How To Find A Good Contractor

Green Architect

During Home Hacks month we're giving advice on how to get things done in every room of the house. But sometimes a project can be too big or difficult for the best of us, and that's when it's time to turn to a contractor. But finding and working with a contractor can be a daunting task in and of itself, so we turned to seasoned pro and green architect Nathan Kipnis for his tips on when to use a contractor, how to find one and how to ensure they do a green job to boot.

By the time people have come to you, it's obvious they will need a contractor to construct your design. What if they're not using an architect, how should homeowners know when to DIY or use a contractor? When should they use an architect?
My opinion is that unless a homeowner really knows what they are doing, they should not try to build something themselves. I have been to too many homes where we have had to undo damage, both physical and aesthetic, that has been done to a home by a homeowner trying to do construction themselves.

Now, having said that, it is possible to have someone help with the design and have a general contractor provide work though obtaining the municipal inspections for rough carpentry and rough plumbing, mechanicals and electricals. Once these are done, with a roof and windows in place, I think a homeowner has a much better chance of doing a project correctly taking it over at that point as opposed to trying to do it all. The remaining work tends to be much less coordination amongst trades and simplier sequential items, such as insulation, drywall, tiling, painting, etc. Still not easy to do, but much less complicated than the rough work getting it to that point. If the beginning rough work is done incorrectly, the project is in trouble.

There is a way to hire a combination of architect and contractor. When a contractor has an architect in house, they offer services known as 'design/build'. In other words, they design it, obtain the permits and then build it.

Are drawings necessary, or can a homeowner just do a 'walk-thru' of what needs to be done?
It is always a better idea to 'memorialize' a design. The work is much more thought out when it is drawn up and there is a reference to go back to if there is a problem or a question. You eliminate the contractor having to say 'I thought you said to do it this way...'.

When is a permit necessary? What if a contractor wants to do it 'under the radar'?
The applicability of a permit varies between municipalities. Generally speaking, a permit is going to be required whenever any exterior work is done; or any structural, plumbing or electrical work is done. Basically, when the work impacts any 'life safety' issue, a permit is going to be required –check with your local building department for their exact definition. A lot of times they will have worksheets prepared for these exact situations that not only inform about when a permit is needed, but can also serve as the permit application.

If you do work that requires a permit without applying for and obtaining a permit, the consequences can be severe and a 'stop work order' could occur. That would mean that the work would be stopped, a set of drawings would need to produced, the plans would go in for permit review and you would have to pay for not only the original permit fee but the fine on top of that. Plus, the building department might not be in any hurry to get your plans through permitting, if you know what I mean.

It is also possible if the work you were trying to do cannot be built to code, that work could be required to be torn down. If that work does not conform to the municipal zoning ordinances, you would have to apply for a zoning variance. There is no greater sense of vulnerability than to have to go before a zoning commission in that situation.

Where should someone look for a contractor?
• Ask friends or family members, especially if you know someone who recently had a similar project done and is happy with the result.
• Look for a contractor who is a member of a local builders’ association or similar industry group.
• When you ask for quotes, be explicit about what you want done.
• Get references and go look at their work. Do not judge them on the design of the space you are looking at, as that is not within their scope of their work. Review the fit and finish of the flooring, tile work, trim, stairs, etc.

What are some good questions to ask a contractor before hiring them?
• How long have you had your firm?
• Do you have insurance and what type and what are the limits of the work? (You should consult with your insurance agent regarding all questions about insurance to make sure that is adequate for the project and that there are no gaps between their insurance and your insurance.)
• What is the size of project and scope of work that you prefer to work on?
• How many projects do you have going on at any one time?
• What trades do you have 'in-house' and which do you subcontract out? How long have these subcontractors been working with you? (It is not uncommon for a general contractor to have several subcontractors for specific trades. For example, they might rotate between two different plumbers, just to get competitive pricing from both of them.)
• Have you ever been sued by a client?
• Do you have a reference list and can I go to see some examples of work? (Sometimes it is not possible to get into houses, as they are of course private residences. Photographs can help, but going to completed projects in person is best. Keep in mind that the references list really just a 'best of' list. It should be surprising to hear negative comments from people on a reference list, but you can perhaps ask a question such as 'if there were one thing that you wish was done better, what would it be?' It would be fair to ask what the best thing working with them was, too.)

How to choose between contractors?
• Get quotes from at least three contractors for a competitive bid process.
• Don’t automatically pick the lowest quote. This is so easy to not do, but there have been plenty of examples of the low bidder doing such a bad job that you would wish you never took them.
• Carefully compare the quotes. This is really critical – make sure everyone (i.e. all bidders and you) fully understand what is included in the contract and what is to be provided by the client. If they say 'tile is included', make sure that is both the material and labor. Make sure the material costs that the contractor is responsible for are noted on the bids. If they are to provide that tile, and one contractor has $4 per square foot tile, and the other contractor has $7 per square foot tile, note that in your comparison of the bids.
• Be prepared to wait a few weeks or even months for the right person.
• Pick someone with whom you have a good rapport.

Re-Nest readers tend to be those who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle at home – how can our readers find a contractor who understands green building techniques? Are there specific green contractors? Are there any special certifications to look for?
I would ask them if they have gone to any green builder seminars. Contractors that are really into this should be able to share with you numerous seminars that they have been to. Green construction and design has been a hot topic for a number of years now, so I would not want to deal with a general contractor that is new to this field. If they are LEED accredited or a USGBC member, it would be a plus, but not necessary. LEED for Homes is just a few years old, so it’s not critical that a contractor have LEED experience.

Are green contractors more expensive?
It does not mean that they are more expensive – that should have nothing to do with their cost. You should look at what their profit and overhead is for a project. That is information that they should be able to share with you and we have found general contractors are generally in the 10% to 15% for their profit and overhead.

What are some things a homeowner and their contractor should agree to, to ensure their project is built as green as possible?
• Reduce quantities of building materials, resources and energy. I would ask the general contractor how they plan on reducing the quantity of materials, resources and energy that would be used during the construction.
• Recycle materials as much as possible. The contractor should have a few containers labeled with the different materials that are to be salvaged and possibly reused. One could be 2x's, one for boards, etc. There should be a plan in place for recycling the demolished materials and waste materials generated during construction – many cities now mandate this.
• The architect/design should specify low-VOC, eco-friendly construction and finish materials, and energy sources in the construction document.
• Seal off construction site from remainder of house and flush out HVAC system at end of construction. This is a general note that needs to be in the mechanical section of the construction documents.

Thanks Nate!

Nathan Kipnis, AIA, is the principal of Nathan Kipnis Architects, Inc., which is recognized as one of Chicago’s premier green and sustainable architectural practices. He has received several awards and distinctions including having his design built for the ‘Green Homes for Chicago’ international design competition. He was honored with the 2007 Environmental Stewardship Award from the City of Evanston and recently was awarded ‘Home of the Decade’ from Natural Home Magazine for the Sturgeon Bay Vacation Home. Mr. Kipnis is currently a co-chair for the Renewable Energy Committee for the City of Evanston’s Climate Action Plan and has been working towards bringing an offshore wind farm off of Evanston’s shoreline.

(Image: Flickr member mccun934 licensed for use under Creative Commons)