How do you convince clients to upgrade from code-minimum (or worse) construction to Pretty Good House, or better, levels of performance?
How do you ventilate a commercial-style range in an airtight house?
If your house was a car, what kind of car would it be?
What do these questions have in common? They were all discussion points at a December 2, 2014 conference in Maine, co-hosted by the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council (MIAQC) and the Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals (MABEP).
Here was the description of the panel provided by the conference program: “A panel of local professionals will describe how they have worked with customers whose first priority may not be energy efficiency or indoor air quality, and what they have done to get their customers to incorporate both into their designs, while staying within budget.”
The cast of characters
Eric Werling was the guest speaker at the event. He is the program coordinator for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America program. Werling works with Sam Rashkin (“the father of Energy Star Homes”) to make energy efficiency a profitable business, not just a government handout. The program’s website introduction has a lot in common with GBA and the Pretty Good House (PGH) movement: “Learn about how this world-class research program can help the U.S. building industry promote and construct homes that are better for business, homeowners, and the nation.”
Eric’s presentations were informative and entertaining (especially when he pulled out his guitar and rhapsodized on the topic of building science.)
The real entertainment, however, came with the Pretty Good discussion panel. There to discuss the Better Building Standard were:
A Pretty Good standard?
Like most Pretty Good House discussions, topics ranged all over the place, including the requisite “It’s a stupid name for a building standard” comments. (To which someone usually responds that it’s not actually a building standard, and someone else suggests that a bit of wit and cynicism may help one understand the title.)
In between rabbit holes, the discussion occasionally came back to the official topic: how to convince people to spend extra for performance when they would prefer to spend their money elsewhere.
State of the industry
First, though, there is talk about the state of the industry. It was noted that existing housing stock is so old that it is still standing mostly due to the drying effect of massive heat and air movement through the envelope. In new construction, it will be interesting to see what is still standing after two or three decades, thanks largely to trapped water in its various forms.
Panelist Steven Caulfield joked that most old houses in Maine have running water — not necessarily in pipes, but across the basement floor, thanks to a high water table and rubble foundations.
The consensus is that problems like that aren’t easy to fix, but should be addressed before tackling air sealing or other energy upgrades that slow moisture on its way out of the house; failure to do so not only puts the health of the building at risk, but the health of the occupants as well.
Another problem in the industry are the workers themselves. Working in the trades is no longer seen as a viable career for those entering the workforce, so the majority of tradespeople have been working in their career long enough that they don’t readily accept new ideas or new products. One solution that panel moderator Dan Kolbert likes is the monthly Building Science Discussion Group at Performance Building Supply in Portland, Maine, where peers compare notes on best practices (and generate ideas such as the Pretty Good House concept).
Other solutions include conferences such as the one where the discussion was being held, and forging relationships with contractors (if you’re an architect) or architects (if you’re a contractor), to share information and build trust.
How do you get through to clients?
Finally, we got to the topic: How do you convince clients to upgrade their homes’ performance, including air quality?
There were a few common themes among the answers, include educating the client, holding a hard line for details and components that you feel are important, and treating new construction differently from renovations.
Panelist Emily Mottram noted that “Those who educate the market, own the market.” Not only has she found that educating clients is a key to better-performing designs, but she also teaches building science and sustainable design at a local college. She finds that in her role as a teacher, she is seen as an expert, which automatically garners her respect from clients and the builders she works with.
“You know what’s easy to sell?” said panelist Chris Briley. “Science.” He recommends not depending on charts and statements about MERV-15 filters, though, but instead suggests using everyday examples relating to comfort, health, toxic chemicals, and so on.
Panelist Jim Bahoosh added that “no frost on windows” is another relatable example of a performance issue.
Bahoosh said that technology isn’t the answer, and that it’s easy to live in a big house. He does not “sell,” he said, but leads by example, and has earned a reputation for building small, simple, attractive houses that perform well.
For renovation work, make energy audits mandatory
Kolbert said that he’s considering making an energy audit an automatic part of every renovation he does, regardless of size or primary reason for remodeling. At least then he will know the metrics and a starting point for a conversation with the homeowner.
Eric Werling stated that it’s about believing in the quality of what you deliver, and then conveying that conviction to the client. It simply costs more for better and more materials, to do things the right way, and to check your work, and that clients have to understand that.
The conversation turned to setting a hard line for the things you believe in; Bahoosh tells clients that they have to install ventilation, that it’s not an option. He says that because his houses are small, he can get away with using an exhaust-only approach, using bath fans with passive air inlets. He sets the fans to run continuously, with the option to run faster when the bathroom is “occupied.”
Mottram agreed with Bahoosh’s approach, at least for retrofits: she recommends spot ventilation using Panasonic Whisper Green fans, and strongly recommends ventilating bedrooms. She reasons that you are in that space for eight hours a day, more than any other place (with the possible exception of your office). She said that the fans are “idiot-proof,” but that you have to actually test the airflow — in her experience as a HERS rater, she has found many fans that do not perform as advertised. “Just because you hear it running does not mean it’s working the way it should,” she said. She concedes that retrofitting an existing house is often a hard sell, but that in new homes, omitting ventilation is not an option.
Kolbert added that improving indoor air quality (IAQ) can be a hard sell; we don’t necessarily know the metrics. “ASHRAE 62.2 is a good start but it’s hard to know if it’s the right answer,” he said. He does a lot of renovations and occasionally builds a new home, and says that while the new DC bath fans are an easy sell, it’s hard to sell HRVs for an existing house. “We know that IAQ follows right behind energy efficiency upgrades,” he says, but adds that it’s hard to quantify that fact for clients in a way that makes them open up their wallets.
Further discussions about ventilation
The panelists continued their discussion of ventilation-related questions: in a PGH, how do you provide whole-house ventilation? What do you do for range hoods? Dryer exhaust?
Briley noted that a 1600-cfm range hood fan over a six-burner range has no business being in an energy-efficient house. “Unless you cook a lot, and I mean a lot,” he added.
Mottram stated that she had a situation where a client’s range hood fan kept burning out, and they finally noticed that with the fan running, opening the front door produced a “Whoosh” — the house was so tight that the modest fan was creating significant negative pressure within the house, and undue stress on the fan’s motor.
A followup question was asked about how to balance pressure within a house, as HRVs don’t provide that function. Someone noted that the installation needs to be commissioned, but that most installations are not commissioned and therefore do not work as they should. In fact, people often turn the ventilation systems off and forget to turn them back on.
An audience member named George Terrien (also an architect and former president of the Boston Architectural College) asked, “This conversation is for the Volvo crowd. What about the regular people?”
Sarah Holland, another audience member (and architect), noted that we have been building Yugos, but there is now plenty of room in the Ford Focus to Toyota Prius range. And that annual cost of ownership for a Mercedes kept for twenty years can be lower than another, less-expensive car.
What really matters?
As a wrap-up to the conversation, audience member Kris Brill (owner of a high-performance window company) asked the panel, “What are the most important elements of a Pretty Good House?”
Briley: “The envelope: 10/20/40/60 levels of insulation, or enough to reduce the mechanical system. Oh, and ventilation, and I don’t say that just because this event is co-hosted by the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council.”
Bahoosh: “Make it lovely.”
Mottram: “Ventilation, envelope — and it has to look good.”
Author’s note: At the conference introduction, we learned that MIAQC recently lost funding; after 16 years of helping to improve indoor air quality in Maine, funding through the American Lung Association and Maine DHHS was not renewed. The organization is looking for ways to continue its mission. The group will offer several opportunities for learning at upcoming events. MABEP has a complimentary mission.
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