My recent post about banning fiberglass batt insulation (thanks for all the wonderful comments) was inspired by a couple of pre-drywall inspections on homes I am in the process of certifying under the EarthCraft House program. Recently I completed pre-drywall and final inspections on several LEED for Homes projects I am working on, and have participated in several meetings on an affordable LEED townhouse development that is just coming out of the ground. The level of building performance and compliance with program requirements in these projects varies widely. While all of the projects are generally far superior to average construction, most of them have problems that could have been avoided through a combination of better planning and tighter management.
It seems to me that the level of contractor performance falls into one of three categories: high, moderate or low. Even the high-performance projects fall a little short in a few areas. The best projects are by contractors who are fully committed to sustainable building, working with architects who are similarly committed. During the pre-drywall inspection on one project, I identified some deficient window flashing, which the contractor quickly corrected, anxious to do the right thing. The final inspection on this same project identified a few minor problems, mostly related to duct leakage inside the building envelope, which, while not great, shouldn’t cause any major problems.
The contractors who fall into the moderate category are interested in green building, but they are still new to it. They have had some training but are still learning the intricacies of the subject, achieving some—but not very complete—success in the process. These homes were also not designed from the start to be green buildings, creating challenges for the builders in the field. I expect that with more experience and training—and hopefully better plans—these builders will rise to the challenge with future projects.
While not common, I have certified and consulted on a few projects where the contractors just didn’t care enough to put in the effort to build a high-performance home, and resisted any efforts to upgrade their work, even when their clients were willing to pay for it. While this disappoints me, I have to let it go. I hope they will eventually upgrade their work or move on to another profession where they can’t do as much damage.
The projects that really bothered me were the ones by contractors who should have known better. I work for several companies that are experienced green builders, recognized locally and nationally in publications and with awards for their work. Objectively, these projects are the most high-performance homes I see, but they have far too many minor defects and poor decisions for the level of experience of these builders. I believe that most of this is due to communication breakdowns between management and the field, something that I experienced frequently when I was still building and renovating.
Are we on the Titanic?
I have come to the conclusion that it is not easy for contractors to go green, particularly in our current, cutthroat building market. It is a real challenge to be competitive enough to stay in business, make a profit, and satisfy clients, while making substantial changes in work process to build better, green homes. New homes must compete on price with underpriced foreclosures and distressed sales, and few purchasers understand or are willing to pay for high-quality construction that everyone should be demanding.
What will it take to improve the performance of all new and existing homes, and how long will it take us to get there? I was at a lecture by a corporate sustainability consultant recently, and during a discussion about how long it will take to get to universal sustainability, someone asked him the question “Do you sometimes feel like you are on the Titanic and just want to go to the bar?” While I enjoy what I do and generally feel hopeful, sometimes I just want to go to the bar.