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Musings of an Energy Nerd

‘I Can’t Find a Contractor to Do That’

Some GBA readers complain that it’s hard to find a builder who’s familiar with energy-efficient methods

In many regions of the U.S., it can be hard to find a residential builder who is familiar with energy-efficient construction methods. [Photo credit: Peter Yost]

GBA articles usually assume that readers share the author’s primary goal: an energy-efficient house with a low rate of air leakage. That’s why many GBA authors take it for granted that builders involved with a residential project will understand basic building science principles, and won’t be confused by expressions like “the stack effect” or “thermal bridging.”

If you hang out at GBA long enough, you internalize these assumptions. It’s easy to forget, however, that there are broad swaths of the United States where energy-efficient building practices are still uncommon. As Craig Savage, a former general contractor and JLC editor, recently noted, many builders, upon learning that new codes mandate blower door testing, respond with a “deer in the headlights” look.

If you’re a GBA reader who is planning to build a custom home in Arizona or Alabama or South Dakota, and you describe construction methods you’ve learned about on GBA to your local builder, you may be met by a quizzical expression and the simple response, “We don’t build it that way around here.”

Most U.S. builders haven’t had a chance to study building science basics. In much of the U.S., residential construction is lightly regulated (if it is regulated at all). In fact, it’s legal in  many states for almost anyone with a pickup truck to call themselves a builder. Most U.S. builders begin earning a living without having undergone any classroom training in construction topics and without completing any job-site apprenticeship program. Unfortunately, it’s fairly common to discover that residential builders aren’t even familiar with local building code requirements.

That said, a subset of U.S. builders is highly competent. You’re looking for one of the builders in this subset.

Here are some…

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28 Comments

  1. User avater
    Peter Engle | | #1

    This issue starts much higher up on the food chain than just builders. I recently attended a continuing education seminar for architects and engineers, on an unrelated topic. The "educator" leading the seminar branched off into the topic of blower door testing and lamented the difficulty of meeting the 2015 IRC blower door test standards. Fortunately, he told us, NJ eliminated the blower door standard in favor of "visual verification" of air sealing details when we adopted the 2015 IRC, and the strongly urged the audience to make sure they followed that pathway during construction.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #2

      Peter,
      As I'm sure you know, most residential projects in the U.S. don't have an architect or engineer on the project team. That said, some custom homes do.

      You're absolutely right that many engineers and architects lack a good understanding of building science principles. The last time I wrote an in-depth article on the topic was in June 2005.

      Published in Energy Design Update, the article was titled "Teaching Architects Building Science." I have attached a copy of the relevant issue of EDU below.

  2. Heather Thompson | | #3

    Well done summing this up, Martin. It should be troublesome to a home owner to hear the building professional they would like to potentially hire say, "I don't know." or "I don't build that way." It is really indicative that they are not reading trade publications or watching what other builders are doing. A regulated and licensed industry would be great on many levels, as well as an apprenticeship program, but the best we can hope for currently is for a professional to be proactive in continuing education. We can't expect, nor should we, all builders to be on the cutting edge or progressive edge but as you stated above, basic building science principals need to be understood. There are thousands of variables in each project and knowing how to create a durable and efficient structure (even if it is only code built) is critical to it's success.

  3. Trevor Lambert | | #4

    I found it somewhat challenging to find a contractor to even quote a one-off job, irrespective of whether it was unusual. Asking for something out of the ordinary just adds to the difficulty. Even just trying to get a quote on an ERV, 90% of the HVAC specialists I contacted either didn't know what it was, said they didn't do that kind of thing, or demonstrated they didn't really understand what it was for. And this is an item that should, according to the local building code, be going into the majority of new homes.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #5

      Trevor,
      Your situation is all too common. For an in-depth discussion of the current crisis in the residential HVAC trades, see "Fixing Energy Star Version 3."

    2. Brian Schreiber | | #16

      Yep, you hit it on the head Trevor. I did not install my ERV during the main construction partly because I had not finalized what exactly I wanted to do but, mainly, because I had NO confidence in the HVAC contractors I met during bidding. I could tell they were mostly clueless. So, down the road now I am doing this and self-installing. I wanted to build a SIP home and ended up GC'ing the job myself for the same reason.

  4. Robert Swinburne | | #6

    Thank goodness I live and mostly work in Vermont. My life as an architect is immensely easier compared to my architect friends around the country who, generally are pretty savvy about building science but lament the obstacles to putting that into practice.
    NESEA also has a database of builders. Efficiency VT is so far ahead of the game with education, opportunities and enthusiasm. I would love to see their model take root in other states.

    1. Matt Sargent | | #23

      Efficiency Vermont has a the Efficiency Excellence Network, (EEN) where they partner with local trades to promote best practices. Here's the write up from their web page:
      https://www.efficiencyvermont.com/tips-tools/questions-answers/what-is-een

      Efficiency Excellence Network(EEN) members are a network of independent contractors committed to providing their customers the highest level of professional energy efficiency services. This network is comprised of experts in the advanced technologies and building sciences that make buildings more energy efficient and affordable to maintain. They are also trained to understand and consider important health and safety measures that are key to any job. Types of contractors include HVAC, New Construction, Commercial Refrigeration, Insulation and Air Sealing, and Electrical.

      The network provides:

      Access to exclusive Efficiency Vermont incentives, and low or no interest financing on your project. Contractors in the EEN receive regular updates about available opportunities to better serve their customers.

      Training in energy efficiency fundamentals and specialties. EEN contractors receive in-depth training from Efficiency Vermont, so you can trust that they are skilled in making energy efficient improvements cost-effectively, within their specialties.

      Access to exclusive support from Efficiency Vermont. At any step in a project, a member can reach out and get support from us to assure project success.

      EEN members are independent businesses that are solely responsible for the quality of their work. Efficiency Vermont does not guarantee any specific energy savings through its assistance or programs.

      Begin your search for a contractor here, then select the “EEN” filter on the results page.

  5. Malcolm Taylor | | #7

    So what do we do until (hopefully) the industry catches up with the codes and good building science? I'd suggest specifying assemblies that are as close as possible to those used as the standard in any area, rather than importing what to local builders are exotic new techniques. Use the regional vernacular as a starting p0int for improvement, and go from there. Keep things simple and avoid building-sections that look like they came from the contract drawing for the space-shuttle.

    1. Brian Schreiber | | #17

      Yep. Good idea and likely the reason Martin probably left out SIP's in his list of construction methods commonly promoted on GBA. I used SIP's in my new, self designed, self-GC'd home and I found it painful, hard to find competent AND reliable SIP builders. I used a SIP builder but he was not ethical. If there was a bigger supply of them I may have been luckier. As it was, my SIP house was likely more expensive than if I had just caved and built with 2x6 foamed walls instead. On the other hand, SIP's were and still are, I believe, the best solution for cathedral ceilings(my Great Room).

  6. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #8

    We chose our architect, Jesse Thompson of Portland, Maine, because of his reputation as a designer of energy efficient structures. We knew we wanted to use Tom Greenleaf, of Jefferson, Maine, as our contractor, because Tom had built a large addition from us on our old house and did a great job.

    Tom wasn't particularly familiar with highly efficient techniques. But he's a smart guy. We met a few times with Jesse and Tom to discuss the project and to iron out any concerns. It was Tom' first double stud construction. He had never used a blower door test. But the project went smoothly, the house performs as designed and we're happy homeowners.

    I guess the lesson is that for such an expensive undertaking as a new house, it pays to use a good team, with people who aren't afraid to do something new.

    I saw Tom last week. He's buying 3M flashing tape by the case.😊

    1. Charlie Sullivan | | #15

      That's a great example of how a homeowner can have a impact beyond the energy savings of their own home--through given a good contractor a chance to learn. I'm glad that worked out so well!

  7. Tyson Godfrey | | #9

    I recently asked a local home builder who advertised "air tightness" on their website if they do a blower door test. They had no idea what I was talking about, apparently Utah also made the blower door test part of the 2015 IRC Optional... I ended up deciding that it will be easier to build most of my house myself so I can get the construction methods I want (airtight, exterior insulation, HRV, ect.) Luckily I have an almost retired father who has experience building and great resources at GBA and Fine Homebuilding!

  8. Mark Walker | | #10

    Alternate caption:
    Those who don't study building science are doomed to screw it up.
    Those who do study building science are doomed to stand by helplessly
    while everyone else screws it up.

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #11

      Mark,
      "Those who do study building science are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else screws it up" -- unless those students of building science pick up a few tools and acquire a few building skills.

    2. Matt Sargent | | #24

      Exactly.

  9. Tyler Keniston | | #12

    I've often wondered if it would be possible to create a sort of regional ideas exchange on this website, or on some other easy-to-access platform (i.e. internet based).

    By that I mean a sort of virtual bulletin board organized by region and category (Materials suppliers, manufacturers, architects, contractors, auditors/raters, etc).

    Just a bit of pipe dream. I realize the complexity and difficulty of such organization and consolidation on a large scale. Nothing replaces making real connections in your community, and certainly the Q&A here can open discussions on a semi-local basis. It would be sweet though to just click on "New England" then "Materials Suppliers" then "Locally milled lumber" and get a hive-created (crowd sourced) list of mills... or builders... or architects...

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #13

      Tyler,
      Not a bad idea. I'll see if I can come up with a format for it.

      Later edit: I've started a bulletin board as you suggested. Here is the link: Green Building Bulletin Board.

      1. Brian Bailey | | #14

        Martin,

        Your bulletin board has already had one success! I found a business that I didn't know about, right in my own city. They will be my first call on an upcoming project, and I'll be sure to mention where I got the info.

        You noted in the comments connected to Bulletin Board that it might be difficult to manage self-promoters. Perhaps a voting system, similar to the "up" and "down" arrows used for comments on Reddit, would ameliorate that problem? Just a thought. I'd really like to see the Bulletin Board succeed!

  10. User avater
    Leigha Dickens | | #18

    in my experience the RESNET professional search tool is a bit fraught, I've found that even if you put in a zip code and try to narrow your search to a certain mile radius from that zip code you still regularly get results that include people not even in a remotely nearby state.

    The Energy Star partner tool allows one to look for Raters as well as builders with a little bit more readable results than the RESNET tool, it tries to tell you what general geographic region within a state an entry is trying to serve. You still have to use a little bit of industry informed reading comprehension to sort out who is actually a HERS Rater physically in that area and who is just a big conglomerate Rating company who wants to serve that area but actually has no local knowledge. But I have absolutely found HERS Raters that way who in turn gave me leads on local contractors, especially for HVAC and insulation. (Unfortunately, the partner search is currently disabled due to the government shut down.) Clients could also try the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home program partner search page to look for builders who have done that program. https://www5.eere.energy.gov/buildings/residential/locator (that one seems to still work despite shut down.)

  11. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    Leigha,
    Thanks for sharing some excellent tips.

  12. William Janhonen | | #20

    As a Building Science instructor I see a trend in the comments so far: code requirements that may have been adopted have been modified by local officials from more to less stringent. Things like air leakage by observation rather than blower door testing, duct testing by the HVAC installers as opposed to independent testing, no requirement for obtaining contactors license other than paying the $250 application fee. All valid arguments why the extensive work done by ICC and others is being stunted in application despite being included in code adoption. However, I see builders falling into a sine curve. 10% on one end are competent, hard working individuals trying to learn new methods and adopting the methodology to build high performance buildings. Many of whom you have featured on GBA for which you deserve to be applauded. 10% on the opposite end I wouldn't let build a dog house much as less a real house and they will never adopt anything other than providing a "tail light" guarantee-they guarantee their work until you cannot see their tail lights anymore. In the middle is a mix of 80% of builders who are trying to come to grip with changing codes, new products, new methods, a shortage of trained labor force and most of them WANT to improve their knowledge base and improve their product because they understand that; 1. codes never get less stringent, only more 2. if they don't improve cream rises to the top and those that do embrace high performance building will eventually be able to create better homes at the same cost of code built homes and they will not be able to compete in the market.
    IF you look at the HERS ratings by state ( visit RESNET.com) you see that those states that have adopted more recent codes rank better, and those states in colder climates trend to rank better because you can't fudge air sealing when you are freezing your butt off with high fuel costs. Plus numbers don't lie- for example; a home with a HERS of 49 can't be a poorly built home, just can't happen, which is why ERI (Energy Rating Index) was made part of the IECC code.
    So if we really want to "improve" our base of architects, builders AND Realtors who understand all of the basic components of building science we need to enforce the standards that exist in the adopted building codes and not remove or water down the essential reasons they were created in the first place.

  13. Christopher Peck | | #21

    This isn't a problem just in South Dakota or Alabama, several years ago here in Sonoma County, CA I couldn't get a contractor to even understand my GBA-inspired request for exterior rigid insulation. A large, regional window installer told me "you can't do that." I even had a couple guys try to sell me on the idea of insulating paint.
    I ended up doing the bulk of the work myself with my father's help and with the help of a couple handymen young and somewhat new to the field. We had to invent the wheel a couple times and made some dumb, money wasting mistakes like using screws to attach HardiPlank. Gee, who knew how fast, easy and effective a nail gun could be!
    Post-fire-apocalypse all the top builders are booked for years; my remodel work and energy upgrades have slowed down considerably. Good luck everyone!

  14. MCShaw | | #22

    This is a great article summing up my builder search methodology for the past five years. The problem in my area comes down to a lack of demand from the client. Who cares as long as it has a barn-door and a shiplap feature wall...

  15. User avater
    Geir Gaseidnes | | #25

    This strikes me as a good way to monetize GBA some - Charge a nominal fee for builder professionals to have a green directory listing for companies that users can search against? No idea what your business model looks like, but connecting customers and providers is a very real service to your community. (feel free to set me on fire for this, I know it may be an unpopular idea. The very sharing community you've built over the years is impressive and this kind of move may be anathema).

    1. User avater GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #27

      My personal opinion: I'm here to provide a service to our readers, not to think of new ways to "monetize" what we do.

      The companies listed on our new Green Building Bulletin Board are, as far as I can determine, experienced at performing high-performance construction practices as advocated on the GBA site. No company can buy their way onto this list.

  16. User avater
    Rick Coffman | | #26

    Martin,
    I've been reading your info and trying to incorporate it into reality here in Delaware. I like the information provided. Sadly I have found that 99% of what you proffer up is not understood and or downplayed by builders due to lack of knowledge and or costs. More the former than the latter. And finally, there is the real world impact of having an employee or sub do the work correctly even if the builder understands it. Interview a few 'tradesman' and see how much they know and more often than not, they only know basics and speed. The fine quality offered here just aint gonna happen without doubling the cost of the work. Even then, its unlikely to be done right unless its a custom home with stringent oversight. Maybe a high end custom home will get it done right but not the production home or low end custom. Over time and with better building code enforcement things will get better for the average Joe.

  17. Jon A | | #28

    This is an excellent article and all of the comments are spot on, especially Rick Coffman's. I am a building inspector for a Massachusetts municipality and I live this everyday. I'm an avid reader of GBA and do my best to understand building science so I can properly call out problems I see in the field. The trouble is I can only enforce the building code and IMHO its years or even decades behind where it needs to be. We have a lot of new residential homes in our town and not one builder is going one inch over what the building code requires. Every finished basement is insulated with fiberglass batts, every new home gets an furnace put in an unconditioned attic, most HVAC contractors cannot come close to providing a proper set of manuals..just to state a few of the issues we see constantly. I feel as though all I can do is suggest better options and provide reference material but every time it is ignored because it will cost a few more dollars. In all honesty its hard to get contractors to understand they need to vent the bath fan OUTSIDE of the house and that huge gaps in their insulation is NOT OK. Getting them to understand why an ERV is needed or why roof ventilation needs to be done right seems to be a losing battle.

    I would say a large part of the problem, at least in my area, is the lack of consistent enforcement of building codes in other towns. I'm sure every builder reading this is familiar with this. Every day I hear "no other inspector has every said this" or "no other town makes us do this" and honestly I believe them. I am a builder/remodeler (part time now) and I saw the inconsistency first hand.

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