5 Principles For A Sustainable Custom Home

Continuing our blog series on Custom homes, here we discuss our approach to designing sustainable custom homes.

Our team focuses on designing high-performance homes, from small ADUs and Urban Infill Houses, to mountain cabins and luxurious vacation homes. Regardless of the location or size of the project, we feel that incorporating sustainable design features is imperative to address climate change, reduce waste, and create healthy, comfortable, and inspiring spaces. Here are some of the principles that we abide by throughout the design process in order to create the best sustainable architecture for our clients:

  1. Site Orientation
    The first step is to look for passive design strategies to reduce energy use and respond to the natural surroundings. Finding the ideal location for the building on each site can have a dramatic impact on the performance of the future home, and doesn’t add any cost to the project. We look to maintain trees and other significant features on the site, orient our designs in a way to easily control sunlight and heat penetration into our homes, and mold the form of each house to take advantage of views and indoor-outdoor connections. We also consider access to utilities, driveways, and accessibility as we site the house on the property.

  2. Mechanical Systems
    Each home is serviced by a range of building systems to keep the home comfortable and functional. This includes plumbing, electrical, heating, cooling, ventilation, security, and even smart home systems to name a few. As we move from schematic design into design development we have conversations with our clients about these technical aspects of a home and what each family’s needs and priorities are. We then look to specify the most efficient systems possible within a client’s budget. Experience has led us to understand which technologies and products can lead to a High Performance home, cutting down on energy and water use, while creating comfortable indoor environments. Incorporating efficient active systems works hand in hand with the site orientation and other passive strategies that can reduce the need for some mechanical systems, and make those that are needed as optimally designed as we can. We often engage consultants to help us work through the technical aspect of each system, and recommend products that can compliment the design intent and work seamlessly with the architectural expression of each project.

  3. Materiality
    In our opinion, materiality is what makes great architecture. The selection of what a building is made from, and the expression of these materials and finishes (both interior and exterior) has a dramatic impact on the enjoyment of space as well as the sustainability of the project as a whole. To achieve our sustainability goals, we look to the lifecycle costs of materials and aim to make decisions that lead to long-lasting durability, low embodied energy, and local sourcing. This includes focusing on natural materials that age gracefully, have low or no toxic ingredients, low VOC emissions, and are or can be recycled or reused. This often leads to tough conversations and decisions where we are balancing up-front costs to hit project budgets with long-term thinking about future maintenance and replacement costs. By balancing current decisions with a long-term viewpoint we are able to guide our clients to find the right balance and ultimately create a more sustainable building.

  4. Healthy Design
    When people think of sustainability often it is in the context of the environment and the impact buildings have on climate change. Although that is vitally important and something we do consider with each project, we try to take it one step further, and consider how our buildings can impact the health and well being of those living in and using our buildings on a day-to-day basis. Natural light and views into nature have been shown to improve health and productivity and support our natural circadian rhythms. Toxicity in indoor materials can have direct impact on health and agitate conditions such as asthma. Spaces that have too much humidity or are too dry can lead to mold growth or skin irritation which also impacts the health of those who inhabit the spaces. It is important to consider how the design decisions and material selections can positively or negatively impact the people who live in our buildings.

  5. Energy Production
    This is another stereotypical image when people think about sustainability - solar panels, wind turbines, and other active renewable energy systems. On many of our projects we discuss with our clients whether these are a good fit for their project location and whether those systems will fit within the budget. If so, we design the form accordingly to make the systems as effective as possible. Orienting the roofs to the right direction and angling them to the appropriate slope can increase the efficiency of solar panel production. Understanding solar angles, potential shade from nearby buildings or trees, and other factors will impact the design and efficiency of active systems, so it is important to carefully analyze and consider this early on in the design process.

These five principles are just the beginning of designing a sustainable project. With each client we discuss these and a range of other decisions that are made throughout the design process that can affect sustainability. We also believe that it isn’t as simple as just a checklist of items. Taking a holistic approach to each project is how we are able to make the biggest impact.

If you are looking for more information on designing and building a custom home, check out this page with additional resources: