by Janelle Sorensen, Content Director at Elemental Green and Chief Strategist at gro gud
Building a home from the ground up is an exciting, but often overwhelming process. Add in the fact that you want it to be eco-friendly and you have a recipe for potential analysis paralysis. That is, you’re faced with so many decisions you start overthinking the available alternatives and possible outcomes to the point that you can’t make any choices at all. We’re here to prevent that. That’s exactly why Elemental Green was created! Today we’re highlighting six steps and resources for building an eco home. There are certainly many other steps involved, but this is a bite-size, 30,000-foot view to help ease you into the process – and the perfect place to start.
#1 Dream big (but keep your feet on the ground)
Start your eco building journey by collecting inspiration and setting goals. “Homebuilders follow your lead—not the other way around,” writes Margaret Heidenry on Realtor.com. “So if you’re not exactly sure what you want your home to look like, they may steer you toward the usual tried-and-true stuff, whether that’s a formal dining room or a standard-size upstairs master bedroom.” Find photos of houses you love and products you’d want in your absolute dream home. You can go old school and create a binder filled with your ideas, but designer Katrina Chambers has a better idea: Use Pinterest. “This gives you a good reference point,” she says. “Also as you get carried away with the building and you start to get overwhelmed with the choices, you’ll be able to come back to this and sort yourself out again. You may find it hard to describe to a builder/plumber what your vision is for a room, but if you have an image ready then it helps.” This is just the beginning stage so no need to shut down grand ideas, just let them inspire your project.
Aside from looks, what green goals do you want to achieve? After all, environmentally friendly is the foundation on which you’re building. There are countless types of eco-homes, each having different specifications that make it green in its own way. Need ideas? Check out these resources:
- What is Passive House Certification?
- US Green Building Council’s LEED-Certification Guide
- US Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR-Certification Guide
- What is the Living Building Challenge?
- 18 Inexpensive Eco Prefab Homes
- 17 Best Books About Sustainable Home Design
- Check out all of our green home projects and articles. Start by clicking here.
Lastly, be sure to think long term. As Jessica writes on Freshome, “How long do you plan on staying in this home? Will you need to accommodate safety features for new or young children? Or might you need to think of your needs later in life as you reach retirement age and beyond? Think ahead, long term, to see where you will be and what you will need from your home.”
#2 Create a budget
Now that you’ve established what you want out of your future home, you’ll need to figure out how much you’re willing to spend to get there. Start with the overall picture: how much can you put into your new home? That is, how big of a mortgage can you shoulder? Be sure you take into account everything, such as land cost, taxes, insurance, building fees, decorating – everything. The pros at Natale Builders have great advice:
When you apply for a loan to build a new house, it covers the construction which converts into a regular mortgage when it is complete. The advantage here is your ability to include not only the construction of the home, but everything inside. That means furnishings, appliances, and furniture; you name it, and you can add it. This allows you to pay a significantly lower interest rate than you would if you waited to buy all the extras with a credit card. Don’t cut corners on fixtures like counters, flooring, or heating and cooling. Think about the long-term paybacks. Even an energy efficient HVAC unit might seem expensive at first, but you’re saving money in the long run. You can build within reason without cutting out all of your desired amenities.
It’s a lot to think about, but you’ll be glad to avoid any surprise costs in the end! Leave some wiggle room for Plan B and even Plan C, since things don’t always work out how they’re supposed to. Chambers recommends having some “money up your sleeves. “Never ever think your building project won’t go over! It always does,” she says. “It could be that you need a couple of extra powerpoints, or the retaining wall is bigger than you thought once the block has been cut, or you see some tiles you’d love to feature. In every house I’ve built I know a few thousand dollars may be needed for extra things. I don’t tell my builder that! Ha! I keep it to the side to use if I have to.”
Check out these resources for ideas and guidance:
#3 Choose your build site
So you’re on your way to building an eco home, but where do you want to put it? Beyond finding the perfect neighborrhod, choosing the right location will be a determining factor in how sustainable your overall lifestyle is, not just how sustainable your home is. There are a few factors to keep in mind when scoping out the best location for you and the environment. Avoid building in a delicate ecosystem area (like wetlands), and consider choosing a site in town that’s already been used – no need to clear more land! Check out the area to see if it’s pedestrian friendly and compact, as this means less driving and more opportunity for biking and walking. Picking a spot close to public transportation is another smart thing to do and an easy way to lower your carbon footprint. Build more than just an eco home – build an eco lifestyle by selecting the right site and community.
Another factor to consider when you’re choosing a site is the sun. As residential architect Richard Taylor says:
Many homes are designed with the primary family living spaces at the back (kitchen, breakfast room, family room). These are the rooms you want sunlight in; the rooms with all the expensive windows.
And you’ll get that sunlight through those windows, too – if the back of the house faces more or less south. That’s where the sun is, remember?
If your lot is on the south side of the street, great.
But what if your lot is on the north side? All that living space, all that glass, isn’t going to get any direct sunlight at all. Or worse, your lot faces east, and the afternoon sun pours through that wall of west-facing glass like a blast furnace – heating up the house and fading the furniture and carpeting.
How the sun hits your house is also a key element for utilizing passive house design that reduces your energy use. And, if you’re planning on installing solar panels, you’ll definitely want to know exactly how the sun hits your home and entire property.
- Search Walk Score for the most walkable communities, plus nearby amenities, public transportation, and city stats
- Find a low-pollution area with Score Card
- Green Building 101: What Makes a Site Sustainable
#4 Find green professionals
You’ve got a rough design, a budget, and a build site, so now it’s time to get serious. Pick your team of professionals, starting with an architect. He or she will work with you on your budget to design an actual building plan. Next, you’ll want to interview building contractors to find the best quote for your project. But, don’t just go with whoever gives the lowest bid – you know what they say, “You get what you pay for.” Cindy Stumpo, a custom home-builder with over 20 years of experience has the following recommendation:
Before hiring a builder, drive past their previous jobs and speak to the homeowners. Ask if the builder had good follow-through, whether the job was completed on schedule and on budget and if they were pleased with the quality of work. Also, check the builder’s relationships with subcontractors and supply houses — essentially find out if they pay their bills. A builder who is behind in payments will most likely encounter delays in receiving materials and have a hard time keeping a quality crew.
Your architect and builder are vital to your project, but you may want to consider adding to your team with a landscape architect, kitchen designer, or whatever you find most important (and fits your budget). Finding professionals who have a green credential could make a world of difference in the success of your green home. Someone who knows the ins and out of the newest technologies or the design principles behind different types of eco homes can help you bring your green ideas to life – and install them correctly!
Finally, find professionals who have green credentials and experience – it makes a world of difference in the success of your green home. Someone who knows the ins and out of the newest technologies, the design principles behind different types of eco homes, and the green building materials that bring everything to life will better understand your vision and can even make recommendations for sustainable solutions you maybe didn’t know existed. Working with the right people saves time, money, and stress.
- Find an Energy Star credentialed contractor
- LEED Certified Professionals
- Build it Green Professionals Directory
#5 Research products
Inside and out, you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions about what materials and products are used. As you’re aiming to be as eco-friendly as possible, select products that are manufactured responsibly and without harmful chemicals. You’ll also want to select things that are durable and won’t need replacing, and things that support a high-performance home that runs efficiently (both in regards to energy and water). Elemental Green was created to make this process easier, so be sure to check out all the products and relevant articles to help you make informed decisions. Here are some pages to start with:
- 23 Certifications to Look For
- Finding Reclaimed and Local Materials
- The Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly Insulation
- 12 Companies Leading the Way with Eco-Friendly Home Building Materials
You started this process by collecting your dream products, but now it’s time to get organized without getting overwhelmed. Heidenry recommends compartmentalizing the project:
The nitty-gritty of building a house can be intimidating. There are numerous decisions to make, from massive (deciding where to erect walls) to minuscule (picking light fixtures). This overload of choices can short-circuit some buyers’ brains so they become paralyzed, unable to make any decision at all.
To avoid facing 100 overwhelming questions about bathtubs and windows in one sitting, ask your builder to set up a personalized website, allowing decisions to be made at your leisure. No website? Simply create a binder with your architect and/or builder where choices are organized room by room, step by step.
Compartmentalizing the building process will help you keep moving forward.
#6 Plan thoroughly, but be ready for change
When you’ve gotten down to every last design detail with your team, make sure you have all your ducks in a row with budget, permits, and contracts. This isn’t the funnest stuff, but the rest of it can’t happen without it! Also, like all things in life, we can plan, plan, plan, but unexpected things do come up. Heidenry says:
No matter how carefully you plan your home, what’s seemingly set in stone is bound to change: You decide at the last minute you must have the latest Sub-Zero fridge that just hit the market, or you experience a change of heart about the size of your home office.
So to keep your construction costs from spiraling out of control, make sure to balance out any cost-adding changes with some budget cutting elsewhere. For example, if you decide you must have a walk-in closet, maybe you can temper or shelve your plans for a wraparound deck until later.
And be sure to keep track of EVERYTHING. Chambers recommends using a spreadsheet for tracking.
This is the place where I knew exactly how much things would cost as I added and changed things. You usually get a base price when building, but if you add anything, or take anything off YOU need to keep a spreadsheet. I used to also email this to my builder every few weeks (I’m a painful person I know!), but I had to make sure we were always on the same page and I did not want to be left with any surprises at the end!
With clear communication with your team, you can work through any bumps in the road.
- Read up on building permits and how to go about getting one
- Tips and Tricks for Signing a Home-Building Contract