In the construction business, “shopping” for services and stuff (like windows or heating systems) is typically called “Sourcing”.  It is one of the most important parts of the process.  If you have a GC, make sure sourcing is one of his/her key skills.   In fact, being good at sourcing is the most important trait you should look for in a GC (well, that and scheduling and dealing with subs).  It is much more important than his or her ability to lift a hammer.

If you are your own GC, make sure this is something you can do well.  Focusing your attention on sourcing is your best chance to save yourself money.  If you can use your time for swinging a hammer or looking for a better deal on some aspect of an upcoming phase of the project, you will definitely save more money by spending your time sourcing.

If your spouse wants to be involved, but wouldn’t be much good with bending rebar or mixing cement, see if they want to spend a few hours finding you a good plumber, make sure they use the “three bid rule” (see below).

Sourcing as part of Design

An important part of any design is being able to get the components or technical expertise  you need to make your design a reality.  For instance, the design of a practical earth tube system requires components you can actually purchase.  I could use advanced simulation software to optimize the design of my system with respect to flow properties, but once I factor in what pipe I can order and for what cost, and optimize with respect to flow properties/cost, I may reach a different conclusion.


There are many tools for sourcing, I will come back and list them here.

1) The internet:  Obviously the internet is a Self-GC’s best friend.  It can put you in contact with suppliers you would never have found on your own.  However, it does tend to leave out all the “local little guys” that may have great prices or services.  I have not had much luck with sites that try to connect you with service providers.  Sites like “ServiceMagic” charge the listed companies a fee for each referral.  Most providers don’t bother using them.  For instance, I was looking for an architect and they only gave me a single option who was 64 miles away and had no idea about Earth-sheltering (one of my search terms).  There must be hundreds of architects between me and that one, even more if I looked in a 64 mile radius, but none bothered listing with ServiceMagic.  You are better off searching with Google.  Companies that do not have websites (there are many) can still be found thru Google maps or the online yellow pages.

Here are some good sites…  (to come later)

2) The telephone:  Yup, get used to it.  The same burly men who would do a great job of digging out your foundation are rarely skilled at website design.  Successful contractors are busy working and don’t have much time for email, even if they have an email address.  The most qualified shotcrete guy I could find was young and computer savvy enough to have made a website and have email, but his website had not been updated in 2 years and he was not great about responding to emails (too busy?).  If I sent him an email, I would probably have to send a reminder email or two and it would still take him a few more weeks to get back to me (long after I forgot I was waiting), and then he would probably not get around to answering the actual questions in the email.  Getting him on the phone or in-person was much better.

One window supplier I spoke to said he would rather crawl under one of his machines and repair it than touch as single key on a computer.  He kept wanting to send me hand written faxes for his quotes (figure out how to receive faxes thru your email or printer so you are ready for people like this).  In my opinion, computer-phobia is a big negative in a supplier, it goes in the “poor communication” category, but if the price was right…

Generally, if a subcontractor has a media and marketing group, or even a receptionist answering emails, it adds to their overhead and cost…  Some times this just means they are a bigger operation because they have been more successful because they do better work, but usually it also means they are more expensive.   Not every supplier has email or a website, but they all have a phone.  😉

Now if only there was a way to make sure they would answer their phones, or give you info over the phone…  I found that many contractors have “full” voice mail boxes or don’t check their voice mail at all (perhaps they are just screening me).   For new contacts, I would often need to make face-to-face visits to get quotes back or questions answered…  

3) Microsoft OneNote:  This is one of the less used pieces of the MS Office suite.  It is basically an easy to use “note book” that you can keep on your computer.  I am usually in-front of my computer when I contact suppliers and I jot my notes down in OneNote.    So, yes, it is kind of like a paper notebook, but much much better.  You can cut and past links from your web searches or emails, you can paste in images, turn images into text, etc.    I find it to be a great way to organize my notes.




This is just a collection of tips I picked up while sourcing…

1) Telephone Books.  Old telephone books make ideal personal address books. Simply cross out the names and addresses of people you don’t know.   – Ok this first one was a joke.

2) The “Three Bid Rule”!  Yes, it is a rule.  You will be tempted to skip it, especially if you don’t even like the work of getting the first bid, so make it a rule and stick to it.  It is not just about getting the lowest bid.  While calling and speaking with three potential bidders, you will get a lot of tangential information that could help you make better decisions.  This starts to reduce your “informational asymmetry” and makes you a more knowledgeable GC, even if it is just for your own construction project.   I have found that I was able to regurgitate some of the “insider info” picked up on the first two calls was able to give the third sub the impression that I knew what I was doing and was not to be messed with.

As a Self-GC, your greatest weakness is that you can’t get a sub or supplier to bid low based on the potential for future work.  They can probably figure out that you are a “one and done” contractor.   However, if they know they are competing with other contractors for the only job you are providing, it does pull the price down a bit.  On the other hand, try not to look like a tire kicker…  They will put more effort into getting back to you with the bid if they think they have a good chance of getting your business.

Also, you are comparing the interaction with the companies representative.  If they don’t call you back now, they probably won’t call you back after you are paying them either.  Do they seem interested in your project or do they seem to think you are a few bricks short of a load?  This last bit is particularly important for anyone wanting to build something as strange as an earth sheltered home.

If you want to directly compare bids, it is important to make sure you ask them all for the same thing.  If one provides you a quote with shipping included and the other doesn’t, then it is hard to compare the quotes.  If one quote is for 500 pieces and the other is for 300, then you can’t just compare the “per piece” price.  It may be that some discount kicks in or some of the cost is the same regardless of the number of pieces.

3) Get a contractor discount.  One argument for hiring a GC is that they can get cheaper prices on subs and supplies.  In theory, this discount is based on the premise that they order more (or will order more) and get some sort of bulk discount.  The hope is that some of this lower price gets passed to you and somewhat offsets the cost of hiring a GC.   In my experience, GC’s seem to keep this discount to supplement their income.   However, I have also found that you can get the same (or similar) discounts just for opening an account at the supplier.  You don’t need a builders license or even an official company.   Just go in and tell them you are building a house and want to open an account…

4) Checkout your local (or not so local) recycling place.  Google “reused vinyl billboards” or “used insulation” to find some fantastic deals.  Shop around, I found prices varied widely.

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