Working with Non-Green Trade Contractors in Building a Green Home

I feel a kinship with Allison Bailes, the author of this article.  We both built green homes using non-green labor, in a pretty non-green minded area.  We’ve both been cursed out by contractors.  And still we both persevered and got the job done (mostly) the way we wanted. I think you will enjoy Allison’s very personal overview of what it was like to build green in 2001-2003.  Having gone through the process myself, I think he gives a very accurate portrayal of what that experience is like – particularly his experience with contractors

Trish Holder, Publisher
Greenspiration Home

By Allison A. Bailes III, PhD

Ten years ago, I was in the throes of building a green home an hour outside Atlanta, Georgia. (Well, truthfully, I was in the throes of depression because my dad had just died, but that’s another story.) In the process of building the house, I had to work with a lot of trade contractors. Some were good. Some were bad. None had any experience with green building. And I learned a lot.

Not every contractor works out
Take my situation with plumbers. If I count the first one, who never showed up, and myself, it took five plumbers in all to build that house.

The worst was the second, who did all the rough-in plumbing. He and his two guys would roll in at the crack of 10 am or so and then take another 30 minutes to figure out what they were going to work on that day. By about 2:30 pm, they were packing up and heading out. It took them two weeks to rough-in the plumbing for two bathrooms, the laundry room, and the kitchen, which were all clustered on the same side of the house.

The owner of the company was gruff and arrogant. He seemed competent, but he never got a chance to finish the job. I’ve been the recipient of angry words before and since, but the day he yelled, “You f#$@ed up!” at me without good reason was the day I decided I would pay him for his work to that point and send him on his way. My next plumber ended up repairing a lot of mistakes those guys left for me.

Some contractors exceed expectations
The foundation contractor, Wendell, was also gruff and arrogant. I could barely understand his strong Georgia accent on the phone, and he didn’t do everything the way I wanted it done. But he arrived early in the morning, made things happen, and had high standards for his workers. By the time he had packed up all his forms onto the trailer and rattled off down the driveway with them, I had a lot of respect for him.

My favorite trade contractors were JW and his brother Jeffrey. I first had them come in and install the felt we used as a drainage plane on the walls. Then they installed the windows, which they were doing in the photo at top, the same day the roofers put the metal roof on.

Next, I had them frame the carport and back porch next, two jobs I could hardly face in February 2002. I’d just returned from Houston after spending three weeks there when my dad died. It was a difficult time.

In March 2002, the Sun and my spirits were coming back. JW and Jeffrey put the siding on the house, and that’s when I gained tremendous respect for them. They did a fantastic job with the siding around the big front windows. They had to cut a lot of pieces on an angle to match the slope of the roof and the windows. Plus they had to make the adjacent courses of shingle all look good together.

Oh, yeah. They usually arrived between 6:30 and 7:00 am on days they were working.

JW and Jeffrey became my go-to guys after that. They came back to help me with the tongue-and-groove pine ceiling that summer. It was going too slow with just me and a helper, and I knew that as soon as I started trying to cut and fit pieces around the valleys, I’d be going even slower. I called them, and in two days they’d completed not only all of the ceiling boards around the valleys but had wrapped all the LVL beams with birch plywood, too.

What I learned
Building a green home out of structural insulated panels is weird enough, but when you’re doing it in a fairly rural area with contractors who know little or nothing about green building, it takes a lot of patience and flexibility. I had to let go of some things I wanted (concrete with 4″ slump, for example), but I learned that when I respected the skills and abilities that contractors brought to the job and I explained my goals to them clearly, the results were usually more than satisfactory.

Since I was acting as general contractor myself, I perhaps had more control over the work than someone who hires a homebuilder to manage the flow of work. Building any home is a complex process. Building a green home in an area with non-green trade contractors is more difficult but can certainly be done effectively.

People who work in the trades are a mixed lot, like most groups. Some are not so smart and some could’ve gotten doctorates (or perhaps did). Some are petulant (like my second plumber) and some are the nicest people you’ll ever meet. If you check their references, give them a reasonable scope of work, and communicate clearly with them, you can build a green home even in a rural area with non-green trade contractors. You may also, like me, learn a few tricks from them and respect the good ones enormously by the time your project is complete.

This article was reprinted with permission from Allison Bailes III, PhD, founder and president of  Energy Vanguard, a RESNET accredited Home Energy Rating Provider and educational and high performance home design resource in Decatur, GA.   Prior to starting Energy Vanguard, Allison began his career as an academic in physics.  However, his own green building adventure led him down a path more rooted in his passion for the built environment.

5 Responses »

  1. Dear Allison,

    Read your article, very impressive. I like to have more info. of this building if it’s possible. Let me introduce myself first.

    I worked in nuclear power plant start up 12 years back on 1977 but since there is no new nuclear power plant in States I have to switch over my career to computer related business because I am in Silicon valley, San Jose, CA. After 2 kids graduated from Berkeley and Stanford, I think I am done my responsibility, want back to my root but clean power, renewable energy thus I obtains Solar general contractor license and couple of certificates (CHEERS, HERS, BPI & LEED) switch over to renewable energy field, hopefully it won’t be too late.

    I found out, all medias are talking, discussing the global warming, sustainable building, reducing emission of carbon dioxide but all of us knows they cost money and ROI is not a short term. People in States are spoiled, we have the cheapest energy (gasoline, NG…)but people still crying, our government doesn’t give enough education through media, if we raise gas price 20% or more one time, people will
    find way how to save their energy immediately (Electricity vehicle, Public transportation, bike or even walk) I have chance talk to government top management, all of them like green, they do have some budget but they don’t know how to get start.

    My idea is to build a green demo room (depend on the budget) to include all green latest technology
    or even a green zone (depend on how big the size city/county like to have) no combustion engine allowed in this zone. People think I am crazy but without education, most people don’t know how will
    those facility works related to their life and whole environment ?

    Would you please provide me your design and what items did you integrated to your green home ? What is the obstacle ? What is the additional cost compare with conventional building ? Any data shown energy efficiency money & CO 2 saving ? What do you recommend if it’s a brand new design starting from scratch or it’s Okay for exiting building ? How many items or idea have you implemented into this green building ?

    Thank you for your time

    Allen Chen
    1028 Craig Drive
    San Jose, CA 95129
    408-668-8118

  2. It’s tough to be a general contractor! I bet you had alot of sleepless nights on that project.

    It’s great that your building Green houses. Thank you for your contribution to humanity.

  3. I think using green products is a wonderful way to build any home. People sometimes forget the greenest thing you can do for any home is to make it energy efficient. I would suggest an encapsulated crawl space – expensive in existing homes but almost a break even in new construction. And I would suggest closed cell foam insulation – it more expensive but it will pay for itself in a few years. Congratulations on building green!

  4. As a contractor I’m finding this a little hard to stomach. Homeowners with no construction exp micro managing a project to such an extent a person can’t make wages let alone a profit. Somehow thinking that all of a sudden they alone are reinventing the wheel. The fact you couldn’t even do the simple ceiling work you described tells me exactly what your skill level is. Yet somehow you feel you can instruct a plumber how to do his work. There is so much back patting on this site I feel sick,you would be fortunate to get helper status. Your lucky a safety inspector didn’t come and shut you down for starters,from your one picture I see at least 5 infractions.

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