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Building a Green House – First Things First

This is the first of a series on sustainability as related to green residential construction.

Building a house is a once in a lifetime opportunity. While it entails risk, expense and hard work, the likelihood of success is good and will always be increased by the inclusion of an architect. Remember that many before you have successfully built houses for themselves.

Site selection is absolutely crucial – green begins with community patterns and design. Here are some factors to consider:

How is the site served for transportation, schools, retail and work opportunities. A beautiful remote site may be enticing at first visit, but think carefully about everyday life. How long does it take to get to work, and how will you get there? Are there choices which don’t involve the car? Can your kids get around without you as a taxi? What is likely to happen to the neighborhood in the future? Are there planned or conceivable changes which could change the character of the place? Be sure to check master plans for the community and the region. How will the neighborhood change for you as your kids leave home? As you age?

Next consider the piece of land itself carefully – How near are neighboring houses? What views are best and from where on the site can they be seen? Where are the outdoor activity areas of the neighbors located, and how will that affect planning your house? How does the sun move across the site? How does the site slope – and drain? How much tree cover is there, and how do you feel about it? If you plan solar electricity or hot water, have the site evaluated by a provider – such assessments are low or no cost and will give an accurate insight into feasibility and yield. Ask around about subsoil conditions.

Once you have selected your site, serious planning for your house can begin. It can begin earlier, but remember that the site may suggest major reconsideration of non-site specific designs.
Space design begins with activity analysis. What will everyone in the house wish to do alone? Together? What are preferences for morning and afternoon sun? What views are available, and who wants to have them?

If sustainability is a concern, consult one of the many standards to see what the requirements might be. High on the list will be the Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes standard, and the National Green Building Standard sponsored by the National Association of Homebuilders. While sustainable certification is increasingly important for institutional and commercial buildings, the residential market has been slow to include such certification as a property descriptor. Often meeting the requirements without actual certification is a viable strategy, especially as code required building standards are rising.

Style of house is an important question, particularly in the Washington-Baltimore region. Here there is a lingering affection for traditional styles – especially broad interpretations of Georgian architecture, and the early 20th century craftsman style. Modernism never really took root here, so some of the most edgy designs available today may look out of place in many neighborhoods. The tendency to design for resale is, of course, an important factor, especially if re-location is in your future. But the opportunity to invent your own house is a unique opportunity for self-expression. This is truer of the middle suburbs than of either the inner city or far out where larger lots are the norm.  At another level, though, as long as the house you build meets zoning and local HOA requirements, there are no prescriptions about style. Many fine neighborhoods have a variety of styles and good architects speak many languages.

– Ralph Bennett, Principal

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