Sometimes the complexity of building science makes me a little crazy. The worst manifestation of this is when I make recommendations to clients or building pros at meetings or in seminars. Rarely is there a single, clear-cut solution to most problems. “It depends” is usually the right answer. It depends on the climate. It depends on the materials used. It depends on existing conditions. It depends on so many things that the average person slips quickly into MEGO mode (My Eyes Glaze Over).
I’m not really complaining, as I tend to prefer complicated problems and dislike repetition, so the ambiguities of green building seem to fit my personality. But what makes me happy doesn’t necessarily make it easy for other people, and unfortunately, we need to make building science (and green building in general) much easier to implement in order to get enough market penetration to make a difference.
Complexity = job security
Can we come up with something straightforward and simple to execute? I hope that we can, but I am concerned both that it may not be possible and that I may have a vested interest in delaying simplification. As long as it remains complicated, people will need my services (and those of lots of friends and associates), so in my own warped way I see it as a form of job security.
For new homes, we have several national and over 100 local certification programs to choose from, varying in both rigor and administration from marginal to excellent. The most consistent feature about them is that few of them are easy for the general public to understand and for homebuilders to use in their work. I think it is time to rethink the tools we have to help us make our buildings better. We need to make them both easy and accessible to the industry and the public. I don’t know how we are going to do this, but I believe that it is possible and necessary for us to transform our new housing stock.
Forget new homes
But when we focus so much attention on new homes, we miss our biggest opportunity for improvements: existing homes. There will always be more existing than new homes, and no matter what their age, they need lots of help. My best hope for existing homes is Home Performance with Energy Star, which, while still a work in progress, does a good job of guiding the analysis, testing, and executing energy improvements in existing homes. Unfortunately, based on the serious lack of knowledge of what constitutes a quality home, the tight economy, and the general lack of interest in efficient buildings, Home Performance has not made the inroads into the marketplace that it deserves.
If we are able to simplify the process so that it is accessible to enough people to make it mainstream, will it be rigorous enough to make a difference? Will we have to choose between a weak program with strong market penetration or a strong one with weak market share? Right now, we have three main national certifications that focus mostly on new homes: NAHB, LEED, and Energy Star. NAHB and LEED are both very complex to administer, which, in my humble opinion, keeps them from widespread adoption. Energy Star is less complicated and more narrowly focused, but will change dramatically with the 2011 version. But combined, they still represent only a small fraction of all new homes being built, and an even smaller fraction of remodeled homes, which raises questions about what we should do with all those existing homes.
I have long dreamed of a very intuitive system that quickly, simply, and accurately provides the best answers for any question or situation in home performance. I truly believe that it is possible to create a tool like this, but it may be too big (read: costly) a challenge to make it economically viable. And in the meantime, I suppose I still have some job security, at least for the time being.