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6 Tips for Making Green Luxury Homes the Showcase for Sustainability

green luxury homes Jill Neubauer Architects

  • Architects do not have to sacrifice style and luxury when designing a sustainable home for their clients.
  • Green luxury homes can incorporate premium fixtures clients will love without compromising an architect’s ideas ideals.
  • A small architecture firm provides six methods to collaborate with clients while keeping sustainability at the forefront of each decision.

An eco-friendly home doesn’t have to be a geodesic dome, a converted shipping container, or a tentlike yurt. The most gorgeous, exciting architectural designs can also be the greenest.

Jill Neubauer Architects (JNA), a small architecture firm in Falmouth, MA, specializes in high-end residential construction and is dedicated to building green. The firm builds green luxury homes on Cape Cod for much of its work.

“At this level, it’s unconscionable not to be part of the solution if you’re building a second home,” says principal Jill Neubauer. For affluent clients who can afford a custom second home in this exclusive area, she says, sustainability should be an integral element of luxury.

green luxury homes jill neubauer architects
Material choices can make a big impact on a building’s environmental footprint. For example, JNA avoids tropical woods in favor of North American options whenever possible. Photo by Dan Cutrona; courtesy of Jill Neubauer Architects.

Green building itself can be a luxury. It costs more to choose efficient elements such as windows, use nontoxic materials, place solar panels, and insulate generously. JNA is established enough now to work solely with clients who are on board with this approach. To get there, Neubauer has learned how to educate customers and excite them about green building.

Careful, empathetic communication at each stage of the building process is key to her success. She offers the following six tools that designers or firms can use to nudge clients toward more sustainable building practices.

1. Help Green Clients Find You

State your sustainability focus clearly and often to attract like-minded clients. Visitors to the JNA website get the message immediately: A tab states “We Are Green.” The site also details the firm’s materials specifications, such as using only Forest Stewardship Council–certified lumber, nontoxic materials, and energy-efficient lighting. Or, as Neubauer advises, “Prime them with your messages.”

2. Tell Them a Story

JNA has honed its brochure for 25 years to express Neubauer’s philosophy. During the first consultation, Neubauer sets expectations and explains that some of the firm’s practices are nonnegotiable. “We won’t build a bad box, and we won’t build a toxic box,” she says.

It’s important not to overload clients with too much detail about accomplishing those things. Instead, Neubauer uses metaphor, describing the design process as a collaborative journey. For example, she’ll say: “If we choose to work together, we’re going to get in the canoe and get on the river. I’ve done this trip many times, and maybe you’ve done it before. But the river is different every time. You have to fundamentally trust your guide. There will be times you will be scared, but know that the guide will get you down the river.”

Neubauer also appeals to each client’s emotional drives. To an engineer, she’ll stress technical details. If other clients seem like they might enjoy mingling at cocktail parties, she’ll talk about neighbors who have built green projects. A person who’s artistic or interested in aesthetics will hear about the beauty of the finished building.

green luxury homes jna gunning point cape cod house
The approach to a JNA house at Gunning Point, Cape Cod. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker; courtesy of Jill Neubauer Architects.

“It’s about knowing the client and figuring out the best way to reach this person,” she says. “It’s an emotional—as well as a financial—conversation, figuring out how much can we encourage this client to do.” 

3. Understand the Impact of Design and Materials on Green Luxury Homes

Architects should understand the environmental benefits or detriments of their design and material choices, Neubauer says. A building is responsible for not only its “operational carbon” that it emits during its lifetime but also its “embodied carbon”—the carbon emitted during all the building materials’ manufacture, transport, and construction.

Neubauer tries not to price out different material choices, but inevitably there are times when cost rears its head. If the greenest solution adds another $50,000 to the project, is it worth it to the client?

“One wants these people, of all people, to make the best choices for the earth,” Neubauer says. “But in their minds, they’re already making many good choices for the earth, and the question is, how many more are they going to make?” To answer this, Neubauer goes back to emotional appeal, reminding the client how good it will be to know, “I did the most I could do.”

When clients have limits on their budget or commitment, the architect needs to pick battles. Instead of insisting on nontoxic materials, for example, it might be better to push for the best-possible insulation for energy efficiency, because that will help the earth the most, and back off on everything else.

“Do as much research as you can to guide and encourage clients to use the resources they have in the most effective way,” Neubauer says. “Sneak in a few good things when you can.”

4. Offer a Wealth of Sourcing

When clients hire Neubauer, they commit to her ethos. Many of the choices she makes, such as formaldehyde-free subflooring, are invisible. The most eye-catching features—doors, windows, stone, wood—are opportunities to guide clients in the right direction by offering beautiful, sustainable choices.

Neubauer prefers to show clients American stone and, ideally, stone sourced from New England. Storytelling helps here, too. She favors Ashfield Stone, a quarry in Western Massachusetts. “This is coming from three hours away,” she says. “It’s a family-owned and woman-run business—and, they say, ‘Fabulous.’”

green luxury homes Ashfield Schist and white oak floor
JNA prefers locally sourced stone, as seen in this combination Ashfield Schist and white-oak floor. Photo by Meredith Hunnibell; courtesy of Jill Neubauer Architects.

Neubauer also doesn’t use tropical wood if there’s a North American option. She’ll sometimes show clients photos of a tropical lumber plantation that’s well-managed and one that isn’t. She asks: “Have you heard about rainforest devastation? That wood on your neighbor’s deck is part of that story, and we don’t want you to be part of that.”

Clients always have the last say. “They make the investment; they need to love it,” she says. “So our goal is to know what they enjoy and find solutions that have the least carbon footprint.”

5. Build a Committed Team

In the best case, the project’s contractor is every bit as committed to sustainability as the architectural firm. “In an ideal world, that contractor is a strong member of the team and trusted as much as the architect,” Neubauer says.

Such contractors can be hard to find—most have spent their careers competing on the lowest price. For her practice, Neubauer has developed a thorough questionnaire for potential contractors that covers issues such as employee benefits, whether they have LEED experience, and sustainability measures they’ve implemented on their own properties.

It’s vital to hire contractors who support your goals when interacting with the client, Neubauer says. For example, if the client asks the contractor about the extra insulation, you don’t want him or her to say, “I’ve never done it this way, but the architect insists.” You want the client to hear, “You’re going to have a quiet, warm house, and you’ll be thrilled with this.”

green luxury homes cape cod jna
Much of JNA’s work revolves around vacation homes on Cape Cod. Photo by Jane Messinger; courtesy of Jill Neubauer Architects.

6. Use Technology to Tell the Story

Behind the scenes, the firm uses Autodesk Revit to create an integrated model of every element in their green luxury homes. For a recent $5 million home, the firm imported information from the HVAC consultant into Revit to identify conflicts in advance—for example, where ducting was modeled to drop through a steel beam.

Identifying clashes like that in the digital model prevents costly rework, saving both time and materials during construction. Along with Autodesk Insight for building-performance analysis, this integrated model can also illustrate the economic and energy impact of different design choices. The visuals can paint clients a clearer picture of how the completed project will look from multiple points of view instead of from a handful of renderings.

“It’s a fuller view for the client and a much broader understanding of the building,” Neubauer says. “It helps our clients engage much more joyfully with their future home, which helps them move forward at every step of the process.”

This article has been updated. It was originally published in June 2019.