How do you find an environmentally responsible architect?

By: Terri Briseno

Home Design Image Gallery Finding the right eco-friendly architect for your project takes research. See more home design pictures.

If you're looking for an architect, you're probably building a new home or upgrading or redesigning your existing one. You're probably not going to do the work yourself, but hiring an architect for the planning and design phase would help take a huge bulk of the work off your shoulders if you do. Either way, setting goals for what you want out of a professional is extremely helpful before you start searching for the right architect. Whether you're building the house of your dreams or adding space for a growing family, narrowing down your wants and needs will help narrow your choice of architects, too. And add to this the desire to find an environmentally responsible architect, and the field gets even smaller.

Many of today's architects have experience with eco-friendly and sustainable architecture. Though it isn't always a big part of working toward a degree and licensing, green design has been a part of the residential building scene for decades. Unfortunately, as in any profession where credentials can be elaborated -- or generic enough to fit a need -- there's no "environmentally responsible" degree or certification you can check when interviewing potential architects.


But what you can do is request a portfolio. Skilled and proven architects have -- by the nature of their profession -- a unique balance of engineering know-how and design talents or at least an understanding of what should go together. And viewing their portfolio of works will allow you to see what the architects have actually done, and where they have focused their careers. If you see projects and designs that are very disconnected from what you envision, ask to see more or move on. If you like what you see, ask more probing questions, like how big a role the architect played on a project, or how energy efficient the project was due to the green products and techniques used. It sounds hard to navigate, but any professional with pride in the green benefits they achieved will show it in his or her portfolio and presentation.

But how do you even find environmentally responsible architects to interview for your project? Lay the foundation with some groundwork: research, interview and ask lots of questions. Read on to find out how to get started.


Best Laid Plans

At minimum, before you hire any architect, make sure he or she is licensed. In the United States, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) provides licensing, and each state maintains its own requirements and directories for licensed professionals. Just as doctors and lawyers must pass extensive testing before becoming full-fledged professionals, architects must pass the Architecture Registration Exam (ARE) through NCARB for licensing. So check with your state licensing board to ensure any architect you're interested in is properly licensed.

Finding a licensed architect who is environmentally responsible will involve additional research. You can start with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Architect Finder for a listing of architects in your area, or do a simple Internet search. Having a broad sample to start with isn't a bad idea, and because most architects and design professionals have a Web presence with a CV and some representative projects, eliminating commercial architects or those whose style is widely different from your own should be easy.


Once you find a few licensed architects who specialize in eco-friendly designs you like, contact the firms and express your interest in their work. Ask about energy saving features and environmentally responsible materials and techniques from previous projects and insist on the hard numbers to back them up. Hearing data from the product catalogs or textbooks and codes is one thing, but building performance determines how effective features are. And in architecture, code books and specifications are measurable and precisely determined. If an architect skirts the numbers or won't present solid numbers, you might question how environmentally effective his or her projects are -- no matter how good they look. Remember, even though you're doing the hiring, the project should still be a collaboration between you and your architect, so being able to work together is important.

Next ask for references -- and check them. Clients who are pleased with their results are generally more than willing to provide a reference and details on their finished home, the process itself and anything that needed improving. Ask about specific environmental features that are -- or are not -- working out.

Of course, looks are important, so how do you find an architect to design a home you can live with for years to come? Start by creating a portfolio of your own.


Green with Envy

Working with pre-set plans and experienced builders can give you what you want, but with an architect, there is more room for making it exactly what you envisioned.
Working with pre-set plans and experienced builders can give you what you want, but with an architect, there is more room for making it exactly what you envisioned.

If you have a digital camera or camera phone, take some local driving tours and start collecting photos of homes and buildings you like. Scout virtual designs on green home Web sites, and do the same with technologies that appeal to you and your family. If you hope to conserve water or eliminate toxins inside, or grow your own food out back, take notes and add them to your image collection. Just as someone might go to their hairdresser with some pictures of the new hairstyle they want, meeting a potential architect with a portfolio of home designs you like can get everyone off on the right foot.

Libraries and bookstores offer monographs, which are similar to art books but include portfolios of home designs. These offer unlimited ideas for each room of a house, as well as a vocabulary for connecting with an architect. If you fall in love with the designs of a famous green architect like Renzo Piano but could never fly him over from Italy to work on your home, you can have a point of comparison and vivid ideas of how his details or plans could work with yours and the architect you choose.


You can dream and brainstorm and even talk to owners and architects who have what you want or know how to design it. If you have your heart set on a style or building material that won't be environmentally friendly in the locale you plan, or if you choose a style that looks great but is known to be an energy hog, an eco-responsible architect can work with you to find that combination of wants and needs that will fit. Working with pre-set plans and experienced builders can give you what you want, but with an architect, there is more room for making it exactly what you envisioned.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • American Institute of Architects (AIA). "AIA Architect Finder." 2011. (Mar. 7, 2011)
  • American Institute of Architects (AIA). "Get Licensed." 2011. (Mar. 7, 2011)
  • National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). "Getting an Initial License." 2011. Mar. 7, 2011.