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Green Communities

Construction Process Part Two: Contractor Selection

What makes a general or trade contractor green?

This photo contains evidence of the work of at least 5 trade contractors: insulation, HVAC, framing, stucco, roofing. At this Pulte development in Banning, CA, each of these trades met weekly to make sure that they each and all supported the high performance targets of the builder; that's green.
Image Credit: Building Science Corporation

I have about a half dozen green contractor attributes to consider, but let’s start with a baseline: NOT green (behind the ears…).

Experience and attention to detail go a long way toward green or resource-efficiency. This is not to say that young and creative contractors can’t be green. But in many cases, it is the guys and gals who have lots of notches in their tool belts who understand how to integrate green approaches into their existing operations, particularly when it comes to quality; and a good program or system of quality management in the office and on the job site is another part of the green baseline for me.

Having said that, here is my list:

1 – Team player

If your framing contractor is not on a first-name basis with your architect (or vice-versa), or if your electrician does not give a hoot about your insulation contractor’s work, green building is going to be a stretch. I once met an HVAC contractor who told me that his definition of non-structural was “anything that is in my f-ing way.” To be green, you have to be a team player, willing to fit your work into the overall scheme of things.

2 – Jobsite Practices

There are lots of ways to assess how resource-efficient a contractor is on the jobsite, but the one I like best is dumpster-diving. What each contractor throws out is an amazingly good measure of the respect and care they show for the materials you are paying for. A contractor’s waste stream can say a lot about their specifications and purchasing, installation practices, and their ability to follow jobsite waste management policies.

3 – Business Practices

Green contractors get the whole picture, practicing what they preach in their business operations as well as at the jobsite. BuildingGreen has a great green business checklist, covering everything from the energy efficiency of the contractor’s office to what sort of products are used to clean that same office.

4 – Training

This is about just what sort of penchant a contractor has for training in general as well as what sort of green building training they have. You will likely find that a contractor who is investing in any one of the new green building training programs has a lengthy and consistent record of training in general. Green training is quite often tied to the next attribute, green building program participation or membership. But there are a growing number of trade-specific green organizations offering green training. Two that come to mind are the GreenPlumbers’ training and licensing and the educational programs of the Green Mechanical Council. An interesting local program to keep your eye on is the Green Boots Education Series developed by the Austin Energy’s Green Building program and now run by the HBA of Greater Austin.

5 – Green building program memberships

Membership in green building associations is certainly not a requirement for being or becoming a green contractor, but local building associations, as well as the major national building associations—the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the US Green Building Council (USGBC)—are attracting more and more general and trade contractors. Sometimes this is because the association has specific training the contractors find useful or because their clients are expecting to see green membership/training/credentials as part of overall qualifications.

6 – Use of/familiarity with green building materials

Note that this is at the end of my list; it’s not that green building products aren’t important, it’s just that too often this is where green building starts and ends with clients and contractors. Green building has to be as much about a contractor’s work process as it is the materials they use. So, plumber’s should know about efficient plumbing layout as well as EPA WaterSense toilets; HVAC contractors should know as much about ACCA Manuals J, S, and D as they do about Energy Star heat pumps. You get the picture.


  1. Terrence | | #1

    Market Incentives
    Are there market-based incentives to encourage contractors to build green-certified homes?

  2. Terrence | | #2

    Current Economy
    Given the current economy, is there a trend towards or away from working with green contractors?

  3. Peter Yost | | #3

    Market incentives and green in the current economy
    Hi Terrence -

    1. incentives: I think the strongest incentive to link green or high performance with the market are bill guarantees--energy bills, water bills, or even maintenance bill guarantees. The guarantee means that there has to be quality of design, of materials, and of construction. It's putting your money where your mouth is.

    Energy bill guarantees, while not common, do exist; Masco's Environments for Living has them, RIck Chitwood and his energy management systems in California has them. While i have never heard of water or maintenance bill guarantees, they could easily work just like the energy bill guarantees. Roll the three together and you are well on your way to a green guarantee.

    2. Green in the current economy - if green means a quality high performance home, and that is what it means to me, then delivering value to a homeowner or customer, is a strong approach regardless of the economy.

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