GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Green Building Blog

High-Performance and Net-Zero Homes — Part 1

Achieving your energy goals depends on the process, the perception, and the people — and on having the mindset of a revolutionary

I come from a family of non-conformists. My dad was the product of a line of labor shit-disturbers of the first order; my mom came from milder stock but was herself a civic activist of unparalleled backbone. I spent my childhood marching for racial equality, farm worker rights, and peace in Vietnam. So perhaps it’s inevitable that I have come to view myself as a green building revolutionary.

In fact, I believe that YOU are a revolutionary. Why? Because building green is all about effecting change – replacing the “normal” way things are done with a far better way. It’s about combating conventional thinking and apathy – and often moneyed interests – to bring about results that are better for the people and the planet.

We’re all agents for change

Whether you willingly don the mantle of revolutionary or not, I think it’s important for each of us who works in green building to explicitly recognize our role as an agent for change. It’s much too hard to bring about change when you don’t face head on the reality that that’s what you’re trying to do – like trying to navigate to a town whose name you do not know.

In a revolution, everyone plays an important part. You can be heaving the battering ram at the gates, scaling the ramparts, tunneling under, printing broadsheets, or fomenting dissent inside the establishment – in short, operating wherever and however you are most comfortable and most effective. Not all revolutionaries are loud and aggressive; many are subtle and quietly persuasive. Not all have access to seats of power; many work at the grass-roots level.

A change toolkit

But all are working for change. And so I’ve devised what I refer to as the change toolkit. It’s based originally on Donella Meadows’s brilliant 2005 essay, “Places to Intervene in a System.” Meadows identified a hierarchy of nine places to intervene in a system with the aim of creating change. Bill Reed, in turn, developed his own hierarchy of change inspired by Donella’s work. I find Bill’s hierarchy easy to remember and I use it on a day-to-day basis. Here’s the gist of it – four levels, in increasing order of effectiveness for creating change:

1. Technologies

2. Tools

3. Processes

4. Mindset

I’ve used Bill’s 4-stage hierarchy as the basis for my change toolkit, in it identifying a number of players and types of change that may be appropriate at each level. One version of my toolkit is shown in the figure.

The right mindset to produce high-performance homes

Note that I view technologies as a “maybe” solution. I believe that much of what we have to do to reliably produce high-performance and/or net-zero energy homes resides outside the realm of technology.


1. Technology is our least powerful lever in the change toolkit.

2. We don’t necessarily need it to achieve our green building goals.

This is unquestionably revolutionary talk, because virtually every green building event you’ll attend focuses on stuff – the goods, the gizmos, the glam … i.e., technologies. There is very little focus on mindset (that sounds downright woo-woo, doesn’t it?) or process (a little less so, but still squishy, eh?), and only a bit on tools (we do like tools, yessir, especially techie ones).

Contrarian that I am, I’ve been focusing heavily lately on the top three levels of this hierarchy, where I have complete conviction that our energies are best spent. I’ll develop this train of thought in several more blogs over the next few months. Stay tuned, and break out your green armbands!


  1. user-723121 | | #1

    Proof read your entry
    The first line may not be quite what you meant to say.

  2. 5C8rvfuWev | | #2

    ... in a world (and time) when it has become more popular to fingerpoint blame and to find solutions everywhere but at "home."

    I look forward to the following blogs and appreciate the references to 'further reading.'

  3. user-980774 | | #3

    Look forward to following this discussion
    Not sure who I'm stealing this quote from, but it stuck with me..."There are no net-zero homes, only net-zero families". Two personal experiences: The "highest tech" net zero potential home I have ever built sold to a couple that bought it because it was near the school they wanted. They don't care about their utility bills and the results show it. (also two monster SUVs in the driveway).
    Last summer a friend had an open house at his new house and bragged about his $40k geothermal system. I saw the house being built! They put a $40k HVAC system in a house with fiberglass batts in 2x6 walls! Technology can not save these people!

  4. greenophilic | | #4

    Powerful combinations and hierarchy
    Ann, I think it should go without saying that these system levers are most powerful when deployed together, and that they are hierarchical, with the highest order change mechanism making possible further development in the lower orders, so on and so forth. As for my own experience, the combination of enlightened/determined mindset, along with appropriate building technology is the golden ticket for very low energy homes/buildings. I guess it's also worth noting, that the most powerful system levers are necessarily the most difficult to change, which is why so much effort is always focused on the relatively easier, weaker levers. Nevertheless, bravo for suggesting this one, radical thing: any and all homes can be low energy, as they are currently built, almost without exception. Thanks!

  5. wjrobinson | | #5

    Changing what, we collect
    Changing what, we collect tax, on, is, the one, and only tool we have as a group of animals called humans living in a way where by we submit voluntarily to being directed in how to live our lives.

    Simply tax fuels more and being good stewards of a living planet, less.

    It is time for national consumption taxes.

    Now that's a lever. We only need politicians with spines strong enough to pull such a lever.

  6. bAsqtBArKH | | #6

    KISS = Keep it Simple Smart
    I recently built a prototype home in Asheville, NC with the goal of creating a site net-zero energy home for $100 a square foot, not including the cost of the land. This cost (per square foot) includes all available rebates and credits taken into account. I used your 4 levels, but my mindset was 1st in priority--"keep is simple smart". While my home may not achieve any architectual awards, simplicity made so much of everything else achievable. If you would like to read my "simple" blog feel free: affordablegreenhome.blogspot. com. My home is not yet net zero as I am just now starting the process of getting PV system estimates (after a year of monitoring my energy usage). I truly believe that for green/high performance building to be sustainable, it has to be affordable to almost everyone...another mindset!
    I look forward to your future blog entries.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |