Not that long ago, contractor Jon Alexander was doing some pretty odd things around his job sites. "People thought it was a little strange that we were concerned about recycling our construction waste and we paid attention to things like energy efficiency and dust removal," he says. Now, 17 years into his career as a leader in "green" construction around the Seattle area, Alexander has become part of the mainstream. "Everybody wants a healthy home, whether they're building a new house or just adding on a room," he says. "The world has caught up with me." The desire for energy-efficient and environmentally friendly construction has zoomed in the past five years as utility costs have soared and an awareness for all things earth-related has increased. Among the most popular seminars at construction trade shows have been those on green building practices and how to market them. So, if you've decided to stay put in the current real estate market and remodel rather than move, how do you find a green contractor? And will this person be any different from the guy who finished your basement last year? "Ideally, he or she has spent time learning about everything from the best way to insulate a particular wall to how to keep dust at a minimum," says Brindley Byrd, a construction consultant in Lansing, Mich. "Contracting is evolving. What we call 'green practices' now will be the everyday way to do business in a few more years."
Despite the popularity of green building, it's not uncommon to find resistance to environmentally friendly remodeling plans. "Many contractors who aren't comfortable with green practices will give you a very high quote to discourage you from your plans," says Alexander. "Or, they'll look at it as a marketing opportunity without really doing much environmentally, which is known as 'greenwashing.'" The best approach is to have a green contractor talk to you about your project and its energy needs and also about topics you may not have thought about, such as the indoor air quality. "There are around 120 individual materials that are used to make a kitchen, and if you or a family member is sensitive to one of them, you may have a problem living there," says Alexander. "Fortunately, we have healthier substitutes like low-VOC
volatile organic compound adhesives and other products that work just as well." Construction dust is becoming a big issue for contractors, since it can affect not only the family who lives in the home being remodeled, but the workers, as well. "Any visible dust needs to be cleaned up, and extensive sawing or cutting should be conducted in a well-ventilated area," says Byrd. "It goes without saying that if you're checking out a room the contractor's demolishing or remodeling, wear a mask." So if you decide on a green contractor to make your next home improvement, are you looking at paying premium for a healthier home? "Not necessarily, most good green contractors can work within your budget," says Alexander. "For a simple room addition, you could spend 2% to 4% more than you had planned and end up with a very environmentally friendly project."
If you choose to go green, even if you do pay a little more there could be a payoff when you sell. Realtors report that homes with "green" additions are at a premium even in today's slow market. "There's an impression that to go green you have to be really upscale, because that's what we're seeing in the glossy magazines and TV shows," Alexander says. "But there are some simple things you can do -- smart insulation, finish materials, appliances and colors that can give you what you're looking for."