Environmentally Friendly Architects: How to Pick the Best One

LEED Accredited Professional

Do it right from the start

An architect isn’t required for all work in your home, but for certain projects, an architect’s services are indispensable. You’ll want one, for instance, if you are planning to build a custom-designed home. You should also consider hiring an architect if you are planning a renovation that will significantly alter a home’s structure, such as adding a room or another story.

Not all architects have experience designing green homes, however. Until recently, few architecture schools gave more than a cursory nod to energy efficiency, passive solar design, renewable energy systems, indoor air quality, and resource conservation. To be fair, few clients asked for green homes. But that’s changing fast as architects and homeowners alike come to grips with the immense impacts that homes have on our health as well as on the climate, energy, and other resources.

Your best bet is to look for an architect with experience designing green homes. Otherwise, it may fall to you to become the project’s eco expert.


Top Tips

  • Hire early. Many decisions need to be made very early in process of planning a green home, so it’s worth bringing the architect on board as early as possible. Making up your mind about a certain orientation or layout before hiring an architect may preclude options that would make your home more enjoyable and less expensive to live in, such as passive solar design.
  • Find a green match. Look for architects who do the type of green home design you are interested in. If you like modern design, seek an architect who has done modern green homes. If your main concern is healthy indoor air quality, look for an architect with that expertise. When reviewing an architect’s portfolio, ask about each project’s green elements and whether they would or wouldn’t be appropriate for your project.
  • Check for a license. Make sure the architects you are considering are licensed to practice architecture in your state. Also ask about their green credentials, such as LEED Accredited Professional status from the U.S. Green Building Council or certification from a local green building organization.
  • Say what you want. Let the architect know from the start what your priorities are, especially when it comes to green practices that aren’t yet standard in the building industry, like advanced framing techniques that reduce the amount of wood used in home construction. The clearer you can be about your green wish list, the more likely your architect can fulfill it.
  • Who’s on first? When you interview an architecture firm, you’ll typically meet with a principal or partner in the firm. But once you hire the firm, the work may be assigned to a more junior staff member. During the interview process, figure out who will actually be working on your project on a day-to-day basis and what they know about green architecture and home design.
  • Be nosy. When talking to previous clients on the architect’s reference list, don’t just ask the standard questions about budget, schedule, and quality. Also inquire about the architect’s green expertise. What green elements did he or she include in the design? Once built, were these elements successful? Did the architect bring green ideas to the design table, or did the homeowner have to push for more eco-friendly solutions?
  • Put it in writing. In the contract between you and the architect, clearly spell out your project’s green goals and requirements. You may not know details like the type of materials that will be used or even the number of rooms, but you can include some guiding green principles, such as, “The owner has established as a goal that this new house be designed to be at least 50% more energy efficient than required by the state building code.”

Other Considerations

  • The traditional design process is linear, with the architect handing the completed building plans off to your builder, who is expected to execute them to the letter. Unfortunately, significant efficiency and cost savings opportunities can be missed if the builder doesn’t have a say in the design process. The builder may have good ideas about, for example, where to locate the bathrooms, laundry, and water heater to reduce pipe runs, which could save money and water-heating energy. To enhance communication, you might suggest “integrated design,” which basically means your design and construction professionals have frequent discussions about how to make your home as eco-friendly and healthy as possible. Integrated design isn’t easy to accomplish, however, since the builder is often hired after the plans are complete. At least look for an architect who is a team player–someone willing to take into account suggestions even after the drawings have been completed.
  • When you interview architects, ask if they have signed on to the 2030 Challenge. This global initiative establishes aggressive goals for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of new and remodeled buildings. The 2030 Challenge states that all new buildings and major renovations be designed to produce 50% less greenhouse gas than the regional average for that building type. The targets get more aggressive as time goes on, so that by 2030, new and remodeled buildings will be “carbon neutral,” meaning they will use no fossil fuel-based energy to operate. Hiring an architect who has signed the 2030 Challenge means that you are also committed to making your house as energy efficient as possible.

Benefits…

…to your health
A green architect can suggest design strategies and materials that will keep the air inside your home cleaner, promoting better health for your family.

…to your wallet
A green architect can help you build a home that will cost less to operate, lowering your utility and water bills.

…to the Earth
If your home uses less energy and water, you’ll emit less climate-changing greenhouse gas, year after year. Some green architects have even figured out how to build carbon neutral homes!


Common Mistakes

  • Rushing the planning process. In your eagerness to get your project under way, you may be tempted to race through the process of hiring an architect and getting completed drawings to your builder. Take some deep breaths and slow down. Good green design requires careful planning and sometimes additional legwork to investigate options or track down products. Taking plenty of time early on will help you avoid costly mistakes.
  • Not speaking up. If you want a healthy, eco-friendly home, make that clear when you first interview the architect. If you’re not sure what your green priorities are, ask the architect to help you define them before design work gets started. If you wait too long to clarify these ideas, some options may be off the table.

Getting Started

Decide whether your project would benefit from an architect’s services. The American Institute of Architects, a professional association for the architecture industry, has fact sheets and other online publications explaining what architects do. If you’re not planning any major structural changes but need professional help with the interior layout of rooms or with product selection, consider working with an interior designer. Some building companies also provide design services using their in-house designers or architects.


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