Choosing a contractor is tricky enough without adding "green" to the conundrum. From tracking down builders' certifications to investigating past work to examining proposed prices under a magnifying glass -- the selection process is anything but elementary. Where do you start?
First of all, there's nothing like the past to predict the future. The problem is that green building is still pretty new, and green building codes are new as well, which means there's more wiggle room in the execution of green building than with traditional buildings. It also means it's easier to wind up with a greenhorn green contractor who doesn't know what he's doing. What can you do to make sure your builder isn't too new to the game?
First, look at his previous work. Have you seen green houses or remodels you like? Ask for those builders' names. If there's a green building home tour in your neck of the woods, tag along to see what you like. Picking a builder from a list? Ask to see green work the builder has done in the past, preferably in person or at the least in a portfolio. Most states require four years of on-the-job experience before granting a contractor's license. You might consider requiring the same years of green building experience of a contractor for your project [source: ArizonaBuildersZone.com].
Similarly, when granting a contractor's license, states require that references vouch for the work experience a builder claims. You can do the same; talk to your prospective builder's past clients. In addition to asking them about the quality of the work, ask them to evaluate their builder's process. Was construction completed on time and within budget? (If not, why not?) Was the contractor willing and able to roll with the inevitable punches of the building process? Then, don't forget to check with your state consumer protection agency and Better Business Bureau for any complaints.
Find a Builder Who's Green Certified
Unfortunately, government oversight of green building is still catching up with the industry. But even though there are no state licenses for green builders specifically, private sector watchdog groups offer a variety of certifications. Consider hiring a green builder certified by one of the following groups:
- U.S. Green Building Council: The Council's "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design" (LEED) certification is the green building industry's current gold standard. Just as buildings can be LEED certified, so, too, can contractors. Depending on your project, look for a green builder with the certification "LEED AP Building Design and Construction" (LEED AP BD+C) or "LEED AP Interior Design and Construction" (LEED AP ID+C).
- National Association of Home Builders (NAHB): With more than 1,500 Certified Green Professionals, the NAHB is mainstream oversight for the green building industry.
- National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI): Five years of green building experience, 16 hours of training plus a test equals Green Certified Professional status -- the remodeling counterpart of the NAHB.
- Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC): Not only does ABC Green Contractor Certification require green building experience, but it requires that a contractor's offices be green. The ABC database includes a list of certified contractors.
- Green Advantage (GA): Green Advantage Certified Professionals (GACPs) exist in every state and are organized in the GA database into specializations including contractors, architects and even attorneys.
- Energy Star: This government program partners with local utilities to ensure that builders certified through the Home Performance with Energy Star (HPWES) program are up to date with the latest energy efficient building practices.
But it's not enough for the builder to be green-certified, of course. They should also be licensed as a contractor, so don't forget to verify licensure with your state contractor licensing board [source: Contractors-license.org].
It's also important to remember that, depending on your project, the builder you hire probably won't be the only person doing the construction. So, ask about subcontractors, as well. Who do they commonly work with, how long have they worked with them, and are these subcontractors licensed? Specifically, all states require that plumbers and electricians be licensed, but other subcontractors that are paid by the hour aren't similarly regulated. It's your choice whether to allow your green builder to use unlicensed subcontractors for things like concrete, painting and roofing, but be aware that if a dispute arises with a licensed subcontractor, the state licensing board will help you sort it out; get in a dispute with an unlicensed subcontractor and resolution is up to you.
Also ask about those subcontractors' green building experience. Sure, you can vet the general contractor, but if the subcontractors aren't also on board with your green building goals, then the boots on the ground may not build to your standards.
Conduct Your Own Cost-benefit Analysis
Businesses frequently make decisions based on cost-benefit analysis: Will a project save or earn more money than it'll cost to implement? There's no reason you shouldn't use the same type of analysis for your home project.
Ask yourself how much green building will save you in energy and/or other utility costs. Don't forget to take into account tax incentives and subsidies for green building. For example, there's a city tax exemption for LEED certified buildings in Cincinnati, Ohio, and an income tax credit to owners or tenants in green buildings in Maryland [source: AIA.org]. Does your state or city offer similar incentives?
Also consider the other somewhat intangible benefits. For example, perhaps it's simply important to you to lead an environmentally-conscious life, or perhaps you feel it will be better for your health to live in an environmentally-friendly home. How much are you willing to pay to meet those personal needs?
Now that you've considered those factors, find out how much your potential green builders estimate the work to cost? Typically, materials should account for 40 percent of the bid, and the builder should run a 15 to 20 percent profit margin [source: ThisOldHouse.com]. Consider this a test: If a builder can't put numbers to these questions, you shouldn't hire him.
Become an Expert to Select an Expert
Rather than throw yourself at the mercy of a green builder's preferences and suggestions, pre-load yourself with opinions about the materials and techniques you want used. Knowing the lingo will allow you to better vet builders. How intelligently and honestly can a builder discuss, for example, your desire to install radiant heat flooring or use plastic lumber for your deck, or substitute fly-ash for cement?
Here's a sampling of some basic green building terms you should know to talk shop with potential green contractors:
- Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA): The LCA of the materials you use takes into account the entirety of their lifespan, from extraction or creation, to installation and use, to eventual decomposition or recycling. For example, wool carpet and composite marble get terrible LCA ratings, while ceramic tile with recycled glass and cork flooring get better marks [source: Bower].
- Sustainable Design: Though the term can be an umbrella for all stages of green building, it specifically refers to how a building interfaces with the environment surrounding it.
- Efficiency: Another big topic, efficiency generally refers to minimizing the use of energy, water and materials.
- Waste Reduction: What percentage of a builder's materials ends up in landfills? Has the builder considered donating extra wood?
Lastly, check to see if your prospective green builder works in a green office space herself. Ask about the energy efficiency and materials sustainability of that work space. Is the space LEED certified? What green techniques did the builder use in the construction of his or her own home? These questions should show how committed he or she is to the idea of building green.
Author's Note: How to Choose a Green Builder
Choosing a green contractor is a bit like buying a used car -- the vast majority of builders are honest and skilled, but woe be unto the homeowner who fails to properly vet builders and ends up with a dud. Cost is only one risk. New materials and new techniques leave room for both great and poor work. But the reward is also high. You could save lots of money in the long run; plus you'll feel like you've done the right thing.
- American Institute of Architects, the. "Local Leaders in Sustainability." (March 26, 2012) http://www.aia.org/advocacy/local/incentives/AIAB028722
- Arizona's Builders Zone. "Arizona Contractors License Experience Requirements." (March 26, 2012) http://www.builderszone.com/contractorlicensing/experience.htm
- Bower, Jim. "The Life Cycle Assessment of Flooring Materials." Dovetail Partners Inc. Aug. 25, 2009. (March 26, 2012) http://www.dovetailinc.org/files/DovetailFloors0809.pdf
- Moran, Jill; Arkin, David; Richmond, Marc. "Hiring and Working With GreenProfessionals." West Coast Green. Sept. 30, 2006. (March 26, 2012) http://practicaconsulting.com/pdfs/HireWorkwithGreenBldgPros_060930.pdf
- Perkins, Broderick. "How to Find a Green Builder." Reality Times. March 16, 2007. (March 26, 2012) http://realtytimes.com/rtpages/20070316_greencontract.htm
- Shurtz, John. "Some Green Building Guidelines." GreenContractorGuide.com. (March 26, 2012) http://www.greencontractorguide.com/latest/some-green-building-guidelines.html
- Silva, Tom. "Top 8 Pro Tips on How to Hire a Contractor." This Old House. (March 26, 2012) http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/photos/0,,20539027,00.html