Green Homes—Creating a Project Plan

Create an eco-friendly building or remodeling plan to ensure success.

By Bob Vila | Updated Jul 31, 2020 12:03 PM

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Before you plunge into a green home or remodeling project, take a minute to consider why upfront planning can be so important.

“We need to remember that the greater goal of all of our building projects is to support sustainable living,” says Victoria Schomer, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers and a LEED-accredited Professional, based in Asheville, NC.

“We need to create living and working spaces that maximize existing square footage, allow us to stay connected with nature, use what we already have better, readily recycle, and adopt green consumer habits on a day-to-day basis,” Schomer says. “Then, we’ll hit that real endgame target of reducing our global impacts and protecting our planet and everyone living here.”

Find Green Experts
Don’t make a purchase until you know your plan. “Most things go wrong at the beginning, even though it may not feel like it. It’s the invisible decisions that equal missed opportunities and costly mistakes,” says Kathleen O’Brien, president of the green building consulting firm O’Brien and Co., Inc., in Seattle. The Northwest Green Home Primer , a book O’Brien co-authored with Kathleen Smith, is a comprehensive look at building, remodeling ,or buying green in that region, with worksheets, case studies, and illustrations that create a thoughtful real-world guide for getting green results.

To get your plan off to its best start, assemble a green team. O’Brien says there should be “one main hire” for the green team: the person responsible for the job. “Making sure this person is qualified and interested in a green project is absolutely key,” she says.

To find that person, look for professionals participating in a green home building program. Check with local programs developed by industry groups, such as master builders associations, environmental nonprofits, and municipal utilities.

“Find the folks who are not just members in names only but have homes certified in the local program,” says O’Brien. “Most of these groups have websites listing their members and sometimes even certified homes you can take a look at.” In the Northeast, check out the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association; in the Southeast, check out the Southface Energy Institute; in the Northwest, check out the Pacific Northwest EcoBuilding Guild.

You also can visit the websites of national organizations to obtain team contacts. The U.S. Green Building Council provides a section on its site to look up members that are LEED-accredited Professionals. To become a LEED AP, members must pass a rigorous exam that demonstrates a thorough understanding of green building practices and principles.

Assemble Your Team
After you chose your key leader, together you can build your team. As you sort through contacts, ask these questions:.

1. What type of green training and/or certification do they have? For many associations, you should be able to confirm certifications by contacting their offices or checking their websites.

2. What type and how many green homes/remodels have they successfully completed? Ask them for a list of green references and be sure to check out the list.

3. How would they approach the project? Coordination among everyone on the team—owner, architect, designer, builder, trade, manufacturers—is vital to the success of a high-performance green project.

4. What is a green building from their perspective? Look for some of the following responses, to name just a few, along with specific project goals:

  • Energy efficiency and conservation, high-performance building
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Resource and materials efficiency and conservation
  • Occupant health
  • Water efficiency and conservation
  • Design innovation
Green Building


Create a Plan and Timetable
Take a business approach to your green building or remodeling project, which means creating a written plan and a timetable.

  • Analyze what you already have—either in your home, if it is a remodel, or in the site, if it is a new build. For a remodeling project, for example, schedule a home performance audit with tests that will determine base energy-efficiency levels.
  • Review and clarify what you want out of the project. Set some achievable and measurable goals and determine how and when the success of those goals will be checked. For example, if energy conservation is a goal for a remodeling project, perhaps a blower-door test could be one way to determine success.
  • Discuss potential challenges. Review various strategies that will meet your goals for your area of the country. Sustainability is about place. What may work well in one region may not be as effective a choice in your area. Check out national resources like the Department of Energy and EPA for wind and solar maps, for instance.
  • Decide on the number of key meetings with the team as well how much you want to be involved. Decide if you will be involved daily, weekly or monthly.
  • Review design concepts. Make sure your goals are reflected in the plans.
  • Decide on your budget. Do a cost-benefit analysis and return on investment calculations on your plan. Many variables contribute to the bottom line.
  • Determine the timetable, which depends on the size of the home or remodel project.. According to Stelmack, once contracts are signed and all team members in place, a typical timeframe might include having a schematic design in six to 10 weeks, developing a design in 8 to 12 weeks, and preparing construction documents in 10 to 14 weeks.

Working Through the Plan
As you consider, create, and proceed through your green plan, here are other things to keep in mind:

  • A green plan does not have to cost more. “You build to the budget,” says O’Brien, “You don’t let it control you.” She suggests implementing strategies that use free services on the site such as sunlight, rain, airflow, and the Earth’s constant temperature; that provide multiple benefits, such as a green roof that provides insulation, stormwater cleansing, heat island tempering and aesthetics; and that use strategies that reduce consumption such as efficient framing, drought-tolerant landscaping and insulation packages.
  • A green plan can be successful even if the work is not started from scratch. “Prioritize and phase your improvements, whether it’s a remodel or new,” says O’Brien. “With our new home, we incorporated a garage design that had a skylight so that when we created a granny flat, we didn’t have to open the roof. We just upgraded our hydronic system and added a preheat solar collector.”
  • Be a positive team player. Be proactive, decisive, patient and understanding. Instill open communication among team members.
  • Keep checking the plan and verify that the work is proceeding on track and accomplishing your goals.
  • Have fun. Building or remodeling your home can be a fulfilling and inspirational process, says green expert Annette Stelmack.

When your green plan has been successfully completed, learn how to operate your new green home or remodel. The success of a green plan can be greatly affected by your habits and lifestyle. Adding big power users, not programming the programmable thermostat or failing to provide routine maintenance of the home’s systems will not allow the project to operate up to its potential.