GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Green Architects' Lounge

From Designed to Built: Delivering Your Green Home

At the Green Architects’ Lounge, Chris and Phil discuss the best way to transform a design into a physical reality

This episode's cocktail: The Northern Spy
*2 oz. Apple Brandy (Applejack)
*1 oz. Fresh Apple Cider
*1/2 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
*1/2 oz. Apricot Brandy (Mr. Boston's)

Shake with ice, serve in a chilled glass, rim glass with cinnamon and sugar

For many, many more cocktail ideas, browse Fine Cooking's cocktail recipes section.

It’s one thing to design a house, and it’s another thing entirely to turn that design into a physical reality. In this episode, we kick back with an autumn cocktail (the Northern Spy) and talk about the process of bringing on a builder and the challenges of keeping relationships, quality, cost, and expectations managed along the way.

Hey, do you want to talk about wall sections? Too bad. Jesse joins us for our “What’s Bothering Jesse?” segment, and he lets us know that he’s a little tired of all the attention that walls command from the green community. So, we’ll talk about that instead.

The Highlights:

The Northern Spy: Fresh apple cider makes this is a great cocktail for the fall season. It also makes a great beverage for toasting one of the great creators of our time, Steve Jobs, who passed away on October 5th. Here’s to you, Steve, without whom we would likely not even have a podcast. Also, I failed to mention in the podcast that this is a fairly modern drink, and as such, credit can and should be given to its creator Josey Packard of Alembic in San Fransisco.

What defines a successful project? A happy client, to be sure, but also a happy architect and a happy builder.

The architect’s public relations problem. We discuss how the architect is widely perceived by the public and builders.

What’s the process? You could go out to bid, but we think a team approach is better.

Bringing the builder in early? Here are the pros and cons. Pro: You get some cost control and input on methodology, but this must come with some understandings. Con: Did you lose your competitive advantage? What assurance do you have that you are getting the best bang for your buck?

Have and set clear expectations. Like a good marriage, good communication is critical.

What’s bothering Jesse? Walls! (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)

Don’t forget to check back in later for Part 2, where we play “Three Questions” with three prominent green builders and get their input on this subject. Also, we tip our hats to some fellow Mainers for the work they’ve done, and of course Phil finishes with a song you should be listening to while you design.

Thanks for listening. Cheers.


Chris Briley: Hey everybody, welcome to the Green Architects’ Lounge podcast. I’m your host, Chris Briley.

Phil Kaplan: And I’m your host, Phil Kaplan. How’re you doing, Chris?

Chris: I’m doing absolutely great, Phil. Yourself?

Phil: Excellent! I’m doing great. I noticed it was nice and chilly for the first time last night. Did you see frost?

Chris: I don’t know if I saw frost, but dude, I felt it. I woke up and took the kids out to the bus and went “Whoa!” Went out in a T-shirt and was like “This bus better hurry up!”

Phil: Welcome to fall. It’s all downhill from here.

Chris: So they say. Fall season brings what?

Phil: It brings apples — Am I right?

Chris: Let’s go right to the cocktails. Not only is it fall, but we got the news that Steve Jobs passed away. Our cocktail is in honor of Steve Jobs and also fall. It’s called the Northern Spy.

Phil: Man, it’s hot.

[The guys share the recipe.]

Phil: It’s getting a little chillier. Aren’t we glad we live in warm homes, Chris?

Chris: Yes, we are. Energy-efficient one.

Phil: And we’re glad we’re building them and designing them…

Chris: That’s right. The title of this podcast says that we’ve designed you a great house; now we have to make it a reality. There’s the challenge of bringing in a builder, controlling the budget and schedule, and making this thing happen. Not the easiest thing in the world to do…

Phil: And then there’s the inconvenience of having a client involved… I mean, someone’s gotta pay for it. No, really, we love our clients — especially when we have a great team. Spectacular things happen — intense joy and creation. One of the things we can talk about is what defines success.

Chris: So, what’s a successful project?

Phil: The number one thing is a happy client. If the client is happy and they’re going to recommend you after the fact, and they’re going to live in this house…

Chris: You’ll sleep at night if you know the client is happy.

Phil: It also helps if the architect is happy and likes the design.

Chris: If it’s one you’re passionate about and excited to show your friends, then that is special.

Phil: Things come together, and the client shares your goals and believes in your vision. It also helps if you make a little money on it. And the builder has to have great satisfaction — he’s out there all the time. He also has to make money on it.

Chris: And be proud of what he’s done. The ultimate successful project, then, is happy client, happy architect, happy builder.

Phil: We can get there. It’s been done. Does it happen most of the time? I’d say not. We’re in a tricky profession. We’re here to try to resolve some of these issues. And in Part 2, we’ll talk directly with some builders to figure out what we need to do to come together as teams and make it work better.

Chris: Clients want to understand the process. Lots of times they come to us and say they’ve never hired an architect before. And they’ve never built anything before, never hired a builder before. Part of the architect’s job is to demystify the process. It’s not a magical thing that happens behind some green curtain. There are real, tangible people involved who care about the whole process.

Phil: It’s true. They come to us because we’re good at what we do. We see things in a different way because that’s how we’re trained. But, my little tangent is this: I personally think architects have a PR problem. People think our egos and their dreams are going to be exceeded and cost them a lot of money, and they’re not going to be in control of the process. That’s sad. Our goal is to be a trusted advisor.

Chris: As architects, we’re a different profession than we were 20 years ago.

Phil: Absolutely. The idea of a master builder is nice, but we need a team to do all these things.

Chris: So, let’s talk about that. The team member we’re going to talk about most right now is the builder. In the old days, Phil, you’d hire this master builder/architect who’d draw your plans, write your specs, hand them to you, and say, “This is the house you want.” And you’d take all that to every builder in town to get their budgets, and then you’d pick one. It’s called “going out to bid.”

And commercially that still happens; the stakes are higher and you need that level of control. But with a house, the problem with that is the client is going to be paying the architect to protect them. If you have a good builder who’s on board and part of the team, though, you don’t need protection. The times have changed.

Phil: Especially when we talk about sustainable homes.

Chris: Speaking of green, I’d like to not introduce Dan Morrison. He was going to travel here.

Phil: Dan is the executive editor of Fine Homebuilding and GreenBuildingAdvisor. We are very excited to almost have had him as a guest.

Now that we’re doing these green homes…

Chris: They take a higher level of focus, and not just from the builder. It’s even more important that the builder gets this stuff right. So choose the builder ahead of time.

Phil: In integrated design, we get the builder on board early rather than go out to bid. We need a team to make the sure the details we’re drawing are going to be built properly. And also, it’s a check for us. We’re architects; we don’t swing hammers. If we’re not careful and screw this stuff up, it’s a huge risk for green building in general.

I’ll tell you how we bring a builder in. Typically, there’s a schematic design, and then there is design development when pricing is set. It’s certainly before construction drawings; we don’t go out to bid. We advocate getting the drawings done to a certain level to get the builder to set a price within 10 to 15 percent. We just ask for an estimate. Then we ask the client to hire that builder, and then we form a team.

We’ve had issues with bringing builders in really early in the process, having to do with cost control. They offer an estimate based on sketches; they’re hired, and then we do the construction drawings. The building costs then go way out of control.

Chris: Clients listening to this say, “That’s other people, not me.” Well, it is you. It would be me, if I were building my house. There’s a compulsion for everyone to hear what they want to hear. Let’s say the builder quotes a house between $250,000 and $400,000. That’s a massive range; if they quote you that, it practically means nothing. The client walks away thinking, “All right, if we do everything the architect says, we’ll be at the low end of that range.”

Phil: If we bring builders on too early, the client thinks they’ve lost the competitive advantage. They have a little bit of regret.

Chris: So, what do you do? On a recent project, in the design development phase, we hired two builders and paid them to come up with a ballpark price, within 15 percent. We got plans, elevations and a good wall section for a real complicated project, but we had to make allowances. We got two prices back, but you’re not choosing based just on numbers, but on a relationship. We hired one of the builders and said “sorry” to the other one, but at least they got paid a little.

We’re afraid of builders offering up numbers too soon that are not based on enough information — we need plans, elevations, a good wall section, maybe schedules.

Phil: Sometimes we push it to structural information — framing plans — to get more accurate bidding. In Part 2, we’ll talk to a few prominent builders to get their point of view.

Chris: And we’ll make fun of them.

Phil: It’ll be really interesting to see what kind of alignment there is between our thoughts and their thoughts. If we’re not completely aligned, then we need to work on that.

Chris: It’s all about managing expectations. It’s all about being clear with the client and the builder.

Phil: We can’t reiterate enough about clarity at the outset for program and scope, schedule, and budget. Have them written down somewhere. Be honest every step along the way.

Chris: It’s like the key to a successful marriage — communication. Of course, really, it’s sex and money. Which is not the same with building and design; I’ve not had that project yet.

Let’s leave it here. In Part 2, we’ll play “Three Questions” with the builders.

Sheila, let’s bring in Jesse to play “What’s Bothering Jesse Thompson?” With us now is architect Jesse Thompson.

Jesse Thompson: Why do we spend so much time talking about walls? With each other, with clients, with builders, probably code officials.… Yeah, there are more walls than roof in a house. Maybe they are important.

Phil: I get it. When you’re talking to a colleague about a house, they say “It’s got R-40 walls.” We always begin with the walls. What did you get in the walls? I’ll judge you from there.

Jesse: In Passivhaus consultant training, we talk about moisture profiles in walls. We get clients with detailed lists of technical aspects they want in their buildings. Well, let’s go back and talk about the house first, then about what’s the right thing to do. We get clients who are as quality obsessed about the guts of their building as they are about …

Phil: It’s a paradigm shift.

Jesse: Well, they’re coming fast. They sit up all night reading GreenBuildingAdvisor before they talk to anyone. It’s playing defense on their part; they realize there are good buildings and crappy buildings.

Phil: Remember when low-e first became a big thing? People didn’t understand it. They just thought they were getting crappy windows if they weren’t low-e. Now they want more insulation in the walls.

Jesse: If someone wants a SIP house, we can talk about 10 different ways of doing the walls. We don’t spend as much time talking with clients about the roof or the basement or the foundation in the same way. Let’s talk about the whole building, not just obsess about the walls. The framing is 25 percent of the cost. We still have 75 percent of the house to talk about — like nontoxic materials. There are other things going on here, to try to get a building ready.

Chris: Jesse, this segment’s starting to bother me. See you next time.


  1. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #1

    Design Charretes
    If there is one thing the LEED for Homes program “gets it” is on the Design Charrette. All projects before they get started should have a meeting with all the key players, especially when there are trades new to green building. In this Charrette one should include the Owner, Designer, Builder, Rater/Verifier, Superintendent (if any), and maybe some of the trades like the framer, HVAC sub, etc. If this process is not followed, there’ll always be a high chance for miscommunication, wrong expectations, incorrect detailing, incorrect bidding and most important, construction down time.

  2. albertrooks | | #2

    I think the obsession is a healthy sign.

    With all due respect, your going to have to get over it and "tune it out".

    I saw the post where Martin said you guys were emailing each other and commiserating about the "endless discussion about walls".

    It's great that you have reached a point where you are comfortable enough with your knowledge. That "your wall" is unassailable and you see no further need for discussion or debate.

    I think the wall discussions on forums like GBA Q&A and Green Architects lounge are important to support. Even when they get repetitive and a bit testy. These discussions are one one of the best forms of education that this industry has.

    Look at what we've got here in the US: There is no real formal education required to enter the construction industry for builders. The industry focus is on the low end systems of code walls. Adding small quantities of  exterior foam is starting to show as code or energy star in some climates. Poorly done prescriptive paths with no understanding of the underlying science is a very worrisome thing.

    It's forums like GBA, JLC and "the lounge" that are the accessible points for many who are trying to learn. I think that was the point and the service they are trying to deliver.

    My goodness guy's... I can't tell you how happy I am that the focus is gaining on envelope functions instead of finishes.

    Recognize a good trend when you see it. If both consumers and builders are obsessing about walls to the point that your tired of it, that's really good news. If they learn something and remain excited about it, they will talk to others about it and the high quality envelope discussion will broaden and reach farther into the consumers awareness.

    I thought that's the point of Green Building.

  3. user-1012653 | | #3

    not much to add...
    not much to add, besides I did try this drink...sort of. Had a party this weekend and served it. However I could not find the apple Brandy (that was under $40 a bottle I will add...) so I used Jack instead.
    Pretty tasty drink!
    Oh, nice green convo too! I would like to see a thread/blog/something where Jesse opens up more about other parts/systems in the envelope besides the walls...


    Charette, cont'd
    I agree, but often have found that most charettes often occur so that the LEED box can be checked, and often the builder is yet to be part of the team. The more useful conversations we've had are the down-and-dirty ones with the builder and often the HVAC guy that follow as the building starts to take form.

    Not to beat up LEED or anything...

  5. Dovetail7442 | | #5

    what about design/build & cost-plus?
    Good discussion, two observations from where I stand:
    The discussion assumes the architect is the first point of contact with the client and becomes project gatekeeper by winning the client's trust. Isn't this becoming increasingly rare? I think it's great that you are looking for ways to include builders earlier in the process, but to some extent isn't this water over the dam?

    We run a design/build company specializing in timber frame and consequently we often delve into other alternative systems and techniques. We are to the point of turning away clients with architect drawn plans who are looking for a "bid". In the vast majority of cases, the architect has designed based on a promised budget that bears no relationship to the plans. Stray further from conventional construction and the relationship between real cost and and architect's estimate gets even murkier. So the architect gets caught with his pants down (as it were) and the pressure is on to take a low bid.

    Personally I'd be happy to be asked for an estimate after design development as opposed to being asked when plans are complete, but I'd like to get paid for that work, and I'll only take the project on a cost plus basis. Open book cost- plus is, IMHO, the only ay to achieve fairness in the method you describe. So many builder's first reaction when winning a competitive bid is "Yay", followed closely by "what did I miss?" and then "how can we cut corners to maintain our margin?" Do you as an architect really want to be relegated to babysitting contractors to be sure they aren't cutting corners? Is the client capable of being overseer?

  6. user-964538 | | #6

    BBC4 Thinking Allowed

    You may enjoy a listen to the 28 min podcast from United Kingdom.


    Brian O' Hanlon

    Note: This podcast link may get superceeded, but search in a years time if you like. The BBC4 keep quite good recordings of old stuff, which you can play long afterwards in a Real Player format.

    TA 21 Mar 12: Home at RIBA
    Wed, 21 Mar 12
    28 mins
    What does the idea of home mean to us in Britain? Laurie Taylor is joined by Angela Brady, President of RIBA; housing economist Susan Smith; sociologist Esther Dermott and architectural writer Jonathan Glancey to discuss how ‘home’ has changed and how new needs are being met.

  7. user-964538 | | #7

    Management Science Draft Paper
    I took a lot of time and effort recently to get together this working draft paper on the subject of management in the construction industry in Ireland.

    The reason why you may find the paper somewhat of interest, is that it might be a 'brush up' some of the basic chapters found in any common management text book - but in such a way, that it relates those generic first principles of management, back to some real examples.

    Thought you might like a peek at it.

    Brian O' Hanlon

Log in or create an account to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |