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How to Find the Best Architect

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Jan 30, 2019

Lower energy bills, healthier indoor air quality, and a smaller ecological footprint are just a few of the benefits that come with a sustainable home. Architects and builders across the country continue to design and build homes that only hit the minimum requirement of building code, leaving a larger-than-needed ecological footprint and a lot of room for improvement. 

Finding an architect with real experience in designing a sustainable home might cost you a bit more money upfront. However, a well-designed, sustainable home can save your family money over the lifetime of inhabiting a home constructed to reduce your utility bills. Having the insight of an architect who is well-versed in the best practices of sustainable home construction is essential. It can help whether building new or renovating older homes to become more energy-efficient and sustainable. It helps create a home that will save you money, keep your family healthy while respecting the natural world of which it is a part. 

Below, we offer seven simple tips to help you and your family choose the best architect. An ideal architect will provide guidance and listen to your opinions while also staying mindful of your budget.

Tip #1: Find an Architect that Understands the Importance of the Natural Elements

A truly sustainable home is designed to utilize natural elements. Most architects pay little attention to how a home interacts with the natural world. A good architect will spend time analyzing how to best position your house on the site. Proper orientation to the sun, for example, will allow your home to cut back on mechanical heating and cooling through passive solar design.

Homes located on even a minimal slope can be designed to allow for a gravity-fed greywater recycling system that doesn’t rely on pumps or additional energy. Your architect should also search for ways to allow the natural world to “enter” your home through the principles of biophilic design.

Tip #2: Make Sure that your Architect Includes Detailed Information on Potential Payback Times

One of the most common misconceptions related to sustainable homes is that they are always more expensive than “regular” homes. An HRV or ERV system costs more than a simple attic window to improve the air quality and ventilation inside your home. But these systems are usually designed into passive homes and will dramatically reduce your monthly heating and cooling bills. A simple payback analysis, which looks at the incremental upfront costs and the ongoing savings—should be made available to you as the homeowner (if not, ask!).

The architect you choose should know how your sustainable design can reduce the long-term cost of the home you build. They should also be able to offer information related to potential financing alternatives. This will help you find ways to finance the extra expenses that come with sustainable home building. 

Tip #3: Prioritize Architects that Offer Holistic Solutions for a Sustainable Home

Some architects might be specialists in designing energy-efficient homes, while others might prioritize the importance of VOC-free interior design to improve indoor air quality. While both of these considerations are important, a great architect will offer holistic solutions that will look at the issue of home sustainability from several different lenses. Your architect should be open to listening to your specific concerns and ideas related to how you want your home to look and operate.

Tip #4: Search for an Architect that Takes into Consideration the Embodied Energy Footprint of Your Home 

A critical aspect of more sustainable homes often overlooked is the embodied energy in constructing a house. Even if your home has been designed for maximum energy efficiency or is completely VOC-free, if the materials used to build your home have been sourced from the other side of the world, the overall embodied energy increases.

What is embodied energy? Embodied energy is the total energy consumed by all of the processes involved in producing a building or product. Embodied energy includes mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport, and product delivery. Embodied energy is the ‘upstream’ or ‘front-end’ component of the life cycle impact of a home.”

Architects should challenge you to find ways to incorporate local building materials into the design of your home, as this will cut back on the embodied energy of materials. A good architect will also offer ideas for incorporating recycled, upcycled, or salvaged materials into your home, such as salvaged wood furniture or countertops made from recycled paper, as another strategy to reduce the embodied energy footprint of your home. 

Tip #5: Make Sure Your Architect Understands the Importance of Future-Proofing

What do we mean by “future-proofing”? That any home should be built with considerations for the future as well. As sustainable construction technology continues to advance, a good architect will find ways to “prep” your home for future sustainable upgrades. If your budget doesn’t allow you to have a complete solar PV array on your roof, your architect should prioritize making your home solar-ready. This means making it so that future solar panel installation doesn’t require significant renovations, which would add to the upfront cost. Even thinking about making your home Net Zero Energy ready is an important consideration.

Other future-proofing strategies include factoring in the needs of the homeowners in the distant future so that your home can be flexible and adaptable. This strategy is essential for young homeowners who might be incorporating new family members in the future. It can also apply to aging homeowners who might want to rethink having the master bedroom on the home's second story in consideration of accessibility.

Tip #6: Check their “Green” Credentials 

As more and more people begin to show interest in sustainable homes, many architectural firms might be tempted to sell their services as “green” designs. This phenomenon is a problem because, in reality, there may be only minimal differences that distinguish their homes from traditional, run-of-the-mill construction. A quality architect should show you a portfolio of past building projects that incorporate leading technology for sustainable home design. Ask your architect if they have experience with LEED certification or other local/regional green building programs

Tip #7: A Willingness to Actively Challenge Local Building Codes 

A great architect should be willing to accompany you along the entire process of building your sustainable home. This process includes designing the house and expanding to helping you find a building team (if they don’t have one of their own). As well as negotiating contracts, bidding on services and products, and helping you get the permits and fulfill any necessary zoning requirements.

In some cases, your architect might also help you challenge specific building codes that restrict the overall sustainability of your home. For example, suppose your home design doesn't meet local building codes because you wanted to increase the thickness of your walls to maximize the insulation. In that case, your architect should make an effort to explain to local code enforcers the ecological reasons for the design.

A great architect should offer several advantages and benefits to help you make your dream home a reality. You can start your search for great architects and building professionals with experience in sustainable home construction here.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-09T16:43:00+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.