Finding a contractor for your healthy home
It's hard enough finding a builder who will do the work you want for the price you're willing to pay, and deliver it on time and on budget. Add to those criteria your need for a green-building expert, and you can assume that your search for a general contractor is going to take some time.
But don't despair. Half the battle is finding a builder with a reputation for doing high-quality work. Many green building strategies, like carefully sealing ducts and air leaks, properly installing insulation, and reducing and recycling construction waste, boil down to quality construction practices. If you find a builder who knows how to build right, chances are that builder knows how to build green. Moreover, builders with more specific expertise in energy efficiency, resource-saving building methods, and healthy-home construction practices are becoming more common.
When remodeling or planning a custom-built home
- Licensed to build? Make sure your builder is a licensed general contractor in your state.
- Leaning green? Can you create a healthy, eco-friendly home even if your builder has no interest or expertise in building green? Yes, but it means you'll have to provide exact specifications for materials, products, and even building methods and then make sure they are being followed. You may even wind up having to educate the builder about green building strategies, or worse, you may find yourself in conflict with the builder over green practices and products. Your project is likely to go much more smoothly if you hire a builder who has experience building healthy, energy-efficient homes. Many regional green building programs offer education and certification to builders; having green building certification is no guarantee the builder will do a good job, but does indicate they have a basic familiarity with the practices and principles of building green.
- Clearly describe what you want. Don't wait until after signing the contract to surprise the builder with your green wish list. Let the builder know from the start what your priorities are, especially when it comes to green practices that aren't yet standard in the building industry, like using FSC-certified lumber. Resource conservation and energy efficiency need to be integrated into the entire design and construction process, not tacked on at the end.
- Meet the team. When you interview a general contracting firm, you'll typically sit down with either the owner or a project manager. Before signing a contract, though, you should meet the crew, including the job-site supervisor who will be working on your home. Ask if any of the crew has received green building training or certification. It's important to be impressed by the owner or project manager, but it's also important to feel good about the people doing the hands-on work.
- Be nosy. When talking to previous clients on the builder's reference list, don't just ask the standard questions about budget, schedule, and quality. Also inquire about the builder's green expertise. Did the he or she bring green ideas to the project, or did the homeowner have to push for them?
- Put it in writing. Include your green goals in the contract between you and the builder. If you are working with an architect, ask him or her to provide a green specification (or "spec") sheet that will also become part of your contract. The spec sheet should spell out your general requirements for green building practices and products, such as:
- Reducing construction waste, reusing materials, and recycling as much as possible.
- Protecting the site to avoid compacting the soil and disturbing vegetation.
- Reusing as much of the material in demolished structures as possible.
- Using salvaged, FSC-certified or engineered wood.
- Using zero- or low-VOC paints, caulks, sealants and construction adhesives.
When buying a newly built home
- Ask good questions. Healthier, eco-friendly homes don't necessarily look much different from conventional homes, so how can you tell if a home in a new development is green or merely greenwashed? Ask the builder these questions:
- What steps were taken to improve the home's energy efficiency beyond what's required by the building code?
- How was indoor air quality taken into account when choosing equipment, materials, and finishes?
- If the land was previously undeveloped, what steps were taken to mitigate the loss of open space?
- During construction, what steps were taken to protect the natural environment, such as preserving vegetation or avoiding building on ecologically sensitive areas?
- Is the neighborhood sited and designed so that residents can walk, bicycle, and take public transit to local stores, schools, and parks?
- Ask about options and upgrades. If the new home you're buying is still under construction, perhaps you can make it greener by requesting certain options or upgrades. Ask at the sales center about options for more energy-efficient appliances, heating and cooling equipment, and lighting. Depending on how far along in the construction process the home is, higher levels of insulation and more energy-efficient windows may be possible. These days, some developers offer green finish options, such as low-VOC paint, and FSC-certified wood or bamboo flooring. Some builders even include solar electric systems, either as a standard feature or as an upgrade.
...to your health
Green builders generally use materials that ensure excellent indoor air quality.
...to your wallet
A green builder should use materials and methods that minimize waste and maximize durability, which will save you money. A green builder is also an expert at building energy efficient homes.
...to the Earth
If your house uses less virgin material, fewer trees are felled, less is ore mined, and less petroleum is burned--all of which lessen the stresses on natural habitats and reduce emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.
Not speaking up. If you want a healthy, eco-friendly home, make that clear from the moment you first interview the builder. If you wait until too late to bring up your green wish list, some options may be off the table.
- If you're planning to buy a brand new home, look for homebuilders with a green reputation. The U.S. EPA's Energy Star website lists homebuilders who meet Energy Star guidelines for energy efficiency. Also try contacting local green building organizations or your local chapter of the Home Builders Association (HBA), a trade association for homebuilders and remodelers. Some regional HBAs sponsor programs that certify green builders.
- In addition to the green considerations mentioned here, there are many other general steps involved in hiring a general contractor. For advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) have additional information.