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Community and Q&A

How to Build Green Without Breaking the Bank

Lesley_Farm_Girl | Posted in General Questions on

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, sad, and powerless. I’m trying to find a contractor who has a Building Science understanding and philosophy. I spoke with someone yesterday that thought houses needed to breathe and was quoting me on a $400,000 building when we are doing quite a bit ourselves… And he was putting in sheet vynil. It just didn’t add up. We can be approved for a $300,000 loan and the bank thought that would give us wiggle room.

Our design is a simple rectangle with a roof life facing the south which I think would be idea for solar. We are using ICF blocks to build the basement. I’ve asked about insulating the concrete slab and people think I’m crazy.

I am interested in Rockwool exterior insulation but have no idea what the cost might be? I am also very interested in Alpen windows. I think if we insulate well our hvac system can be downsized. I’m interested in mini splits at this point rather than geothermal.

I have so much to say, but don’t know where to start. Help please!

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  1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #1

    Here is my plan page 1 of 3.

  2. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #2

    Page 2 of 3

  3. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #3

    Page 3 of 3

  4. Expert Member
    RICHARD EVANS | | #4

    Hi Lesley,

    Where are you located/trying to build?

    1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #6

      We are building in Central Montana.

  5. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #5

    Using reclaimed materials is both cheaper and greener (it’s kinda like recycling) when you can. This is especially true with rigid foam. You can sometimes find flooring, windows, doors, and hardware this way too.

    Alpen Windows are nice, but not cheap. Inline Fiberglass, a company just outside Toronto, makes their frames and also makes windows — but without the fancy heat mirror films inside. You can get windows from Inline and save some money.

    Construction costs vary a lot based on where you are so it’s difficult to know what things “should cost” without knowing where you’re trying to build.

    BTW, ICFs aren’t a cheap way to build and many don't consider them to be particularly green either.


  6. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #7

    Thanks for the tips. I have a $20,000 quote for triple pain windows from Alpen. Really, not too different than others I've looked into. I priced some Marvin's at $30,000!

    We poured our own footings and our building up our ICF's which helps with cost. We've paid for it ourselves without it being part of a loan. We are not using ICF's for the full build, just the basement.

    1. AlexPoi | | #8

      Your best bet is to act as a general contractor and DIY the critical parts. This is what I'll be doing next year.

      Find someone to frame the house, seal and insulate it yourself, than hire someone to put the siding and the roof on. Then hire someone to finish the inside or DIY. It can be hard to find decent subs though because the good ones are loyal to their builder and don't have much time left.

      1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #9

        Yes! I think we might be headed in that direction. We were trying to get a loan to the build go faster... I was told my husband might build a resume to create belief that he could act as his own contractor. My husband is an Agriculture Teacher who has to teach shop classes, so he has some knowledge.

        Are you getting a loan or just building with your own cash?

        1. AlexPoi | | #11

          We already have the land but we'll get a construction loan for the house. It's not that hard to get here in Canada but what I don't like is that you have to be done in one year. I would have prefered to finish the house one room at a time and not stress about it. Instead, we'll build a small house and plan for an addition later on.

          1. Trevor_Lambert | | #15

            You don't really have to be done in one year. We had the same stipulation for our construction mortgage (RBC), and we went quite a long ways over. They just asked for updates and expected to see continual progress. However, if you are concerned about that time limit, be aware that the countdown starts as soon as you're approved, so don't apply until you're ready to break ground.

          2. Expert Member
            BILL WICHERS | | #16

            Sometimes you can get some of the loan as a credit line that you can draw against over longer periods of time. I've worked with commercial projects that will do that, so they can pay a big chunk to a GC for the main building, and have a separate credit line that covers finishes and fancy systems inside that can stretch out over 2-3 years or so.

            Ultimately the bank generally wants to package the lone into a security that they can sell or otherwise use as a financial instrument, and they don't want to wait forever for you to finish so that they can move forward with their own internal financial workings. Talk to them and see what you can do, but it might help to split the load into two parts with a "fast" and "slow" part.


          3. AlexPoi | | #25

            Thanks everyone. I will look at my options. From what I understand as long as the building is finished outside, they don't worry too much about the inside.

    2. JC72 | | #20

      You haven't mentioned where you're located but I can't fathom why you'd need to install triple-pane windows when you can get there with high quality dual-pane.

  7. user-2310254 | | #10

    Hi Lesley,

    Search the site for articles on "the pretty good house" (see, for example). That is what you are trying to do.

    Construction costs vary considerable from one area to another. And more rural or less dense metros aren't less expensive necessarily. I recently discovered that Ashevile, NC, is much more expensive than Atlanta, GA, which really surprised me.

    It is hard to trim costs on a build when so much of your expense is tied up in labor. Your best bet for significant savings is shrinking the home's footprint. If construction is $250 a square foot (a not unrealistic number), a home with 1730 square feet will run $432,500. But if you can reduce the living space by 230 square feet, your all-in is $375,000.

    On the lack of green-friendly builders, that' a common issue. You will save yourself a lot of heartache by not trying to force a traditional builder outside his/her comfort area. Instead, look for a builder who wants to learn more about current best practices (like insulating the foundation and slab).

    1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #12

      Thank you Steve! I really appreciate your insight! The footprint we have is 1763 sq ft...which isn't going to change at this point. We have two kids and will probably have one more. I'm also considering Air B n Bing my basement at least occasionally to get extra income.

      Now, I just have to convince my husband to insulate the concrete slab in the basement. I need to find a good insulation professional to talk with us!

      1. user-2310254 | | #13

        Here is an article on sub-slab insulation. ( Note that in many parts of the country you can buy reclaimed foam for much less than new material. It is also the kind of DIY project that would help your budget.

        1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #14

          Wow! Thank you!

    2. Chris_in_NC | | #18

      Asheville is definitely a huge exception for cost when it comes to Western North Carolina. Asheville is a nice place to visit, but I'd rather live in Montana.

      Definitely consider Inline, Fibertec, Accurate Dorwin for windows as alternatives to Alpen if looking for a price reduction.

      The "nested" reply structure on this site is.... challenging to use.

    3. JC72 | | #21

      Steve -

      That area of WNC has been a retirement destination for decades. Henderson County (next door to Buncombe, might be a little cheaper). A lot of Atlantans retire to Asheville area looking for a Decatur feel. Of course it also attracts people from Chicago, NE US, and California. Oh and you might consider SE side of Henderson County because it's on the SC state line and consequently closer to the Greenville-Spartanburg airport. It's always easier to fly out of that airport vs Asheville.

    4. JC72 | | #36

      I came across this new development NW of Asheville. Energy Star and NZ ready homes.

  8. creativedestruction | | #17

    Your plan shows a finished basement; you could finish that later and just do the framing and MEP rough-in's. Saves some money up front without sacrificing your project performance goals.

    1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #30

      We've talked about living in the basement and then finishing the upstairs.

  9. walta100 | | #19

    There is a grain of truth in the old saying “banks only lend money to people that do not need a loan.” As nice as your banker seems understand the person you are talking to is a low level salesman/ gatekeeper and not a decisions maker. If you can convince the person you are talking to they need to sell the decision makers on you and your project.

    The first stopper is can you show a large enough ongoing income stream minus your current debt payments and expenses and the new loan payment will be less than 80% of that income. If not any loan is a no go.

    The dream killer for green house plans is the appraisal. All the green building stuff cost money up front that pays off over time. The problem is the appraisers but zero value for everything you think makes your house great. (ICF, sub slab insulation, quality windows, anything beyond code minimum)

    Next the bank will do a day by day financial analysis of the project using the appraisers value of the finished home looking for a day that should you be abducted by aliens the bank could finish the home and sell it for a 10% profit. If that day exists the loan is a no go.

    Being a first time GC is very likely to frighten most banks.

    If you do get a loan the bank will require an escrow company to disperse the money they will be on site to photograph and document every subs work is complete and get a lien waiver before paying them. For the escrow Co to do their work you will need a very accurate budget they will hold you to. You will need to come up with cash if you make a change that puts you over budget.

    Given my location my house would never sell for what it cost to build. Probably not a smart business decision but my plan is not to sell before my death. This meant I could only finance about 50% of the construction costs.


    1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #29


  10. joenorm | | #22

    I have been building a 1500 sqft house in a high cost of living area, acting as the GC and primary builder for the last year. Besides being completely exhausting it has gone quite well and its the only way to keep the costs down. And you're not just saving a few bucks, you're saving a TON.

    A friend and I poured the foundation and framed the whole thing. I put the roof on and did all the siding, windows, air sealing, etc.

    For example, I installed a 24 gauge standing seem metal roof for little more than the cost of the materials, probably around $7K. It took a few days to install. But I designed a simple shed roof so I would have this option. That same roof would easily cost $30-40K by a roofer.

    I hired out rough plumbing but I did all the electrical. Hired out insulation, drywall, paint, custom cabinets.

    I plan to do do all the rest, basically.

    The savings is more than significant this way. The trick is balancing what you know you can do effectively and what you need to just bite the bullet on and pay for. You have to factor it all into the budget and go with it. Costs will inevitable creep up a little, but not much if you do an accurate job projecting costs.

    I will end up in the $130 sqft range all said and done for a house with nice finishes. Pretty good for an area where contractors are commonly asking $500 or more per sqft.

    I have not tracked my time through the process, which of course is significant. But if you enjoy the process it doesn't matter a whole lot.

    1. AlexPoi | | #23

      Plus, don't forget the sale and income taxes you save and the interest on these taxes. It adds up pretty quickly!!!

    2. noddon | | #24

      I'm impressed. Also acting as a general contractor on my own house and hiring trades for foundation, framing and roofing. I will do siding, flooring and outside trim myself. You can save a lot just being your own gc, probably $45,000 in my build, 1350 square foot rancher on a 4 ft crawl space, also with 400 sq
      Ft carport and 16 x 16 covered deck.

    3. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #27

      Wow, good for you! Are you using your own cash or do you have a bank loan?

      1. joenorm | | #34

        All cash, no loan

  11. AlexPoi | | #26

    Another thing to keep in mind if you are going the DIY way, buy professional tools. They can save you tons of time and you can resale them afterward. I often see homeowners on youtube buying s**ty tools because they are not going to reuse the tools so they think why should I spend the money.

    That's a big fail in my opinion. A good tool will save you so much time and especially if it's your first time doing a job. Just try a cheap tile cuter vs a professional one for instance. There is no comparison. You won't ever want to do tile again after using a cheap cutter. It's that bad.

    1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #28


    2. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #32

      +1 for only buying good tools! They work better and last longer. For most hand tools, Klein and ideal are my go-tos. The Klein screwdrivers and wire cutters are especially good. You used to have to go to commercial supply houses to get Klein stuff, but now the orange and blue stores carry many of their more common stuff.


  12. noddon | | #31

    My own cash to start. I have just finished framing to lockup. By the time I have done electrical and plumbing, roofing and siding my cash will be used up. Then I will need a construction loan or failing that I have a line of credit on the property which would suffice to finish the build. My existing loc is at about the same rate as a construction loan at the moment.

    1. Lesley_Farm_Girl | | #33

      Good for you! We have done a lot of out of pocket too. Thanks for the share of what you are doing. It gives me some direction!

  13. hendrickmilward | | #35

    I think you should look for contractors with good reviews. Of course, such a task is too difficult these days. When I was planning to build a country house, I contacted a mortgage broker from We had several consultations during which I understood what documents I needed to get a mortgage on a house on favorable terms. It was also important that my future home satisfies all the ecology rules, and I shared these thoughts with the broker. So he told me that I wasn't his first client who wanted to find a good contractor. He gave me the business card of a great professional. This broker is good at his job, but he is also a good judge of character.

  14. Deleted | | #37


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