How to Find a Green Builder — Part 2

April 27, 2007

Editor’s note: In Part 1 of “How to Find a Green Builder,” Philip addressed some of the general concepts underlying green homebuilding; today, he discussses specific guidelines for green homes, and the professionals that can implement those ideas.

Looking for a builder may not be the best first step, either. Working with an architect, rather than having a builder try to “green up” an existing plan that they have built before, may lead to a much more satisfying project in the end. Builders may believe that they can add some green features to their existing product line, but I think much better results are had when a client works with both their architect and their builder in order to create a green building as a team.

Architects are perhaps better situated to offer their clients advice about the variety of options they are considering without trying to sell them something. There are also issues such as passive solar design that require a much broader approach, like an architect offers, than what most builders can offer. Much of green building already incorporates “not doing more work but doing more thoughtful work.” Working with an architect engages that thoughtful planning process, and leads to better and more fully considered plans and better homes.

This is also why there are not lots of green “plan book” plans. Factors such as the region of the country you are in, as well as the orientation on the building site (to name just a couple), will have a large effect on how the house performs. A very efficient, appropriate design for a house in Vermont will probably be totally inappropriate if it is built in Arizona, for example. And there are far too many cases of subdivisions with the same house plan built on both the north and south sides of the street, completely ignoring how the sun is going to affect each house.

Another point that was made at the conference was that before investing in an expensive system like photovoltaic panels (which have a relatively long payback period in Michigan) you should first make the house as efficient as possible. First of all, the costs of improving the efficiency of the house are lower than the costs of a PV system, and secondly, if the house is running efficiently, the PV system will be providing a greater percentage of the house’s energy needs. Take the “low hanging fruit” first, before getting into more elaborate systems.

>> Learn more about How to Choose a Solar Installer for your Home at Renewzle.

Consider as well what “green” means for your particular project. A photovoltaic solar panel installer might well be a green builder, but they are probably not the ones I want to talk to about installing formaldehyde-free cabinets in my kitchen. Again, I would tend to prefer people with good, broad experience in their field of expertise. But the things that matter to you should help drive the selection process.

When building a new home, a homebuyer can use EnergyStar requirements, for example, as criteria for a more efficient house. Another option would be the pilot program of LEED for Homes, if the house is being built in one of the twelve regions of the country where the program is currently available. These guidelines can be used to get a home that meets some independent criteria for green.

This is not to say that there are not resources avialable to help you find the people you will want to work with on your project. Professional organizations can sometimes help guide you to the people best able to work with you. Local chapters of the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB/HBA) and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) may have committees on green building. Speaking from local experience, the southeast Michigan NARI was instrumental in organizing the “Remodel Green Midwest” conference I wrote about a few weeks ago, and they have a very active committee on green building. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) also has resources to help you find an architect, as well as advice about working with an architect.

Lastly, you will probably want to talk to several different people in order to find someone you are going to be comfortable working with. If you don’t interview more than one, then you should have some very good references about them from people whose opinions you can trust. Ideally, you should talk to a few people to get information and find the right person to work with. Building a house should be a collaborative effort, not a product selection.