Can a lifelong desk jockey build an energy efficient, environmentally correct house in the Deep South?
OK, then: Can he build it without getting taken for a financial ride?
Since tooling around in my dad’s basement shop as a kid, I’ve swung a hammer about as well as your average orangutan. That’s probably why I ended up wielding a computer keyboard — first for my college newspaper, then as the environmental reporter for a daily newspaper, and finally as editor of Atlanta’s alternative newsweekly.
But I’ve always envied people who could build things. Maybe, it’s that I shared with them a deep desire to move some dirt, to change the face of the Earth, to create some physical evidence that would last after I was gone. What is it with guys and bulldozers?
Then, a few years ago, I got help from Kennesaw State University’s Center for Sustainable Journalism in starting up a web publication (now on ice) called GreenBuildingChronicle.com. It was a one-man shop. I covered residential and commercial projects. The bigger story underlying all the stories that I wrote was that metro Atlanta’s once-colossal, grandiose construction industry had been chastened by the Great Recession, and was showing modest signs of bouncing back, strangely enough, as a more sustainable, green machine.
The collapse had frozen vast herds of bulldozers in their tracks. Big builders who’d spent the last three decades knocking down trees, moving dirt and putting up McMansions about as fast as you could say “Housewives of Exurbia” were spending a fair portion of their time in bankruptcy.
Suddenly, even around these parts — where climate change is considered a conspiracy dreamed up by naughty scientists — a healthy chunk of the builders and tradespeople still standing were marketing themselves as “green.” The manufacturers of every kind of product from lumber to air conditioners were all about sustainability. And it helped that those who were making the right moves finally could tap into some decent incentives to do things right.
Some of the hype amounted to the product manufacturers and builders thrashing about for new marketing pitches. But much of it involved very real changes — lots of which were being driven by green construction incentives in President Obama’s stimulus package.
Eventually, the stimulus money dried up. But covering what turned out to be a halting, less-than-halfway industry transition inspired me. My wife and I had put off a major renovation for a couple of years. Now, we began to talk about reviving the project with Robert Soens — a experienced, environmentally conscious, custom builder. We honed our plans with Robert, seeking his advice on this product or that material, noodling with him on the best ways to solve particular problems, asking him for detailed estimates — doing what you do with a contractor if you’re going ahead with the project. And Robert was excited enough about the project and trusting enough of us to keep working on it … without a contract.
Then, last winter, we dropped him. Just like that. The thing is that I’d begun to realize we were unintentionally stringing Robert along. I wasn’t making any money with Green Building Chronicle, and paying a general contractor — even one who was being more than fair to us — started to look like a bad idea.
But not completing the project wasn’t an option, either. Now, we had a baby, and a 1,000-square-foot bungalow with lousy plumbing, no central air, old wiring, and a leaky roof. That, plus I couldn’t stomach the thought of planning a project for so long, of moving out “temporarily” three years earlier, and of moving back into the a house with one piddly bathroom and a leaky shower valve.
I also wondered whether — with all the ideas I’d accumulated while reporting on other builders — I would drive any contractor crazy by micromanaging him. So why not save our money and Robert’s sanity by serving as my own general contractor by doing it myself?
Ugh, well, as they say, careful what you ask for …