WHEN TO HIRE THE CONTRACTOR - LEED Platinum Home Progress Report

JUNE 18, 2010



Perhaps one of the best notions of building LEED is the idea of the team. Ideally the full team would be on board to ‘design’ the entire house. From floor plan to structural framing to exact wall assembly. In custom home construction this rarely happens. In custom home construction it is almost always the architect who designs the house to near final design, then the structural engineer is brought on board to engineer the house and then the house goes to bid and the general contractor and sub-contractors get to add their opinions which will be heeded or not. This is standard operating procedure and if you have a thoughtful, experienced and flexible architect it can work out fine. If you don’t then a lot of changes – to the drawings and overall concept or plan of the house may need to take place. This is especially true of green building and even more true of designing a home to be LEED certified.

Why don’t clients hire the contractor to be on the team from day one? Well some clients do and recognize the value of this (but it is rare). Most clients worry about money. They worry that they will get duped or ripped off in what some see as shadowy world of contracting. Say they choose a contractor from the beginning. If that contractor is not honest then the final bid might come in a lot higher than it would have if he knew he had to bid against other contractors. So there is always the fear in some clients that they could be saving 30 or 100 thousand dollars if they had bid the job instead of hired a certain contractor form the get go. And that really can and does happen so their fear are not without warrant.

I know that the two contractors we are considering are both extremely honest and straight forward. There contracts are quite ‘see through’ and the costs of their jobs are always very reasonable. They are not the lowest cost guys but they are far from the highest. They give solid reliable bids that are pretty much true to cost. But still, there is always that unknown. Even the way some contractor’s subs bid can make a difference of tens of thousands of dollars. And this is an honest difference. One guy might simply use a cheaper sub or have a slightly smaller fee for general management or get supplies from a less expensive supplier. This is normal and can make a huge difference in costs to the client. This is especially true in our area: Fairfield County CT. We have towns like Greenwich, New Canaan, Darien and Westport bordering small, poorer cities like Bridgeport or Norwalk or Danbury. All of these places are easily within driving distance for both supplies and labor. OR a contractor could simply go to one of the next counties- barely further away and drop his price by 10-20% or even more.

There is also the contractor factor itself. There are what I call pick-up truck contractors and there are what I call ‘Escalade’ contractors. In our county both are absolutely normal. The guys in pick-up trucks get their hands dirty, often don’t give the client much in the way of paper work and sometimes don’t speak English that well. These guys will usually get the job done pretty well but there will be a ‘suspension of disbelief’ required by the client at some points during the job- meaning the client is going to simply have to look the other way and have faith- it will get done. And it will. It will all be fine in the end but the client might get really nervous. The 'Escalade' contractor on the other hand has nicely manicured hands. He has all of the paperwork you could ever want ready at exactly the right moment. His crew is always on time in the morning and he often brings the client coffee to boot. These guys are good but their prices can easily be double the pick-up truck guys price! Why? Because they have so many layers of management that they have to pay for. And this guy has a life style to maintain. He probably goes to the same parties and is on the same library board as the clients he is working for. He lives down the street and his kids go to the same schools.  We work with the full range of contractor but our most common contractor is the ‘Toyota Camry' or the ‘Toyota Prius’ contractor. He is somewhere in between pick-up truck and Escalade. Either super green or just willing to learn.

The contractors that often know and do LEED are usually the Prius sort. They are truly well intentioned, smart guys who are doing the green thing for a reason. There prices are honest and accurate. There know-how is tried and true and there motivations are very sincere. If we are designing a truly green home- these are the guys we call. And unfortunately there are not a LOT of them.

We- as architects – want to work in a team for the green or LEED home. A team means all parties involved are putting their ideas and know how into the mix. This just makes the job happen more efficiently in both planning and construction, and makes a better finished product.

For example, I know a lot about designing super energy efficient wall assemblies but I always work with the contractor to finalize and refine the exact way we are going to build. A lot of architects don’t work this way and a lot of contractors don’t work this way. On many jobs there is simply the hand off from the architect to the contractor- a passing of drawings and the two never speak again. This to me is a shame. To me that is a huge loss of opportunity to refine the product and save the client a buck along the way.

Plus many architects don’t know anything about building green – just as many contractors don’t know anything about building green. There is often an education taking place on the job site. If a knowledgeable architect draws a ton of energy efficient details and the contractor doesn’t understand them and so does not build them- then they are worthless. If the architect does not know any energy efficient details and the contractor does and tries to incorporate them after the drawings are done this can result in huge wastes of time and money for the client during construction.

In the end I think green building  is really just quality building . Everything about LEED is just ensuring the client has a very well built, long lasting home. Some contractor do not build for quality- they build to make a buck. Some contractors don’t know any better and just build the way they were taught. This is all similarly true of architects. Some architects just build for beauty. Some architects don’t know any better and just design the way they were taught. Both need to evolve. Both will be required to evolve as building codes evolve to meet what is currently LEED standards.

Just one last note about LEED on this subject. It is not critical and some may deem minor. But to me it is important. When one looks at the LEED web site and searches houses that are certified LEED it lists the house, the location, the owner, the LEED provider and the CONTRACTOR. No where is the architect listed. For me- the architect who is very often training the contractor on site as we go how to build an energy efficient house-is imperative to building a custom home in an energy efficient, LEED way. The fact that architects are not listed is infuriating! I do all of the work- often the hard way- by cajoling and yelling and getting exasperated and spending way too much time and loosing way too much money teaching the contractor (and the client) how to do it right and that guy gets all the credit! I know the same can be true reverse. Contractor getting annoyed by the 'dumb architect' and trying to teach them a thing or two. But really the USGBC should be able to acknowledge either or both,

The more energy efficient the house will be, the more team work is required. I love this. The contractors I know who build green love this. We prefer to all be on the job from day one. If the whole team is on the same page and working toward the same goal, we all get a better product and not only do we all get a better product - we all get peace of mind as well as a joyful, interesting and stimulating work environment. A happy team, Architect, Contractor, Client.