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Community and Q&A

Working With Contractors Unfamiliar With Green Building Practices

Michael Ritter | Posted in General Questions on

How does everyone find their ability to work with contractors on some of these various green initiatives or best practices in general that might fall outside the trades’ typical workflow?

I grew up in a construction family and worked it all through adolescence and college, so I’m not an expert but also not totally green.  Now, as a 42-year old fairly non-confrontational father of 3, I often find myself at a loss when dealing with contractors or subs on different things that we’ve undertaken in updating our house over the last 7+ years.  I get a lot of blank stares and responses like “I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and it’s never failed me yet” (or something similar).

So, anyone have a good strategy?  Being as clear as possible up front is obviously ideal, but what about when something goes haywire during the build?  For example when I had new siding put on my house, they barely followed Hardie’s best practices and when I asked him about it he basically told me to mind my business and was 100% convinced his way was right, even with no water table or splash board on a low foundation, no flashing at butt joints, caulking the wrong part of a window opening, etc.  His primary business is siding and decks, so dumb me for assuming he knew what he was doing (he even touted his Hardie training and certifications, which mean squat if you disregard them in the field).   I know money talks, but even if I wanted to withhold payment, per my earlier comment, he was adamant the way he had done it was right and was not going to be proven wrong. I don’t mean to go down a rabbit hole of my experiences, this is just one easy example that I’ve lived. 

My question for the forum is how do you convince a sub that has been doing the same thing for decades that they are behind the building science when you have to explain to them you know this b/c you learned it on the Internet?  I’ve worked with enough construction trades to know the scoff and headshake that follows up that statement with disbelief that some keyboard jockey knows more about their life’s work than they do.  To some degree I also agree with them or can be easily talked out of something I read “in theory” on the internet when they have field experience to stand behind. Is it all just a matter of getting it down on paper, in the specs and scope of work, and then making sure all trades adhere to the stipulations?  That is fine if so, but the situation that scares me is I don’t know what I don’t know, ya know?  🙂  I’m trying not to make this too academic or theoretical, but am really looking to anyone that has found success in this way.

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Replies

  1. Expert Member
    Zephyr7 | | #1

    Sometimes you just have to be an a** and make them do it. I hate to say it, but sometimes that's what it takes. If they refuse, find a different contractor.

    That said, if they have a reason to not do what you ask, LISTEN FIRST. They might have a good reason (code violation, manufacturer's recomendation is something else, etc.). A good reason is not "this is how we've always done it" though. If they have a GOOD reason, you might need to change some of your plans. If their only reason is they've never done it the way you want before, then you might have to fall back to my recomendation in paragraph 1, above, unfortunately.

    I always try to be friendly with my subs, but they also know they work for me, so they have to follow my spec. They also know if they have any questions as to WHY I designed something a certain way, they can ask me and I'll tell them (part of the friendly relationship I try to maintain with the subs :-). I also keep an eye on everything, and have frequent meetings with trades as needed (commercial standard practice is weekly meetings with a rep from each trade).

    Bill

  2. Michael Ritter | | #2

    Thanks Bill. I agree sometimes you have to force the unpleasant experience.

    Where I always get tripped up is being the homeowner and therefore I could not be knowledgeable on how to do things (my professional life is not even remotely construction-related). Admittedly I often don't know squat, but with so much information on the internet, it isn't hard to find best practices for just about anything (especially from the manufacturer since almost any install manual can be found). When you ask a sub or challenge them on something, the reaction or response is typically not one of understanding and a desire to learn. Of course maybe I don't approach it in the right way.

    I'm asking b/c we are getting ready to start substantial remodel and I want to make sure it's built to last. I guess it's a good thing we're using a general for once so I can detail my preferences with him and let him handle it instead of dealing with the subs myself.

    1. Expert Member
      Zephyr7 | | #7

      Your key here then is to find a good GC. BE SURE the GC is on board with whatever you want to do. Tell him all the details, tell him why you want those details too. If your GC is all gung ho about an exciting new project and trying those new ideas, then that's probaly the GC you want. If you get a lot of whining and eye rolling, that's probably NOT the GC you want.

      A good GC will know other contractors that will be OK with the details. The other contractors will give the GC less BS (not the Building Science kind ;-) too, since they don't want to get shut out of the next job that GC does. The GC will have leverage that you don't because the GC is a source of steady work for those contractors. I have the same advantage as a consulting engineer -- my contractors all know I bid out a lot of work, so they want to keep me happy. That includes when I refer someone to them -- they don't want it to come back to me that they didn't do a good job for someone I referred to them.

      Once you find that good GC, the other trades probably won't be much of a problem. I'd still keep an eye on things though, and have frequent meetings with the GC.

      Bill

  3. Andrew C | | #3

    Not an expert in this area, but I would encourage you to put things in writing and discuss beforehand. Written documents and perhaps detail drawings, discussed beforehand, help set expectations and clarify communication. Four months into the project, when people's memories are fuzzy, those documents should provide clarity. And they may provide you legal leverage if it comes to that, although it's clearly in everyone's interest to avoid that.

  4. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #4

    Michael,

    I agree with the advice that Bill and Andrew have given, but would add it's probably worth tailoring your "green" practices as closely as you can to those your subs are familiar with, reserving the more esoteric ones for contractors who are well versed in them.

  5. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #5

    Michael, as a residential designer, this issue comes up for me frequently. At one point I got so frustrated with trying to find builders near me who would do things the way I wanted that I started my own construction company. That left me spread too thin so I closed shop, but I relate the story to say that I feel your pain.

    My solution? Prioritize finding builders you can trust. I know it sounds rote but it works. There are good, thoughtful builders out there who keep up on best practices. They probably don't advertise much, if at all, because they don't need to. They definitely won't be the least expensive or available on short notice. But they are worth seeking out, waiting and paying for.

    If you don't have a local network to find such people, you could do what I did and start a local building science discussion group. Building nerds often feel isolated in the world of get-it-done-fast contractors and even in my rural area we immediately had a good turnout, and I've heard the same from others who have started local groups. You don't need to be an expert, you just need to be willing to organize and ask questions. There is a link to some tips for starting your own group at the top of the page here: https://www.thebsandbeershow.com/.

  6. Charlie Sullivan | | #6

    This is a hard problem, and I've had satisfying success and dismal failures in it.

    Ideally, you want to find a contractor who is excited to up their skills and try new things. There are some out there who really want to do things right and have trouble finding clients who appreciate the difference between the good work they do and the shoddy work their competitors do. If you can find those people, they can help you find others in other trades that they've worked with.

    It's important to make it clear that you want a higher standard of work _and_ that you are willing to pay to get it done right. It's also important to be clear that you respect and value their knowledge and experience. If you can involve them in the decision making about the approach to take, you will often learn something you might not have learned from reading online, and get a better solution as well as better buy-in. You can learn from people's experience even when their understanding of the fundamentals behind it are flawed. And there might be two equally good approaches, one that they already have experience and one which would be completely to them. You are much better off going the route they are familiar with.

    It's well worth paying a good general contractor their cut if you find one who really understands high performance building well, understands the different trades well enough to supervise them, and is assertive enough to hold the subs to high standards. I once made the mistake of hiring a GC because he seemed so nice and accommodating, vs. the other candidate who was a little abrasive. The problem was he was really nice and accommodating to the subs who screwed up.

  7. Michael Ritter | | #8

    Wow, this is all such great advice! Thanks to you all for lending your time, expertise, and opinions. If I could only get and afford Jake Bruton for our project (we’re just a few hours from where he operates)...

    We have no issue hiring interior designers to make the inside look pretty, how big is the “sub-specialty” for efficient building design? Does anyone in the GBA community offer fee-based consulting services to sort of “organize” from the ground up? I’m doing my best to bookmark things for later, but it is overwhelming to think about the totality of it and I’m sure I’ll forget something along the way. The time it takes to research, document, and then plan for action is prohibitive in the course of busy lives and active kids. Just wasn’t sure if anyone has had good luck offering or consuming a service like this. Virtual though it may be in the age of COVID.

    We trust our GC implicitly and he’ll do whatever I ask. Still, like everything budget is our primary driving force too. Sadly, appraisers don’t really factor in quality of design or products, so it seems these things are mainly the financial burden of the homeowner and can’t be factored into a loan with limited financing options.

    1. Caroline Di Diego | | #10

      To answer your question.

      Does anyone in the GBA community offer fee-based consulting services to sort of “organize” from the ground up?

      We have only offered this locally, but I see no reason why we couldn’t help.
      Would you be looking for general guidelines or help once you have your plans?
      I think I should write a post on what are the right questions to ask a contractor to get them on the same “green building” page as you!

      1. Expert Member
        Zephyr7 | | #11

        >"Does anyone in the GBA community offer fee-based consulting services to sort of “organize” from the ground up?"

        There are a few on here that do that sort of thing, but I don't think anyone wants to look like they're soliciting buisness on the forums. Maybe the editors would be interested in a sort of directory for members that offer services like this?

        I would be interested just to see what specialties might be out there. I do mostly commerical work, for example, and while I don't pitch my services as "green", a lot of what I do could be considered as such. A HUGE part of my work is optimizing energy efficiency of large facilities, because energy costs tend to be their largest operating costs. Sometimes a 1% savings is $1,000 or more in MONTHLY savings. I offer refurbished equipment too, which saves money but is also green like recyling.

        I'm sometimes curious if we have any other people on here in the commerical space, since most seem to primarily work in the residential world.

        Bill

      2. Expert Member
        Michael Maines | | #13

        Michael, Martin started this board to share information about those of us who offer green building and design services: https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/article/bulletin-board. I get requests almost daily from people who want qualified help in designing a "green" home or renovation--the market is open for anyone who wants to learn what needs to be done, and I only see it growing in relation to the broader market. (I'm not taking on additional projects at this time.)

        1. Michael Ritter | | #15

          This is exactly what I sought. Thanks for sharing - I don't tend to get much further on this site than the rabbit holes I go down in the Q&A, comments, and blog sections.

  8. Patrick OSullivan | | #9

    > Just wasn’t sure if anyone has had good luck offering or consuming a service like this. Virtual though it may be in the age of COVID.

    It all comes down to the experience on the ground. Hard to do that remotely.

    People will nod and smile their way into a contract, and then operate in a manner that makes you wonder if you actually ever spoke to them before.

    Unless it's written/drawn clearly in the specs/contract, forget about it. Sad, but true.

    My only counter example to this on my own house were my framers, whom I hired on an hourly basis. If I said "hold on, let's go over this", they were happy to pause because they were getting paid regardless. (If I am being honest, they were still annoyed because framers are machines and want to crank out work, but they *did* listen and adjust accordingly.)

  9. Expert Member
    Rick Evans | | #12

    Michael, I am going to suggest a different approach: The Socratic Method.

    In my career (completely unrelated to home building- for now), I find that people accept things more easily when they 'self-realize' something rather than being told something- especially when a homeowner like yourself does the telling. The key is to ask open-ended questions.

    As an example- When building my own home, my concrete contractor thought I was an idiot for adding a layer of rigid foam between the the top of the concrete footing and the slab. I asked him why? He stated that he had never seen it before and that it was unnecessary.

    I thanked him for his candid feedback and then asked him what he thought the ground temperature was around the footing during winter? He agreed that it was likely cold- maybe around 40-50 degrees. I then asked him whether or not concrete is a good insulator? He said of course not. I asked what issues might arise then if we have a cold spots in the basement, and so on...

    As I asked these questions, I didn't ask them as somebody who already knew all of the answers. I genuinely wanted him to share his thoughts as he really is an experienced pro in his field. Like a lot of craftamen in New England, he is smart and may very well have taught me something new. In this case, he ultimately self-realized that a thermal break could be helpful. His ego remained unthreatened and I now have a comfortable basement.

    This won't work with everybody though. My siding guy is still convinced that Tyvek is a 'vapor barrier' because he couldn't feel his breath through it. :-)

  10. C L | | #14

    Was once in a meeting where a sub stated they had done it that way for 25 years and had not yet had any issues.

    Another person in the meeting - call them X - said well, that was true, but the subs clients certainly had experienced issues. Since the issues took 8-10 years to appear, the work was usually out of warranty, and the last thing the clients wanted to do was pay more money to the guy who messed up the original install, so they never called that sub back. Instead they called X to fix the subs mess ups. In fact, X said, I've fixed at least 6 of your previous installs. I've not had any issues with your installs either - they were good business for me, but this is my project, and I don't want it to fail, so we are not going to do it the incorrect way you have been doing it for 25 years.

    We need more meetings like that.

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