Questions About Sustainable Design

Why should I consider Sustainable Design for my project?

There are several reasons to integrate Sustainable Design into a project.

What if I don’t want to have a significant sustainable home?

We realize that not everyone wants or needs a sustainable home done to the very highest level. We still integrate ‘best practices’ that are significantly better than ‘standard’ homes as well as pre-wire for future sustainable opportunities. We will provide cost effective energy efficient designs at distinct price points.

Can sustainable designs be incorporated into existing homes?

Existing homes can be great opportunities to modernize. Additions and renovations to existing homes can take advantage of a home’s ‘good bones’ while bringing the house up to 21st century functionality. There are many options to improve an existing homes insulation, windows, mechanical, lighting and control systems, as well as other key items.


Another aspect of renovation is that if the house is in a local historic district, and the renovation work fulfills the requirements of the State of Illinois, it may be eligible for the Illinois Historic Preservation Tax Freeze. This freezes the property taxes for a period of eight years and then steps the tax rate back to the current level over the following four years. This program can be worth more than $100,000, and to date we have successfully implemented this for eleven homes.

Does it cost more to incorporate sustainable design features?

For some aspects, there is no cost. For others, there is an additional cost. No cost items include the proper orientation of windows and correct sizing of overhangs to manage the solar gain into the house, as well as properly locating windows for natural ventilation and natural daylighting.


Areas that can be significantly improved upon over standard construction include the insulation systems, electrical and mechanical systems and renewable energy systems. There are differing system combinations for these for various price points, so we will look at what makes sense for your sustainability, resiliency and wellness goals. The upfront cost provides benefits that include reduced utility bills, less maintenance, greater comfort and the peace of mind that the home is as efficient as possible. Over time, these savings can offset the upfront costs.

What is the payback on the various sustainable systems?

It depends on which systems are being reviewed. Some systems have very short payback periods, such as improved insulation systems. These typically have paybacks in just a few years. Improved mechanical systems are in the neighborhood of five to ten years. Solar photovoltaic panels have longer payback periods, in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 years, as we currently have low-cost electricity in northeastern Illinois. However, the cost of electricity is anticipated to increase over time, driving down the payback period and the price of renewables and other sustainable materials will continue to drop. We are happy to review payback periods for various project specific components.

What is Resilient Design?

Resilient Design is the ability of a building, or community, to respond to natural or man-made impacts and recover quickly. This can translate to incorporating on-site renewables, battery backup storage, redundant flood prevention controls, redundant heating and cooling systems, and providing key lights, fans and operable skylights, all controlled from a carefully thought out electric sub panel that runs these systems during a power outage. We also integrate whole roof waterproofing, oversized gutters and downspouts and other water and wind management techniques to ensure the house is built to handle changing weather conditions.


We can certify the homes for resiliency through the ‘Net Zero Ready’ program from the Dept. of Energy, and the ‘Fortified Home™’ program from IIBHS.

What Certifications are available for my project?

There are many programs currently available. Beside the ‘Net Zero Ready’ and the ‘Fortified Home™ standards mentioned above, the primary ones are LEED, Passive House, Living Building Challenge and HERS. All of these certifications are third party verified.


LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability in which projects earn points by following practices that address carbon, energy, waste, water, materials, transportation and health. This holistic system looks at practices related to climate change, human health, water resources, biodiversity, the green economy, and more. There is a fee for this to us for our work, a fee to a third party manager for the project, and additional construction costs for items that are prerequisites for the construction.

Passive House is the ‘gold standard’ for high-performance homes that focuses on energy efficiency, durability and comfort. The goal is to make the house as tight as possible through the design, detailing and execution during construction. The fees are similar to but slightly less than LEED. There are also some potentially higher construction costs due to the detailing required to achieve this standard.


Living Building Challenge is the ultimate standard. It is both a checklist and performance based system. There are 20 ‘petals’ that range from all energy being generated on site without combustion, collecting all of the homes water from rain water, growing a portion or all of your own food, etc. It is an extremely rigorous standard, and has corresponding costs associated with that.


A HERS rating (Home Energy Rating System) is the easiest standard to achieve. It concentrates on how tight the home is built, and like all of the standards, requires a ‘blower door test’ to certify that how tightly the house is actually built. This is a very low cost standard, being around $500 or so not including the blower door test.

Why are many of NHA projects ‘all-electric’?

Electricity is the ‘currency’ of renewable energy. The electric grid use varying amounts of fossils fuels, but every day the percentage of electricity on the grid generated by renewable energy is increasing globally. We want to ‘decarbonize’ the operations of the building, and by using electricity, either generated on site or from the grid, we are accomplishing that.


The systems that tend to use natural gas in Illinois and Colorado are the heating system, the dryer, the water heater and the cooktop. We prefer to use high efficiency electric versions of these, including the cooktop. Induction cooktops are preferred by top chefs for its convenience, speed and even cooking. We have the ability to take you to the GE Monogram showroom at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago for a free lunch (yes, there is such a thing!) prepared by an executive chef using the induction cooktop to show you how great it is!

Working with NextHaus Alliance

What are the steps involved with working with NHA?

There are a number of parts to designing and building a project. Instead of seeking and hiring separate contractors for all of these steps, NHA brings together an amazing team of specialists.


The process starts with a thorough review of your project goals. We then begin with the initial design, followed by design development which includes furniture layouts and selections, landscape design, smart home design, extensive 3D imaging of the home, energy analysis of the home, and preliminary pricing. Once we are all set with the design, it is memorialized in the construction documents – the plans and specifications for the project. When that is completed, the plans are submitted for permit and the final pricing occurs. Construction starts after the permit is in hand, with periodic site meetings and shop drawing review.


NHA keeps you informed through all of these steps.

What is the permitting process like?

The permit process timing depends on the local municipality. We generally assume six weeks to get a permit in the Chicago area and approximately eight to 10 weeks in Chicago proper. In Chicago, we contract with a permit expediter to guide the plans through the permitting process. We will receive comments from the permit reviewers during their review. Generally, these comments simply require clarification.

What if I need a zoning variance?

Zoning variance requirements vary by municipality. The variance is submitted to the municipality and presented to the zoning board of appeals. As such, there is no guarantee on the outcome of a zoning variance application. The process takes between a month and several months, depending on the variance being applied for and the specific municipality.

Who will I be working with on the project?

There will be a project manager assigned to the project who will work with you through every step. The entire NextHaus team will work together collaboratively throughout the process.

What is my responsibility for this process?

You would be responsible for a number of things during the project. The site survey is required to begin the work. This should be found with your mortgage documents. For the initial design process, you should have a solid idea of what the project concept goals are. We like using ‘Houzz’ as a way to document design concepts and images using their ‘ideabooks’. As the design process progresses, you would provide feedback and further direction on the presented designs.

How should I figure out a budget to work from?

Depending on the level of design and the particular project, we initially start with costs per square foot that we have seen over many similar projects. We can provide a spreadsheet of the costs per square foot for various areas, such as the main area versus the basement, the garage, and outdoor components. We can also provide line items for significant sustainable features, like solar photovoltaic panels or other components that are unique to a project and generally outside of ‘cost per square foot’ estimating.


At the design development phase of the work, Berliant Builders will provide a more refined estimated construction cost. This generally takes a few days to compile and should give you cost feedback to make key decisions prior to moving forward with the construction documents.

At what point in the process can I take my plans to the bank to get a loan?

When the project is towards the end of design development, the second of the five phases of the work, the project will have a site plan, floor plans, exterior elevations, interior elevations (of cabinets, fireplaces, stairs, built-ins, etc.) and a lighting and electrical layout. If a preliminary bid is obtained, this information is generally what the bank needs to start on a construction loan for the project.