I am just starting to design a home and want to incorporate green elements. Do I start now or wait until I start working with a builder?

Asked by Sharon DeRidder

I am just starting to design a home and want to incorporate green things. Do I start now at the very beginning, or wait until I get house plans and then start working with a local builder on what green things I can put into a home. I don't know what is out there in the industry that I can put in a home where my building costs don't make it two to three times more costly to build.


David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

January 21, 2010

A lot of people see a green home as one that includes products like recycled materials, energy efficient lights and low flow toilets. These are certainly an important part of a green home, but they have some limitations.

  • One is that these green building products tend to be more expensive than their non-green competitors, at least in terms of up front costs. An LED or a dimmable fluorescent light fixture, for example, will likely cost more than an incandescent, but the utility bill savings will offset that added initial cost over time. Not all green items are more costly, by the way. Some may cost little more -- or no more -- than conventional ones. 
  • The other limitation is that this approach to greening doesn't look at the house as a whole. In a sense, it is just superficial, substituting one material or product for another.

A more encompassing approach starts at the beginning of design, even before anything at all is put to paper. Climate and solar orientation are great examples.

  • Which way should the house face?
  • Which rooms will get sun at what time of day?
  • Which way do the prevailing winds come from?
  • Will it be shaded by trees or exposed to lots of sun?

From analyzing site questions like these, you can start looking at whether solar panels make sense. Or even more fundamentally, what the footprint (physical footprint, that is, not carbon footprint) should be. Will a geothermal HVAC system give you a decent payback? Should your south facing windows be different in size and thermal properties from the north (or east or west) windows? Can you use passive ventilation techniques? 

Many of these topics will have ramifications for other choices, such as how much heating and cooling the house will need. 

So, by all means, think about what your countertops are made of, what your floors are made of, what kind of paint you use, but start the process ahead of all that by looking at the more basic design possibilities for your house.

It may sound daunting -- precisely because there are so many possibilities -- but there are plenty of professionals, as well as oodles of books and websites, to help you.


For more information:

Read Polly Osborne's Q&A "How much does green construction add to the cost of a new home?"

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