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Building Science

The Buy-in Problem

From code compliance to Passive House certification, getting good work from contractors is hard

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Getting buy-in from the work crews is important when you're doing high-performance building.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
Getting buy-in from the work crews is important when you're doing high-performance building.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
The difference between knowing the what and the why is apparent in this photo. The worker knew the what - applying spray foam air sealing to the edges of things. They just didn't understand the why, which would have helped them see that their effort here was wasted.
Image Credit: E3 Innovate in Nashville, TN

Last week I read a nice little article by Steve Baczek about getting buy-in from the various stakeholders involved with building a home. He’s an architect who works closely with the people who build the homes he designs. He’s also a former U.S. Marine who understands the importance of what he calls “a ladder of leadership and responsibility.”

After meeting with the crew building a new high-performance home he designed, he said they’re “efficiently working on the project with a clear understanding of where to focus their efforts and where not to.” But he benefited, too. He gained “a better grasp of how the crew dealt with my drawings.”

When I talk to people who work with contractors, I often hear the other side of this issue. The big complaints are that it’s really difficult to get buy-in. I hear this from code compliance verifiers, home energy raters, and even folks involved with Passive House projects. The air sealing crew misses important details. Someone comes along later and cuts a hole that wasn’t planned. The HVAC installers don’t pull the flex duct tight. Builders say they can’t take the time to have the kind of meetings that Baczek described because they’re paying interest every day on a $400,000 lot.

What’s the solution? Is there a general solution? How do we get buy-in from the majority of stakeholders, not just a few on high-end or high-profile projects?

The obstacles to buy-in

When you see how homes are built, it’s kind of amazing that they turn out as well as they do. Corbett Lunsford nailed it in this little video comparing car manufacturing to homebuilding.

Here are a few things that I think make it difficult to get the kind of buy-in on a large scale that Baczek gets with his projects:

A whole lot of independent companies working on each project — builder, framer, plumber, electrician, HVAC contractor, drywall installer, painter, cabinet installer, and on and on. Each company comes in with a greater or lesser degree of expertise in their own field but usually without a more general understanding of building science. And to make it worse, each company may have several crews. You might work with one of their crews and get them up to speed on one project and then get a different crew on the next project.

Lack of consistency among builders, codes, and programs — When the workers show up to different jobs and are told to meet different specs, it’s hard for them to know what’s expected from one day to the next. Statewide building codes can make this is easier, but then there’s…

Varying levels of code or program enforcement — If building inspectors are too busy to do much beyond a drive-by inspection, some folks take the easy way out and do less than they should. The same is true for third-party home energy raters and code compliance verifiers. Some do sloppy work. And hey, let’s just say it: Some companies cheat. If they do their own quality assurance, it’s not impossible to get away with that either.

Not getting credit for energy efficiency and green features in appraisal — The Appraisal Institute has a provision for getting for those things but it hasn’t really caught on yet.

Understanding the what but not the why — This one isn’t an issue of buy-in really, but it definitely can affect the final product. The photo of the fiberglass insulation below (Figure 2) shows an example the work of someone who got the what but not the why.

These are the things that occurred to me as I’ve been mulling over Baczek’s article for the past few days.

Opportunities for increasing buy-in

Once we have an idea of what the obstacles are, we can formulate a plan. Home building is a business and I think one of the biggest ways to achieve the kind of buy-in we’d like is to show how it can make the business more profitable. One way to do that is in the list above: Get credit in the appraisal for green building features and certifications. Use the Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum from the Appraisal Institute. If the appraiser who shows up doesn’t use it or won’t use it properly, get a different appraiser who will.

As the video above makes clear, building houses on-site can lead to a lot of problems. Factory-built housing has a bad name in this country because people automatically think of mobile home parks. But factory-built housing includes a lot more than trailers. There are some really good modular builders and panelized construction companies who can reduce a lot of the problems of building on-site. The Passive House community has sprouted several here in North America: BuildSmart, Prefab Passive House, and GoLogic, for example.

Here’s another way that builders can be more profitable by buying into building science and green building: By reducing the amount of money they have to spend in their warranty programs. If you pay attention to the details and build good houses, you have fewer callbacks. Some builders get this. They’ve changed their practices and seen how the extra money they spend upfront to get buy-in saves them more money on the back end. When the crews that do the work, what Baczek calls the “fire teams,” buy into the what and the why on a project, the result is a project that performs as it was intended. Yes, things can still go wrong, but overall, projects with buy-in will have fewer problems, fewer callbacks, and fewer dollars spent to fix things that should have been done right from the beginning.

Finally, perhaps the main ingredient is follow-through. If all you do is have a meeting to go over the details and then come back when the project is finished to see if they did what you wanted, you’re likely to be disappointed. Someone has to be in charge of making sure things get done properly all the way through the project.

Baczek is one of those people who takes the follow-through part seriously. Here’s a reply he posted to my LinkedIn comment on his article:

It’s funny, Allison, just yesterday I visited one of my projects under construction. The foundation sub asked, “Who are you?” I said, “The architect,” to which he replied “No shit. Why you here?” I said, “Just checking in to ensure my drawings are working out for you, and you don’t have any problems or questions.” He said, “But I’m just putting in the footings and foundation.” I said, “I know. Shouldn’t we ensure we are getting this right?” He said, “No, you’re right. Just never had the architect care about what I do.” To which I replied, “We can’t be a team if we don’t share our concerns as one.” He said, “Thank you.”

Getting buy-in is a big, complex topic. I’ve touched on a few of the issues here and ignored others. Of course a code-minimum house will be different from a house going for LEED or Passive House certification. Production builders, likewise, have different aims from small custom builders. Still, there’s a lot of overlap and everyone wants to be more profitable (if they intend to stay in business, anyway).

What do you see as the big obstacles to getting buy-in? What solutions have you found?

Allison Bailes of Decatur, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.

3 Comments

  1. Lloyd Alter | | #1

    You nailed it
    Last week I visited Bensonwood’s factory in New Hampshire and saw them building super high quality housing, this is doable. Ronald Reagan also nailed it when he said “Trust, but verify”- nobody should buy a house which doesn’t have blower tests and thermographic photos demonstrating that it meets agreed standards.

  2. GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #2

    Reply to Lloyd Alter
    Thanks, Lloyd!

  3. Leigha Dickens | | #3

    walk-thrus, walk-thrus
    This--taking on a personal quest to improve buy-in for high performance with the subs on turnkey build projects (of our panelized home kits, shout out to high quality panelized homes!), has become a part of my job as "the green building person." It's not an aspect of my job that I think my boss or the builder expected me to focus on. But I recognized it was important so I took it on. And it's really hard sometimes, for all the reasons mentioned. And I don't know that I've really got it as good as I'd like. But, I have learned that taking the time to go on the first-day-on-the-jobsite walk-thrus with key subs as the building science expert and lending that perspective, does really help. (A builder could do it, or an architect, or the site superintendent, as long as somebody is.) HVAC and air-sealing and insulation at a minimum. I got away from it when I felt like we were making progress and getting the steps down, got subs we liked, that the site super-independent was trained and on it, etc. But I realized that every house is different in the minutia and that's where you gotta figure stuff out, complacency kind of sneaks up on you over time and blower door test scores can start slipping a bit, boy do you get rotating crews from subs sometimes, and when you have multiple jobs at once, it's easy for a site superintendent to get caught up in fighting fires and start eroding their record of attending all walk-thrus with subs in person. (My boss insists that being a good site superintendent is 90% planning weeks ahead and people management, only 10% actual construction work, and he's wise.) Especially as you grown from building 1 to 2 houses at a time to many more than that at a time, from being just a builder to having a site superintendent to having multiple site superintendents and multiple crews from the subs--fast growth is another obstacle to sustaining the quality standards you might have figured out how to do when you had fewer projects. But I think walk-thrus are a step that should not be skipped no matter how busy you are. I do try to explain why I'm asking for things when I go on them. It's usually pretty humbling because I often realize I'm staring in the face at something I totally did not even think about when pondering the building envelope or HVAC plan on a 2d paper--maybe when I'm experienced enough I'll finally manage to really anticipate everything correctly ahead of time--but sometimes demonstrating your process of figuring out what to do when you're there in the field is itself a way of earning buy-in.

    I do really thinking using HERS score and/or blower door test scores as a metric can help too. I have one site superintendent who likes learning for learning sake, so this is all interesting and fun for him. I have another who doesn't think that way and just wants to get stuff done, but is a really competitive person and likes to feel like he's winning. So, having a score to beat from last time, or taking pride that his air tightness score beats the competition, is motivating to him.

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