Custom or Stock: The Future of Greener Homes
This is a guest post by Steve Lionais, owner of YellowBlue Designs. They market green house plans and blog about all things sustainability for the home. Steve's not an architect, but he's passionate about design and living sustainably by partnering with architects and designers who truly offer a higher standard of green living.
As the goal of a more sustainable residential fabric begins to seep deeper into the quiet streets of suburban America, the finer points of how to get these greener ideas to a consumer public remain up for grabs. A new potential homeowner is left with the choice of securing the services of an experienced architect (a decidedly uncommon route for most Americans) or going it alone for a sustainable house adventure by purchasing a pre-designed plan to be constructed. Tyler Caine and I recently had a discussion on the merits of both custom house designs and stock house designs. We discuss the pros and cons of each approach here in thinking about how we can achieve our green house goals.
Green Designs Off the Shelf
In a perfect world where cost isn't an issue, obviously hiring a professional architect will help you achieve a better result. However, in reality money is usually a big consideration for prospective homeowners.
If you're just such a consumer and you're looking for a low-cost option for achieving a better-than-average house design in terms of environmental sustainability and long-term efficiency, than choosing an off the shelf green house plan is a viable option. Price is definitely the most attractive feature of the eco-friendly stock house plan. In fact, some estimate that choosing a custom house design can add anywhere between 2% to 15% to the total construction cost, whereas a stock house plan will cost significantly less.[i]
A really good stock plan will also afford one the opportunity to include many of the green features he is looking for, including passive solar, natural daylighting, good ventilation, and energy efficient mechanical systems. In many cases (as with those stock house plans we feature on YellowBlue Designs), consumers can purchase re-purposed sustainable stock plans designed by architects for former clients. This gives budget-sensitive consumers the option to select a sustainable plan without the higher price tag that comes with a custom design.
That said, there are some risks to going this route, as Tyler points out, the biggest of which is the incorrect installation of green features because of lack of experience and expertise on the part of the contractor. "One of the roles that an architect is meant to play is the advocate for the client to the contractor. When the client has only a contractor and stock plans, efficiency goals are really at the hands of the contractor and what he/she is willing to deploy. Often, contractors are more reticent to embrace new construction methods or new materials that can bring large efficiency opportunities. (SIPs panels versus stick framing are good examples)."
The thing to have to keep in mind when seeking out stock green house plans is that much of the research falls on the part of the homeowner rather than relying on the expertise of an architect. While this can bring you incredible satisfaction for learning how your home works and for managing much of the project yourself, but it can also require a large investment of time and effort.
On the other hand, a good stock plan should specify things like higher insulation levels and on-site power generation as an inherent part of the design. Here, Tyler suggested that, "R-values affect the thickness of wall and roof construction types. I think a good pre-designed plan would come with these things specified, even if it meant sacrificing a bit of flexibility."
At the same time, there is a greater risk that a stock plan will not meet all of the expectations of its new owners. One way to avoid disappointment and to attain assurance that green house plans hit the mark is to tweak a stock plan with the help of certified professionals. Often one can get affordable customization, alternations, and advice from experts in the field, such as experience green builders, architects, and engineers.
Yet as Tyler points out, "Spatial changes and their effect on the massing of the building can be more difficult while still maintaining the integrity and strengths of the original design." Some changes require a re-engineering of the space or re-balancing on the HVAC side to account for these changes in exposure/shading and heating/cooling load. While we think of houses as static objects, an architectural design is a complicated entity with many moving parts and changes are not without repercussions. As such, it is wise to consult an architect, engineer, or builder well-versed in sustainable designs for any customization to ensure all factors are taken into consideration.
A good practice when seeking out a green stock plan is to look for one that has already been tested in real life since this will ensure the kinks have already been worked out. In this way, a tried and true stock plan may be better than a custom design in terms of actual performance results. But don't discount custom house plans. In fact, working with an architect to develop a custom house plan can help you achieve some of your more important sustainability goals with less hassle and to a greater degree of satisfaction.
Growing Green From Scratch
Architects are more than aesthetic consultants. They'll help you fine-tune your design to meet the needs of your lifestyle so the home conforms to you. Additionally, tapping into a professional's expertise regarding site planning, building orientation, and specific sustainability techniques and materials will help create a green home that meets the specific conditions of a specific property to achieve the greatest possible results.
Of course, one of the most obvious benefits of choosing a custom house plan is the flexibility to make specific selections for every aspect of the design – from placement of trees to foundation construction to advanced insulation types. The client is involved as much or as little as he wants to be and that can be incredibly liberating, especially when it comes to incorporating sustainable features.
For instance, some of the greatest gains in energy efficiency come from the placement of a home on a site relative to latitude and the direction of the sun, as well as the location and design of things like windows, overhangs, and roofing. As Tyler explained, "A stock plan can come with general orientation goals for passive solar opportunities, but site constraints won't always match those initiatives. Architects can also play a role in helping to overcome local hesitation for new systems like greywater or on site power generation." An architect can serve as a knowledgeable advocate on your behalf.
Tyler points out another sustainability advantage to using an architect: spatial efficiency. "In most homes, we have lots of extra space that doesn't do much. Either it's bloated circulation, unused alcoves or simply room types that reflect an antiquated notion of house planning that no longer reflect how we live, but have evolved into the gospel for the housing archetype. I think a good architect can design a smaller home of a higher quality for the same price that utilizes space better."
One of the other significant benefits of choosing a custom home is that the architect often takes a more hands-on approach to the completion of the project. They can play the role of quality-control, budget-control, and even schedule-control, which is incredibly valuable. Many take the time to be on site during the construction process and can spot deficiencies, especially when it comes to sealing for air leaks and insulation levels. Since addressing these issues thoroughly is crucial to achieving the hoped-for efficiency goals, the advantages of having an architect on site cannot be overstated. The personal involvement of your architect typically extends to the selection of trusted trades and sub-contractors, which adds another level of quality assurance for your project.
Of course, you will need to prepare yourself for a higher design cost when going for a custom house plan. As Tyler commented, "one of the delinquencies of the architectural community is their inability to convey their value proposition to the average homeowner."
He goes on to explain that far from a superfluous aesthetic consultant, by staying informed on the latest building technologies and green materials, an architect can help clients achieve lower costs for things like materials, details, and construction methods. By providing this kind of value, their services suddenly become much more cost effective.
Finally, architects help you maintain a high standard for building health. It's no surprise that one of Tyler's favourite green features is the use of low-VOC finishes for healthy indoor air. Additionally, "Also, I am a big fan of natural cooling to offset or eliminate air conditioning. In the right climates, spatial organization combined with capturing prevailing winds can forgo the need for an air conditioning system."
Whether you choose a green stock plan or select an architect to custom design your sustainable home, you'll find the results in utility savings and interior comfort will bring tremendous satisfaction in the end. As with all things, there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches; the potential of each depends on how much time you put into the process.
Editor's Note: It was great to get a chance to talk to Steve because it broaches a prickly issue in American home design. Architects continue to limit their involvement in residential design to high cost homes—all but playing into the stereotype that having an architect for a home is a luxury tapped for achieving a more refined aesthetic result. Many architects also shy away from the thought of creating stock designs for resale, questioning whether the creativity and coordination of their profession becomes too commoditized. However, the outcome is clear: very few homes in the U.S. are designed by architects. The question that the design profession has to face is whether or not we want to be involved in a great portion of home design and if so, what can be done to interface at an affordable level with this part of the population?