In your first few conversations with any client, you should be getting a pretty good idea of their specific goals for the project as well as their more overarching values that drive those goals. Some of the values that homeowners care about are cost, design, quality, and environmentally conscious. These values are common and core enough that many clients you work with will have at least one, and many will place varying levels of importance on all three.

The good news is that regardless of which they would place as their number one value, sustainable design is the answer. The home-building market is in the first phases of a transition towards sustainable design features whether or not customers or Pros are aware of it. Sustainable design has come down in cost enough to be the same or more cost-efficient to create at the same time, few Pros and even fewer customers are aware of this fact. As the Pro, one of your jobs is to keep abreast of developments in your field and educate clients about new options that fit their goals and values.

What Is Sustainable Design?

Sustainable Design is a simple title for a whole different way of thinking about design and building. Reference your client’s values to interest them, and then be ready to break down what goes into sustainable design in an understandable way.

Robert and Monica Fortunato are pioneers in practical, affordable sustainable design. They retrofitted their Hermosa Beach, California house to achieve a net-zero-energy zero-carbon goal. They completed their project, called The Green Idea House, in 2012 and it has been a triumphant success story. The Green Idea House continues to prove that by using off-the-shelf, affordable options combined with sustainable design practices, a net-zero-energy zero carbon home is achievable for the average American home-builder. During an interview, Robert shared some of their experience with sustainable design.


Current houses, built to code, often end up with a myriad of quality problems. There might be one room that never seems to get fresh air, while a different room’s climate is best described as “drafty.” Walls aren’t soundproof. The upstairs never quite cool down. Doors don’t latch correctly, and simple usability issues are overlooked like whether doors can fully open. Large beautiful windows look great from the outside but only cause trouble indoors. If the blinds are open, the room is a sauna. It’s not hard to remember the handful of features from almost any place you’ve lived that were especially frustrating because they could have been avoided with a little effort for quality.

Sustainable Design eliminates many of these features almost automatically. By definition, sustainable design, based on passive house features, ensures that the whole house is carefully thought out for optimal useability. It’s foundational design elements, windows, airflow, foundation, insulation, are significantly greater quality than any typical built-to-code house. Since air-tightness is a major feature that is monitored throughout the building process and tested before any finish is put on the walls, quality is ensured from the design to the final product. It doesn’t end with a good plan on paper.

Financial Savings

The surprising news to many who have been aware of various sustainable design options through the years is that sustainably designed homes are no longer more expensive than building a home to standard code!

Robert shares The Green Idea House experience on the issue of initial building cost, “We did really, really simple things that actually saved money. So for example, the standard practice wood framed stud wall with 16 inches on center, we built our walls 24 inches on center."

“We know most contractors are very familiar with wood construction. So we wanted to build 2”x 4” houses. So if instead of putting those studs 16 on center, you put them 24 inches on center, that means that you have much more space for insulation on the interior of that cavity. It's a really simple concept. And there's a known exception to the code that allows you to do that without much difficulty. So we learned about this thing called Advanced framing, that really changed the properties of the house, so that the assemblies were much more able to be insulated.

“If you think about that assembly, we're actually using less wood in that assembly than standard construction and more insulation. So the wood is R3, which is the resistance to heat and cold. So it's not very insulating, but what's inside the wall is R13, it has much better insulating properties, so you have less wood and more insulation, a better assembly, and at the same time, it's less expensive. That's what we were shooting for with our thinking about how we built the Green Idea House. Not only better but less expensive.”

Of course, long-term, the savings on energy bills quickly add up with savings between 75%-90%. With solar panels installed on a passive house design, savings can be even more.

Robert and Monica Fortunato's Green Idea House

Green Impact

Sustainable housing design isn’t just better for people, it’s better for the environment too. Robert says, “The oil infrastructure powered our country for 100 years. It has worked relatively well. There are things to be thankful for about that but there are things to regret about it as well. We know what's happening with the climate and everything else that's going on. There was a period of time where we thought we could control nature as a result of cheap oil, essentially. So glass buildings went up and all kinds of things went forward with the belief that we could overcome nature by burning a lot of fossil fuels and make those buildings comfortable as a result of that.

“I think we're just coming to a different awareness now, saying we don't really need those things, we can work smarter, not harder, which is beneficial for both our wallets and for the environment at the same time. People are much more concerned about our health, as well, so by not burning fossil fuels, the locus in which we live immediately becomes that much more healthy.”

Sustainable Design Sells Itself

As the Pro, you have the opportunity to introduce clients to a building method that exceeds the standards of what they thought possible. Sustainable Design has the potential to reduce their construction costs, their home’s future ongoing and maintenance costs, and increase their home’s value. Clients need to know that Sustainable Building is feasible for them, and can meet and surpass their unique needs.