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6 Reasons Why An Architect Will Save You Money

As architects, we know that building your dream home is a huge financial (and time!) commitment. We have all heard cautionary tales of cost overruns and construction delays. Many homeowners begin custom home projects with excitement and enthusiasm but end them with frustration about a lengthy and overwhelming process. As architects, we can help.

A common misstep that homeowners make is waiting too long to hire an architect. An architect is a start-to-finish resource—not just your designer or permit specialist, but your advocate, advisor, project coordinator, and guide as you turn your dream into reality. Starting your project with an architect will provide you with valuable insights and expertise that will save you money not only during construction but throughout the life of your building.


How can an architect save you money?

1. We are creative problem solvers

We analyze your constraints and highlight multiple ways to achieve your goals. Creative solutions come in all sizes and prices, and we ensure you have the information you need to choose which solution is right for you.

For example, perhaps you think an addition is the solution to your needs, but you might just need to reallocate and reorganize the space you have. Architects can see the opportunities that might not be apparent to you, especially if you live in the home and are accustomed to its current patterns.

This interior remodel reconfigured existing spaces to add function and daylight in key areas — without increasing square footage.

This interior remodel reconfigured existing spaces to add function and daylight in key areas — without increasing square footage.


2. We balance soft costs and hard costs

Soft costs include services and fees relating to design and permitting. Design services aren’t free, but they are a relatively small percentage of construction cost (5-12% of most custom homes, depending on the services provided). Creative problem solving at the beginning of a project can add up to significant savings during construction and occupancy.

Hard costs are direct construction costs—materials and labor. Material and resource efficiency is key to managing hard costs. Architects can:

  • Right-size your home so you are not overbuilding and overspending on space (and therefore labor and materials) you don’t need.

  • Design for energy efficiency so your home is more affordable to heat and cool.

  • Suggest unconventional strategies to achieve conventional goals.

For example, we helped one client achieve a 20% cost savings on structural additions by choosing to lift up their existing house and build below it, rather than building on top of the existing structure. Learn more about this unconventional solution here.

The existing home would have had to undergo significant structural alterations to support a new second story. Lifting the existing home and building the addition beneath allowed for most of the existing structure to remain, and eliminated the need for a new roof!

The existing home would have had to undergo significant structural alterations to support a new second story. Lifting the existing home and building the addition beneath allowed for most of the existing structure to remain, and eliminated the need for a new roof!


3. We balance first costs and life-cycle costs

Buildings –like cars—cost more than their initial purchase price, or “first cost.” They need to operate effectively and efficiently for their entire life cycle. They need to be heated, cooled, illuminated, and ventilated. They need to draw and supply power and water for the various activities that take place inside. All of these systems can be designed to take advantage of natural resources on your site to save on long-term operations cost.

A sneakier part of life-cycle cost is maintenance – interior and exterior material choices can have a lot to do with how much you spend to care for a home over the course of its life. You can save money in the long-term if you choose:

  • Materials that weather with age rather than degrade

  • Materials that are durable for their climate and use

  • Materials that support occupant health

Concerned with the cradle-to-grave life cycle of materials and processes? Then we can help you evaluate the environmental costs of your project life-cycle as well.


4. We design buildings to be resilient systems

Buildings are systems, not just an enclosure for stuff. All the parts of the system have an impact on operational cost, which is a significant factor in how affordable it will be to live in your house long-term. We consider the interdependency of many factors when designing for operational cost savings: the equipment and appliances you put into your home, the performance of the building envelope, and your preferences and behaviors as an occupant.

For example, our Yakima Net Positive Project incorporates passive solar, geothermal, PV panels, super-insulated walls, and smart home integration. Learn more about these integrated systems here.

Site-wide sustainable strategies provide the basis for long-term cost savings. This geothermal field was a key integrated system for this net-positive energy home.

Site-wide sustainable strategies provide the basis for long-term cost savings. This geothermal field was a key integrated system for this net-positive energy home.

5. We know when to standardize and when to customize

While every project presents a unique set of goals and constraints, there are many similarities we encounter from one project to the next. Our approach to every job includes evaluating where we can save time and money by drawing from proven solutions on past projects and where customization and innovation are the best way to address a new set of challenges.

For example, Roy Farms is a family-owned Yakima Valley farm that has been in operation for more than 100 years. As part of their commitment to a sustainable future, they asked us to remodel an existing farm building to create a healthy and satisfying work space for their field employees. For remodels like this, customization can be an important strategy, where unusual conditions or constraints exist and energy and material efficiency are important goals. Learn more about the ways we upgraded this farm to meet their sustainability goals here.

Custom wall and roof assemblies were key to reusing most of the existing structure while increasing energy efficiency.

Custom wall and roof assemblies were key to reusing most of the existing structure while increasing energy efficiency.

6. Knowledge is Purchasing Power

When you hire an architect, you get years of experience and insight focused on your needs. We are your advisor and advocate, and work to empower you to make decisions that support your goals. When we work with you from the beginning of your custom home project, we can make sure you get a home ideally suited to your needs. Our consistent involvement as your advocate from start-to-finish brings you a level of control throughout the process, so that you avoid the unhappy surprises of budget overruns and higher than expected maintenance costs.

If you are in the early planning stages of a new construction or remodeling project and you’d like to discuss it with us, please fill out our Brief Online Questionnaire.

If you are interested in a new custom home or home remodel and would like to have a more in-depth discussion of project priorities, site issues, and design goals, please contact us.

What Does it Mean to “Build Local”?

Most of us are familiar with the economic and environmental benefits of “buy local”: contributing to our local economy, minimizing the energy spent transporting our purchases, and supporting organizations capable of responding to the unique needs or desires of our community. If we expand this approach to building a home or small business space, it is clear that the same strategies apply – from obtaining materials from local and regional sources, to working with nearby designers who understand the local climate and lifestyle. The “build local” approach is also essential to accomplishing a more ephemeral feat: what architects often term a “sense of place.”

Place is a challenging term to define – what makes a location an authentic “place,” rather than just coordinates on a map? What makes some cities, towns and homes memorable and others forgettable? What impact does “place” have on our community and individual identities? And how do we uncover a location’s sense of place? Building professionals and scholars have long debated these questions amidst ongoing explorations of what makes a space a “place,” and how this sense of place varies from region to region.


We often think of particular historical styles of building when thinking of different regions – Craftsman in Seattle, Ranch Style in Los Angeles, and Victorian in San Francisco for example. But the true character of a place is not a particular style or product. Place is not static, but something that is continuously evolving through the interaction of people and their environment. As a region’s people and culture evolve, so can its architecture.


What does it mean to “build local” in the Pacific Northwest?

In most cities and towns, it is easy to find buildings that don’t tell us much about our communities. Fast-food chains and big-box stores are two common examples of buildings that owe their appearance to processes far removed from their site and the community they serve. They are uniformly prescriptive, rather than uniquely perceptive. These buildings detract from a sense of place not because they lack a specific style, but because regardless of where they are built, their appearance and relationship to their surroundings is the same.

It is the process required to build locally – collaborating with suppliers and practitioners in your community and building in response to local features and constraints—that brings the character of a place into focus. Place-making requires discovery, participation and interaction, not only from building professionals, but from home owners and community members as well. This process can shape architecture in a variety of ways: a building may respond to the history of a region, highlight local cultural or natural resources, showcase the craft and innovation of local artisans and builders, or celebrate local materials. In the Pacific Northwest we are lucky to have a variety of local materials and manufacturers to support an equally varied palette for local architecture. Stylistically, local architecture may blend in or stand out—either way, if it communicates something specific about its context, it tells a unique story about a place.


Place is more than a dominant historical style: Craftsman in Seattle, Victorian in San Francisco, and Ranch in Los Angeles.

The built environment – the sum of our buildings, outdoor spaces, and infrastructure—occupies the space between us and the raw landscape. When we enclose spaces in buildings we shouldn’t think of them as separate from the land, but rather places that can heighten our awareness of our surroundings. The forms we build embody choices and values pertaining both to the inhabitants and to the land upon which they sit. Architecture provides shelter, enables interaction, and provides retreat and privacy. It is an essential tool for living in the world. Successful places not only function well as a collection of tools, but they express a dynamic connection between the land and the people who live there.

There is ecological and spiritual value in forging connections with the places we live. When we actively engage in the “build local” process as home owners, community members, and designers, then we can better understand our relationships to each other and our impact on the world around us. Building locally is not about shutting out the world, but negotiating local and global tensions. With the wealth of inspiring imagery available online with the click of a mouse, it can be tempting to seek out design trends from all over in hopes of creating something unique. While there is much to be learned from the diversity of materials and methods in various locales, the act of engaging with the local community and environment is essential to discovering what is unique about your place in the world and contributing to a sustainable future.

 Photo credits: Historic mill photo from UW Libraries; Map of Washington from Visit Seattle; Downtown and ferry boat from Department of Transportation; Craftsman home from HistoryLink, Victorian home by Hypersite on Creative Commons, Ranch home by Visitor7 on Creative Commons.

Leading Force Energy and Design Center: A Space for Powerful Ideas

There is a revolution underway in the building industry based on a simple, yet powerful idea: collaboration produces better results. This seems like an obvious truth. So why is it so revolutionary in the building professions? Isn’t this the way buildings are built?

As it turns out, it isn’t–at least, not historically. The traditional approach to building design and construction is what the American Institute of Architects (AIA) calls the “building triad” — comprised of the owner, architect, and contractor. This triad forms the top of the project hierarchy and additional subcontractors and specialists are brought into a project as needed. But this way of working is outdated. It fails to harness and apply specialized knowledge. It leads to inefficiencies, miscommunications, and missed opportunities.

We, as building professionals, need to find ways to better apply our specialized knowledge as a force for collaborative good.

This collaborative revolution is enough of a departure from the traditional approach that the AIA has adopted a new term for it – Integrated Project Delivery (IPD). While this term may seem vague, and the 60+ page document explaining it may seem complex, the core of this approach is comprised of several simple ideas: 


– build your team early

– practice clear and consistent communication

– establish mutual respect and trust

– share risk and reward



IPD recognizes that the ideal team is comprised of multiple stakeholders, each with specific expertise that informs a project from start to finish. It prioritizes collective decision making and open discussion over the strict, linear hierarchy of the “building triad.” The team’s success is linked to the project’s success, and this reduces time and material waste, maximizes project efficiency, and increases the project value for the owner.

Not only does IPD offer a new approach to professional collaboration, it has the potential to produce better performing, more affordable buildings. There are thresholds of efficiency and cost savings that are tough to surpass without collaboration. For instance, AIA research has shown that it is possible to reduce energy use by 30% through fairly simply tools such as prescriptive checklists and best practices. But the AIA ultimately argues that passing the 30% threshold requires that the “complex interaction of systems and context must be taken into account.” Such analysis requires ongoing and open discussion, not just information. That is, turning discussion into innovative design requires team relationships, not just checklists.

Collaborative approaches are the future of sustainable building. While technology continues to play a role in facilitating virtual collaboration, we believe it is also important to make space for face-to-face collaboration. That is why we are proud to announce our partnership in the Leading Force Energy and Design Center. Leading Force is a place where collaboration is given a physical presence – where the powerful ideas of IPD are tested in real time and open to the public. It is a place for designers and builders, clients and community members, and experts and novices alike. It is a place for learning and innovation. We hope to see you there.

Upgrading a Mid-Century Classic


With the recent revival of the housing market, it is a great time to think about upgrading existing homes to improve their livability and longevity. We recently had the opportunity to recommend an upgrade strategy for a mid-century home in Bellevue, WA. Mid-century homes offer many desirable features and renovation possibilities. While surface updates are the most immediately appealing, energy efficiency upgrades are essential to the long-term sustainability of any home. We recommend getting started with an energy audit to identify the most effective strategies.


Many mid-century homes are also single-level, making them ideal candidates for long-term accessibility. Simple updates such as widening doors and reworking bathrooms can make these homes even more livable for people of all ages and abilities.

Do you live in a mid-century home? Tell us what is great about it as well as what features you’d like to upgrade!

Flowers, Buildings, and a Sustainable Future

The Living Future Institute recently released their updated guidelines for the Living Building Challenge – a program that outlines rigorous building standards geared towards creating a more sustainable built environment. The Challenge is at once a philosophy, advocacy tool, and certification program. Living Buildings are intended to lead by example and demonstrate the realities of the environmental, social, and economic goals outlined in the document.


Seattle now has a prominent example of what a Living Building can achieve. The Bullitt Center bills itself as the World’s Greenest Office Building, and en route to its official Living Building certification, must not only demonstrate net zero energy and water performance, but meet twenty specific performance criteria outlined in the Challenge. To achieve such feats, the building incorporates 26 geothermal wells, a 14,000 square foot solar panel array, a 56,000 gallon cistern, and allows for daylighting in 82% of the interior spaces.

At first glance, the scale of such green accomplishment as the Bullitt Center might make it seem like the Living Building Challenge doesn’t relate to smaller neighborhood projects or individual homeowners, but don’t be discouraged! The underlying philosophy of the Living Building Challenge and the design framework within it are meant to clearly communicate performance areas and make them scalable and manageable for a variety of project types and contexts.

So what do flowers have to do with all of this? Like most buildings, flowers are rooted in place. But unlike most buildings, flowers respond and contribute to their site in a cyclic and sustainable manner—they are valuable members of a diverse ecosystem. What if buildings were more like flowers, and made a permanent, positive impact on their users and surroundings?

The Challenge uses the metaphor of the flower and individual “petals” to describe the different performance areas that combine to make a sustainable whole. Each petal also outlines imperatives and strategies for sustainable achievement. While full Living Building certification requires all petals be satisfied, you can also receive individual petal certifications for a project. The petals include:

PLACE: How can a project establish a balance between the built site and the natural site? Strategies for this petal include suggestions for urban agriculture, habitat protection, ecologically sensitive growth, and improving transportation options.

WATER: Water is an increasingly endangered resource. What are the natural water flows on the site, and is it possible to replenish these water flows despite use? Strategies for this petal include addressing storm water and grey water through harvesting, re-use, or sustainable treatment. Due to regional differences in average rainfall and code barriers to innovation, this is the most challenging petal to address on a widespread scale.

ENERGY: How can the project incorporate passive and renewable energy sources and is there a way to store energy for future use? Strategies for this petal include daylighting interior spaces, maximizing the efficiency of the building envelope, and solar and geothermal options.

HEALTH & HAPPINESS: The spaces we inhabit affect our physical and mental well-being. Strategies for this petal include encouraging human connection with nature and maintaining good indoor air quality.

MATERIALS: Material choices have environmental, social, and economic impacts. Strive for no Red List (link) products, and seek out a team of green producers and suppliers in the local economy to collaborate with on the project. Other useful strategies for this petal include recycling and reusing building materials to realize a waste-free construction process.

EQUITY: Even projects designed for individual or private use influence the broader community and environment. This petal encourages designers and clients to think beyond the immediate scope of the project and consider how the project could make a positive impact in the community. How can a home renovation improve not just the individual dwelling, but the experience of being in the surrounding neighborhood?

BEAUTY: This petal reminds us that design can be inspiring and transformative, and that these features should be celebrated as key components of sustainability. After all, an individual or community is increasingly likely to care for a building through time if they like it.

So if you’re embarking on a design project–no matter the scale–consider using the petals as a guide. While not every building project will be able to achieve Living Building status, each petal is a significant step towards a more sustainable project.

Emergent Leadership

The greater Seattle area is an amazing place to practice sustainable design.

One of the numerous benefits of practicing here is the many choices of enlightening sustainable building events to attend. In just one month’s time this fall I have 6 days blocked out for conferences (EcoBuilding 2013 and Built Green), design slams (Seattle 10x10x10), panel discussions (WNSF’s Women in Building), and site tours (Bullitt Center). And that was after filtering out the events that I couldn’t find time for!

Even with all these events to feed my green design appetite, the one I’m most thrilled to attend this year is the Emerge Leadership Workshop at Islandwood in early December.  I interviewed Kathleen O’Brien about this project almost two years ago on The EcoLogical Home, and have been longing to participate ever since.

After many years at the leading edge of green building design, Kathleen created Emerge as her legacy project. The transformative program, boasting a faculty touting personal leadership experience and deep knowledge in sustainable building, is held a few times a year in different west coast locations. The upcoming session is a two-day immersive residency in the beautiful setting of Islandwood Conference Center on Bainbridge Island.

Emerge is perhaps the most intriguing offering to our community since The Living Building Challenge. The intimate, customized training program encourages us to uncover our unique strengths and engage in servant leadership to create a chain reaction of positive change. It seems to be quite effective – as one recent participant reported; Emerge is “the only workshop of this kind I’ve ever attended, where it has ‘stuck’”.  Another alumnus simply stated the experience was “life altering”.  

As early adopters of green building, sometimes we can feel like “I’ve heard about this before” and pass up learning events. But how does that serve us, or the path toward a restorative future we are passionate about? The momentum of this movement depends on our participation – and our leadership. Luckily for us, and the next seven generations, leadership is a learned skill – and Emerge Leadership might be just what we need.

If you are committed to a resilient, restorative future, get up and go to at least one event this fall and winter. Invest some time and money in yourself, and connect with others on a similar path. There are exciting things afoot, with new faces and perspectives to inspire our next essential steps.

Emerge Leadership Workshop Residency will be held December 7-8 at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island. Emerge Leadership Workshop (non-residency) will be held January 24-25 at Earth Advantage Institute in Portland.

Lessons Learned on Z-Home – Podcast


Z-Home has been in the spotlight recently as the first zero-net energy and carbon neutral multi-family development in the United States.  Now that construction is complete, we examine some of the lessons learned from this first of its kind development.  Z-Home project manager Brad Liljequist of the City of Issaquah’s Resource Conservation Office joins Terry on The Eco-Logical Home to share his insight in this 30-minute interview.  Follow this link to listen!

Adventures in Reuse


We all know the RE trilogy by now – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. There is a reason they are listed in this order – Reducing our consumption is the most important of the three. If we Reduce the amount of stuff we bring into our homes, there is less to Reuse and Recycle later. In a consumer society Reducing is often the most difficult to accommodate – the other two are easier.

Recycling has gotten quite popular since the process is so familiar – you can still buy just as much stuff but by separating your trash you can now clear your conscience!  However, we’re still contributing to the extraction of limited resources and almost everything that is Recycled is downgraded in the process.  Sorry.

Lately, I’ve been noticing more emphasis on Reuse, and I like it. My recent fascination started with a trip to the Earthship headquarters in Taos, where this whirlygig beacon stands. Masters of Reuse, they incorporate tires, bottles, cans, wood and steel to build homes.  More commonly used building materials are available at places like Second UseEarthwise, and the RE-Store, in Seattle and Bellingham, and the ReBuilding Center in Portland.  This is not just a Pacific Northwest phenomenon either – there are organizations around the country like Building Materials Reuse Association in South Carolina and online exchanges such as

Reclaimed building materials have a history that appeals to me on a visceral level. Where else can you find Douglas fir beams with grain so tight you nearly need a magnifying glass to count the rings? From French doors to pedestal sinks, maple flooring to carved frame mirrors, treasures await around every corner. Most of the stores also provide deconstruction services, mining the industrial forest for the materials they sell.

Different from Recycling, Reuse keeps what is still serviceable in its current form but perhaps with another purpose or in another location. Clothing swaps are another example of Reuse – some of my favorite pieces have come from these exchanges. Garden clubs have plant and tool exchanges every year. Two interior designers in Seattle even started a Home Accessories swap a few years ago with great success.

Our parents and grandparents that lived through the Great Depression knew how to Reuse and Repurpose everything. Reduction was forced on them, and they made do with what they had. Ingenuity kicks in at amazing levels when no other choices are available! Our challenge is to tap this ingenuity while we still have options.

Straw Bale Homes for Disaster Relief


When people find out we design and help build straw bale homes, the response varies from uncertain curiosity to animated glee.  The first question is always “do straw bale homes work around here?” and my answer is always “yes, on most sites,” followed by an explanation of our approach depending on the situation.  We never push it, but are happy to help people find the best solution using straw bales if that fits their dream.

Straw bale homes aren’t for everyone around here, but there are places in the world where they are so much better than other available options.  Consider the legions of ramshackle metal and cardboard shelters, or even un-mortared concrete block and stone rubble, in a location that experiences earthquakes.  In the myriad of places around the world with no building codes, no money, and little infrastructure these strong, safe, and highly insulating homes are a gift and a blessing.

There are a few organizations scattered around the globe helping make this gift possible.  PAKSBAB, a small non-profit organization in Pakistan, is one such organization, teaching people who have lost their homes to rebuild with straw bales. For more information about them, please visit  You will see that like most of these groups, PAKSBAB relies on donations for their work.

To offset the need for donations, PAKSBAB recently entered the GISTech-I competition for innovative solutions to economic development problems.  There were lots of entries, and theirs was passed by this time around. We hope they enter again next year.

Whether the loss is from an earthquake, a typhoon, or the ravages of war, rebuilding their own homes brings people faith in their own resiliency.  Families help each other, and soon whole villages are restored.  That’s the kind of building we would like to see happen for people everywhere.