For example, insulated concrete forms, while less expensive than masonry, require a new way of running plumbing and electrical lines; they also require additional labor to brace the walls as they're put into place. Those factors drive up costs, at least until the drill becomes routine. “What I find is that good business practices hold true whether you're building green or not,” Maran says.

“When there are great new green products, we'll encourage people to use them, but we'll approach them with the same fair analysis we would [give] any other product.” Eco-conscious contractors know they're being watched carefully, and a poor outcome sheds a bad light on green building.


Architects are judging environmental aesthetics with the same level eye. Unlike the slightly quirky-looking Toyota Prius, a recognizable icon of eco-consciousness, fewer and fewer buildings these days are conspicuously green. Unless you want to artfully express, say, the collection of rainwater, a house doesn't have to look different. Jackson's eco-minded clients are asking for houses without a lot of showy green elements, which he thinks is a good thing. “To move this along, the sustainable elements don't have to be an overarching design element. The more these issues of sustainability are embraced by what I'd call the star architects, the sooner we'll move away from viewing it as a trend.”

Inscape Studio's Rick Harlan Schneider, AIA, of Washington, D.C., agrees. “What's happening is that sustainable design is pushing the aesthetics,” he says. “We're seeing the regionalism of folks like Glenn Murcutt and Lake/Flato Architects. Some of it has to do with materials, but it's also responses to climate.”

Still, it's sometimes hard to find a balance between what looks good and what's ecologically correct. Phoenix architect and contractor Tom Hahn, Sol Source Architecture, occasionally sacrifices green gestures for clean architectural details. He's finishing up a straw-bale house that's “zoomy, with lots of angles and glass” and thick walls that are broken apart. He wanted the insulated glass to intersect at the corners, but code required ½-inch-thick solid glass. “I'm compromising a few BTUs of heat transfer in that area to get the details I want,” he says. “In that place, the experiential aspect outweighs the ecological aspect.” Where appropriate, Hahn takes a reductive approach. He says he's come to realize that, fundamentally, the best way to be environmentally friendly isn't to add things but to subtract them. Rather than cover a concrete floor with recycled-content carpet, for example, he would propose a polished slab. And he rarely specs trim, even though subs charge more for a trimless finish.

Wilson sees green thinking not as a constraint, but as simply one more deep-rooted source of inspiration. “If anything, doing a sustainable project is an added driver for the aesthetic,” he says. “Green projects make you look at things more closely. Most of the realm of green design can be accomplished with pretty standard stuff; it just requires more thinking.”

green vs. greenbacks

does all of the extra research, construction-site vigilance, and tending to anxious clients erode profits on eco-friendly projects? As with any new project type, there's a learning curve to consider, and green architects say initial out-of-pocket costs are disproportionate to a firm's experience. But once they get up to speed, they say they can work profitably using fee structures that are consistent with high-end work. Envision Design, for example, charges 12 percent to 15 percent of construction costs—a ratio in line with other top-drawer firms in the Washington, D.C., metro area. “Higher-end projects require a little more time of the architect,” says principal and founder Ken Wilson, AIA. “Green projects fall into that category.”

Rick Harlan Schneider, AIA, of Washington, D.C.-based Inscape Studio, hires young graduates and senior staff who are well-educated in sustainable practices. He also ties his fees to construction costs. “I think it's getting to the point now where green design is rolled into everything we teach ourselves about architecture, so the jobs are no less profitable for us than any other kind of work,” he says. Research and consulting fees for designing and installing emerging technologies such as photovoltaics are routinely passed on to clients, he adds.

Until recently, Minneapolis-based Locus Architecture operated as a design/build firm—a fast track to mastering the nuts and bolts of green measures. Most of its projects involve reusing materials, an unwieldy process that usually means shipping them off for sandblasting, dipping, or painting. The firm's network of experts includes green contractors and craftsmen, a mechanical engineer who calculates heating and cooling loads, and an installer for solar panels and wind turbines, all of whom bill clients directly. “There's certainly more time involved in these projects,” says partner Paul Neseth, AIA. “We're doing a church that has some of this stuff involved, and there's a fixed fee, so we're eating some of the costs. But usually we work on an hourly basis.” He reasons that clients are paying for research time that will benefit the firm's future clients, just as they are benefiting from the firm's past research. Says Neseth: “It's something clients just have to accept.”