Initial discussions with current and potential clients about sustainability may begin in various ways.  From the first phone call, many clients begin to express that their “wish list” includes making the project as green as possible.  Others are more hesitant.  But both turn to us with all the best intentions but with questions of how much being green will cost, particularly in the current economic climate.  Most tend to believe that green = more expensive, which it can, but there are many, many ways to approach environmental responsibility and many are cost-saving.

There are several moves in the early phases of the design process which can be considered low hanging fruit and best practice.  This includes a thorough understanding of the site and climate and choosing an orientation for the home that takes advantage of both the sun and wind as free and clean resources for energy and thermal comfort.  The placement of the building and its thermal mass in order to capture heat from the sun’s warming rays, or away from the sun’s ray in more tropical climates, doesn’t typically add to the cost of construction for a new building.  A clear understand of how the wind moves across the site and orienting the openings to take advantage of natural ventilation and air flow changes is also cost neutral.

Another discussion that often happens early in the project revolves around the size of the building.  A typical 10,000sf structure uses far more resources to build, and later to heat or cool, than planning and programming for a smaller building.  Moving towards smaller buildings is both cost-saving and generally more environmentally-responsible, as long as other sustainable materials and methods are implemented in the smaller building.  The pre-design phase often allows us to better understand the client’s program and to offer suggestions on multi-purpose rooms that can cut down the size of the program.  A clear understanding of the client’s program also leads to a better understanding of which rooms should allow for natural light and shading.  An office which is only used throughout the day might get all of its needs for light from the sun.

On the other hand, other sustainable products which can be implemented have a higher cost and a lower rate of return.  For instance, water storage tanks are currently an expensive accessory to a building in large part due to the fact that water is so heavily subsidized.  In one of our Northern California homes, three large storage tanks were implemented to capture water for landscape irrigation, largely due to the fact that the client felt strongly that it is the right thing to do.  If water continues to be relatively cheap, the tanks will pay for themselves in about 30 years.  However, it may be forward-thinking to implement such a system, since many experts claim that water will not continue to be so heavily subsidized.

Finally, there are many systems which, of course, add to the cost to construction but have a high and quick rate of return.  These include integrated solar panels in projects that get a lot of sunlight, insulation with higher R values that help reduce heating and cooling costs, LED lights, and the specification of energy efficient appliances.   Wood flooring or framing timbers which are FSC-certified tend to cost more to the client, since there is a certain amount of stewardship that the client is paying for, but we are encouraged by the trend of clients who see that the cost to the planet of specifying non-FSC certified woods is simply not sustainable.

As with any part of a design and construction project, sustainable materials and technologies represent a blend of client’s desires and needs in balance with a budget.  A most encouraging piece of sustainable building in the current economic times is that cost-benefit analysis and consumer demand are bringing sustainable materials more and more into the realm of the affordable.  Also, education of the clients about the hidden costs of certain practices and materials is pushing all of us in the building trades to think creatively about sustainability and to cause a more thorough analysis of the cost of being green.  – Hannah