his science background, his thirty-two years of real estate knowledge, and his drive to be creative, he started planning. He purchased an option on a one-hundred-and-twelve-acre farm. He envisioned a community of the future and assembled a team of experts to make it a reality. As fate would have it, the project was never completed. But all was not lost. The difficulties he faced brought him exactly what he needed, and through his environmental attorney, Lyons met Julie Sanford, an architect, and Bruce White, an entrepreneurial IT expert, from Florida. The two received a $1.2 million grant to make this prototypical off-the-grid community called Sky—much like the one Lyons planned for Lancaster. “Then the crash came. The project got shelved.” But it’s when the Sky Institute was born as a 501c3 and a board of directors assembled. “We had a vision for an institute where scholars, planners, architects, and students would learn about concepts of sustainability, design, and how to grow your own food; a place where you generate more than you take from the land,” he says passionately. “Our board came up with the idea of the Smart Playhouse to educate current and future generations at the grade school level, keeping the cost far less than a larger model, while starting the momentum and helping to brand Sky Institute.”
A Lancaster County school will be the first school to have a Smart Playhouse. The prototype provides an outside space where students can have lessons in an open-air theatre. The inside will have a counter and a greenhouse with an area for students to bring in specimens like bugs or leaves to look at underneath a microscope. A living wall will have space to grow plants, fruits, and vegetables. Students can irrigate with water from the roof and learn about rainwater capture and rain barrels. A monitor will display the energy generated by the solar voltaic array. “These are the kinds of small lessons students can take home with them to share with their families. They will help everyone become more sensitive to their environment.”
The Smart Playhouse is just the beginning. Lyons is interested in a true understanding of how people relate to one another within a community and how science and technology can be used to create sustainable homes and communities for the future. “If more than half the communities of the future haven’t been built yet, how do we do it right?” he asks. “Sky is not going to solve the world’s problems, but if we can learn to become more sensitive to our environment and how we live ‘in community,’ and become more sensitive to others in our community, hopefully the world will be a better place.” Lyons laughs, quietly reflecting on how his science background has come full circle to meet his career in real estate. He continues to work as a real estate agent at RE/MAX Associates of Lancaster specializing in traditional neighborhoods like School Lane Hills, Chestnut Hill, and Lancaster’s West End. His hyper-local lifestyle embodies the essence of community. He looks back, with grace, connecting the dots. In biology, as an organism adapts, it grows. It learns how to better live in its environment. A brighter future is more than just a dream—and the sky is the limit.