How to Find a Green Builder — Part 1

April 25, 2007

Editor's note: Thinking about building green? Philip's two-part series (second part on Friday) explains the many variables you need to consider before signing a contract with a "green" home builder.

I recently received a message from a reader asking for help with finding a local green builder. Unfortunately, she is looking in a city two time zones away from me. And while I'm gathering resources and collecting information, the information I have is not that widespread. I don't have a vast database to help point people looking to do green building find the people who can help successfully execute those projects. But perhaps I can offer some guidelines about finding the right people to work with.

Her question is not entirely unique, either. I am in the middle of a two-day conference on green building (Midwest Green Building Conference) right now. One of the sessions I attended this afternoon had this very question come up during some of the discussion: "How do you find a green builder?" And, we found, there are a number of things that make this question difficult to answer. But there are some things you can do to find architects, builders, and specialized tradespeople who can help make a project turn out the way you want.

First of all, a "green builder" may not be the right person that you are looking for. This may sound heretical, at first. But just because someone is marketing themselves as being a green builder doen't necessarily mean that they are right for the job. We are seeing more and more products being touted as being green, although some of them have only a tenuous claim to being a truly green product. The same is true for the people. Sometimes, builders and other construction personnel call themselves "green" without much to back it up. There are lots of claims of green in every quarter of the construction industry, just like there are in all manner of consumer products. Don't just look for a claim of greenness in the name or the marketing; see what there is to back it up.

At the same time, someone who doesn't call themselves "green" may be the person you want for some (or maybe even all) of the job in question. There are a number of factors to consider, and in almost all cases, green construction or "green" methods are not radically different from "traditional" methods. Much of green building is just building better, rather than building differeently. If you are installing an HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) mechanical system, for example, you may not want to hire someone who is calling themselves green, but who is brand new in the field. Instead, you may want the person who has 20 years of experience with HVAC systems, and who knows all about how to properly install them. Building codes and other requirements must still be met, regardless of whether or not the project is green, and experienced personnel are often better able to achieve that without problems. They will also have a wider range of experience with the variety of products that have been produced in their field, and can help evaluate and understand the claims of new systems and products.

Many parts of geting a successful green home come from building things the right way. It's not about someone who has the latest and greatest technological toy as much as it is about understanding how houses perform and how to build them properly. A builder who can't install flashing around a window the right way isn't going to be able to make the building energy efficient.

There may be people who are waiting for a green-oriented client to come along wanting them to do a green project. I heard this a number of times at the Remodeling conference. There are builders who want to get further into green projects, but don't have clients asking for it. At this point, there's no reason to work with a builder who is going to resist the things you want to do. If one individual seems more interested in selling you on the way they've always done things being good enough, rather than being willing to hear what you are asking for, there are other competitors who will work with you to get what you want. Those are the people you want to find.