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DIY tips: Choosing a green architect

Hiring the right architect for a renovation or a new house is difficult enough. Adding the qualification “green” to the mix makes the search even more complicated.

Architectural plans, bundled, basketThe first question you need to ask yourself is whether you need an architect in the first place. Alternative approaches include hiring a design-build firmobtaining a stock house plan online and working with an un-licensed architect or designer.

There are various philosophies on how to decide. One is that you should hire an architect if your project will increase your home value by 5 percent; another by 10 percent. Some say you only need an architect if you’re making significant changes to your floor plan or to the exterior of the structure. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, and as with many guidelines, we tend to follow those we’re predisposed toward.

Some design-builders, structural engineers and other professionals will argue that you don’t necessarily need an architect even when those rules of thumb apply. And it’s true that the overwhelming majority of custom homes and additions aren’t even custom designed by architects nowadays.

Hiring an architect is generally regarded as the most expensive approach to designing a house. On the other hand, a good architect should put you in the position to get a more aesthetically pleasing, comfortable and better designed house, and to avoid errors that have to be corrected during the construction process or later. At root, avoiding those errors essentially the architect’s job, and the laws are structured in such a way as to place the liability for such mistakes on the architect rather than on you.

The bottom line: Whichever approach you choose, the professionals you work with should be as committed from the start to the green-ness of the project as you are.

If you do decide to go the custom architecture route, make sure your have a solid idea of what an architect actually does and doesn’t do.

Licensed (or registered) architects are the full-fledged professionals of the business. Professionals at architecture firms with such titles as “project manager” or “designer” often have an architecture degree and even quite a bit of experience; but usually they aren’t called “architect” because they haven’t completed the licensing process. That’s significant because anyone who isn’t licensed won’t be able to stamp your construction documents with a professional seal, which is required by most local permitting offices. In addition, the liability they take on for your project’s design will be a lot less clearcut, leaving you more financially exposed.

The American Institute of Architects — and most trained architects — break their work into five stages: The preliminary design, or schematic phase; design development; construction document preparation; bidding and negotiation (with the contractor); and construction administration (oversight of construction). The American Institute of Architects describes those phases more completely here; more than likely, the licensed architect you work with will follow some variation.

For those who do choose do go with an architect, let’s break the task down to a six-step selection process:

1. Scope out your project.

The first order of business is to settle on a good working idea of what your project entails.

With your family, list the features of your renovation, addition or new home project: What rooms will it include? What’s the site like? What’s the neighborhood likes? When do you want to begin? Is there a deadline for completion? How much do you plan to spend (“soft budget” limit)? What’s your hard budget limit? What styles do you and your family prefer? What kind of green features do you envision? Are you willing to pay a premium for those green features? How long do you want to wait before you get a return on your investment? How long to you plan to stay in the house?

Your answers won’t be your final words on these decisions, and you certainly don’t need to answer all those questions before shopping for an architect. It’s just will good to have a structured idea of what you’re shopping for. You can write out those wants and needs in the form form of list. For the purpose of succinctly describing the job to prospective architects, you may also wish to convert the highlights into a paragraph form — sort of like a mission statement.

2. Gather your leads.

There are plenty of places to gather up leads on green architects. If you know people with experience any of the green building fields or just good builders or tradespeople in general, start by asking for their recommendations — with a particular eye toward narrowing it down to architects with experience on projects that are similar to yours.

Currently no single online tool offers any more than a very narrow slice of the talent that’s out there, but some sites should still be able to provide some leads:

  • The U.S. Green Building Council’s online directory allows you to narrow your search of LEED certified professionals by profession, location and specialty. To search for a certified residential architect, type in your city and state, choose “architecture” under “Area of Practice,” and check “LEED AP for Homes.” But that search will only yield a fraction of “green architects” in your area because only a tiny percentage of green architects actually are certified for LEED for Homes.
  • Some state chapters of the American Institute of Architects allow you to search for architects who have a special interest in “sustainability” or “environmental design.” As of this writing, the national site’s “Find an Architect” tool doesn’t provide that option. But you can link from the national site to chapters in your area, some of which will allow you to narrow your search to residential architects with an interested in sustainability. Still, be aware that this database includes only AiA members — again a small fraction of the profession.
  • Chapter leaders in the AiA Committee on the Environment (COTE) may be able to steer you toward green residential architects in their area. Find out more about those chapters here.
  • Regional certification programs — e.g. Earthcraft in the Southeast, Earth Advantage in the Pacific Northwest — typically credential builders but not architects. Still, you may be able to cull leads from these sources by contacting either the organization that runs your local certification program or some of the certified builders who catch your eye. Ask them if they’ve worked with or know of any good green architects.

3. Perform online reconnaissance

Your goal should be to have five to 15 firms’ names at this point. Now, check out what they have to say for themselves on their own websites. I’m more likely to read as lip service one phrase in-passing about “our commitment to environmental quality” on the “About Us”; but multiple examples of certified projects, several green credentials and repeated references to sustainability throughout the website are a sure sign that it’s a core value to them.

Peruse the firm’s website to answer these kinds of questions:

  • Examples of completed projects: Are many of them similar to your project in scale? Do the styles meet your fancy?
  • Mission or vision statements: How central are sustainability and other values you care about?
  • Green credentials: Is the architect you’d be working with certified for any green programs? Has she or he undergone special training related to your project?

Before even calling any firms, you also may wish to check your local Better Business Bureau for any complaints, as well as your state architecture licensing board for any sanctions. While complaints or sanctions sometimes shouldn’t necessarily disqualify a firm (there may be an explanation), they certainly ought to serve as a yellow flag.

4. Test the water.

Once you’ve narrowed you’re prospects down to three to five good potential candidates, you should be ready to give each an initial call. Your project description should be of some help to start the conversation. But here are some suggested questions (whether you ask the bulk of these over the phone or in person should be guided by your preference, although I suggest having most of the conversation in person):

  • Have you completed projects similar to ours?
  • What architectural styles are you comfortable with?
  • What green features have you incorporated into your projects and, off the bat, what features would you want us to consider? What other thoughts do you have on our project?
  • How much client participation do you find best for a project?
  • Would we be working with you directly? What other members of your firm would I be working with? How much of the actual work will be done by you and how much by other staff members?
  • At what stage would you bring other professionals into the planning conversation? Are you comfortable working with a team early on, or do you think it’s necessary for the client and the architect to settle on the design before bringing builders and tradesmen into the converstion?
  • Generally, what does a project like this end up costing?

Obviously some answers will fit the preferences of certain clients or the needs of certain projects. But one important piece of information shouldn’t change: Give the architect an opportunity to ask their own questions. The kinds of questions he or she asks, should give you an idea of the level of interest they have in your project.

As important as the specific details are, it’s also key to gauge your chemistry together. This is somebody you’ll be working with for several months or even longer — somebody who’ll play a major role in what could be the biggest investment in your life. Best to ensure beforehand that this is a person you can get along with when the stakes are that high.

5. Do your due diligence.

Ask your finalists for at least three references — the more recent and similar their projects are to yours, the better. It could be useful to visit one or two of completed sites with the architect, but be sure that you’re able to speak with these three clients separately. It may also be useful to speak with a current client and to view a project that’s currently underway. The objective here isn’t simply to get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down; you also want to get an idea about what makes the architect, about the working relationship, about strengths and weaknesses. Along those lines, here are some questions worth asking:

  • Did the architect work just on the design or did s/he also help with construction administration?
  • Did the the project come in on time?
  • Did the project come in under budget?
  • How did the architect’s commitment to sustainability play into the project?
  • What were the architect’s strengths? Weaknesses?
  • What was the biggest single source of tension?
  • Did you run into any issues over money?
  • Did you have to make difficult decisions together?
  • At what point did your contractor and/or tradespeople get involved in the project? Do you feel that they had the input necessary to plan the project out well?
  • Were their any surprises along the way? For example, was something in the plan
  • What suggestions do you have to make working with the architect go smoothly?

6. Talk money.

During “Test the waters” phase (above), you should start looking into the candidates’ fees and how they like to be paid.

An architect’s standard rates also will vary depending on the kind of project or the scope of the architect’s work on the project. For example, the cost for consulting on a design that just needs some tweaks should be a lot less than the cost for a designing a house from scratch, which — all other things being equal — will be less than both designing a project and performing “construction administration.” They also may vary

But complicating factor is that fee structures can be based on a variety of variables — hours, the overall project budget, square footage, or a combination of a couple of methods. Here’s a closer look at some of the alternatives:

• Percentage of project: This is the most common arrangement for whole houses, additions and major renovations. Typically a whole-house design will run 6-10 percent of the estimated cost of the construction; a whole-house design plus construction administration about 8-12 percent of the cost of the entire project; a renovation or addition design (which may include construction administration) around 12-20 percent of the cost of the entire project. It’s important to note that architects assume that their fees are in addition to the construction costs, not part of them. Obviously, the larger the budget, the more leverage the owner has in getting a lower percentage, which is one reason that high-end houses tend to rely more heavily on custom architects. One drawback is that your interest in economizing differs from the architect’s interest in the project.

• Square footage: Although uncommon (at least, in my neck of the woods — Atlanta), charging by the square foot theoretically makes sense for very standard projects, where the house doesn’t have  a lot of frills, unique features or unusual circumstances. Expect rates, without construction administration, to run as low as $3 a square foot and as high as $10. Architects I’ve spoken too hate charging by square foot because it locks them into the most basic design; but that doesn’t mean it’s good for clients because the incentive for the architect becomes doing the most mundane, least detailed drawings possible.

• Hourly: Hourly rates are often used for jobs of a limited scope, when the architect may be finishing a job that another architect started or where the job is so small so as not to justify charging as a percentage of the project. The big drawback is that hours have a way of creeping up on you: While the hourly number itself looks small, the overall cost of the project can grow huge after a few months. Rude surprise. If you do include hourly rate, the contract should specify the rates for each person who’s going to work on the project, and should lock in the rate for the duration of the project (so you don’t get a budget-busting price hike, just because a staff member was due for a raise). A licensed architect is likely to charge from $100 to $175 an hour, although you may find some perfectly good ones who’ll go as low as $75. Firms will generally charge between $65 and $95 for drafts-people, CAD assistants, and interns, and a bit more for unlicensed architects, often referred to as “designers.”

• “Hourly not to exceed”: This is a hybrid of the hourly rate and the project percentage (or it can be a hybrid of the hourly rate and a square-foot-rate). For the client, it’s preferable to an open-ended percentage not only because it caps architecture expenses, but also because it eliminates the architect’s incentive to keep growing the project (and hence her or his commission). In my opinion, this arrangement protects both the architect and the owner, but some architects don’t like it because they get stuck with low rates.

• Different fee structures at different stages: Architect Bob Borson blogs about a former boss of his who liked to charge hourly rates during the initial stages of a project, and then to shift to a square-footage rate. The idea is that the homeowner has an incentive to help the architect work efficiently and not to make endless changes during the more open-ended creative stages, while the square-foot method locks things in once the project is better defined.

To get a better idea about these money issues, I highly recommended a couple of posts linked from this article on Borson’s Life Of an Architect blog. Borson definitely sees things from the architect’s perspective, but his insights are useful for anyone trying to work out a contract with an architect.

One piece of advice he offers is particularly important: Talk through every potential issue that comes to mind with your potential architect — before signing a contract. We thought we did that with our first architect, but really hadn’t followed through on every little question. That led to misunderstandings afterward, and it cost us a lot of money.

In these early conversations, you’re not just trying to figure out if the architect’s skills and style match what you need. You also want to get an idea of the chemistry between you. After all, this person who will play a key role in setting in motion one of the most important projects of your life.




DIY tips: Design-build vs. architecture

Architects and design-build contractors have heatedly debated the relative merits of two design and construction approaches for about three decades. The truth: There are arguments for either method, even after you throw in a green twist.

Under design-bid-build (the “traditional” method preferred by many architects), the owner contracts with the architect. Then, after all or most of the design documents are ready, the homeowner contracts separately with the builder, sometimes with the help of the architect.

plans 2For more on selecting a custom residential architect, click here.)

Under design-build, the owner contracts with one company  both for design and construction. While architects lead some residential design-build companies, the bulk of them are controlled by builders. Small design-build companies seldom have licensed architects on staff. Instead, many contract with designers (often un-licensed architecture school graduates) to build custom houses from scratch; some even hire designers to customize stock house-plans purchased off the Internet.

The upshot is that a design-build firm may not provide the depth and originality of design you’d get with an independent architectural firm — though, in fairness, that’s not always the case.

Many architects (especially those that compete with design-build companies) also argue that there’s an inherent conflict of interest in having the builder also employ the designer: That arrangement gives the design-build company less of an incentive to watch costs closely and more of an incentive to design in more expensive features because the fee is set a percentage of the budget.

The contrast is stronger when compared to arrangements under which the architect helps “administer” the construction phase: In that case, the owner has an advocate to oversee the builder’s work quality and expenses; with a typical design-build contract, the incentives all run on the side of inflating costs.

But wait! There’s a flip side to this coin. Whatever the alleged conflict of interest, academic studies have found that design-build to be costly than using an architect, and that it typically takes less time. If you think about it, there’s a good reasons for that: At a good design-build company, the designer and the builder work as a tight-knit team. Just the fact that they know each other and work together a lot is likely to make things go more smoothly.

Plus, with design-build, designs don’t have to be detailed out, wrapped up and tied up in a nice bow before the contractor starts lining up sub-contractors and even starting construction. If something was left out of the plans, or if a change needs to be made, there’s not a lot of dickering over whose fault it was and who’s going to have to pay for it.

Which brings us to another big, practical consideration: liability. If something goes wrong, there’s no finger pointing between the architect and the builder; the design-build firm is going to have to deal with it.

(For more on the relative benefits of the two approaches, here’s a succinct debate between an architect and a design-builder.)

Green considerations could argue for you to go in either direction. Obviously, it’s easier to coordinate between design and construction — a fundamental part of any green project — if both are being done by the same team. On the other hand, the intricate challenges and emphasis on quality work that go with any green project might make the skills of an architect and the oversight that can provide over the builder more important.

Of course, custom architecture and design-build are far from the only approaches. If you’re building a house on a tight budget, stock house plans may be the way to go (for a full discussion of that plans, click here; for a fuller discussion of all options, check out this article.)

One other thought: If you have a pretty solid idea of what you want and a design-builder in mind who seems like a great match for you, design-build may work best for you. If you don’t know where to even begin thinking about your new home, it may make sense to work directly with an architect.

If you do decide to go with a design-build company, make sure it’s a good one — with key players who have an ethical reputation. Of course, that’s important for anyone you hire, but it’s a particularly big deal when it comes to design-build — not just because you’re putting pretty much all your eggs in their basket, but also because there will be nobody but you to oversee them.

DIY tips: Alternatives to architects

The owner who’s getting set to build a new house often assumes she or he will be working with an architect. But architects actually design only a fraction of the single-family homes built in the U.S. every year. High-end custom homes tend to be the ones designed by architects. Here are three alternatives, with links to in-depth articles about the first two of them:

freegreen.com, Free Green, stock home plans

FreeGreen.com is an online startup that provides stock plans for sustainable houses.

Stock plans: For a complete new house, a pre-designed off-the-shelf plan can be the least expensive way to go. Theoretically, you can acquire a set of plans (or, more accurately, the right to use those plans) for less than $1,000. And one startup company actually offers up green house plans for free. Stock plans aren’t practical for renovations or additions, of course. And they do limit your ability to customize the house to meet your needs — a particular issue when it comes to making the house more energy efficient and making sure the house fits your site.

Design-build: Over the last 30 years or so, homeowners have increasingly relied companies that perform both the design and general contracting. In most cases, a design-build outfit — which may not have a fully trained architect on staff — isn’t going to provide the depth of design and service you’ll get with a licensed architect. After all, the bulk of design-build companies are owned and run by contractors rather than by architects. Many architects argue that there’s an inherent conflict of interest between having the builder also employ the designer, especially if you’re looking for the architect to help oversee the the construction phase. On the other hand, design-build projects tend to be completed more quickly and for less money than projects involving a separate architect and builder. One guideline: If you have a pretty solid idea of what you want and a lot of confidence in a particular design-builder, a design-build approach might work well for you.

* A designer supported by other professionals: This scheme can give you a great deal of control and can cost significantly less than a licensed architect. But it also can be risky. It’s the closest thing to DIY on the list of options in this article. Perhaps you’ve had some design experience yourself, or maybe you have a very good idea about how the house should be built. Many “designers” (preferably, fully trained but unlicensed architects) will detail and draw the plans with you on an ad hoc basis; if they’re good with AutoCAD (computer-assisted design) and have an updated program, they can produce plans that are every bit as professional as a those from a big firm. One big drawback is that the designer can’t stamp your project with a professional seal for structural integrity, which means you may have to hire a structural engineer to review the plans, tweak them if necessary and stamp them. The engineer’s review should cost a fraction of  what you’d be spending on a licensed architect; if something goes wrong, however, the engineer isn’t likely to be as broadly or clearly liability as a licensed architect would have been. Another concern is that the designer probably doesn’t have the depth of experience of a licensed architect. Although there are some mighty fine professionals who simply haven’t taken the trouble to do the test, there’s something to be said for that credential — it’s a quality assurance, of sorts. You really don’t know whether the designer knows local codes, for example. the experience wner sketches out the design him or her self, and works with tradespeople as well as a structural engineer to ensure that the building is sound and meets code. Then, a draftsperson produces drawings on CAD. Unless your project involves a very simple renovation or addition, or unless you have a fair amount of experience working with architects previously, I’d recommend strongly against this approach. You’ll more than likely going to end up needing help from various professionals, and then waste a lot of time trying to sort through the different advice from each of them.

DIY tips: Green stock house plans

Buying a stock home plan online can be the least expensive and fastest way to obtain a design for a completely new house. Of course, there also are potential drawbacks.

Ben Uyeda, founder and design director at FreeGreen.com. Photo courtesy of FreeGreen.com.

Ben Uyeda, founder and design director at FreeGreen.com. Photo courtesy of FreeGreen.com.

“The best way to get a home is to hire a full-service architect in your area who has a great reputation” and then to have that architect oversee construction, says architect Ben Uyeda. Uyeda may be a surprising source for such a comment: He’s the founder and design director of FreeGreen.com, a startup that offers green stock plans.

On the other hand, Uyeda says, custom architecture is expensive, so it’s difficult to justify on anything by high-end homes. “[Stock] house plans,” he says, “are a great option if you’re building for under $300,000. They are the bargain-basement way to do it.”

A plan designed with a generic site, generic features and generic tastes in mind will almost certainly require some customization. That’s particularly the case if you’re looking for energy efficiency and other sustainable features, and very few of the big online house plan brokers seem to have “green” anywhere on their color spectrum.

Although Uyeda’s company specializes in green homes, even he acknowledges that doesn’t guarantee that “the building’s going to be green, because that doesn’t mean it’s going to be build that way. You can meet with a nutritionist and have a great diet, and then go out and have breakfast that morning that totally blows your plan.”

So Uyeda advises owners in the market for green house plans not to be too impressed by specifications for such expensive features as super-efficient HVAC systems or heavy insulation. Those kinds of things may very well be “value-engineered” out of the project by a budget-conscious owner.

He argues that the real key is to start with a design that takes into account the efficient use of materials and energy — things like modest overall size, short hallways, as few exterior walls as possible, and “good wall sections” (meaning the design of the exterior wall’s cross-section). As a result, he claims, energy models typically find that a FreeGreen.com plan is 30 percent-40 percent more efficient than a standard design.

All this may make it seem like I’m in the tank somehow for FreeGreen.com. I’m not. But Uyeda’s makes some important points: If you fall in love with a conventional site’s stock plan, for example, don’t assume you’ll be able to add a lot of fancy equipment and materials to make it “green” — or at least don’t assume you can do that without spending a lot more money. Before committing to any stock house plan, it would be a good ideas to run it by a green consultant, or an architect or builder with serious green experience, to see if the floor plan and wall sections lend themselves to efficiency.

In a sense, the stock-home-plan route isn’t tailor made for a green custom home — even if the plan itself was tailor-made to be green. That’s because green building typically works best when the owner, designer, builder and even some of the trades plan together. To learn more about the plusses and minuses of other methods, check out my posts on working with custom architects, on design-build firms and comparing a variety of methods.

On the other hand, stock plans that were conceived from the start with sustainability in mind can be thought through very meticulously. And saving money on the initial design could set aside give you room in the budget on customizing the plan or to splurge on great materials.

Here are four websites that offer varying degrees of sustainable features:

• Free Green‘s standard price can’t be beat (I’ll give you a hint: It’s part of the site name). Even unlimited “premium plans” can be downloaded for a $19.95 annual subscription. Instead, the company’s business model involves charging for customization, and in steering owners and builders toward vendors and installers who offer green products or services. “Our goal,” according to the website, “is to give our users house plans which simultaneously provide design and product options that meet or exceed existing third party standards, while giving users choice and options in the realm of cost, style, and environmental commitment. As an example, all of our homes are designed to perform 30% to 50% better than prescriptive building code energy performance. The level of home performance depends on the ‘package’ of products that a user chooses.” That doesn’t mean the company guarantees that if you’ll build one of their designs, you’ll earn, say, LEED for Homes Platinum. But a plan designed with sustainable principles in mind is crucial in making values like energy efficiency, water efficiency, and good indoor air quality easier and less expensive to attain.

Dream Green Homes offers up plans for unconventional construction techniques — even the “conventional” style homes on the site are designed to be built with strawbales, earthbags, insulated concrete forms (ICFs), and other materials. Most of the plans are pretty edgy, and the prices tend to be much lower than on other sites and are likely to be appeal to the truly adventurous. In some cases, local codes don’t recognize unconventional materials and techniques. Before delving too far into such a project, you should check with your local regulators to see what you might need to do to meet code. On the other hand, pricing starts as low as $200 and at least a few of the designers appear to be top-notch architects.

Green Builder House Plans lists “green features” for each of its homes, and gives plan buyers the option to add on an “Energy Star plan package” that the site says will help the house qualify as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star Home. The site is part of a larger family of online, stock plan brokers.

• One of the largest online plan brokers, eplan.com, offers “Green House Plans” and “Energy Saver Plus Plans.” (Go to the advanced search page and click the appropriate category under “Special Collections”). If those plans have many green features, however, it’s difficult to figure out what they are; the site offers no options for modifying plans to improve sustainability.

I’m sure I haven’t caught all the examples. I’m sure I’ve also missed some important pieces of advice. So, if you have something to add — information, insight or a differing opinion — please leave a comment below.


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