Mark Robert Halper

The remodeling industry is at a crossroads. Given the hole that housing has dug for itself, remodeling expenditures will surpass that of new construction sooner than expected. Business-as-usual won’t cut it in the new economy. Here are three things we need to do right now to make sure we’re ready. Make licensing uniform and mandatory. We can’t have it both ways. Either we take a stand for real licensing or we stop whining about low-ball competition. Thanks to the popularity of the green movement, American homeowners are beginning to understand that there’s more to the “stuff” they buy for their homes than how it looks and what it costs.

As remodeling projects become more complex, liability for performance claims will grow. To protect ourselves and our industry, we need to make it impossible for anyone to bluff his way into winning a remodeling contract.

Licensing levels the playing field, provided that we also reduce or, better, eliminate the petty differences in requirements that vary from state to state and town to town. The laws of gravity, thermodynamics, and entropy work the same everywhere; so should licensing laws.

And this ought to spell the end for the do-it-yourself nation. Resources are too scarce and buildings too complex to allow just anybody with a how-to manual to build or modify them. Not every job needs a pro, but there won’t be as many folks leaving the home center with replacement windows sticking out of their trunk.

Train more technicians. My remodeling company operated in Vermont, so I’m acutely aware of the benefit of weatherization. And I’m also in favor of the funding the stimulus package provides to upgrade energy efficiency in existing homes.

But, like others who are not new to energy retrofits, I don’t see how we can get all the work done, and done properly, with just the people we currently have. Unlike some of the improvements that qualify for a tax credit, the value of weatherization depends almost completely on the skill and care with which the work is done. That means energy retrofit newcomers need to be educated about moisture, backdrafting, and other threats to a tighter home.

Hire and train more inspectors. Making sure stimulus work is done right means more permit and inspection requirements. And that means it will take longer to get projects approved. Unless, that is, we train more inspectors. Lots more.

This idea isn’t coming out of nowhere. We are slowly but surely moving toward a point where virtually every remodeling project will require, in addition to the inspections already mandated, an energy audit before work starts, as well one or more audits of specific systems (thermal, air sealing, water, etc.) as they are completed but before the components are rendered inaccessible.

Green certifications and training programs are sprouting up everywhere (a trend that seems to be headed for the same tangled mess that plagues the licensing system), but I don’t see a corresponding push for the education of the people we’ll need to verify that all of this sustainable construction is meeting standards.

The good news is that there is a whole generation of 50-something remodelers with bad knees looking for a way to make ends meet. It’s not for everyone, but experienced contractors are excellent candidates for retraining as energy auditors and building inspectors. They know their way around the site, have a keen eye for detail, and they understand that there is more than one way to skin a cat. All that’s left is to teach them the building science — no small task, but is there a better place to start?

It’s not easy being green.