Until recently, green design has materialized mostly in the extremes of the housing market--that is, in luxurious custom homes with big budgets and low-income housing projects that stipulate sustainability as a condition of grant funding. But the entrepreneurs behind the start-up venture FreeGreen believe there is pent up demand for eco-design in the middle market. And to test the theory, they are giving away green house plans online, free of charge. Since the company’s launch a scant three months ago, some 3,000 plans have been downloaded from its site by builders and consumers. Plan packages are tailored, based on user selections. Each comes as a large-format pdf including architectural documents, renderings, recommended product lists, and local contractors.
Unlike traditional purveyors of house plans, who may charge $750 to $2,000 per set of construction documents, FreeGreen’s business model works like this: Plans are given away gratis to anyone with an Internet connection, and FreeGreen charges green vendors and retailers a slotting/performance fee in exchange for specifying their goods and services. Users can view product performance ratings from third-party certifiers such as NAHB and LEED, and the use of sponsored products is not mandated, only recommended, says FreeGreen CEO David Wax.
“Our job is to specify products that will fit well with our designs and achieve a certain energy performance,” he explains. “If you swap them out in the field, we can’t stop you, although the house may not perform in accordance with our energy models. We are very explicit about how each plan is supposed to be oriented and executed to achieve the energy performance we predict.”
In addition to free stock plans, FreeGreen also offers design customization and consultations (for a fee) to help buyers address real world site constraints once a location has been selected for building. But the founders are quick to add that the design dialog goes both ways. “We encourage users to submit feedback on the FreeGreen blog and even submit design ideas,” says chief architectural officer Ben Uyeda. “Our team is working toward providing an open source platform that will allow the site’s online catalog to grow exponentially.”
Plans in the online database are searchable by a number of criteria, including square footage, bedroom count, lot size, and architectural style. Users can also search specifically for plans that incorporate green features such as zero energy systems, geothermal, green roofs, radiant heating, recycled materials, structured insulated panels (SIPs), insulated concrete forms (ICFs), and so on. Each plan is reviewed and vetted by a licensed architect prior to release. The company is currently developing a formal “technical review board” to include outside architects and building scientists.
Although FreeGreen’s inaugural interface is geared more toward consumers, Wax says the company plans to introduce a “Builder Line” of plans in August with specifications tailored to the trade. “We currently have 67 builders in our database, and we interviewed all of them to ask how they would like to use our site,” he says. “They said they wanted more variability in styles, lot sizes, and façade orientations, so we plan to deliver that.” Wax is one of five principals who co-founded FreeGreen as a spin-off of an earlier start-up, Zero Energy Design, an architecture firm specializing in upscale custom green architecture. “At our custom design firm, we were doing 20 to 30 projects per year,” he says. “We realized that even if we grew that company to take over 100 percent of the custom residential market, we would still only be affecting two to five percent of the total housing market.”
Obviously, the house plans business presents a much bigger pipeline to move green into the mainstream. “Thousands and thousands of stock plans get turned into houses each year,” Wax observes. “If we eventually to get up to 50,000 downloads per year, we will have affected more houses than Toll Brothers or Centex.” That’s a lot of green homes.
“If you are a person at the lower end of the market trying to build a $250,000 home in Lubbock, Texas with energy costs that are 50 percent below average, who do you call? The demand [for entry level and move-up sustainable homes] is there," Wax says. "The problem has been that until now there was no access.”
Jenny Sullivan is senior editor, design, at BUILDER magazine.