I would like to build a "green" home on property I own outside the United States. Any suggestions on where to start?


I would like to build a "green" home on property I own outside the United States. Any suggestions on where to start?

Asked by K S

I don't know where to find NCARB architects, or even if that applies to a foreign country. Also I wonder about prefabricated homes and the homeowner's regulations for my area. I love the modern designs of many display green prefab homes but must conform to "Spanish" colonial specs for the outside look.

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David Bergman's picture

Modern design that conforms to a Spanish colonial look, eh? That's one of several points it sounds like you're having difficulty addressing.

You don't say what country your property is in, but judging by the required motif, it'd be a reasonable guess that it lies in a region somewhere south of Key West. Or the Rio Grande. (Amazing logic, I know.) That also means that, as the "national" part of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards suggests, it's outside the NCARB's purview.

Choosing an architect

Putting aside for a moment the -- shall we call it hybrid -- esthetic, how do you choose architect from a distance when you can't consult friends or browse projects in magazines? (Yeah, some of us still do use plant-based media on occasion.)

Depending on the size and budget of the project, you might explore having the design work done by a U.S.-based architect (perhaps near you) whose work you admire and who then works with a licensed architect or engineer near the project site.

  • Typically, that local professional would be the "architect of record," meaning he or she would handle local building code requirements and, yes, that pesky architectural review requirement of your homeowner's association.
  • The nearer-to-you architect would interpret your design needs (perhaps without a language barrier).
  • Plus the local person can monitor day-to-day construction more cost effectively, reducing the number of visits needed by the "design architect."

But there may be a missed opportunity as well as a type of hubris incurred if, in having a distant architect do the design work, you pass up the wisdom of vernacular design and the environmental - and economic - advantages of building with local materials.

Vernacular design

Regional traditional buildings, meaning those that pre-date such globalizing design factors as air conditioning, usually evolved to make the best of local climate and geography conditions.

That's why, for instance, a Charleston "single house" with verandas designed to maximize summer ventilation is very different from a New England saltbox, whose form counters the effects of harsh winters.

That isn't to say that a good design couldn't combine modern architecture with local knowledge. In fact, it's often seemingly conflicting constraints like this that yield the most innovative and interesting results.

Green modular?

With that in mind, perhaps a green prefab house might be adaptable to a location for which it was not originally intended.

But even if the design successfully shifted hemispheres, other issues come into play.

  • Among the advantages of prefabrication can be environmental and economic savings in transportation of materials. Shipping the building from a North American factory to a more distant destination, though, would likely more than offset the gains.
  • It's usually far better to build using locally available (and renewable) materials.
  • Related to this, you'll be contributing to the local economy if you use local materials and labor. Though I suppose one could argue that our own troubled economy can also use all the help it can get.

Where to start?

Getting back to your "where to start" question, I'd suggest several, perhaps concurrent, paths.

  • Speak with American architects with whom you might like to work while also researching architects closer to your property.
  • If you're going to be visiting the property, study the local architecture for hints of what concepts and materials you might want to combine with your own esthetic, both for ecodesign and homeowner association reasons.
  • In the process, you may also find a great local architect. If, on the other hand, you take the route of teaming an American architect with a local professional, that architect should also be interested in researching and extending their boundaries.

Despite the seemingly difficult issues, a project like this can be very exciting, both for you and the designer.

And, yes, my passport is up to date.

For more information:

Read "I am going to be building a container home in Puerto Rico and am looking for a construction company that is proficient with this process." a Q&A answered by Polly Osborne.

Also, read "We're building a prefab home in Puerto Rico. How can we keep it cool without central AC?" a Q&A answered by Mark Schrieber.