GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Musings of an Energy Nerd

Remodeling Contractors Talk About Energy Retrofits

Owners want to fix up their homes — but some of them aren’t sure they want to invest in energy efficiency

A panel of remodeling contractors. At the BuildingEnergy 16 conference in Boston, Dan Kolbert (standing, at left) introduced the four panelists. Seated at the table were Jamie Wolf, Joe Carry, Heather Thompson, and Paul Eldrenkamp.
Image Credit: All photos: Martin Holladay

One of the liveliest sessions at this year’s NESEA-sponsored conference (BuildingEnergy 16) in Boston was a panel discussion featuring four remodeling contractors. These energy-conscious New England builders talked about the challenges they face as they try to incorporate energy improvements into remodeling projects.

The session, “Retrofit Like You Care About It: Inspiring Homeowners to Care About Efficiency,” featured Jamie Wolf (owner of Wolfworks in Avon, Connecticut), Joe Carry (owner of Decumanus Green in Lenox, Massachusetts), Heather Thompson (owner of Thompson Johnson Woodworks, Peaks Island, Maine), and Paul Eldrenkamp (owner of Byggmeister in Newton, Massachusetts).

Moderator Dan Kolbert (owner of Kolbert Building in Portland, Maine) joined the discussion during the question-and-answer period.

Each of the panelists spoke for a few minutes, and then the audience was invited to ask questions.

Jamie Wolf

“Performance is invisible. So how can we help homeowners learn to value what they can’t see?”

“We bear the responsibility to alleviate our clients’ confusion. People want to make smart choices. So provide your clients with a set of smart choices.”

“We need to anchor our ideas to a compelling story. ‘Barefoot comfort’ is a familiar sensation. It’s a useful place to start.”

“Ice dams inspire action. Ice dams provide an opportunity to explain systemic failures.”

“Don’t start with the solution; start with problem-seeking. Diagnosis comes before treatment. Start with blower-door testing and energy modeling.”

Jamie Wolf and Joe Carry

“Make decisions that are important for performance early in the design process.”

“Communicating all of this takes patience and persistence. Keep calm and choose your battles wisely.”

Joe Carry

“The builders I admire don’t present green building as an option. They only do one…

GBA Prime

This article is only available to GBA Prime Members

Sign up for a free trial and get instant access to this article as well as GBA’s complete library of premium articles and construction details.

Start Free Trial


  1. dankolbert | | #1

    Potty mouth
    Thanks for the write-up, Martin - nice to get an audience member's perspective and glad you found it worthwhile. Did I really say all those nasty things? They'll never invite me back.

  2. dankolbert | | #2

    Speaking of potty mouth
    The session was Kevin Ireton's, late of Fine Homebuilding, idea. And his original title was Retrofit Like You Give a Shit. Apparently one of the organizations that gives CEU's has a no bad word rule so it had to be modified. Fortunately renovation contractors are experienced at going with the flow.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Just contractors getting together and talking...
    Thanks for skillfully moderating the session. At many conference sessions, we hear from energy specialists, architects, or engineers -- it was good to hear from contractors for a change.

    I smiled when I heard Paul Eldrenkamp refer to 2015 as the year of Peak Insulation (at least for NESEA members). It will be interesting to see if he is right.

  4. user-1046359 | | #4

    The general tone of this
    The general tone of this posted discussion is a bit dictatorial. While the contractor may be the expert the home owner is footing the bill. The contractor's job is to educate and perform the work in a professional manner but it is not to usurp homeowners wishes. It is easy to dictate to clients when you have sufficient work to do but I wonder how dictatorial the contractor would be if he/she had nothing but time on their hands. As a homeowner I like to hear different points of view but I prefer to make my own decisions.

  5. dankolbert | | #5

    There are a lot of contractors out there
    I think those of us in this discussion realize we have a limited number of projects we can reasonably expect to get to in the remainder of our careers, and want to make sure they align as closely as possible with our larger social goals. That may well mean we simply decline to take on jobs that don't.

    I think I can safely say that all of us on the panel are pretty open and transparent about our business and construction practices, and want nothing more than to help our clients make good decisions. I think Paul says it best above:

    "We talk about educating clients, but that makes me nervous. When I’m educating them, I’m not listening. We have to be careful about showing off to homeowners. These tools are not an end, in and of themselves. It has to start with a conversation. We have to find out what their pain is. We have to be humble, not jump to conclusions. There is a fine line: You don’t want to give them so much information as to be disempowering.”

    I think we all spend a fair amount of time up front on our jobs, which allows contractor and client to design the project together. If along the way either party decides to back out, that's a better result than making the decision half-way through the project.

    We are putting out the conditions under which we want/are willing to work. We're not forcing anyone to work that way if they don't want to, but we're also not saying we're willing to compromise on some of those things.

  6. Paul Eldrenkamp | | #6

    line in the sand
    In insulation and air-sealing work, letting the homeowner decide whether they'll pay for a blower door test or not is sort of like a finish carpenter letting the homeowners decide whether they'll pay for the use of a tape measure or not.

  7. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #7

    Should a blower door be in the toolbox?
    If someone is in the airsealing business, doesn't it make sense to own a blower door setup and price the job to include a reasonable charge for it? Otherwise, how does the customer know if the work was worth anything? I would think it would be a useful marketing feature.

  8. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Stephen Sheehy
    Q. "If someone is in the airsealing business, doesn't it make sense to own a blower door setup and price the job to include a reasonable charge for it?"

    A. Yes, and I'm pretty sure that's what Paul Eldrenkamp does. I don't know whether the cost of the blower door test is a line item or part of his overhead percentage, but one way or another, the customer ends up paying for the test.

  9. agurkas | | #9

    Ah yes... the client bashing
    1. I think some of the panelist seem to forget who is paying the bill. You aren't creating one of the kind commissioned art piece, this is just work that happens to be temporarily in high demand right now in specific areas of the country. Every couple years recessions comes in and many of remodelers go out of business. Come down to earth, get bit more humble, you may stand a chance to weather these storms. Clients know how to Google stuff how to check references on you.
    2. I shall leave out the name of one of the panelists I worked with before, but remodelers in at least Northeast really need to come down to earth with these proposals. ROI of never is still ROI of never even with warm feet in the winter. Showing up with proposal that is 2/3 of the value of the house is looney tunes.

    In the end, it is collaborative work that wins. You have to pick and choose what requires proverbial mahogany and where sanded 2X4 will do. It is about pride in your work AND doing work that has value and is valued.
    Side note re. DERs. I think the program caused some very bad behavior by contractors participating in it. You just can't turn a Ford into BMW, so why not make sure Ford you are working on just dang works.

  10. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #10

    Who decides what?
    My take is that the contractors have some standards and are unwilling to compromise when it comes to those standards. Good for them. A big project is an expensive undertaking and the desire of a homeowner to cut corners is understandable. But if someone like Paul or Dan have built a reputation on creating energy efficient structures, they'd be foolish to accept a job that doesn't meet their standard. It's perfectly reasonable to tell a client you only sell BMWs and if they only want a Ford, to decline the job.

    The client gets to set the budget, of course. A good contractor, like the ones on the panel, will either tell the client what can be done within the budget or tell him/ her that, for what they want, the contractor can't do the job. The client gets to choose finishes, fixtures, appliances, etc. But the contractor shouldn't feel obligated to build to 3ach50, just because the client only wants code minimum, if the contractor's reputation depends on hitting a much higher target.

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    Response to Apollo S
    A homeowner who is looking for a remodeling contractor needs to find a good fit. Clearly, if the philosophy expressed by some of the panelists quoted here doesn't align with your values or needs, you need to hire a different contractor -- one with whom you feel comfortable.

    There are all kinds of contractors out there: expensive ones, cheap ones; knowledgeable ones, ignorant ones; kind ones, not-so-kind ones; good communicators, bad communicators.

    When a homeowner is interviewing a contractor, the contractor is also interviewing the homeowner. It needs to be a good fit on both sides. This is a contract, freely entered into by two willing partners.

    I know several of the people on this panel fairly well. I can't speak for all of them, but you may be selling some of them short. They are good listeners. But these contractors may not be a good fit for all clients.

  12. dankolbert | | #12

    We work in an industry with poorly defined practices and standards. I think our motives are being misinterpreted. It is less about imposing our will and more about trying to help establish some baseline level for what an energy-efficient job should look like.

    Hopefully we have some expertise in the work we do. We are trying to share our experience with other practitioners in an effort to raise the quality and durability of our work.

Log in or become a member to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |