When most people consider making their home green, they imagine photovoltaic panels and wind power—complex technologies that exceed many homeowners’ budgets, even those committed to remaining eco-friendly. Massachusetts builders and designers ensure sustainability is no longer out of reach with simple, budget-friendly upgrades that anyone can incorporate into a new build or a remodel. “Sustainability is not an afterthought,” says Stephanie Horowitz, Passive House-certified architect and managing director at ZeroEnergy Designs. “Energy efficiency and design go hand in hand.”

ZeroEnergy advocates a “pyramid approach” that makes sustainable building accessible. Horowitz says, “We start at the base of the pyramid, with the most important improvements: insulating the shell of the home, air sealing, and [using] efficient windows. After the fundamentals are established, we focus on the systems within the home—heating and cooling. Finally, we address the top of the pyramid: sources of renewable energy, like photovoltaic panels, to offset the home’s reduced energy load. It’s best to invest in the base of the pyramid before looking at renewable technology.”

Jordan Goldman, ZeroEnergy’s LEED-accredited engineering principal, specializes in building envelope strategies: “The building envelope includes the walls, roofs, floors, and windows—the nonmov- ing parts of a home that can last for 50 or more years. A well-designed building envelope helps stop air infiltration and increases comfort. Heating is the largest consumer of energy in the Northeast—any improvements we make to the building envelope will reduce the amount of heating energy.” This fundamentals-first approach to sustainable design is what allows ZeroEnergy to create homes that are both eco-friendly and tailored to each client’s needs. Each structure is a unique collaboration between architect and homeowner: “We gear our decisions to each client’s environmental ideology, whether their priority is conserving energy, creating a technologically savvy home, or a greater concern for the environment beyond their own site,” says Horowitz.

Benjaming Nutter recommends using locally sourced products like white cedar shingles from defunct mills and traditional timber framing

Steve Howell of Howell Custom Building Group, a certified green professional with the National Association of Homebuilders, takes a similar approach when beginning a project: “We ask clients what eco-friendly means to them. Does it mean using sustainable and recycled materials? A home with very high-energy performance? Does it mean generating power on site, conserving water, or all of the above?” The firm, a well-known staple for North Shore homeowners, earned its reputation by ensuring that each home fits the client’s definition of sustainability and standard of beauty.

For many green building professionals, passive heating and cooling is another essential element of a sustainable design. “Properly siting a home to take advantage of sunlight and passive heating is one of the first steps in designing an energy-efficient home,” says Howell. “Siting plays into every design,” says Horowitz. “The amount of free heat let in through the windows influences the design of the heating and cooling systems.”

Architect Ben Nutter of Benjamin Nutter Architects employs a passive heat method as well: “Conserving energy starts with considering the solar orientation of a building (and other site factors) and then insulating the structure well, thus reducing the heating and cooling costs. After these practical approaches are thoroughly applied,alternate sources of energy such as solar and geo-thermal are appropriate to investigate. Design efficiently and then conserve energy.” Like ZeroEnergy, Nutter focuses first on the structural integrity of the design—the insulation and quality of materials—and second on renewable-energy technologies.

Part of a green professional’s job is to ensure that a sustainable home is affordable. Howell explains, “It is generally more costly to build a high-performance home, but there will be payback in energy-cost savings over time. We encourage clients to analyze the long- term return on their investment.”

Goldman adds, “We suggest that clients make green improvements to their home as the opportunity arises. For example, if the siding on a home already needs to be replaced, that’s a great chance to improve the home’s insulation. If the windows need upgrading, that’s an opportunity to use higher quality triple- pane windows, which prevent heat loss.”

Budget considerations are key for Nutter. “A client’s budget drives a number of choices in the design and detailing process. For example, new types of foam insulation are popular—but more traditional dense-packed cellulose can be very competitive and cost-effective. Sometimes we use a combination of both to fit a client’s budget.” Nutter also suggests using as many locally sourced products as possible. “New England has innumerable sources of great materials— white cedar shingles sourced from defunct mills can last the better part of a century.” Allowing these shingles to naturally weather reduces maintenance costs. “Traditional timber framing materials—eastern white pine, spruce, hemlock, and oak—can also be sourced locally.”

After a sustainable home has been constructed, the responsibility rests with the homeowners to maintain its energy efficiency by practicing eco-friendly habits. “When a client asks if we do ‘green design,’ I’m often tempted to ask them if they turn their lights off when they leave a room,” says Nutter. “Most of what we can do individually has more to do with good habits and discipline and less to do with solar panels.”

For Goldman, personal responsibility plays a major role in energy conservation. “There’s no such thing as a zero-energy home—only zero-energy families. A wasteful person in an efficient house can easily use more energy than a conscientious person in an inefficient house.”

So what can homeowners who wish to maximize their home’s efficiency do? Goldman suggests simple fixes such as using ENERGY STAR appliances and efficient light fixtures and bulbs. Horowitz and Howell also recommend using an energy-monitoring device, which allows clients to see how much energy individual appliances—or their entire homes—consume. “These devices can be an important diagnostic tool,” says Horowitz. “They can direct a homeowner’s attention to an appliance or section of the home that uses more energy than it ought to.” Howell also recommends a blower door test, another diagnostic tool that tests the tightness of the building envelope. Both tests help homeowners maintain the energy efficiency of their green home long after it’s been built.

“Different things work for different people,” says Nutter. “Green design is all about suiting sustainability to the kind of lifestyle you want to lead.”

ZeroEnergy Design 156 Milk St., Suite 3, Boston, MA617-720-5002 zeroenergy.com

Howell Custom Building Group 360 Merrimack St., Lawrence, MA 978-989-9440 howellcustombuild.com

Benjamin Nutter Architects 363 Boston St., Topsfield, MA 978-887-9836 benjaminnutter.com

Image Credits: Photo by Eric Roth.