Whether building a new home, adding a room or remodeling an existing home, there are many decisions to make. In today's eco-sensitive environment, one of those decisions will likely be choosing a green contractor.
Green homes offer lower costs, increased comfort and healthier environments. To achieve these things, green contractors address a variety of home efficiency and maintenance challenges, such as lowering high energy bills, reducing opportunities for mold growth and keeping insect infestations at bay.
Finding the right green contractor is crucial to ensuring an integrated and sustainable residence. But how do you choose among green contractors?
Identifying the best one for the job is all about asking the right things. On the following pages, we'll look at some of the questions that can help you identify and work with a good green contractor.
Is he experienced?
"Going green" is not just a trend; it's a movement. Today's construction professionals know their green contracting expertise can make a difference when they're considered for jobs. Being a green contractor can contribute directly to their bottom lines. As a result, more and more contractors are advertising green construction and design capabilities.
Any contractor, however, can hang a shingle or tag a Web site with the word "green" without having actual experience in designing and building eco-friendly, sustainable homes.
The right questions can help homeowners cut past the hype and learn about a company's actual experience. The following are a few questions you should ask:
- How many years has the contractor been offering green construction?
- How many green projects can they show you in their portfolio?
- How many green projects have they done that are similar to the job for which they're being considered?
- How many references can they provide who are still pleased with green construction completed a year or two ago?
Is he certified?
A building contractor doesn't need be certified to be considered proficient in green contracting. However, certification does offer comfort to potential customers because they understand that the contractor has gained the knowledge necessary to deliver as advertised. Green certification means the contractor successfully studied in a formal third-party education program.
Understanding third-party certifications is also one of the ways homeowners can appreciate the health and environmental benefits they may anticipate from a green contractor. Certifications can be used as a quality checklist for green homes; if you know which green-building programs the contractor uses, you can study up on them.
Another consideration when looking at certifications is how many of the employees at the company are green certified. Some contractors have just one employee who has earned certification, while some require that all employees complete such programs.
This question really becomes three:
- Are they certified?
- Which certifications do they hold?
- How many of the people working on your construction job hold certifications?
When was the last green class he attended?
Certification ensures that the contractor understood the study material well enough at one point in time, but how current is the contractor's knowledge of green construction best practices?
The National Association of Home Builders Certified Green Professional (CGP) certification requires their green-certified contractors to invest 12 hours of continuing education every three years in order to be eligible for renewal. Green technologies and techniques change fast, however, and a lot can happen in three years. A green contractor should constantly stay current on true state-of-the-art knowledge.
Asking a prospective green contractor about the last class he took is a good way to gauge how up-to-date the contractor remains on green design and construction.
Does he walk the walk?
Many homeowners committed to going green with their homes want to see the same level of commitment from a green contractor. Those actively seeking a green contractor for their remodels or new construction are likely to want one who's equally devoted to improving the environment.
It's expected that a green contractor will praise the economic and ecological benefits of green design. To assess a contractor's actual green practices, though, a homeowner may want to look at how he incorporates green into his own world. Is recycling a norm at home and at work? Recycling is a basic indicator of a contractor's commitment to the environment.
What about the buildings in which the contractor lives and works? What elements of green design and construction are integrated into his own office and home? What energy-saving features were incorporated, and when? Does the office or home take advantage of the environmental and climate conditions?
A contractor who is fully invested in green living should be glad to take a prospective client on a tour of his home and workplace to explain the technologies used, the science behind how they work and what benefits resulted from the implementations.
What is his whole-home approach?
Locating an experienced, committed green contractor is a start, but a number of specialists must come together to create an integrated, whole-home approach to a truly green build.
While green construction can offer a myriad of benefits, a green component here and there doesn't make a green home. According to Beyond Green Construction, "unless these improvements are considered in the context of the whole house system, they can exacerbate other existing problems or even create new problems."
Each alteration to a green home must be considered in context of the whole-house system. Otherwise, carefully planned efficiencies may be compromised. All aspects of design and construction should support or even improve such things as air quality, temperature flow and insect infestation or mold prevention.
Educated green contractors have this understanding and should be able to rattle off names of green plumbers, HVAC and electrical professionals in their network who may be called upon to assist with the build.
Does he know his stuff?
A homeowner in search of a green contractor should definitely do a bit of homework. A little knowledge can be used as a tool to quiz a prospective builder and gauge a contractor's level of expertise.
An easy way to do this is to learn a bit of terminology used in green construction. During the interview, you can toss out such terms and evaluate the contractor's ability to explain concepts such as "tankless water heater," "radiant barrier," "high-performance insulation" and "sustainable."
In addition, during the first visit to the site, an experienced contractor should quickly be able to identify areas of weakness in the home or advantageous environmental conditions. Can the contractor tell that one of the weaknesses is cold air that's coming up from the floor? At a new construction site, does he discuss orientation of the home to take advantage of or mitigate heat and cold?
The initial interview and subsequent meetings are opportunities for the contractor to promote the construction company's green science proficiencies. This is the time he should be showing that he knows more than the homeowners about what will best provide economic efficiencies, comfort and a healthy environment.
What are the benefits of green living?
It's not enough for a contractor to promise that a greener life will be less expensive, more comfortable and healthier. A homeowner can expect specifics.
How will this construction improve health? The contractor should be able to discuss how ridding the air of allergens and dust, reducing mold vulnerability, creating even temperature and preventing insect infestation all promote healthier living environments.
How will green construction improve energy consumption and thereby reduce costs? Contractors specializing in green design and construction understand that saving money is an important factor to a homeowner's decision to go green. The contractor therefore should be able to provide specific estimates. Some green contractors promise up to 70 percent of energy cost savings. Assuming the contractor has been in the green business long enough, he should be able to provide specific examples of savings reported by previous clients.
The contractor may also provide information about lower homeowner's insurance rates and reduced landscaping costs. And, of course, when asked about expected benefits, the contractor should offer examples of how green construction is kinder to the environment.
Will he consider climate and environment?
In extreme climates, construction decisions may substantially mitigate very cold or very hot weather conditions. A green contractor should address the following:
Will home orientation be considered? The orientation of the home can maximize or reduce window exposure. In hot climates, for example, less window exposure is better for keeping the home cool during the summer.
What sort of roof is recommended? The pitch, or slope, of a roof can impact energy efficiency. High-pitched roofs, or those with greater slants, are better in cold climates. For hot climates, low-pitch and reflective materials may be best for reducing heat.
What's the best ceiling height for this climate? Generally, it's lower for cold, higher for hot. The lower roof allows rooms to be heated more efficiently, and higher roofs increase air flow for better cooling.
What about materials?
All professionals on the green team, from the plumber to the interior decorator, have a number of choices when it comes to the materials they plan to use for a project.
The plumber, for example, will evaluate environmental attributes that dictate traits the material needs to have. Other plumbing material considerations will include fire safety, aesthetics and longevity. Once the requirements are understood, the plumber can find suitable materials for the job [source: Spiegel].
Green interior designers tend to use eco-friendly recycled (and recyclable) or raw materials in their designs. Furniture, flooring, partitions and cabinetry may be constructed of recycled wood or natural materials. An interior designer will help select appliances that were manufactured in a green facility, are energy efficient and still add to the aesthetics of the home. The green designer will also determine which carpet and drapes work best for the specific climate and select materials that are allergen-free.
Importantly, these same people should also be able to detail what they plan to do with materials they remove from the home. Will they recycle?
How will he educate the homeowner?
An experienced green contractor should be able to explain to the homeowner not only the recommendations, but also the science behind those recommendations. In fact, most believe that educating the homeowner is an expected part of a green contractor's job. How will he approach the education aspect of the project?
Some green contractors offer entire manuals that detail every step of the green design and construction process. They deliver these documents to the homeowner either during the bidding process or on the first day of the job. Others have such documents available on their Web sites.
Any educational materials offered by the contractor should explain the science in layman's terms. The homeowner should be able to understand the materials without having to consult a dictionary, and terms particular to the construction business, especially green construction, should be clearly defined.
Each of the contractors -- plumber, interior designer, HVAC installer and roofing professional -- should come prepared to educate the homeowner and explain what recommendations are offered and why.
In the end, homeowners should have a whole-home green house, and they'll be able to explain to friends and neighbors all that was involved and why they're proud of their new, green (or greener) home.
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