The houses we show in this magazine are aspirational and inspirational. This month’s On Site is a case in point. A house so carefully sited, it weaves between existing trees and delicate grasses, barely bending a blade. If you’re going to build in fragile environments, this is the way to do it—sensitively, sustainably, and oh so specifically. This house is the very definition of a custom home, designed by an architecture firm for a retired architect on a stunning piece of land.

But we know not all work by custom builders is so specific. There are many shades of custom, depending on client, budget, zoning or architectural review restrictions, and myriad other factors. Many custom builders have a set of plans they adapt for clients, streamlining the design lead time and taking much of the guesswork out of budgeting. For those of you who do this kind of work, I urge you to take another look at your portfolio and make sure it’s up-to-date and relevant to your climate and your region.

With so much talk about green standards and so much point counting these days, it’s easy for everyone to lose sight of the fundamentals that ensure a lower-impact house. Siting for solar orientation is the most critical move you can make. If you work with stock plans often, are you considering where the windows of your best sellers are facing? And I don’t just mean mitigating views of neighbors or providing pleasing panoramas of nature.

Do your plans offer shading to the afternoon sun? And have you noticed whether they have more than one source of natural light into each room? Even rooms with a big window wall will drive occupants to turn on lights just to soften directional glare. Are your windows for show or do they have any go, as well? Will air ventilate through the house when the windows open? Have you considered whether your houses can ventilate vertically as well, lifting air up and out of the house through a well-placed stair and clerestories or skylights on the top floor? Natural convection conveys the cooler air at the bottom of the house up, pushing the hotter air out.
Yes, you want your houses to have curb appeal and the latest floor plans for modern life. But if they don’t also contain some of the factors above, they are not doing your business, your clients, or our planet justice. Greening your houses doesn’t have to mean a laundry list of high-tech products; low-tech measures are the low-hanging fruit everyone can grab—no matter what level of custom the budget allows.