• FreeGreen founders David Wax (left) and Ben Uyeda have been involved in sustainable design since their days at Cornell, when they worked on the schools entry in the 2005 Solar Decathlon, a biennial U.S. Department of Energy competition.

    Credit: Tracy Powell

    FreeGreen founders David Wax (left) and Ben Uyeda have been involved in sustainable design since their days at Cornell, when they worked on the school’s entry in the 2005 Solar Decathlon, a biennial U.S. Department of Energy competition.

When your internet business model is giving away plans for green homes, a recession doesn’t change the bottom line. And, notes Ben Uyeda, chief architectural officer of Charlestown, Mass.–based FreeGreen, it helps keeps the competition away.

But income isn’t why Uyeda and CEO David Wax—who also founded the for-profit design firm ZeroEnergy Design, a separate venture, with three others—launched FreeGreen (freegreen.com) in March 2008. (The site accepts paid placements from product manufacturers, but only to cover operating expenses.) Nor, ultimately, is it the need to see any of their nine house designs built—though that would be nice, of course, and FreeGreen does offer customization and consulting services for a fee. Instead, say Uyeda and Wax, the fundamental goal is to have an impact on public thinking about sustainability via well-designed, freely available architectural media.

“Throughout my education, not once did we design a single-family home,” says Uyeda, a Cornell University M.Arch. (ZeroEnergy’s founders, all Cornell graduates, met on the school’s 2005 Solar Decathlon team for the U.S. Department of Energy competition.) He notes that single-family houses are by far the most common structures, but architects create less than 5 percent of them. So designers may talk about the need to be sustainable, says Uyeda, but “we’re not even affecting the most common building type.” Whether people use FreeGreen’s plans—now downloaded more than 21,000 times—in part or in whole, as inspiration or as is, he says, the company is getting “innovative building practices into the mainstream market.”

With obvious delight, Wax cites an example of what he and Uyeda are trying to accomplish. “There’s a high school teacher in Connecticut who has downloaded our plans and uses them in his introduction to architecture class,” says Wax. “That excites me almost as much as if I were to tell you we’ve built 21,000 homes.”