Choosing Right Green-High-Performance Builder for Your Project or Community

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So you have found the perfect parcel of land; or have an existing home that needs updating, but how do you choose a builder that is reputable, competent and skilled in the art of high-energy performance or green building?

Some folks start with the architect to provide plans and specifications, then find their builder. This is an important step in defining building performance modeling.  You should request your architect (AIA Certified preferred) to conduct certified audits, or energy performance modeling with your plans. Including a Manual J, HVAC calculation,  to ensure the HVAC system, or heating and cooling BTUs, are the right size for your project is a critical component of green building practices.

Incorporating these practices will allow your builder to follow plans to include ALL required building performance modeling and energy efficiency requirements.  Energy performance modeling also helps define the budget and can actually reduce costs and waste.  Also having your home audited and certified by a recognized building science expert can lead to higher prices and faster sales; not to mention the energy savings, greater comfort and health benefits!

The plans and specifications should include all energy performance measures; you can always tweak the specs to lower the budget if necessary. However, energy performance upgrades should be the last thing you delete from your plans and specs; considerations for deleting amenities that aren’t tied to performance, i.e., finishes, can help balance the budget.

The green market place is still in infancy, with energy reduction standards lacking in many US regions, making it difficult to differentiate builders and their quality of  building performance.   It can be a challenge to vet green builders and determine which ones will be a good fit for your project.  That is assuming there are qualified, certified high-performance builders in your city.   The National Association of Home Builders, along with municipalities or utility companies offer listings for contractors or builders in their area.

Numerous green building science energy modeling certifications exist today, widely accepted programs like the RESNET, Home Energy Rating System (HERS-Nationally recognized energy model); the US Green Building Council (USGBC)-  Leadership for Energy Design (LEED); The Department of Energy Home Energy Scoring System (HES); Passive House Institute US (PHIUS); The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and (ASHRAE) the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers, ICC/ASHRAE 700 National Green Building Standard700 ICC. 

Green Energy Money Building Certifications

Certifications or ratings are either performed on the building; or in the case of USGBC, LEED and Passive House Institute, the builder can also be certified. Cities also certify green builders and offer their own building performance certifications. This can problematic, as the performance benchmarks can differentiate dramatically, making it difficult to standardize nationally.

The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) offers another perspective for choosing builders in regions where certifications may not make sense either due to lack of certified workforce, or it’s financially unfeasible (some certifications can be labor intensive and expensive); or where the builder is self-educated and has experience in the real estate building industry and may already be meeting or exceeding their municipalities energy code.

The IECC is adopted in most states and governments or municipalities are required through regulatory mandates to reduce their energy consumption, depending on which compliance year they commit to. Most states have at least adopted 2009 IECC, the equivalent of at least a 20 percent energy reduction.

IECC updates their code requirements at least every 2-3 years.  At the present time, the conference will be held in Kansas City in October, to begin adoption of IECC 2018.  The new IECC 2018 will require even tougher compliance and energy reduction code mandates. The IECC is mandated in most states, but only 4 states have adopted the 2015 IECC so far; and still many states are falling behind in energy reduction mandates.  If a builder is building to at least 2015 IEC Code, you can be assured that the energy performance will be at least 35 percent better than a conventional built home.

If your goal is to build or retrofit a net-zero home, your builder will need to exceed the 2015 IEC Code in order to achieve a building envelope optimization of at least 60 percent more efficient than a conventional home.  Solar or renewable energy can then generate the rest of the load creating a near-to-net-zero energy- carbon reduction effect.   This should be the ultimate goal in order to receive the financial benefits of low-to-no utility bills.

It’s fairly easy to gauge a builder’s experience in developing a green home or project with IECC, Performance modeling and building certifications.  Still there are other factors that must be considered:

  • Check references; require proof of training, certifications; how many green or high-performance homes have they built in the past year? How long did it take to construct and close the project(s)?  Are their previous clients that are willing to be contacted?
  • Ask questions regarding certifications, training and request samples of prior building performance modeling
  • In states like Texas, where builders aren’t registered or regulated, the only way you can vet builders is through the county records to see if there are any law suits, judgements, etc.
  • Review the budget and check bids to see if the costs are in alignment with local vendors or subcontractors; if it’s a fixed cost contract, make sure that ALL the specifications and measures are included; there are cases where the builder didn’t include significant building upgrades, which can create cost overruns.
  • Add a contingency to the budget for any potential overages or costs. It is difficult to increase a construction or residential loan amount, after the fact, if financing the project.  New underwriting-regulatory requirements will not allow the owner to receive cash back for reimbursements-only liens can be paid off.
  • Require subcontractor references to make sure the builder has a reliable team and they are paid on time. A builder’s subcontractor list is considered a precious commodity; some builders may resist giving up their resources-but some lists can be provided.
  • Request information on their relationships with the local municipality planning and permitting department. This can be critical to stay on path with project timelines.
  • What sustainability practices do they incorporate in their projects i.e., excavation, reclamation, recycling, sustainable building materials? Do they practice wildlife and land preservation?
  • What performance guarantees and warranties do they offer? Do they include a smart meter and collect data?
  • What stands them apart from other green builders?

The bottom line, your choice in a builder is the most important factor in going green or high-performance today.  You need to be confident with your choice; you will be working with your builder for some time, in many cases up to 1-2 years.  You could be either cursing or praising them for many years to come- so make the right choice.

Check out this article for more info on choosing a green builder.