Assembling a Green Home Design Team That’ll Get the Job Done

Eco-friendly home next to pond - Creating a design/build team

The act of building a home that’s ecologically sound—combining high efficiency with low-impact materials—isn’t likely to be a solo venture.

Although no element of creating such a home is beyond the capability of a determined homeowner to learn and implement, it’s much easier to accomplish with the assistance of knowledgeable and experienced professionals. Within the design profession, people with specific skill sets are realizing the advantages of partnering with others who have complementary skills and approaches.

The best buildings being made today are coming from integrated design teams, and assembling your own team is the best way to ensure that you’ll meet all your goals.

Who might be involved?

Design teams can vary based on the needs of the homeowner and the skill sets of each team member. Below are listed the key types of knowledge that you want team members to have, along with suggestions regarding the people who may have that knowledge.

Architectural

In most jurisdictions, there are a number of possible pathways for obtaining architectural services for residential construction.

Skill set includes:

  • Design services—Help to create an overall design.
  • Architectural rendering—Creating complete plan sets.
  • Building code compliance—Ensuring plan sets meet all code requirements.

Can be provided by:

  • Architect—Licensed by a governmental body to practice in their state or province and take legal responsibility for plans.
  • Architectural technologist or draftsperson—Trained to draw plans and, in some jurisdictions and conditions, can take legal responsibility for plans.
  • Engineer—Licensed by a governmental body to practice in their state or province, and take legal responsibility for plans.
  • Builder—Design/build firms can provide architectural services and, within limits, take legal responsibility for plans.
  • Homeowner—In many jurisdictions, within limits, homeowners are able to submit and take legal responsibility for their own plans.

Structural

Residential construction doesn’t necessarily require structural design by a design professional. If the building is designed within the prescriptions of the building code, it’s assumed to have adequate structural integrity without requiring a professional to verify. However, if the plans call for materials or assemblies that are considered “alternative,” additional structural design by a design professional may be required.

Skill set may include:

  • Structural design—Ensuring plans meet all code requirements for structural integrity.
  • Material verification—Ensuring materials meet structural integrity requirements.
  • Inspection—Ensuring that on-site construction meets all design criteria.

Can be provided by:

  • Structural engineer—Licensed by a governmental body to practice in their state or province, and take legal responsibility for the structural integrity of all or part of the plans.
  • Architect—Licensed architect can take legal responsibility for residential structural design, or may offer engineering services within the firm.
  • Engineering technologist—Trained in structural design; in some jurisdictions, can take legal responsibility for structural design of all or part of the plans.

Energy modelling

In many jurisdictions, energy modelling is required to meet basic code requirements, and it’s certainly necessary to meet rating system (for example: LEED, Passive House) requirements. For any homeowner attempting to exceed code minimum standards, it’s certainly recommended. There are many different software programs for energy modelling, and matching software with code and/or rating system requirements is important.

Passive house in Oslo - Creating a design/build team
A passive house in Oslo, Norway

Skill set may include:

  • Basic energy modeling—Some energy modelling programs offer a limited number of variables and provide the basic information required to meet code requirements.
  • Advanced energy modelling—Some energy modelling programs offer a wide range of variables (including passive solar, thermal mass, thermal bridging, comfort analysis) and can provide information required to meet certain rating system requirements.
  • Hygrothermal modelling—Some modelling programs offer the ability to model both heat and moisture flows and can provide helpful information for controlling potential moisture issues in high-performance buildings.

Can be provided by:

  • HVAC engineer—Licensed engineer specializing in the design of HVAC systems will be able to offer energy modelling services.
  • Architect—Licensed architect may be able to offer energy modelling services within firm.
  • Building scientist—Trained and/or licensed building scientist will be familiar with energy modelling programs.
  • Rating system provider — Many rating systems offer certifications to providers who will manage the delivery of the rating program. This provider may be able to offer energy modelling services to meet the needs of the program.
  • Builder—Design/build firms may be able to provide energy modelling services.
  • Homeowner—Homeowners may be able to learn appropriate software programs and provide their own energy modelling.

HVAC design

Most jurisdictions require the design of heating, ventilation and cooling systems to be done by a qualified person, usually to a prescribed standard in the code.

Skill set may include:

  • Energy modelling—HVAC design and energy modelling are often undertaken in conjunction with one another.
  • System design—Providing complete plans for systems to meet code requirements and overall efficiency targets.
  • Equipment specification—Providing a list of equipment capable of meeting code and building needs.

Can be provided by:

  • HVAC engineer—Licensed engineer specializing in the design of HVAC systems.
  • Architect—Licensed architect may be able to offer HVAC design services within firm.
  • Building scientist—Trained and/or licensed building scientist may be may be able to offer HVAC design services.
  • HVAC installer—Companies specialized in HVAC installation may be able to offer HVAC design services.
  • HVAC equipment providers—Manufacturers or distributors of HVAC equipment can often provide design services for their own products.
  • Builder—Design/build firms may be able to provide HVAC design services based on code provisions.
  • Homeowner—Homeowners may be able to provide their own HVAC design based on code provisions.

Building science design

Residential design typically doesn’t require plans to be reviewed by a building scientist. However, homeowners attempting designs with exceptional energy efficiency and/or innovative materials will benefit from having an analysis done by somebody trained in building science.

Skill set may include:

  • Energy and moisture modelling
  • Airtightness planning
  • Durability planning

Can be provided by:

  • Building scientist—Trained and/or licensed building scientist may be able to offer HVAC design services.
  • Architect—Licensed architect may be able to offer building science services within firm.

Project manager

The project manager leads the design and build team, coordinating meetings and the exchange of information and drawings between team members. The project manager may have one or more active roles on the team as well.

Skill set may include:

  • Strong commitment to project goals—Responsible for ensuring goals are met by team.
  • Good interpersonal skills—Efficient at running meetings, coordinating efforts, resolving disputes.
  • Budgeting—Leads or assists in ensuring design decisions match budget expectations.
  • Design/build skills—Understands phases of design and construction and overall project arc.

Can be provided by:

  • Any team member—Homeowners often choose to take this role, but it can be provided by any team member (architects and general contractors often take this role) or by someone with no other role in the design/build team.

General contractor

The general contractor is responsible for coordinating all on-site construction activities, and is often a participant in design team meetings.

Skill set may include:

  • Strong commitment to project goals—Responsible for ensuring goals are met by build team.
  • Good interpersonal skills—Efficient at coordinating suppliers and trades, resolving disputes.
  • Budgeting—Directly handles the purchasing of materials and payment of tradespeople.
  • Design/build skills—Understands phases of construction and overall project arc.

Can be provided by:

  • Licensed general contractor—Most jurisdictions have a legal definition and requirements for a licensed general contractor.
  • Design/build firm—Design/build firms may be able to provide general contracting services.
  • Homeowner—In most jurisdictions, homeowners are able to submit plans and take legal responsibility for construction of their own home.

Other participants

There are numerous other participants who may play an important role in your project. It can be valuable to have these people participate in at least one team meeting to gather their input for the design:

  • Renewable energy designer/installer—Projects that will incorporate renewable energy systems will benefit from having an experienced designer (often also the installer) at the table to ensure that system sizing, integration and budget meet project goals.
  • Electrician and plumber—Though not typical, it can be very helpful to have the project electrician and plumber attend a design meeting to ensure that they understand the project goals and provide input regarding decisions that affect their role.
  • Building biologist—If your goals involve an emphasis on indoor environment quality, involve a building biologist or a consultant with appropriate knowledge about air and water quality, electrical fields and healthy material choices.
  • Rating certifier/provider—Each rating system will have requirements for meeting their certification thresholds. In some cases, the rating certification must be handled by a third party who is not directly involved as a member of the design team. In other cases, the rater can play an active role with the design team. In almost all cases, certification requires proof of a team-based design approach.
  • Specialist consultants and/or installers—A particular material or system may require specialist knowledge that doesn’t warrant a role on the design team, but can provide a key contribution to the team.

Assembling the team

A house-building team working outdoors - Creating a design/build team

Team-based design and construction is a relatively new approach, especially in residential building. There are very few firms that offer all of the services described above entirely in-house. In fact, it is very unlikely that many of the professionals who offer these services have ever been asked to sit together in a collaborative effort.

This puts the onus for assembling the team on your shoulders. You won’t necessarily need all of the people listed above to be on your team, as some members will be able to fulfill multiple roles. And some members may only need to be peripherally involved, providing key input at a particular juncture in the process, but not taking part in the overall planning.

First and foremost, you should feel very comfortable with all the team members. Personality is at least as important as a consultant’s resume! You will be working closely with these people, sharing your hopes and dreams for your home and involving them in major personal and financial decisions.

It is not impolite to ask for references from past clients and to follow up with the references. You will be making a significant time and financial commitment to your team members, and you should feel confident that you can get along, work together creatively and productively, and resolve issues constructively.

Read more on this topic in Building a Green Home on a Budget>>

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Essential Sustainable Home Design front cover - Creating a green home design team

Reprinted with permission from Essential Sustainable Home Design: A Complete Guide to Goals, Options, and the Planning Process by Chris Magwood, 2017, New Society Publishers.

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image 1: Pexels; image 2: Harald Brekke via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY); image 3: Brock Builders (Creative Commons BY)

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