Seeking a Green Builder: Find the Perfect Contractor

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Thinking about building or remodeling–and want to be sure it’s as green as you can make it? As with any major purchase, you must do your homework. Even a small contracting job can cause headaches and financial losses if not researched properly. And finding the right contractor is absolutely crucial.

“Green” contractors are trained to build and/or design projects that are energy-, water-, and resource-efficient, as well as employing methods to ensure proper indoor ventilation. Unfortunately, most contractors don’t have this type of training and aren’t sure where to shop for materials. Your best bet is to seek out a contractor who has been designated a Master Builder by the Energy and Environmental Building Association or has been certified by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry as a Certified Remodeler. If you can’t find a certified contractor but are lucky enough to have a contractor who is willing to work with you, then you can do your own research on green building by checking out Green Building: A Primer for Builders, Consumers, and Realtors.

Finding your contractor

When choosing a contractor, the following guidelines should help you make a good decision.

Prepare. Read magazines and books, visit green building materials stores, surf the Web.

Decide how to approach the project. There are two types of contractors: general contractors and trade contractors. A general contractor is a project coordinator who is responsible for hiring and supervising the work performed by trade contractors. Trade contractors are specialists who work on individual aspects of the job such as electrical or plumbing. Most green contractors are general contractors. However, if your general contractor doesn’t see green, you may have to work in partnership to ensure that he or she is buying the right products.

Ask friends and neighbors for referrals. Not only can you see the contractor’s work firsthand, but you can also check whether the work was done on time and on budget. Ask if the contractor was responsive and courteous. Were the homeowners consulted about the materials used? Was the contractor communicative and willing to listen? If you live in an area served by a green retailer, ask for a referral.

Hire a local contractor. Unless you have superlative recommendations for someone outside your area, it’s best to look for a contractor who lives and works locally. Make sure that your contractor has all necessary state and local licenses. If your contractor is not certified in green building techniques, make sure he or she is willing to work with you toward this goal. Check with the Better Business Bureau or other local consumer organizations to see whether there are any complaints on file. Be cautious of contractors who solicit door-to-door, accept only cash, pressure you into an immediate decision, ask you to obtain building permits, or offer to arrange a loan for you. Because it takes a special commitment to be a green building contractor, they generally won’t be knocking at your door. Always ask for addresses and telephone numbers for a contractor’s last three customers, and check out at least two.

Get a written contract. Designate the materials to be used, as well as the source of products, and request that they be delivered to your house. That way, if something happens to the contractor, you still have the materials. All materials should be specified by style, color, quantity, and catalog number, if available. One option that may save a little money and get some reassurance is to buy the materials yourself, especially if you have a local green retailer.

Confirm that the contractor is responsible for getting permits and approvals. Make sure all permits are displayed on your site. Also check out warranties on both labor and materials. Ask for proof of insurance (workers’ compensation, liability, and property damage) that will cover every worker on the site, including subcontractors.

Supervise the work. Make sure the work is performed correctly and by the people identified in the contract. If the work is sloppy, or something seems wrong, don’t hesitate to question the contractor. Remodeling a home is a partnership effort that requires cooperation and flexibility, especially for a green project. Talk to your contractor–as in any other relationship, good manners and courtesy go a long way.

Survey says…

Editor’s Note: Last year we surveyed Natural Home readers on how they build, remodel, and live in their homes. Of the 55 percent who said they had hired contractors to build new homes or complete home improvement projects, most found their architect or contractor at least somewhat knowledgeable about green building techniques (40 percent said the building professionals were somewhat knowledgeable; 38 percent said they were knowledgeable to very knowledgeable). Sixty-six percent said their architects and contractors were open-minded or very open-minded about green building, while only 7 percent said their building professionals dismissed the idea out of hand.

Interestingly, these statistics don’t completely jibe with the comments many readers wrote on their survey forms. Many said they struggled to find green-minded contractors. “It is difficult to find contractors who enthusiastically embrace this approach,” stated one reader.

Finding green materials

In addition to hiring the right contractor, you also need access to green building products. One excellent source for information is Environmental Building News (EBN) at, which includes a directory of more than 1,500 products that have been reviewed for environmental performance. EBN classifies retailers as either “exclusively green” or “venturing green,” indicating that they have made a significant commitment to offering green products.

Green building fundamentals

• Does your contractor understand the green building basics?

• Reduce quantities of building materials, resources, and energy.

• Reuse structurally sound construction materials.

• Recycle materials as much as possible.

• Renewable building materials and energy sources are preferred.

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