Sunday, September 27, 2009

Something for Nothing

Sitting in their office in Charlestown, Massachusetts, 32-year-old David Wax and 30-year-old Ben Uyeda have big plans: The cofounders of FreeGreen want to change the face of residential home design and construction. As their company’s name implies, the duo want to make environmentally responsible home design plans freely available to anyone who’s interested.

Wax, a business-minded entrepreneur and Uyeda, a sustainability-minded architect, first joined forces as members of Cornell University’s 2005 team for the Solar Decathlon, an international competition in which teams of college students design and build a solar, energy-efficient home that’s judged in 10 categories (Cornell took second place overall that year). From there, they launched Zero Energy Design (ZED), a firm focused on net-zero energy and ultra-energy-efficient homes. ZED did good work, but wasn’t having the kind of far-reaching impact either man wanted.

“We were doing custom design, working on really cool projects,” explains Uyeda, FreeGreen’s chief architectural officer, or CAO. “And we had a collection of talent with the potential for mainstream impact. But when you’re working on projects one at a time, it’s great for design, but not for getting mass impact.” Most architects, Uyeda noted, take a trickle-down approach to change—do a few noteworthy projects, and hope that you inspire others to borrow your ideas. “We weren’t a fan of waiting for that to happen,” he says. Since every house needs a plan, Wax, FreeGreen’s CEO, says the pair began by asking themselves “where those plans come from.” As it turns out, more than half of the new homes built in the U.S. every year are built by production home builders such as Pulte Homes and Toll Brothers, who have their own in-house architects. Just 5% come from custom design firms such as ZED. The remainder comprise the market for house plans, or pre-made construction documents, which are now bought and sold online.

That market is no small piece of change. Last year the U.S. saw more than 600,000 new single-family homes on the market, and more than 1.6 million in 2006, before the economy went bust, according to the National Association of Home Builders. That leaves a lot of room for positive environmental impact. The challenge then became how to reach the most people for the lowest price.

“If we charged the consumer—the people we want to use the plans—it’s self-defeating,” says Uyeda, “because the lower end of the market can’t afford architectural design fees.” The solution was simple: Make the plans free, and pay for them with strategic product placements.

Companies got their products “featured” in plans, those plans were provided free to customers who, in turn, could use the products…or not. Even so, Wax and Uyeda were wary of losing their credibility.

“We wanted to be very careful with the products we chose or accepted,” says Wax. “Also, because we can do energy analysis, we can show from an objective science and engineering standpoint what a given product means in terms of performance.” More recently, FreeGreen has been working to launch a second line of home plans with no featured products, available for a small subscription fee.

The plans come in a variety of styles— modern loft, Craftsman, mountain cabin, Cape Cod—with sizes ranging from 700-3,000 square feet. And each plan includes an estimate of material and construction costs, customized to one of four regions of the country, so you know exactly what it’ll cost you to build your home. All of the plans feature comprehensive green design elements.

It’s an approach that has proved very appealing to people like Robert Glazer. “I was interested in green issues, and moving toward building a home,” he says. Then he found FreeGreen. “What they’re doing is an information revolution in home building. It’s not just a green issue,” Glazer continues. “It’s hard for people to get good information about products and building. It’s all buried in bids and fixed construction costs. FreeGreen is peeling back that onion.”

As of mid-June, more than 28,000 of FreeGreen’s house plans had been downloaded, and the pace appeared to be quickening. As far as Wax and Uyeda are concerned, that’s a good thing for their venture, and the environment. “We want to give good green design concepts to as many people as possible,” they say.


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