Planning Is Everything: 3 Keys to Succeeding at Sustainable Home Design

If sustainability is the key to the future, planning and collaboration are the keys to successfully building a sustainable home. Whatever techniques, styles, materials, sustainable products, and systems you choose, careful planning throughout the process, and effective collaboration among all the various participants, will enhance your ability to obtain local and recycled products, minimize waste, reduce costs, and end up with the home you really want. It's well worth the time and effort spent before you start to build. Consider this advice adapted from The Real Goods Independent Builder by Sam Clark, a Real Goods Solar Living Book, Chelsea Green Publishing.

To be in control of your building project and have fun doing it, you need realistic expectations of what your house will cost and how much work it will take to make it livable. You  will make your home-building experience more efficient, sane, and pleasurable if you follow a logical procedure for turning your ideas into designs and plans.

1. Draw a site plan. Start with the information you have about your land, your needs, and your budget. Draw a map that shows the characteristics of the land and locates important features such as the well, septic system, gardens, and roads. Make overlapping lists of the general features, qualities, functions, and activities you want in your house; then see how they can be combined in different patterns. Include everything. This is not the time to be realistic: Things can be eliminated later if necessary. But underline those activities and features that are central. To me, the layout or plan is the heart of a house design. It largely should dictate the structural system, the heating design, and other features.

2. Make Drawings.
It is possible to build a house with few if any drawings. But designing your house will be easier and more thorough if you learn to make and use scale floor plans, elevations, cross sections, and details. Making drawings is not just a way to put ideas on paper. It is a way to develop ideas and make them work for you. Basically, you make a scale drawing, such as a floor plan, and then systematically ask questions about it. Is the sun orientation good? Is the circulation efficient? Does the layout give enough privacy? Then you revise the drawing, until you have solved as many of the problems as possible. This labor may seem excessive when your real interest is not drawing but building, yet every hour you spend drawing will save you five hours of building. You can solve problems in advance on paper and avoid big and costly mistakes later.

3. Hire the builder and designer early. They should be asked to collaborate from start to finish. My suggested team model is this: During the design phase, the builder is supporting and consulting with the designer, checking costs, and suggesting those details that he or she prefers to execute. Later, the roles reverse: During construction, the designer supports and consults with the builder on detailing and other problems that arise. Other team members, such as an energy consultant, plumber, or electrician, should also be involved early in the process, so they can collaborate with the designer and the contractor. And, of course, as the owner, you are a key team member, whether or not you do any building.

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