FreeGreen, a start-up company that began offering free eco-friendly house plans online last June, has launched a “Builder Line” of plans targeted specifically to the trade. Whereas the company’s inaugural plan offerings were tailored to consumers, the trade line skips the fluff and cuts to the chase with the stuff builders want most (front elevations, hard core energy calculations, and downloadable construction documents).
“We’ve kept things pretty mainstream and easily buildable in terms of rooflines and building methods,” says FreeGreen CEO David Wax. “And we’re providing multiple façade options in each set of construction documents, so theoretically a builder could do four or five variations on the same floor plan with each home looking different on the outside.”
With this next iteration of sustainable plan options, the company hopes to expand its presence in the green building universe. But it isn’t stopping there. FreeGreen’s ultimate goal is to become a clearinghouse for what Wax calls the “triumvirate of builders, architects, and customers, bringing together different parts of the equation to make marriages.” In other words, green building’s version of Craig’s List, eBay, or Match.com.
Just as social media platforms have revolutionized the rules of commerce--and in some circles revived barter and trade systems--Wax sees major advantages for online communities built around the designing, building, buying, and selling of houses.
By mid-September, FreeGreen hopes to go live with a host of new site features, including one that will allow builders to set up their own “FaceBook-like” profiles, creating a new means of connecting with potential customers.
“Builders will be able to go in, create their own profile page, describe why they are green, and list any relevant credentials they have such as if they are an Energy Star partner or if they are certified under LEED, NAHB, or other green building programs,” Wax says. The profile template will also allocate space for builders to post a portion of their portfolios.
Builders who join the FreeGreen community will also have the ability to select and price out FreeGreen house plans and then post their estimates as a means of attracting new customers. Consumers interested in specific plans will be able to compare itemized cost breakdowns from various builders (including discrete options such as bamboo flooring, Hardipanel exteriors, or foam insulation) by location.
In addition, a “find a builder” feature will allow consumers to type in their zip codes and other search criteria to pull up a list of green builders and remodelers in their area. “This part of the site will work like Google’s advertising structure,” Wax explains. “Builders who have signed up for FreeGreen membership will be highlighted and will come up first in the list, followed by other builders in the geographic area that has been specified.”
Historically, builders have always had to go out hunting for customers, and until the bubble burst, many did so using the build-it-and-they-will-come strategy, otherwise known as spec homes. But that’s a paradigm that may no longer work, Wax says. “Finding customers is the greatest challenge facing builders for the foreseeable future. They can no longer build spec homes and sit on a loan and watch the customers roll in,” he says. “The new challenge for builders is to find effective, cheap channels for reaching home buyers. Our site will help them connect with customers who already have the house plans they want and are ready to pay a deposit and get going.”
FreeGreen’s long term plans also include the eventual creation of an open source platform for the sharing of green and energy efficient designs. “The site will have strict rules and filters to stop junk from coming through,” Wax says, although as a social medium, most of the quality control will come from the user side. “If we have four million judges looking at our Web site every day and assigning user ratings to [house plans], the best designs will pop to the top. Then we can do a sweep once a month to eliminate the duds at the bottom. This could basically become the biggest design competition in the world," he says.
Whether it’s all just a big dream or a revolution in the making remains to be seen. But the founders of FreeGreen do have a hefty stash of VC investment propelling them forward. And the seeds of community are beginning to take root. Since the company's launch in early spring, more than 5,500 free house plans have been downloaded from its site by builders and consumers, and the number of builders in its database has grown from 67 to 200 in just two months. The founders are now in negotiations to sign advertising/affiliate deals with major green building products manufacturers.
Jenny Sullivan is senior editor, design, at BUILDER magazine.