Scott Meadows is a Certified Green Building Professional and General Contractor who Lori has worked with on many projects. Once clients meet and work with Scott, they find it difficult to do any projects without him. His fine building and communication skills, as well as his broad knowledge base and integrity are rare in the industry. Recently, Lori and I had the pleasure to sit down and interview Scott.

Lori: Scott, what should people keep in mind before hiring a contractor or working with one?

Scott: Communication is key. The initial visit should be a good match, personality-wise, and communication should be pretty open in both directions. When I meet with clients for the first time I am interviewing them as much as they are interviewing me. I prefer to pass on a job than get involved in a project that is going to keep me up at night and turn bad.

I think that people should not underestimate the relationship involved in a project, especially larger projects. Handyman stuff, I think, is going to be less time, money, and disruption involved, so it has a smaller chance to get off-track; but if you are talking about something like even a bathroom remodel, you’re talking about mess, disruption, time, money, and expectations. Those are all areas where you can get off track pretty easily. We take a lot of things for granted, like water and being able to do your dishes before you go to work. If you are remodeling your bathroom, the water is off in the house. These are things that can become annoying pretty easily if the expectations are not managed properly.

Lori: In the projects that I’ve worked with you on, I've seen that you really try to manage that, and you try to keep people in their home as much as possible.

Scott: More and more I’ve become more vocal upfront about the worst-case scenario. I try not to scare people, and I think it provides a better service than to say, “Oh yes, no problem.” I think it’s better to say, “This is what could happen and we’re going to do our best to avoid it,” and “These are the periods where it would be really great if you could be out for the day or go out of town for the weekend.” Because when we first tear it apart, no matter how hard we try, the house is going to be seriously disrupted. It will become noisy and messy. There will be people in your space and for people who are home during the day. It can be challenging.

Projects go best logistically, usually, when the clients aren’t occupying the house. It’s so much better and cheaper too. If we are doing a project in a home like this, where people are living in the home, we’re in-and-out and the dust is coming with us. We can put up barriers, but if the wind is blowing, barriers fail, dust comes in, and it gets everywhere. You get into the negative returns pretty quickly when you try to stop the dust, because you’re not going to. You’re going to get a certain amount.

So, I think the point of that is—that’s one thing I think you probably will hear me say a lot—managing expectations. That’s being realistic upfront with time, money, disruption and level of finish, because you can get multiple bids based on the same set of drawings. The quality that you get can vary a lot. Somebody from the trade would be able to come in [after the project is finished] and say, “Well, I’d give this guy an A+ or C-.” Sure, it is the tile you spec and the grout color you spec, but is the layout thoughtful? Does it look clean and professionally done? Those are some variances you are not going to see on the bid.

Lori: Or is it a quality job? Is the grout going to come apart? Is the tub going to leak?

Scott: Is it going to last 5 years? I’ve seen a lot of jobs that haven’t lasted two years. It shocks me that people go for the lowest bid. I mean it’s just crazy, because of the time and money involved. I know that the lowest bid can be significantly lower but I use this comparison frequently: If you have a stock portfolio, would you go with the cheapest guy or the cheapest firm to manage it? For most people, even now, their home is their number one investment. The work that you’re having done on it, once you get over a couple of tens of thousands of dollars, you would consider that like swapping out stocks and buying something that you think is going to be better in the long run for your home. Then there’s also the chance of collateral damage if something’s not done right if you’re doing a bathroom above a kitchen that’s finished nicely—water goes downhill. There could be the risk of fire. There is the risk of things done poorly and that aren’t going to last more than 5 years.

So those can become very expensive options that people don’t think about when they say, “Well, this guy is fifty thousand, and this guy is thirty thousand,” because that’s clearly a big difference. Doing the project again in 5 years, or seriously repairing some problems, is going to eat up that twenty grand difference immediately.

I think it is great when people get multiple bids, but I think they should have very frank conversations with the contractor to interpret exactly what that bid means.

Lori: Right, that’s what I tell people when they are getting multiple bids. I tell them, “Ok, you’re going to get low bids and you’re going to get high bids. Just make sure you understand what’s in the bid, what it all means and understand all of the details.”

Scott: “…and do they have the experience and sensitivity to prepare a bid based on your expectations?” So, I think you should talk to their previous clients and maybe you should go so far as to look at past projects. If you are really concerned you should look at that person’s home, if they’ve done work for themselves, and other clients’ projects.

I had an old house in El Cerrito that I had completely remodeled. I used to bring clients there all the time. I would say, “Come look at my house, because I’m more likely to cut corners in my own house than in yours.”

So, if you like what I’ve done at my house, I’m probably not going to cut as many corners, unless you want me to. That’s a service I provide with my clients, too. I say, you tell me; you tell me what your expectations are for the level of finish, tell me your budget and we’ll do it. I’ll cut some corners. For some people, some things are really going to bug them every time they’re enjoying that space, and for other aspects, they couldn’t care less.

Janelle: Could you give examples of that?

Scott: A lot of people spend a lot of time in the bathroom, so some people can become really fixated on a particular piece of tile that might be in a certain location that they just happen to stare at all the time, to the point that they’re thinking, “I hate that piece of tile.” Or it could happen that a grout line wasn’t well thought out, and there’s a little jog in the design and the productions. The person wonders daily, “Why does that line line-up with the tub here but not over there?” So, they’re sitting there everyday looking at it, feeling slightly dissatisfied.

Janelle: I see, whereas if it were in another part of the house, that would be fine.

Scott: Right, or maybe the paint job is substandard because we went with a lower bid for budgeting purposes, but the client couldn’t care less. Another person might never see that grout line unless somebody pointed it out to them, but they might stare at the ceiling all of the time and say, “It’s a little bumpy.” It’s so subjective. So, I try to talk to people about that. People can’t answer those questions, but I can get a sense from them because some people are going to want everything perfect or as close as possible to perfect. If they’re driving a Mercedes then I would say to myself, “They have high performance and high precision expectations.” So, I’ll have that kind of discussion with them. Some people want their bathroom to look a certain way within a smaller budget and we can do that too, but it’s not going to be a Mercedes.

It boils down to, what’s important to you, as the client. When you think about your dream kitchen, what are you really excited about? It might be the countertops. So that’s not going to be a good place to try and save money, because that’s the part you are going to see. Maybe we can get some cabinets that are not top-of-the-line, because you probably are not going to notice minor differences, unless there is an aspect that’s driving the design. Or maybe they want to upgrade later, and a cheaper countertop is a better option so that in 5 years they could put in the high-end countertop. But, we would want to design and build it so that they would have that flexibility. It doesn’t all have to be done at once, even if it is the dream kitchen. It’s that kind of communication that works both ways.

Janelle: So, how did you get started doing what you’re doing?

Scott: I’m an artist, a painter. I do oil paintings and mostly landscape, figurative, still life, slightly abstract, more old-school and representational.

Lori: Do you still paint?

Scott: I do. Not as much as I would like these days. I really miss my old studio. My old house had a carriage house that I converted into an art studio that was all glass, all skylights. The light was just amazing in there. My painting is really about color. So it was a really nice spot. Now I have basically a two-car garage that I’m a converting into a studio slowly, but once I get the skylights in I’ll have the light I need. 

Scott: I was an art student and I needed a job that was flexible. I had friends that were in the trade, and they made a lot more money than working in a coffee shop. I was not afraid of that kind of work. I’m able to do it well because I can work really well from plans, and I can just conceive how a space is going to work in 3D before I start building it. The way I paint is very methodical and similar to the way I build. However, my building has seriously influenced my work, my painting. I used to be a little more slap-dash abstract expressionist: Start at point A and wander through the wilderness for a while not really knowing what the painting was about or where it was going. As my time became more limited, and my skills became more sharpened, and as I got more interested in color, I realized that that was not a good path. So I started approaching my painting with a clearer idea of where I was going. I enjoy exploration along the way, but if you want hard-edged, precise paintings with strong fields of clear color, you can’t just “go for it.” Sometimes it takes multiple coats to get the red you want. My mind has always worked well that way. Even though I’m an artist, I have also always been really good at math.

So, that’s how I got into the work initially because I needed a flexible part time job. Even working as a laborer pays better than working at Peet’s. Like I said, I had friends so I got connections right away. After art school I went from being a laborer to an apprentice carpenter, to a carpenter to leading jobs. It just seemed like a good path for me. I enjoy the work and I’m good at it. My crew and I are proud of our work.

Lori: So, your company is Meadows Green Building. What does that mean for you, or how do you incorporate Green into your work?

Scott: I picked the name for the business at the time when green building was hitting the mainstream. The average person had heard of it and had some idea of what it was. At that time I was very interested in it and I continue to be. I took a couple of levels of certification for it and I keep those up. I would say, though, that less than half of my clients have any interests in it.

Janelle: Why do you think that is? The cost?

Scott: I don’t think there’s much cost involved. The comparison I make is that most green products that I would consider a quality product aren’t going to be found at Home Depot in their kitchen department. Let’s say that there was a countertop choice that was greener, and then there was another countertop choice that somebody really liked that would be a quality or higher-end, I would say that those two are equivalent. I wouldn’t say that the green option costs more. If somebody tells me that green costs more, I would ask, costs more than what?

I usually ask my clients where they buy their groceries. When you shop do you find that you buy organics? And if they don’t, I would question what their level of interest is in the green building. Like I said, half of my clients never bring it up, but I bring it up with them on the initial meeting. What I tell them is that I’m not going to pull out my soapbox. This is your home, this is your money to spend, and you’re going to make those decisions.

Another good indicator is if they have a hybrid [car]. Those are signs that they are willing to spend maybe more in that direction. I don’t think it’s fair to say that green building costs more than a quality equivalent that is not green or as green. One thing they kept telling us in a building seminar I attended, and I agree, is that it’s all shades of green. There’s green, greener, greenest. I’ve never had a client that wanted to tow the line and do the greenest project. I would be interested in doing something like that, I think they are rare, but I think those projects do cost a lot more. I think that they require special design engineering and a lot of products that people don’t have a lot of experience working with. That’s where it could get expensive. I really try to encourage people to understand that the greenest project they can get is a project that’s well thought-out beforehand and is built well with quality materials.

Lori: Right. Quality lasts a long time. You don’t have to rebuild it, so there’s not that much waste.

Scott: Also, that the design is not so funky and hip that the next person who buys the house is going to hate it and tear it out. It could be the greenest project in the world and still end up in a landfill in 10 years. I think that the designer’s job is really to know what the clients want, design it in such a way that works well and they are not going to have complaints. Good design helps the next person who occupies the house have that sense of stewardship. Maybe that means you dull the design down a little bit so that it is more classic, so that the next person won’t hate it.

I think those are all things that someone who’s interested in organic produce will be open to, to those ideas and maybe not insist that they use this wild tile for their whole bathroom. You could maybe do it as an accent to personalize it, and maybe that’s something someone could change later if they didn’t care for it.

There are a lot of green choices I make throughout the project that I don’t even talk to the clients about because there’s really no difference in cost. For example, where I choose to buy the materials and how I use them. For construction products, like glues and paints, I’ll opt for greener options. When we get to finishes, I’ll talk to my clients about fairly low VOCs that cost just as much a gallon as greener paints with natural pigments. Some clients have health concerns and they want hospital quality paints. Those do cost twice as much, but that’s not typical. So we approach those on a case-by-case, finish-by-finish basis. They can spend money where it’s important to them and try to save, or if it’s not important to them, especially if they are on a tight budget because those savings don’t end up being savings. They actually offset unexpected costs. We go in trying to look for savings from day one. Maybe they save money, but typically they get eaten up by unexpected things.  No two homes are the same, and the older they are the more unexpected things pop-up. You don’t know who has done the work and whose uncle was a quasi-carpenter that came in and said to the owner at the time, “You want your tub 6 inches lower? Well, we’ll just cut all the joists. No problem.” And then you wonder why the house is listing.

I tend to stay away from a green choice if it is really brand new. Like if it is some “wonder product” that has only been on the market for one year. If it’s something not like paint, I would be a little gun-shy about that and I would talk to the clients.

Janelle: Have you had bad experiences with that [a new “wonder product”] in the past, or is it because it hasn’t been out long enough for it to have been properly tested?

Scott: I think contractors do things the way they’ve always done it, and I can see that as being a problem for some clients, but there is a real reason for that too. Because it is like chemistry or a baking experiment. There are a lot of aspects and a lot of them involve chemical interactions. If you start working with things that are not the trade standards, you don’t know what to expect sometimes. You really don’t. The glass tiles, for example, were starting to become popular maybe 5 or 10 years ago. The mosaics, and then the glass tiles, got bigger and bigger. The glass started to haze out and bleed through the walls. Those are weird things that maybe artists who do tile mosaics know about, but your average tile setter doesn’t know anything about that. It takes 5 or 10 years for enough callbacks and bad experiences for that to become common knowledge and for the manufactures to even supply an extra piece of paper in their product boxes that warn, “This problem can happen if you don’t do exactly what the instructions say.” I think that’s a good example.

Lori: Yes, that’s a great example, Scott. Thank you so much for meeting with us today!

Meadows Green Building & Design Inc.
Scott Meadows

phone: 415-724-3778