Gaines Group Architects
harrisonburg custom farmhouse

Building a Custom Energy-Efficient Home: Where Do You start?

Custom Energy-Efficient Home

If you are thinking about building a custom energy-efficient home, where do you start? Many will first go to the internet (thanks for reading my blog) to get their information. This is a great place to gather lots of opinions, but be sure you are looking at opinions based on your specific climate. Here in Virginia, we are in a mixed humid climate. Your climate impacts many decisions and solutions that are viable for the creation of a custom energy-efficient home.

Custom Energy-Efficient Home

Outside the building science decisions, there are other factors that will impact your success in achieving energy-efficiency in a custom home. Probably the largest is knowing what is possible / typical by builders in the area. While all builders are able to use any method of construction (sticks, concrete, SIPS…) it is not wise to have a builder learn a new system on your project. In our area, there are drastic differences in the various builders. However, some systems are not used at all here, which leads to uncertainty, more time required, and higher prices. Knowing these skills will benefit the end quality of your home, as well as the final costs.

Custom Energy-Efficient Home

Product availability is another major force that can impact the success of your project. Knowing  and selecting what building supply companies stock vs. special order will save you money. It also gives you the opportunity to find information about the products you want to use. All building supply companies know the products they stock and can offer feedback based on past projects. This expertise will help you avoid mistakes that have been made in the past.

Building a new home is complicated. Building a custom home that is specific to your needs requires careful design and many conversations that will not be found in a magazine or by designing it yourself. Adding the goal of energy-efficiency brings a challenge that can only be achieved with the right team in place. Be sure your team understands your goals, building science, and the local level of product availability and skills available. Here are some other resources that might be useful:

Custom Energy-Efficient Home

Harrisonburg Sustainable Farmhouse

  1. Know the difference between a custom-house and a new house
  2. Here are some questions to ask yourself
  3. Here are some basics with links to more information
  4. Do you need an architect or can you just find a plan online
  5. Pick the right builder


solar pv custom green home

Thinking of building a new home – consider these questions first

If you are thinking of building a new home – you should consider these questions first.

1. What is a typical day for you and your family? What can be done to make things easier and more organized – cubbies, laundry chute, kitchen island?


2. Think about the activities, parties, and gatherings you want to host at your home. From a daily dinner to the occasional social party, what is your dream life?

3. How long do you plan to stay in this home? Is it your lifetime home? Do you want to make your home marketable for future resale?


4. Do you work at home? Do you have a different schedule from your spouse? Do you like to bake? Do you work out at home? Do you read in your bedroom? Do you watch television?

5. Do you want your home to have technology to help you manage daily activities?

6. Do you want to have low electric bills, low maintenance lists, and healthy indoor-air-quality?


7. Are you or someone in your family concerned about mobility problems? Parents are in a wheelchair? Back problems run in the family?

8. How much land to you want? Enough for a garden? small enough not to have to mow?

Golf Simulator

9. Do you want particular spaces in your home? Gym? Walk-in Pantry? # of bedrooms? Dining room? Family Room?

10. Do you have any particular types or style that you prefer? Colonial? Modern? Prairie?

Nelson County Custom Home

Remember to include the fun when you are building your new home

Remember to include the fun elements when you are building a new home. Don’t just focus on the functional elements for daily life. Include things that you enjoy doing from sports to crafts, from reading to bird watching, from watching tv to working out.

Indoor Basketball Court

in home basketball court

Golf Simulator

In home golf simulator.


Roof deck


Reading nook


Home Gym


Swimming Pool

custom home harrisonburg

Hiding places

waverly place

Walking trails

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Gathering areas for friends and family


Screen porch


Front Porch


Kitchen for entertaining

Custom Home – How to Get Started (Part 7) – Moving the dirt

Thinking of building a custom home? Know the steps so you can control the process. The next step in our series is just after you sign the contract with a contractor – what happens?

Catch up on this series “Custom Home – How to Get Started” with the following links:

Part onePart twoPart threePart fourPart fivePart six – Part seven

custom home

Custom Home – Albemarle County

So you have signed a contract with a contractor and you are ready for the work to start. The next step is for the contractor to apply for a permit. This could happen prior to signing the contract depending on your approach in the previous steps. The permit review process usually takes a couple of weeks, even up to a month. The local official who has jurisdiction has to review your plans for compliance with the local building codes. This code review process is important to make sure you don’t have any issues after construction has started, but is not an exhaustive review to make sure things are right. They are simply looking for code compliance. The process usually goes very smooth if you have a complete set of plans developed by an architect.

The contractor also needs to sign his contracts with sub-contractors that are going to perform parts of the work. This may include the plumber, electrician, site excavator, framer… and all things in between. Once the contracts are signed and a permit is issued, the digging is scheduled and work begins. Important steps not to overlook include the surveyor showing up to mark the corners and making sure erosion control measures are being installed.

Custom Home – How to Get Started (Part 5)

Building a custom home is a complicated, confusing, and sometimes overwhelming process. Understanding the steps is the first step to making it easier.

Catch up on this series “Custom Home – How to Get Started” with the following links:

Part onePart twoPart threePart four – Part five – Part sixPart seven

Custom home

Old Town Harrisonburg Custom Home

The drawings are done and the design is finished, so what is the next step? Well there was one thing I did not mention during the design phase that is an important part. You need to decide if you are going to negotiate contract with your builder or put the project “out to bid.” 

We strongly encourage our clients to select a contractor based on interviews and negotiate the contract with them. Having the contractor involved during the design process allows a feedback loop on pricing and constructability that is extremely valuable. It also allows the contractor to be somewhat involved during the design phase so they can understand why things are done as they are before construction begins. This approach will lead to the best value for the project.

The other approach is to put the construction documents that were developed out to bid. Usually you select 3-5 contractors, give them 2-4 weeks to price the project on a competitive basis, and then open the bids to decide which contractor you want to build your home. Typically the prices are fairly close to each other, but if one is a lot lower, that contractor may have missed something. We often see that the lowest price is a contractor that made the biggest mistake. This leads to a confrontational relationship if that contractor is selected.

custom home

Custom Home – Albemarle County

So selecting the contractor is a very important part of the design process in our opinion and should be done in the schematic design phase for best results. The contractor will typically charge a fee for their pricing services during construction while some apply that fee to a reduction of construction costs if they get the job.

Custom Home – How to Get Started (Part 4)

Catch up on this series “Custom Home – How to Get Started” with the following links:

Part onePart twoPart three – Part four – Part fivePart sixPart seven

Custom homeNow that the design process has kicked off there are a series of steps that will take place. You have hired an architect, who is an expert at this process. Trust them. Personally I have had a building that I designed, have emotional attachment to, and a professional duty to make sure it is done right under construction continuously for the last 11 years. Trust me, I know the process. 

There are three phases of design: schematic design, design development, and construction documents. Each phase will deliver a different level of detail and information and each phase requires certain questions and answers. Your architect is your guide to help you build your custom home with comfort and confidence.

The schematic design phase sets the program for the project. The conclusion of this phase will see the creation of sketches of spaces showing connections and relationships, square footage estimates, basic section, renderings, and a general idea of the overall aesthetic of the project.

Custom homeThe second stage, design development, identifies the materials, window and door locations, room sizes, as well as solidifying the plans and elevations. The structural design for the project will be largely figured out during this phase as well as dimensions of all spaces. This is the last phase where major design elements evolve and most questions are answered at the conclusion of this time.

The last stage of the design process is the creation of construction documents. This stage develops the drawings needed for construction. Details are created, final selections are confirmed, notes are added for specific elements of the project and the structural system is finalized. The contractor can solidify a price for construction and the contract will be based on these drawings.Custom home

Custom Home – How to Get Started (Part 3)

Catch up on this series “Custom Home – How to Get Started” with the following links:

Part onePart two – Part three – Part fourPart fivePart sixPart seven

In our discussion, you have now decided to hire an architect and found the right one for your project. So what should you bring to the table to get the design started?

The first conversation with the architect about your custom home and design goals can be intimidating. You don’t want to overload them with your ideas, but don’t want to waste any time getting started. So what is the best way to communicate your dreams?

Custom homeThe first meeting is a chance to get to know the project in-depth. We like to have a conversation about the way you live from daily routines to special occasions. It helps to have the site information if you already have one along with pictures of things you like and want included. It is also good to have measurements of any big pieces of furniture or artwork that will need a special place in your new project.

A good place to start collecting your ideas is on our Houzz page, but some clients use Pinterest or the time-tested pictures in a folder. It is not important how you bring your ideas to the table, the important thing is that you bring as many of them to this first meeting as possible. The conversation will focus on everything from when you get up in the morning to the parties you host during the year. Learning about how you live dramatically impacts how the house will take shape so that you can live life to the fullest.

Custom Home – How to Get Started

Catch up on this series “Custom Home – How to Get Started” with the following links:

Part one – Part twoPart threePart fourPart fivePart sixPart seven

Calling an architect to some seems like a luxury or at least an expense that can be avoided. There are many options to get plans for a custom home. If you work hard at it you can find a plan online that is close to what you want or you can find a builder that offers design for free if they build the house. Some even settle for a drafter to draw a “custom” home. So why should you pay for a custom design done by an architect?

The biggest difference between a drafter and an architect is the licensing requirements required by the state to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the general public. In order to qualify for licensing as an architect you have to earn a professional degree from an accredited University, complete an internship (typically 3 years)  and you have to pass the Architectural Registration Examination, and in Virginia you also have to have letters from three other licensed architects endorsing your competence to be an architect. You then have to earn a minimum of 9 learning units per year to maintain your license. To be a drafter, you only need a business license. To offer plans online you only need a business license. To be a builder that offers design you only need a contractor’s license. No training to know how to design. No training to understand building code. No training to understand space planning. No training to understand building science. The difference between an architect and any other option is the level of skill you are required to achieve to be in practice as an architect. The first step to a custom home is to hire an architect. If all you want is a new home, then all the other options are viable options.

Custom home

The start of a project is one of the most exciting stages

The ground breaking of a project is a very exciting first step of any project. You spend months on design, learning what the client wants, and testing variations to get it right. Then you submit the design to the city / county for final review and to get the permits required to do construction. Finally you get all the parts in place and the equipment shows up at the site. The ground breaking.20140605_171326 custom home albemarle county

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House in the Woods – project under construction

Here is another project we have under construction. It is designed for the future, can be taken off grid, is accessible, and can support a self sufficient lifestyle. Let us know what you think.

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