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How To Choose a Green Architect & Contractor

Art12_GreenArchitect1Thinking of building a new house or doing some remodel work? You’re not alone! According to the US Census, more than 1.3 million new homes were built in the United States in 2002, and remodel and home improvement spending in 1996 topped $119 billion. Remodeling or constructing is your chance to help transform the marketplace towards sustainability, and create a space for living that’s better for you and the environment.

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.

Preparing for Your Green Building Project

Art12_GreenArchitect2The 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 a Green Buildling 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.

Use Green Building Tools

Design checklists and software exist that can help you design and build your green dream home without having to go back to school. Built Greenä, developed by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, features checklist-based rating systems for homes (both new and remodel). Consisting of action items (design strategies and material, product, and technology choices) in various categories, the system allows for a designer’s creativity while creating a framework for the owner to compare the relative environmental benefit of different designs. One of the nice things about Built Greenä is that it’s designed specifically for our region - a key element of good green design. Kitsap and Clark Counties have similar programs. Check with your local builders’ association to see if there’s one in your area.

Green building software is another tool. The Green Building Advisor, for example, asks for specifics about building type and site, and then recommends a series of green design strategies. Some software programs can analyze choices from a life cycle perspective. Another hallmark of good green design, life cycle analysis attempts to document all impacts - financial, environmental, and human health - throughout the entire life of a product (from raw materials extraction to disposal). One benefit of using green building software is that you and your designer can run through the program together, and discuss the benefits and tradeoffs of different strategies, and likely learn new ones along the way. This software isn’t cheap; look for an architect that already has a copy or is willing to purchase it.

Whichever route you take, you’ll need to identify your needs and desires and be able to communicate these to your architect or contractor. Clip articles, bookmark favorite web sites, and create a file of the materials, technologies, and resources you want to use for building your dream green house. Will you focus on healthy building materials and design? Is your dream a green roof? Or is your goal something even more ambitious, like designing a zero energy building (one that produces as much energy as it consumes)? How about using only certified sustainable harvest wood products? If none of these terms are familiar to you, it’s a hint that you have some homework to do. You have to know what you want in order to ask for it!

Finding a Green Architect and Contractor

Art12_GreenArchitect3A 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. A good first stop is this publication, and the Green Pages of the Northwest Ecobuilding Guild. See the Resources section of this article for contact information.

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 s/he 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 s/he 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 s/he practices what s/he professes

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.

Resources

Green Building Resources:

www.ecobuilding.org - The Northwest EcoBuilding Guild

www.naturalchoice.net - The Natural Choice Directory

www.builtgreen.net - Built Green home rating program

www.green-rated.org - City of Portland’s green building program

www.ci.austin.tx.us/greenbuilder/greenbydesign.htm - Green by Design educational CDROM

Print Media:

No Regrets Remodeling by Alex Wilson et al., published by Home Energy Magazine (1997).

Building with Vision by Dan Imhoff et al., published by Watershed Media (2001)

Natural Home Magazine

Environmental Building News (paper and online versions: www.buildinggreen.com)

Dwell and Sunset Magazines with occasional articles on green building topics.

Resources for Selecting Professionals

www.aia.org – tips on hiring an architect

www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/homeimp/ - Federal Trade Commission on Hiring a Contractor

www.pbs.org/hometime/house/contract.htm – PBS home improvement show Hometime on hiring a contractor.

Photo credit: Hard Hat with Tools by toolstop; Architectural Draft by silentviper_05; Check list by samsungzone

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Rightsize Your Home; Leeding the Way; Eco-building Trend; Get Green @Home; Green Your Home; What is a Green Home; Green Home Improvements; Green Building Makes Good Cents;