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When Should You Begin Planning Your Sustainable Home?

Most people have no idea how to get started designing and planning their sustainable home.

And there is even more confusion about knowing how long it will take. One of the biggest surprises to most owner-builders is that the design process can take much longer than they ever dreamed.

Even while working in the conventional building industry, it was common to work with clients who had unrealistic expectations about when they could turn the key in their new home.

A few years ago, I met a couple with dreams of a new home. We connected in the parking lot as we were picking up our kids from a summer bike camp. We got to chatting, and I told them about the house I was building. Their eyes lit up, and they shared with me their dream to build a home. I asked where they were in the process. They told me that they had not done any work toward designing or planning, but they still expected to have a finished house before winter. I stood dumb-founded, wondering if it was my place to share my expertise in designing and planning a home.

Unless you are working in the building industry, have close ties to someone who is, or have built a house before, you probably wouldn't know how long it takes.

But the truth is that the best and most affordable homes take between two and five years to plan and build.

I had engineering, design, and construction experience, and had studied sustainable design. This experience allowed me to design my home in a few months. By working fulltime on the house, we completed the construction in a little over a year. But, I don't recommend that time frame unless you have some experience under your belt. For most people, taking more time is better. And taking your time during design will speed up construction significantly, reduce costly changes, reduce stress, and assure you get the home you deserve. 

My suggestion to anyone with the intention to build a sustainable home is to start planning - now!

The longer you have to educate yourself, investigate the options, and get comfortable getting your ideas down on paper, the smoother your project will go.
So many people I meet don't want to get started because they don't have land yet.

Beginning the process before you buy property is crucial.

If you've read my blogs or taken my classes, then you have probably heard me say that you need to design your home to the building site. And that is true. But, there is work you can do to clarify what to look for in a piece of property before you go searching. You can define your goals, research building materials, and even layout possible floor plans.

If you go through this process at least one time, you'll have a better shot at finding land that will support your dreams.

Designing a home is a repetitive process, not an A to B exercise. You begin with what you know, making a preliminary design with broad brushstrokes. This process will bring up many questions. So, then you investigate, and layout another plan. And then you repeat.

If you hire a professional too soon, completing this design cycle several times can increase the cost of the design. You can likely layout the preliminary design yourself, given some direction and some basic skills.

Once you have a more precise idea of the house you want and can afford, then you'll have a clear picture of the land that will support your goals.

Then, after you find the property, you can go back to the drawing board and tweak your house plan to work with the site. Make sure you are crystal clear about your design, the materials that work with the land, the layout that captures the sun, and the windows that welcome the prevailing breezes. Then, you may choose to have a professional draw the final permit and construction drawings.

It is easy to adjust a preliminary house plan that takes into account your lifestyle, values, and goals, as long as it is pencil lines on paper.

Once an architect or drafter makes a design, every change will cost you money. And if you begin building without a well-thought-out plan, changes during construction can completely blow the budget.

Even if you are only dreaming about a sustainable home, there are things you can do today to get started.

And getting started sets the energy in motion and sends a signal to the universe that you are going to create your sustainable home.

  • Start clipping photos from magazines, or saving online images with colors, ideas, and materials that catch your eye. These images don't have to be of houses or interiors. If you find an image striking, then there's a clue in there for you. I've picked paints based on the color of a flower I liked or an image in a landscape or postcard I had saved.


  • Learn about building materials. Seek out workshops in your area where you can experience first-hand how to stack straw bales, pack tires, make compressed earth blocks, work with hempcrete, or other materials that appeal to you and fit your skills.


  • Learn about the design process and how to layout your preliminary plan by taking a course or workshop. I offer these courses and workshops, as well as one-on-one consulting, drafting, and plans review services.

Check out my current offerings: 

Current Courses 

Pipe-Dream to Plan Workshop

Design Services


  • Find out what types of sustainable buildings are in your area. If you can't find any, then you may want to consider looking for property in a place where others have been successful in building sustainably.


  • Contact the building department in the area you want to build and get a feel for how open they are to innovative building. Getting caught up in a battle with a building department can add years to your project.


  • Depending on the type of construction, you may want to explore communities and counties that welcome innovative home builders.

Whatever you do, just get started, and enjoy the journey.







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