Home Design and Planning

Consider: Choosing the Right Contractors and Subs, Home Budgeting & Cost Averages, Integrating a New Addition with an Old House, Reviewing other House Plans, Working with Architects, Working with Interior Designers, and Working with Project Managers.

When it comes to home design and planning, choosing the right ‘Green’ Architect and contractor is the key to success.

Homes affect resource, human health, and ecological integrity. Besides basic health and safety measures outlined in the building code there’s no requirement to minimize these impacts. A remodel or new home is an opportunity to create a physical representation of your commitment to earth stewardship, health, and a vital and engaged community. Given the sheer number of houses across our country, individual actions add up quickly. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that if we upgraded our current stock of homes just with efficient windows, the US would save $7 billion in energy costs over the next 15 years! Imagine what we can save by approaching building design and construction more holistically.

Selecting an architect that can help you realize your green dream home and a contractor that can build it are essential elements in this process. We hope to share some general concepts and specific tips that will help you along.

Before you start searching...

The process of designing and building green is fundamentally different from conventional approaches. Its integrated, holistic nature requires early and ongoing involvement by all parties (owner, architect, contractor, landscape architect, and any specialists or engineers) to brainstorm innovations, agree on the design, and avoid potential obstacles. Hiring an inexperienced professional may cost less up front, but these savings may quickly erode by the costs of getting the architect or contractor up to speed on green concepts, and paying to correct mistakes down the road. As a client, you need to be able to identify a skilled and experienced architect and be able to communicate your wants and needs. This means doing a bit of homework. There are basically two ways to get up to speed on the subject of green building: becoming an armchair expert, or using a green building tool.

Become an Expert

Becoming an armchair expert means spending time researching the topic. A good place to start is with introductory books and web resources (see the Resource list at the end of this article). There are occasional classes geared toward residents; Seattle Parks and Recreation’s “Living Green in the Pipers Creek Watershed” series offer basic classes in green building, and the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild offers a two-hour seminar, one evening a month on various green building strategies (see Resources). Research the specific elements of green building that most interest you, but it’s advisable to explore the overall concepts first.

Find the right Architect and Contractor.

A good place to start your search for design and building professionals is with a quick survey of friends that have been through the process. You’re in luck if you have friends or acquaintances that also have gone for the green. Remember, however, that by being in the market for a green architect or contractor, you’re a pioneer in the field, looking for other pioneers. It’s likely you’re going to have to cast your net a bit wider than your social circle. You’ll find pretty quickly once you tap into the local design community that there are a few firms that have garnered reputations for being green. Upon closer examination, you’ll see that within the general category of green each firm or architect will have its strong suit. Some focus on healthy building, others on energy efficiency and/or renewable energy, still others on green materials, natural building techniques, or “not so big” homes. Seek out a professional that has applied experience in the green building elements you want to see in your project.

Selecting a Professional. The following tips should help you once you’re actually ready to start the selection process for your design professional and contractor:
  1. Look for demonstrated experience - What is the architect or contractor’s experience with green building? Can he or she point to specific projects in their portfolio, and provide references you can talk with? Does his schooling include green design, or has he followed up with additional training? Beyond making sure he is licensed and bonded and understanding his fee structure, is he a member of green design organizations or participated in any programs? Has the contractor purchased green products and know how to work with their variable availability and lead times? Does the contractor follow construction practices that minimize contamination and protect indoor air quality and enhance worker health and safety? Look for direct experience in the areas that are most important to you.
  2. Look for evidence of past research on the subject of green building - Does he or she have green design books, product information, or materials samples in his office? Ask for a tour of the architect’s library, and whether he has subscriptions to green design journals or access to online green resources. Ask for a list or an online tour of his favorite environmental design and construction web sites.
  3. Don’t assume - When in doubt (and even when not), ask questions and check in frequently, especially during active design phases and construction. Once the walls are covered up and the paint cans are put away, it’s hard to make sure that your design was carried out the way you intended. Make sure you’ve laid out a process with the contractor that requires your notification and approval of any material or product substitutions that may be necessary.
  4. Make sure he or she practices what they preach in their own lives - How is his business operated? Does he recycle in the office as well as on the jobsite? Are green design elements evident (e.g., environmentally responsible materials and office supplies, energy efficient lighting, fixtures)? Are alternative transportation options encouraged (showers for bike commuters, bus pass reimbursement, telecommuting)? With a contractor, ask what sort of program exists to ensure worker health and safety on the jobsite.
  5. Make sure green concepts are built into the contract documents - Architects have standard specifications (“specs”): boilerplate contract language that lays out the marching orders for everyone involved in building the house, down to how the paint is applied and what quality of materials are selected for the cabinets. These specifications are usually customized by each firm, and further modified for each project. Specifications are a powerful tool in green building. At the same time, they’re a legal document, and can be tedious to review. Ask to have a tour of the specs for your project, and make sure they cover all the bases. You may want to keep a copy of the specifications on file for future repairs or touch-ups.
  6. Recognize and respect the social element - The interpersonal element should not be underestimated. Do you like the person? In the case of the architect, you’ll be working with him for most likely over a year, and depending on how involved you want to be, you’ll be interacting rather frequently. Building a green home requires involvement from the outset, and consistently throughout the process, from early design through final inspection. This doesn’t mean you have to be friends; in fact it’s advisable to keep a businesslike relationship at the forefront. But you should have a fundamental respect for him. Do all parties communicate well? Do you feel heard? Are your ideas, wishes and requirements incorporated into the program?

Building a home is an opportunity to create a legacy, for you and for future generations. It’s also one of the larger financial investments you’ll make. By finding the right design and construction professionals, you can ensure that the process is as hitch-free as possible.

The right home improvement products, techniques, and services:
Contractors, home improvement stores, and specialty shops in your area may not yet have a complete familiarity with the ‘green’ opportunities, products, system integration, and overall savings potential. So, you may get some resistance, since people in general are typically more comfortable recommending something that they are already familiar with rather than something new. To help break the inertia, use the information across this website like our Return on Investment Master ROI Table. Also feel free to post a question in our forum on the message board about a particular need for your home relative to your area. Our team has spent multiple years aggregating research from public and private sector performance reports and from manufacturers and homeowners across the country in order to provide you with the perspective you may need to see the initial payback and long term advantages. Environmental enthusiasts and leading institutions like the American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Realtors, see the value and link into our resources to support their members.

The Green Home:
For your overall home improvement, you can save money, improve your family’s health, and save the planet. Find out for free how much it will cost to do different types of home improvement in your home from a qualified and member approved contractor in your area. Get a FREE Quote . Plus, regardless of the size and scope of your home improvement project, save money and keep your home clean with the top rated chemical free and concentrated Green Home Cleaning Products.

Home Improvement Basics:
When it comes to home improvement basics, look for interior home improvements like creating a clean, safe, and healthy home through sustainable ‘green’ furniture, home décor, zero VOC and Interior Paint, plus ENERGY STAR Appliances and Electronics. For energy and utility savings you can focus on insulation and air sealing, windows, doors, lighting and skylights, water saving plumbing opportunities, and high efficiency heating and air conditioning systems. On the outside of your house, look for exterior home improvement opportunities through landscape design and gardening plus solar energy, wind and other power sources. If you are undertaking a major home renovation, an additions, or building a new home, then take the lead to ‘go green’ in as many ways as possible to save money and the environment.

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