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indoor air quality

How to Hire a Contractor When Indoor Air Quality Is Important

By Stephen Collette Rise Writer
Jan 27, 2021

Many families are concerned about their indoor air quality (IAQ), whether they have allergies, asthma, environmental sensitivities, or chemical sensitivities. Hiring a contractor who respects their indoor air quality concerns can be challenging. By taking your time and communicating your expectations, a team effort should result in a healthy renovation.

Prescriptions for a Healthy House
Photo Credit: Amazon

What Steps Should I Take Before I Choose a Contractor?

Being able to "talk the talk" is tremendously helpful when dealing with tradespeople. I recommend reading up on the building materials and ideas you want to implement into your healthy house first. You can start to do this by looking through Rise's LookBook. A book that I recommend to start the process is the revised Prescriptions for a Healthy Houseby Paula Baker-Laporte, Erica Elliot, and John Banta. This book is a must-have, as it outlines the technical sides of healthy building and offers tips and tricks for successful healthy renovations—and also how to talk the "building talk." This book is designed to explain to the average homeowner how to speak to trades and building professionals using language that you can understand. In my opinion, it is the best book out there to help you prioritize your concerns and goals, needs, and wants. This article should help you get started. 

How to Hire a General Contractor for Your Renovation

Finding a contractor can be a challenge. Ask friends, neighbors, and reach out to Building Biologists or other healthy building consultants to see who does good work. Look for green builders organizations in your area. Keep in mind, "green builders" are not necessarily healthy builders, as they may be more focused on things like energy efficiency. At a minimum, they are interested in a high-performance home, and you may find one interested in your project. Or, you may find someone who has done quality work for someone you know. Just make sure they are interested and willing to learn about healthier homes. 

Contractor Agreement

Once you have a list of potential general contractors, ask for references, call them, and ask questions like, "Were they on time and on-budget? How did they deal with problems, such as mistakes and cost overruns? Did they clean up after themselves? Were they respectful, i.e., not smoking or playing loud music all day?" Asking whether you liked their work or not is the last question you should ask. Since once a job is done, people forget about the trials and tribulations to get there, so it's essential to ask the other questions first. It is also about how the general contractor and you "click." Are you both on the same page? Does this person understand your needs and concerns? Has s/he answered your questions clearly, or have they danced around answers? 

Also, remember that in some jurisdictions, contractors must hold licenses to carry out work in your home. As well, if your renovation will include disturbing old paint, EPA Lead-Safe certified contractors should be doing the work. 

Dusty Renovation

How To Develop and Customize An Indoor Air Quality Policy

Once you have a contractor (or maybe you are down to two at this stage), start to educate them on your indoor air quality concerns. You may have unique issues regarding air quality, so start by writing them down and going through them with your general contractor. This process can be your very own indoor air quality policy, customized to you. The policy could include topics such as:

  1. Reduce Dust During Renovations
  2. Chemical Sensitivities During Renovations
  3. Mold and Bacteria

Let's dive in!

Reduce Dust During Renovations

You may be sensitive to dust and particulate, so you need to manage that effectively during the renovation process. The solution would be to put a large exhaust fan in the window of the room, seal the floor vents, and put plastic over the entry door. If you are really sensitive, you may require that workers change their boots out, so there is no dust tracking in the hallway. Your general contractor may have solutions as well, such as cutting wood outside to reduce dust. So work together, as you do not want to hamstring them from completing the job.


Chemical Sensitivities During Renovations

If you have chemical sensitivities, questions and concerns should be geared more towards the products you plan to bring into the home. In this case, make sure that includes formaldehyde-free cabinetry, zero-VOC paints, or GREENGUARD certified caulking, to name just a couple. If you have a list of tolerable materials you can use, great; if not, work together to help vet materials as quickly as possible. Decide who is sourcing them, who is contacting the distributor, who is getting the samples, etc., being clear about the scope of work. 


One helpful tip: add a performance clause to the contract concerning your chemical sensitivities, such as: "No perfumes, scented personal products, smoking on the property, scented laundry products or any building material substitutions to be made without the prior consent of the homeowners. If any of these points are not followed, a financial penalty up to and including contract termination will be exercised." This clause is not a legal quote, but the point is to get it in writing to protect yourself. If the contractor decides to use toxic caulking or someone smokes in the house, you could be unable to stay in your home—so this is serious. 

Mold and Bacteria

In cases with biological sensitivities to molds and bacteria, it is more important to look at building science's best practices. It is vital to ensure that the building envelope (the outside walls and roof) is robust and appropriate for your climate to handle moisture, air, wind, hot, and cold extremes. This approach is typically asking for better than code, so that also requires conversations with the general contractor and your local building official. Building Biologists and Building Scientists can be great resources to ensure your building is more durable and resilient. These experts can help minimize the potential for biological concerns in your walls and roof. 

How to Hire Health Conscious Subcontractors

You may have a favorite plumber or other subcontractor and want to include them. However, it is essential to keep in mind that general contractors typically have teams that they know and trust and can call and get an answer in short order. So they may not be open to using other sub-trades. Conversely, a subcontractor who understands your IAQ needs knows what they can and cannot do in your home. For this reason, general contractors may be open to bringing them on board. Again, conversations upfront, before the work starts, are essential for everyone to be on the same page. Consider having all sub-trades working on the project sign the same contract so that no one can say, "I didn't know."


How To Calculate the Costs of a Health Conscious Renovation

It is much more cost-effective to be upfront with your contractor. The more time spent discussing issues and concerns and getting them on paper is always cheaper than dealing with the problems once the work has started. Make sure to pay the general contractor for that time, as it is part of the process. If the costs come in higher, I always recommend scaling back the job's scope and not skimping on the efforts to make your home healthier. Every attempt to make your environment healthier is helpful. Because if you think about it, when work isn't done correctly, you will be paying more in healthcare costs, lost productivity, and possibly further renovations.

Home Renovation

Bottom Line

A healthy renovation is possible for all of us. Know your needs and clearly express them to your general contractor as well as subcontractors. Spend the time discussing your hopes and concerns, pay for that time, and work together. In the end, the outcome will always be more successful, and you will have a healthier home for yourself and your family.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-01-27T20:58:27+0000
Stephen Collette

Article by:

Stephen Collette

Stephen Collette is a Building Biologist, Building Science Consultant, LEED Accredited Professional, and a Heritage Professional. Stephen is the owner of Your Healthy House and lives in Lakefield, ON with his wife and 2 daughters.