A good local builder is critical to the success of Unity Shell and Tempo projects. If you’re looking to have a new home built within the next year and you don’t already have a local builder on board, how can you find a conscientious builder with whom to work? Here are some ideas for finding and vetting potential builders for your project.
Unity has a database of builders with whom we and our sibling company Bensonwood have worked during the past couple of decades. For clients who are close to or in the Preconstruction Services phase of Unity’s design/build process, we’re often able to recommend a builder or two in the area where the client will be building.
What are your options if Unity is not able to recommend a local builder, or if the builder we do recommend is not available?
WORD OF MOUTH
This is the most common way for homeowners to find a builder: they ask around. Neighbors, realtors, surveyors, home inspectors and other trade professionals will all likely have recommendations for builders in their area. If you get a strong recommendation from someone you know and trust – or if more than one acquaintance recommends the same builder, chances are it will be a good one.
You can try asking at the contractor desk of the local lumberyard, perhaps providing some specifics about your project (“high performance,” “net zero”). Of course, because lumberyards serve many local builders, they have to be judicious about their recommendations.
Tradespeople are another good source of referrals. If you happen to come across an electrician, plumber, HVAC contractor or excavator who seems knowledgeable, competent and responsive, then they’re likely to have recommendations for general contractors who share those qualities.
TRADE ORGANIZATIONS AND PEER NETWORKS
Builders whose values are consistent with those of Unity and our clients are often members of organizations that support and promote high performance, healthy homebuilding. These organizations are typically willing to share the names and contact information of their member builders.
Such organizations include local green building guilds like the Sustainable Energy Outreach Organization (SEON) based in Brattleboro, VT, the Western Mass Green Consortium, and the Building Science Discussion Group in Portland, ME (the “Pretty Good House” folks).
Most states have organizations devoted to green building professionals. The Vermont Green Building Network is one such group. State chapters of the US Green Building Council are another (New Hampshire’s is here)
At the other end of the spectrum are large regional or national organizations such as the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA), and various certifying agencies such as Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) and the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS).
Many Unity homes are built in remote locations where we’re not able to recommend a builder. In these situations, when simply getting the names of local builders can be challenging, looking online may be the best place to start.
VETTING POTENTIAL BUILDERS
Once you have a list of names, you’ll need to vet the potential builders. Much of that work can be done from the comfort of your home.
Does the company have a website? It should, although we do know of some good builders who are so busy with word of mouth referrals that they’ve never bothered to create a website. Does the website emphasize green, sustainable, energy efficient building? That’s a good start, although you should be on the alert for “greenwashing.” Do the projects featured on the website seem similar to the home that you envision for yourself?
There’s a limit to how much one can learn from a company’s website, or from online reviews, for that matter. But a good website will give you a sense of the company’s size, typical projects, and strengths.
If through your online research, you’re able to narrow down your list to a handful of potential builders, then it’s time to reach out by email or phone, and start asking questions. If you google “questions to ask when hiring a contractor,” you’ll find plenty of lists. Here are a few questions that we consider critical:
- Tell me about your typical projects. Some builders focus on large custom houses, while others work on smaller homes with more affordable systems, fixtures and finishes. There’s no perfect profile for the local builder on a Unity project, but it’s helpful to understand the builder’s background and experience. A builder who does primarily renovations is not necessarily a bad choice for working with Unity, because we provide the complete shell of the home.
- Tell me about your experience with high performance construction. If the prospective builder asks for clarification, move on.
- Are there resources that you consult regularly to stay informed about the latest developments in home building? Magazines such as Fine Homebuilding and JLC are a good sign, as are websites such as GreenBuildingAdvisor.com.
- What’s your availability for starting on a new home project? Whether this is a deal-breaker may depend on your own schedule expectations, but bear in mind that currently most builders are as busy as they’ve ever been.
- Would you be interested in teaming up with an off-site construction company such as Unity Homes? Some builders are content (and busy enough) to simply continue working in the same way they always have, building homes piece-by-piece on site. If the potential builder is not enthusiastic about participating in a project with innovative panelized construction, then creating the strong relationship necessary for a successful project will be an uphill battle.
- Can you provide references not only for projects that went well, but also for a project or two that didn’t go well? Some of Unity’s strongest references are from projects that had issues, but that we dealt with in a prompt, professional manner.
At Unity we’re not able to provide extensive support for vetting potential builders, but we can provide resources that describe how we work with builders. Once you’ve narrowed in on a builder, we’re happy to answer any questions the builder might have about working with Unity.
Ultimately you’ll have to rely on a certain amount of intuition when choosing a builder: do you feel comfortable with the builder, does communication flow easily, and do your values seem to be aligned? Good chemistry between you and your local builder is invaluable!