Green Remodeling

You can be deluged with “green” building and remodeling tips if you do even some rudimentary research.

 

Although there is some overlap, there are 3 primary categories of “green.” These are energy, recycling, and health. All three of these are areas can be addressed during a home remodeling project, and the greenness of your home can be enhanced as part of the overall remodeling design.

 

The first, of course, is energy conservation. This has to do with leaving the smallest possible “carbon footprint.” The considerations reach farther than the energy used in your home after the remodeling project is complete. It also considers what kind of energy it took to; a. procure the raw materials, b. transport and process the raw materials. c. manufacture the product, d. package the product, and e. transport the product to your site. If you really care about being green, then you have to include the global carbon cost in your overall green project calculus. Over and above the energy savings you are apt to experience in your home, the number of years these savings will take to offset the global costs to get it into your home must also be considered. Some manufacturers are finally catching up to consumers in sophistication regarding this.

 

The recycling and repurposing of material that will otherwise end up in an already overburdened waste stream is another critical aspect of reducing your carbon output. Producing waste is something for which we Americans have become very proficient. In fact, we’re number 1! Recycling, repurposing, and energy conservation can work hand-in-hand to reduce the amounts of energy and water it takes for us to live. Reusing “gray” water is becoming a popular mode of conservation. Collecting, storing and using rain water is also a cost effective and common-sense approach. There are many roof gardens in action today—especially in cities where open soil is scarce. These not only use rain water in a productive way, but also can be beautiful while providing insulation benefits as well. Simply collecting rain water for use in our own gardens and lawns is an easy and beneficial way to be green.

 

While our planet and its sun provide us with much energy in nearly unlimited quantities, the solar, wind, nuclear, and geothermal options have their trade-offs. This trade-offs manifest themselves in prohibitive costs and perceived danger. Until the technology becomes economically attainable for the masses and can be proven to be safe, the best we can do as people, businesses, and communities, is the best we can do. The U.S. Federal Government has enacted several incentives for families to get greener. Some State Governments do still more. However, these incentives are erratic and dependent on the solvency of the respective institutions. Keep an eye on the available incentives if you are leaning this way.

 

The third class of “green” is concerned with how healthy the materials are that we are putting in our home. Again, this is not just about us, but also the human manufacturing cost. Many commonly used material in construction off-gas unhealthy toxins to which many of us unknowingly expose our families daily. Adhesives, binders, dyes, and coatings are all around us. Many of these can be harmful to people and animals. Beyond that, there are many materials whose hazards are most suffered by the people working in the manufacturing end.

 

Many are under the mistaken impression that you have to be building a home from the ground up in order to go green. There are many, many ways to lessen your carbon footprint in an existing home. From the materials being used to the methods in which they are employed have everything to do with reducing your carbon footprint. While you may not be addressing the whole of your home, the areas you are addressing can most certainly enhance your greenness.

 

A kitchen remodel, for example, usually entails the demolition of the existing kitchen. As the wallboard on the exterior walls is removed, the insulation material and method you choose to replace the existing can be your start to a greener life. If not otherwise specified, the common faced, batt insulation used by most contractors, while an effective insulator, contains formaldehyde. You can choose formaldehyde-free insulation, insulation made from recycled materials, or you can super-insulate with closed cell, spray foam. Care taken to seal off gaps in the exterior wall substructure can help a great deal with heat loss. If you are replacing or installing new windows and doors as part of your kitchen remodel, the careful selection of those units will also help with heat loss. From there, paperless drywall, zero VOC drywall and subfloor adhesives, cabinetry made from sustainable materials such as bamboo or cork, counter tops made from recycled glass, sustainable flooring, energy star appliances, water conserving fixtures, LED lighting, and zero VOC paint will considerably green up your act.

 

“Greenwashing” is the term used for a material that may have one “green” advantage, but then other elements that are not so green. For example: the aforementioned recycled glass countertops. While recycling glass is very green, the binders and adhesives used to produce the top can be extremely unhealthy. Do your homework. It can be difficult as so much marketing is at odds with the facts. One great website to begin sorting through the mire of factoids and truth is http://www.greenwashingindex.com  . There is a wealth of information there to help navigate the “green” forest.

If the Design Fits…

CHOOSING THE RIGHT DESIGN FOR YOU

While much home remodeling is need driven, a primary purpose of home improvements is to enhance the quality of life for you and your family. In order to gain this you must first address the design. The form, as well as the function, must be carefully considered before delving into your remodeling project. Advice and ideas on planning a remodel can come from many sources: your imagination, pictures in magazines, images and articles on the internet, a friend’s home, a remodeling contractor, an architect, or an interior designer. There are likely too many options for you than too few. When you distill the subject, however, it all boils down to you—to you and your family’s unique way of living. This is not to say, of course, that you’re weird, but that by virtue of being human, you are unique, and so are the people that live with you. Call it “exceptional” if you like.

The best design for you may not be the best design for your neighbor. In the most fundamental sense, a good design makes the best use of the space in question. “Best,” however, is a largely subjective term. Outside of a handful of rules, practices, principles, legalities, and ambiguous “rules of thumb,” ” best use” is little more than an opinion. You may be familiar with the “kitchen work triangle,” for example. This is a principle used in kitchen design since the 1940s. It involves the area between the sink, cook top, and refrigerator. With the advent of new appliances, such as microwaves, mixer lifts, pot fillers, dual fuel wall ovens, and multiple sinks, the kitchen work triangle has evolved into a polygon of ever-increasing complexity, with ever-expanding options. Likewise, not so long ago, a 3 piece bathroom was the norm. Now, it’s fast becoming extinct. A basement used to be where we kept our furnace, hot water heater, and stored our old paint. Now, the hot water heater can hang on a wall, the furnace can go in the attic, leaving the basement available for a home theater, bar, game room, master suite, or a combination of all of the above—and anything else you can dream-up. We used to have to go to a place of worship to see cathedral ceilings. Now, we may have one in our sun room, foyer, or any other room that doesn’t have a floor above it. We can have a fireplace and entertainment center in our bathroom if we choose. The emphasis on open space in homes has rendered the clearly-defined division between rooms obsolete in many cases. This is accomplished more today with furnishings and decorating accoutrements than with walls. The options are so endless, it’s hard to know where to begin.  This is not your grandfather’s home improvement project.

The evolution of residential remodeling design has progressed in leaps and bounds in the last few decades, and what formerly were details worked out between a home improvement contractor and a homeowner, (often while the project was in progress) are now refined by remodeling design professionals. A remodeling design professional can help in countless ways: advise you on alternatives, cost-effectiveness, and logistic reality, but it will be you making the final decisions, and it is you that has to live with those decisions. You need to be steering this process—especially early on. It could be a mistake to allow a relative stranger to make such personal judgments. Regardless of your experience (or lack thereof,) you are uniquely qualified to meld the design and your life together. No one can know more about what you need, want and prefer than you.

It’s unwise to put the cart before the horse. Before decisions regarding cabinetry style, flooring material, tile mosaics, paint colors, etc. are addressed, the fundamental spatial layout should be worked out. It’s crucial that the design works for you and your family. Approaching this yourself, beforehand, will save you time, money and much trial-and-error aggravation. Your best bet is to do whatever it takes to get your planning ideas as close as possible to what you envision–to communicate your ideas. Involve your family. Sketch your ideas out on graphing paper. If need be, make scaled, cardboard cutouts of furniture, cabinetry, islands, etc. Move them around until you achieve the desired effect. Clip, or print photos of things you like. Then call an architect, designer, or home remodeling professional for additional suggestions, costing advice, to finalize design, and produce the project, but do yourself a huge favor—start with you and the people that live with you. The best design is the one that best reflects you. 

*Below are the existing layout and 3 basic floor plan options for a bathroom: The object is to gain space in currently cramped area. The homeowners want to do away with the large whirlpool tub and half of a double entry door, replacing the large tub with a stylish claw foot tub that also leaves the option of an expanded shower with a frameless glass enclosure and possibly a second vanity bowl.

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Hiring a Home Improvement Contractor

Sure…a post about how to hire a contractor—by a contractor. Pretty self-serving? Pretty biased? Well, it’s not what you think. I’ve been in the home improvement industry my entire adult life, and have heard and seen some unbelievable things. I’m posting this for everyone out there considering a home remodeling project. It is a self-serving effort in the sense that it’s good for the industry that home improvement consumers know what to look for in a remodeler. This does not apply to single trade operations such as roofing, replacement windows, etc. Nor does this apply to those of you who already have a contractor with whom you are comfortable. This is about home remodeling—additions, kitchens, baths, etc.—projects utilizing multiple trades, and requiring the services of a general contractor and intensive coordination. While we’d like you all to hire us, most of you are way too far away, and the logistics alone would almost certainly disqualify us.

There’s a preponderance of material out there on this subject, and most, of course, is somewhat self-serving, and this is no exception. The better educated our potential customers are, the more confident we are that they will see the wisdom in choosing us as their contractor. Also—as you may have heard—there are some unscrupulous people out there looking to make a fast and easy buck at your expense. The presence of these contractors is an impediment for everyone involved. As your home is likely to be the largest and most crucial investment in your life, the greatest care should be exercised when hiring a home improvement company.

1. Know what you actually want

The very first act you should undertake before even looking for appropriate home improvement candidates is to think about what you actually want, what you can have—and, just as important, to know your financial limitations. The more research you can do regarding the project, the smoother it will all go. The more you know about what you actually want, the sooner you will discover what you can actually have. Of course, the contractor(s) you contact are likely qualified and willing to help you in a multitude of ways, but knowing as much as you can about your ultimate project goals is a huge step in the right direction, and to your advantage. If your project is an addition to your home, for example, it will help a great deal if you have a grasp of how much space you want or need, and if your municipality will allow it. Zoning rules vary from town to town, and you can potentially waste a lot of time engaging in other research or searching for the right contractor for your project, discovering months later you cannot build it. Your local zoning officer can probably answer most of those questions over the phone. If your project includes the adding of a bathroom there may be municipal utility rules to consider as well. The construction of an in-law suite, for example, is prohibited in some municipalities, for fear it will become a rental unit in the future.

2. Qualify your candidates

OK. You have a pretty good idea what you want and what you are able and/or are willing to spend. It’s time to look for your contractor. The wisest thing you can do before you start cracking open the Yellow Pages is to ask around—or look around. If you’ve never hired a home improvement contractor before, chances are you know someone who has. Ask how it went. Narrow the field before you start playing on it. You have a computer, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Use it. Check out the possible candidates as much as you can. Visit their websites. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau, Angie’s List—anywhere you can find a review of your candidates.

3. Thinning the Herd

Once you have narrowed the list of potential contractors to as many as you have the time or inclination to interview, you may further thin out the herd through your first contact. A contractor who doesn’t call you back promptly, has questionable telephone etiquette, or is non-committal about scheduling a meeting with you may disqualify them right off the bat—that’s up to you, but it’s absolutely critical that you feel comfortable with your contractor. Those that can schedule an appointment immediately, or at least say when they will call you back to schedule are most desirable. Always, those that keep their promises regarding this first contact should move to the top of the list. Conversely, those who do not keep those very simple promises should be eliminated. If there’s difficulty keeping an easy promise, how many difficult ones will they keep? The promises will become increasingly difficult and complicated as the process develops. What you are looking for is someone you trust. Sure—trust is an intuitive, unverifiable feeling. And…let’s face it; we’ve all made mistakes in trusting people in the past, and trusting people in the course of a commercial enterprise is even more tenuous. Trust, however, is an indispensable prerequisite for any relationship to work, and in this case, for the success of your project. Trust your instincts. You don’t have much else to go by this early in the game. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed. If you feel pushed, push back, or pull away. You’ll have plenty of time to back out if you find your trust was false. You are not signing a contract yet.

4. Legitimacy

No matter how many home improvement contractors you intend to interview, there are a few pieces of information you need to ask of each one. Number 1: “Can I have a copy of your insurance certificate?” Don’t ever—ever let anyone work on your home without producing a CURRENT, valid insurance certificate. Number 2: “Are you registered and licensed in this state (counties and even municipalities in some places)?” A contractor can have all the insurance in the world, but if he is not registered or licensed where you live, he cannot legally work on your home until he is. This should not disqualify a contractor from the neighboring state or county unless they mislead you about it. This is public information you can easily confirm. Number 3: “Can I have a list of references?” If the remodeling contractor you are interviewing is hesitant about this—keep looking. Unless the contractor is brand new, they should have references on hand at your first meeting. If the contractor is brand new, don’t disqualify them solely on that basis, though it can be a risk. If they were upfront and honest about being new, they still may have a wealth of experience and expertise they gained while working for others—and they may be out to make an impression. It could be a good deal, but you’ll have to be lucky. Every home improvement contractor had to start somewhere.

5. First Meetings

In all likelihood, your first meeting with everyone you have decided to interview will be at your home. Tell the home improvement contractors at each meeting everything you can about your project, give them copies of anything you think may help, i.e. your own sketches, a list of needs, a list of wants, a list of don’t wants—if necessary (if it’s an addition, be sure to have clear, scaled copies of your property site plan for them), give them a walk through, let them measure, photograph, tap on walls, let them look at your electrical panel and utilities, crawl in your crawlspace, climb in your attic—whatever they ask to see (within reason.)  Pay attention—this process will tell you much about the competence and experience of the contractor you’re talking to—especially in comparison with each other. It will be easy to tell who is being thorough and who is not.

A somewhat sticky, but absolutely crucial piece of information you must provide your candidates is your budget. No one can really help you in any practical way without knowing this. Some home remodelers may disqualify you at this point, but the good ones will tell you—right then—if your budget is realistic or not, and offer alternatives if your budget is far too low for the project, and give you the option of continuing or redesigning.

6. The Semi-Finalists

Between your research on the contractors and your first meetings with them, you probably have a good feel for who is still in the running before you even hear their pricing. Don’t forget who’s who, as they all will be estimating the project, and it may be tempting to use the guy who wrote his estimate on the back of his business card while he was at your home for the first time, because he will likely be many thousands less than everyone else. Unless your project is a simple, single operation for one trade, an accurate estimate for most home remodeling projects requires a computer, and at least a half hour; if you have made prior material selections, longer—Illustrations and drawings, longer yet—alternatives—more time. You get the idea. Most legitimate home improvement contractors will take your information back to their office to design and estimate. They will also produce a proposal or two, and generate some drawings, allowing you to see, generally, what is included in their prices. You may never know what was included on the price on the back of the business card, and there’s a reasonable chance that the contractor who submitted the business card proposal doesn’t know either.

It’s wise to keep your own checklist for each remodeler you interview with a 1 to 5 scale, starting with the more subjective impressions to the more objective, such as: How comfortable did you feel? How professional did the contractor seem? How thorough were they? Did they show up on time? Did they seem prepared? How clear were the communications between you and the remodeler? How much time did they spend gathering information? Were they receptive to your ideas and input? Do you feel they can pull this off? Add whatever else you feel is important data for you to make the right decision.

7. The Finalists

For the sake of argument, let’s say you are left with three legitimate contenders. Even though all three have the same information, there is a significant gap between the highest and lowest price, and all three, though they are within your financial wheelhouse, have proposed higher costs than you had hoped. It doesn’t leave much room for what you’ve been advised to keep on hand for cost overruns or eventualities occurring during the course of the project. At this point, the recent education you’ve acquired on home improvements and human nature will serve you well. If all three of these contractors are doing the same, exact project, why is there this cost difference? Look deeper. Ask yourself: “Are they really proposing the same exact project?” “What else could account for this difference?”  “Of the three remaining contractors, with whom do you feel most comfortable?”  “What are the differences between contractors 1, 2, &3?” First of all, contact the insurance company that is on the remodeler’s insurance certificates to confirm they are covered and that the certificate is valid. Secondly, contact some of the references that have had a project like yours completed by the contractors. Once you are satisfied that your candidates are legitimate and competent, you may be left with nothing but cost to consider—or so you may think. Although we all know how important it is to make a wise decision regarding how we spend our money, cost has to be a secondary consideration when considering a major home improvement. For the same reason you will pay more for a name brand appliance than one you’ve never heard of, or the same reason you don’t buy your underwear at the dollar store, you may consider paying the higher price for home improvement services. The differences between the prices you’ve been quoted will usually have to do with; 1. How well their skilled labor is paid. This will have much to do with the quality, duration of the project, and the longevity of the workmanship. Obviously, the company that pays their people more not only will attract the better people, but will be more discerning about who they hire. 2. How sophisticated the support system is. This will have a huge impact on your degree of ultimate satisfaction. When an established company has your project on its schedule, systems and processes are engaged to see the project through from beginning to end. While your project is being produced, you will likely see a few of the same faces every day, however, there are people you may never see that keeps the project running smoothly behind the scenes. Operations such as, permitting, seeing that materials are ordered and on site when they are needed, seeing that everything and everyone involved gets paid promptly, planning, scheduling, etc. 3. How committed the company is to you. This has much to do with the support system, but at the same time, a company can function like well-oiled machine for its own sake. Responsiveness early on is a prime indicator that a company is focused on you and your project. Were your ideas, wants and needs are taken seriously and incorporated in the preliminary design and plan? Were you given an approximate length of time for the duration of the job? Were you offered intelligent options? Were all appointments kept? Do you feel like your contact is engaged in your project? 4. The term of the company’s warranty. While this may seem like a trifle in the broader scheme of things, believe me, it isn’t. New equipment, fixtures, appliances, even windows, doors, stairs and floors can have bugs that are not immediately apparent. Some home improvement contractor’s warranties are for an absurdly short term. All of these and many more factors go into the structure of a home remodeling company, and they all cost money.

8. …And the Winner is…

You’ve considered all of the above, and have settled on the remodeler with whom you have chosen to embark on the remainder of this journey. After all this, you probably feel like you should be further along. Well, if you did a good and thorough enough job at the beginning, the contract is just a few details away. If, however, you are like most mortals, you will need advice on many items and operations. If this is the case, it probably has much to do with the home improvement contractor you have selected. Their decorating and design acumen leads you to believe they can take your, somewhat sketchy vision, and steer it into a plausible reality. There may be many versions of your project discussed, and even more decisions made, decisions scrapped, altered, remade, and fine-tuned before you reach the point to where you are comfortable signing a contract.

9. The Contract is Everything

Hopefully, you emerge from the process with your sanity and goals intact. It’s not an accident that the contract is such a significant document. They don’t call contractors, contractors for nothing. It’s all about the contract. It’s here you need to be most aware. While you may justifiably trust your remodeler, it is of paramount importance that you read and understand your contract.

9a. READ IT!—UNDERSTAND IT!

I have been a home improvement contractor for over 35 years, and it never ceases to amaze me, especially considering the dollars involved, how few people really read and actually understand their contracts. By the time you arrive at this stage in the process, you have likely talked and considered, sometimes literally, thousands of options regarding your remodeling project. It’s easy to assume that since you have discussed something, it is included in your contract. Communications between humans are notoriously flawed, and unless it is in black and white as part of your contract, it is not part of the project scope. Throughout the long life of my company, we have taken great pains to make our contract as readable and as understandable as possible, yet we still have clients asking toward the end of the project; “Where’s my chandelier?” If the chandelier was not part of the electrical fixture scope on your contract, you are not entitled to it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have it—you can. But it will be a change order, and depending on the circumstances and the point of construction where this was brought up, it can be an expensive add-on. Conversely, when a change-work order is requested at the right time, there may be little, or no added cost. Exacerbating the reading and understanding issue is the myriad legalities that are required by law to be in every home improvement contract, and it could be that once legalese is detected amidst any text, our brains turn off. It happens to me, too. It could also be that by this time, we just want to get the deal done and to get started. It is absolutely critical that you know what you are buying. If, while you are sitting at the contract-signing table, there’s something you don’t understand, or aren’t satisfied with, STOP! Make the contractor explain, clarify, change, amend, alter, rewrite—whatever needs to be done to make you 100% confident  ALL of your concerns and questions are addressed to your satisfaction. Otherwise—DO NOT SIGN THAT CONTRACT! A well-composed contract is not only a legal document for your protection, it is a detailed menu of what is going to happen—a crystal ball—seeing into your future, including everything you are going to have. Building the project and keeping the promises made on the contract is the easy part. Getting to that point is far more difficult and you have to be on your game throughout the process.

10. Change Orders

The scourge of home improvement consumers are cost overruns. These are also known as change orders. You may be surprised to learn that they are the scourge of home improvement contractors as well. You may also be surprised that the vast bulk of change orders are driven by homeowners. From a home improvement contractor’s perspective, the perfect project has no change orders. While unforeseen circumstances account for some, most are either the result of clients not following the preceding instructions well—expecting items that were not part of their contract, or from seeing the project evolving in three dimensions and realizing there is something wanting. There are hundreds of possible reasons for change orders, but these are the most common. The costs of change orders can vary wildly, depending on the stage of development, as well as the labor and materials needed. The reason consumers don’t like them, of course, is the cost involved, and the time they can add to the project’s duration as well. Home remodeling contractors don’t like them for how change orders can damage a schedule, and also for the complexities they can introduce to coordination. If you introduce a change order that adds 3 days to your project, it’s likely that someone else’s project will be delayed for 3 days. While that’s not your problem, it is a problem for your remodeling contractor who lives, eats, and breathes schedules. Additionally, the time for research and deliberation on a change-work order is truncated, so the costs incurred by the contractor can often be greater than anticipated. Change orders can, and usually do arise when the impetus for arriving at cost and the decision to move forward or not is vital and immediate.

10a. How to Avoid Them

The best way to avoid cost overruns (change orders) is to follow the instructions above—to KNOW what you want—to choose the right contractor for your home improvement project—to work with that contractor to be as sure as you can that all of the details are addressed—and above all—to read and understand your contract. Moreover, to be aware, that when you decide you want your entertainment center on the opposite wall after the drywall is installed, or you’d rather have your toilet 2 feet to the right after the ceramic tile floor is in, it’s likely to cost you some serious money. No legitimate remodeler looks to make a financial killing on change orders, as regardless of the cost to you, it’s probably costing your contractor more.

Of course there is one, sure-fire way to know you have chosen the right remodeler right off the bat. Look closely at the people that come to your home to compete for your work. Don’t stare though—it can give them the willies. If any one of them has a CIPRIANI REMODELING SOLUTIONS logo anywhere on their vehicle, apparel, or materials they bring, that’s the right one.

A lot to digest, to be sure, but what’s more important than your home? Choose your contractor carefully, read and understand your contract. You won’t be sorry.