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Green Basics

Integrated Design

Integrated Design: Treating Designers, Builders, and Subcontractors as a Team


When the parts fit together, the house is better

The regular way to build is a linear approach that moves neatly from one step to the next. The only problem is that it’s not guaranteed to produce the best result. How come?

Key players may not share common objectives for the project, may not understand how their work affects the work of others, and aren’t looking collectively for ways to make the house more efficient and less costly to build and operate. Have you ever seen a drywaller slash a vapor barrier with a utility knife to make drywall installation easier? Or huge gaps in the wall sheathing that “will be covered by siding”? This is where the regular way of building breaks down.

A number of builders who specialize in sustainable design are trying something different. It’s called “integrated design” or “whole-building design,” a collaborative approach that treats the group of people building the house as a team rather than as independent freelancers.


Get the gang together before you start

On large public projects, integrated design can be a time-consuming and expensive process that involves members of the community as well as project planners, engineers, landscapers, and various trade subcontractors.

In residential construction, it can be much simpler. But no matter what the scope of the project, the principles are basically the same. HVAC, plumbing, lighting and wiring, site planning, framing, insulating and other key parts of the project are viewed as interrelated parts of the whole.

When you’re challenging conventional methods, the group has to work as a team

Teamwork is especially important in green building because getting a high-performance house often requires that builders challenge conventional ways of doing things. Integrated design can include what builders and architects call a “charrette,” a meeting or series of meetings bringing together the designer, builder, and subcontractors to discuss the project and swap ideas.

The word is French, meaning “cart.” According to the National Charrette Institute (, its use in this context derives from the practice of collecting work from students at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris in a rolling cart as they worked feverishly at the end of a project.

How a charrette works

However obscure the connection, here’s an example of how a charrette worked on the design of an office building in Pennsylvania, as described by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Designers of the building had proposed using triple-glazed, double low-e windows, an upgrade costing $15,000. The developer balked until it was also shown that better windows would allow the elimination of a perimeter heating zone, a $15,000 savings, and downsizing heat pumps for another $10,000 in savings. In addition, smaller equipment and ducts meant more space in the building could be rented, adding $5,000 to building income.

The framing is connected to insulation, and insulation to HVAC

On a residential project, huddling up early in the process can lead to proportional savings and better building efficiency. For example, framers thinking ahead to energy efficiency might be more open to advanced framing techniques that eliminate unnecessary structural members and leave more room for insulation. More insulation and a tighter building envelope may allow the HVAC installer to put in smaller equipment. These things are more likely to happen when people talk with one another.

A Systems integration example: building envelope, interior framing and HVAC

On the right is the duct/equipment layout and duct schedule for a high performance home. Note the level of detail, the nice short duct runs with few turns, the coordination between framing and duct runs. This is systems integration of the building envelope, interior framing, and HVAC. How does this happen?

It happens because the architect (or the designer/builder if there is no architect) and the HVAC engineer (or the HVAC contractor/energy efficiency guru on staff, if there is no engineer), believe it or not, actually worked it out together. Neither completed their work alone or in one step. They each refined the systems for which they were responsible based on information the other provided along the way.

The steps involved look something like this:

1. Architect: Preliminary design includes:

  • Floor joist layout and type
  • Proposed locations of mechanical equipment and HVAC distribution system
  • Foundation, above-grade wall, and ceiling/roof assembly components, including insulation levels
  • Window locations, dimensions, and performance level
  • Building orientation
  • Rough plumbing configuration (hot water distribution)
  • 2. Engineer: make a gross level assessment of the HVAC: location of equipment and distribution system. The engineer may also do a first level energy budget analysis.

    3. Architect: design/specification refinements based on engineer’s comments.

    4. Architect: deliver plan set to engineer, including specifications for building envelope performance attributes:

  • Wall framing layout
  • Window dimensions and specs
  • Air sealing details
  • 5. Engineer:
  • Run first cut design load analysis (ACCA Manual J) to get system sizing for costing purposes. (Optional) Run energy performance analysis with sensitivity analysis on items above, plus HVAC system performance level (REM-Rate, Energy10, EnergyPlus?)
  • 6. Architect: finalize design attributes.7. Engineer:
  • Run final design heating/cooling loads analysis, providing HVAC equipment and distribution system sizing requirements (generally based on principles of ACCA Manual S and D), and including mechanical ventilation
  • (Optional) Run final energy performance analysis.
  • 8. Architect: Design/specification refinements. (Including changes to accommodate ducts, venting, equipment placement)9. Final:
  • Architect: Final floor plans showing framing and duct layout
  • Engineer: HVAC documentation delivered to HVAC contractor for review and sign-off.
  • The architect or designer needs to fully articulate the structure, including interior floor framing layout and specifications (i-joists, open-web trusses, etc.) and the HVAC designer needs to fully specify ducts and equipment. If floor framing is left to the framing contractor and duct sizes and runs left to the HVAC contractor to figure out on the job site, the chances of achieving high performance are low, at best.The result of this systems integration is a high performance home: energy-efficient, safe, and comfortable.Keeping central goals in mind“To me, integrated design has to do with the planning process and the way you lay out the design for the trade partners who are actually going to do the work,” says Michael Chandler of Chandler Design-Build in North Carolina. “We integrate the engineering and the HVAC design and the durability design and the space planning and the social planning inside the house and the beauty of the house all into an integrated process.”The other half of Chandler’s company is his wife, Beth Williams, who is an architect. Together they build three or four houses a year in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area. Chandler concentrates on the building science and Williams designs the spaces.

    Seven discussions of a good charrette

    Because the firm is relatively small, and because they tend to work with the same cast of subcontractors from job to job, Chandler doesn’t use a formal charrette. But, he says, they always start with the same seven elements, what he calls “seven from the start,” that guide the design and construction process:

    Site design

    Resource efficiency and durability

    Energy efficiency

    Water conservation

    Indoor air quality

    Homeowner education (how the house works)

    Global impact

    What about builders who don’t have any experience with integrated design? “Be infinitely curious about what makes houses work,” Chandler suggests, “and solicit feedback from your team.” Energy Star and green building guidelines can become catalysts in the process, a place to start.

    Chandler also discovered that feedback can be a powerful reward for subcontractors. For example, sharing results of duct testing with the HVAC installer proved to be an incentive to do better on the next house, especially when the “report card doesn’t come with a penalty clause.”

    Complex relationships for team and building systems

    Eric Doub of Ecofutures Building Inc. in Boulder, Colorado, explains the benefits of integrated design in his company’s “manifesto” this way:

    “The complex relationship among building systems and materials in high-performance homes is mirrored in the relationships among the team members. All team members must be able to communicate well with one another, share a common design philosophy, and respect the input of other branches of the team. This high level of teamwork, however, requires a deep commitment from the client to adhere to the integrated design/build process and retail all key players throughout the duration of the project.”

    So an explanation of integrated design also can be a pitch to prospective clients on the benefits of choosing Ecofutures as the builder as well as the designer.

    “In short,” it adds, “we ask that our clients recognize that we are always acting in their best interest to achieve the best possible outcome: a high-performance, beautiful, healthy home. And since we are the organizational leader in the design/build process it is in their best interest to retain us for the entire duration of the project.”

Keep the Gang Together As You Go

Green design doesn’t end at the charrette; communication must be consistent throughout the project among all team members. While this can be complicated on a large construction project with many team members, it’s relatively easy at a residential job site. Even small homes benefit from close attention to detail — attention that keeps costs down and quality up.

The charrette process is referenced in many residential building resources and standards, including:

  • Canadian Standards Association S478
  • ASTM E 2136
  • USGBC LEED For Homes
  • NAHB Research Center’s Durability by Design

One way to improve communication between team members is by using Web-based quality management tools (see links below under “Further Resources”). They don’t necessarily call themselves QM tools, but they all foster quality improvements by:

  • establishing one place for everyone to go to get all information on a project;
  • making project information available 24/7;
  • making it easier for the entire project team — or for just those involved in a particular aspect of the project — to collaborate;
  • making it easy to track actions and assign responsibility for those actions; and
  • establishing schedules.

None of these Web-based tools is the magic bullet. They all require commitment by the whole project team, won’t work without a true champion of the system, take time and effort to implement, and are better suited to some types of projects than others. But they can save valuable time, reduce hassles, and be used from pre-design all the way through warranty.

Listening to Industry Leaders

Two leading home building professionals — Paul Eldrenkamp of Byggmeister Design Build, a remodeling firm in Newton, Mass., and Matt Golden of Sustainable Spaces, a home performance retrofitting company from San Francisco, Calif. — have been using Web-based QM tools for several years in their green homebuilding work.

“There is no shortage of these tools on the Web,” says Eldrenkamp. “No system is perfect — many of the ones listed below have their own advantages. Look for systems that are easy to use, have ‘writeboards’ for collaborative work, milestones with assigned ‘ownership,’ and easy upload of all files — including photos, to-do lists, and a calendar.”

According to Matt Golden, “I like to think of these tools as collaboration tools. We use a much more granular, custom tool for actual project management. But Basecamp does a good job reducing our planning and meeting costs. It’s inexpensive and very simple, and all of our teams actually use it.”

To design, specify, and build quality homes, you don’t have to use Web-based QM tools. But they can be very effective at integrating all of the professionals that can make or break your green project — architects, engineers, interior designers, project managers, trades, even the client.

In addition to the tools listed below, another tool that facilitates communication between building professionals, subcontractors, and clients is My GBA from


Design Matters Blog

“The First … Charrette?”

“Ready, Set, Go”

“Pensive About Process”

Pondering the Sorry State of Green Building

Integrating Systems for Green Design

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Background on Design Charrettes with Several Case Studies (PDF — opens in new window)

BC Green Building Roundtable:

Roadmap to the Integrated Design Process (PDF — opens in new window)

Quality Management Tools

  • Building America Best Practices Series


Bird’s-Eye View

Integrated design means thinking about how the parts fit together. This systems-thinking is how green homes achieve high performance and comfort.
Image Credits: Don Mannes/Fine Homebuilding 161

Designing together means fewer problems to solve

It’s safe to say that most houses are built the old-fashioned way. It goes something like this: A designer or architect draws up floor plans and elevations for approval by the owners; the plans are turned into detailed construction drawings that can be passed along to a general contractor; the general contractor hires specialty subcontractors, or augments his own crew with subcontractors, and builds the house.

Set Goals

Set your green goals

Everyone is different, so we all have different priorities. For people with asthma or chemical sensitivity, high indoor air quality may be most important. For those on a fixed budget, affordability and energy efficiency may top the list. Still others may make choices based on the ability to grow old in the same house.

While green building and remodeling addresses all of these goals, it’s up to the green team to prioritize them appropriately.

The way you plan and design affects the way you build and ultimately live in a home.


Green kitchens are more than skin deep
Image Credits: Charles Miller/Fine Homebuilding

Finishes, fixtures, materials, and appliances

Green building is about process first, products second. But the process of building involves myriad products and materials. Green choices offer ways to improve indoor air quality, water and energy efficiency, durability, and comfort.

Paints and finishes on floors, walls, cabinets, and ceilings should be low in VOCs. Natural or recycled materials such as wood and tile can provide years of service while looking great. Efficient appliances can save energy and water, and natural lighting lowers the need for artificial lighting.

Know what to avoid in the way of building materials that contain potentially hazardous materials, such as high levels of urea formaldehyde or carpet cushion made with brominated flame retardants. Older houses should be tested for lead, a common paint ingredient until 1978.

Look for interior finishes that resist stains. Not only will the house be easier to keep clean but there will be less of a need to use harsh cleaners and sealants that are potentially hazardous, especially to children.

Keep indoor humidity at a safe level. Relative humidity greater than 60% can encourage the grown of mold. Dust mites can thrive when the RH reaches 50%. Very low humidity can be tough on flooring and furniture. Generally a range of 30% to 60% is best. A dehumidifier or air conditioning is one sure way of controlling humidity.

Building Process

Planning for a dry foundation. A paint-on damp proofing or plastic sheet between footing and foundation can be an illegal slip joint. To make the connection between the two parts solid, use rebar, a keyway, or both.
Image Credits: Roe A. Osborn/Fine Homebuilding

Building is a process

Critical gaps in energy efficiency, air quality and durability happen where one trade ends and another begins.

Builder Al Rosetto, of Lancaster, NH says “Indoor air quality begins at the footing.” He means that ground water can affect air quality in a basement and not planning for a dry basement when you’re pouring the footing can mean a dry basement will be hard to attain. Most concrete contractors don’t realize that their work is so important to indoor air quality.

Every trade contractor can improve or diminish the performance of a house.


To be green, keep it small

No single factor has more of an effect on residential energy use than house size. The smaller the house, the less energy it will use over its lifetime. Using less energy is good for the planet and good for the owners’ pocketbook, so a green designer always strives to keep a house as small as possible.


David Johnston, a green-building consultant and co-author of “Green From the Ground Up,” recalls a design charrette he helped organize for a house project in Colorado. The owners had a child with asthma, so the architect gathered key trades together to talk about how they might work together on indoor air quality issues. It was a new experience for many of them, but in the end they found an economical way to switch from fiberglass to cellulose insulation. In the same meeting, the plumber suggested a very modest change in floor plans that saved a few thousand dollars in labor and materials. In three hours, Johnston says, the group cut $10,000 from the construction budget in addition to solving the original clean-air problem. That’s the idea behind integrated design.


LEED for Homes Up to 3 points for integrated project planning (ID1) and 3 points available for durability management (ID2), which is a critical aspect of integrated planning.

NGBS Under Ch. 4 — Site Design & Development: 4 points for knowledgeable team, clear roles, written mission statement (402.1); 3 points for training on-site team (402.2); green development practice checklist — 3 points (402.3); up to 10 points for density of development (403.12); up to 15 points for home size < 2500 sq. ft. (601.1 in Ch. 6 — Resource Efficiency).


  1. Gary | | #1

    Integrated Design
    Great article, but how does a homeowner get the various players to buy into integrated design?

  2. Daniel Morrison | | #2

    Hire a 'Den Mother'
    I asked Ann Edminster to write up a brief answer, Gary. Rather than post it herself, she emailed it to me:

    Assuming the homeowner is the one bankrolling the project, s/he gets to dictate how the project is conducted. From a practical perspective, though, we also have to assume that Ms. or Mr. Homeowner has never held this role before, or perhaps has never orchestrated any design or building work. The best option is to hire an architect or owner’s rep who has experience with integrated design, and then s/he will navigate the entire team through the process. If such a person isn’t readily available, I suggest that Mr./Ms. Homeowner incorporate critical steps and responsibilities in the integrated design process into key contracts (with the architect, general contractor, mechanical design professional, et al.), and be prepared to monitor all parties concerned to see that the contract provisions are upheld.

    Some references that may help:
    The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining the Practice of Sustainability, 7 Group and Bill Reed,
    Fundamentals of Integrated Design for Sustainable Building, Keeler & Burke, and the chapter on integrated design in my most recent book, Energy Free: Homes for a Small Planet.

    Also, be sure that all your key consultants are not just amenable to the prospect, but enthusiastic. This won’t play out well with reluctant participants.

    Even with an experienced facilitator, solid contracts, and agreeable players, expect the process to be a bit messy. It’s the nature of the beast – repetitive and cumbersome at times, but ultimately essential to achieving optimum performance.

    Hope that helps,

  3. user-659915 | | #3

    Team buy-in
    Gary, assuming you are the prospective homeowner, your best bet is to start by finding either an architect/designer or a contractor who is sympathetic to the approach, and if they are at all knowledgeable about energy-efficient construction they should be. These are the key players who will be able to help put together the rest of the team.

  4. Brian O' Hanlon | | #4

    Excellent Article
    I can see there is some real experience and thought gone into the above article, which I hope to invest a lot more time and effort to study in future. Thanks for providing it on the GBA website.

  5. Riversong | | #5

    Looks more like herding cats
    The tag team approach between architect and engineer seems thoroughly wasteful and quite dis-integrated. Then to have to pass off the extensive HVAC pre-engineering to another professional - the HVAC contractor - to actually specify delivery systems seems triply wasteful and unnecessarily dis-integrated.

    The most integrated design and building process is one that used to be accomplished by a Master Builder: one person does space, structural and mechanical design, the same person creates all construction drawings, and the very same person builds or installs every part of the building. There may be additional help and a small number of subcontractors who are directly supervised by the Master Builder and may also have some input into details, methods and materials (to a limited degree, more heads are better than one if they are not banging against each other) - but the best integration of the design/build process happens inside a single head.

    How sad that home building has gone the way of every other "profession" in modern life: specialties and subspecialties, each protecting their turf and each demanding their percentage of profit. No wonder today's homes are so unnecessarily complex, extravagant and costly both to build and to the environment.

  6. Ted Clifton | | #6

    Herding Cats
    I agree (almost) completely with Robert Riversong above, it certainly is a pity that we can't all know everything about building a house. Houses just aren't that simple anymore, however. We no longer just want them to keep the rain off our heads, we want them to be comfortable to live in, economical to heat, etc., etc. Even so, it still behoves each of us in this business to learn all we can about the entire process, and to be as bullish as we can with our clients about the need to integrate all aspects of the project, from the design to the operation of the final product. The more we know, the better the likelihood of having a good outcome.

  7. M9uynR6uxc | | #7

    Thanks for the resource
    Just wanted to say thanks for the article... very well written and in-depth.

    As an answer to Gary, I think a good way to get everyone to play nice is to have a good collaborative system in place (like any of the sites linked above)... that way no one's toes get stepped on.

    I did also want to give a shout out to my personal favorite piece of management software that was omitted from your list of "Quality Management Tools": (though it's mainly for roofers it can be used for other tasks as well)

  8. sN9UCEW4YS | | #8

    Integrated Design / HVAC design
    Would a Mechanical Engineer do a Manual J, and S analysis before making final system selection when considering non ducted systems? Would the mechanical engineer be able to do a cost benefit analysis of the different systems?

  9. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Response to Beth
    In many cases, a mechanical engineer will perform the services you mention. However, it's also possible that an energy consultant (for example, a HERS rater) might do this work. Here's some more information on Manual J calculations: Saving Energy With Manual J and Manual D.

  10. user-1068185 | | #10

    Integrated Building in a low-information area
    The architects/engineers/HERS raters all seem to be located in expensive places to live (i.e,, Boulder, CO, Santa Fe NM, the S.F. Bay area). I personally need to access these kind of people in a less-populated, cleaner-outdoor-air, cheaper land place.

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