ACI Celebrates 25 Years with 25 Stories
March 01, 2011
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Laura McNaughton was a teenager during the first energy crisis in the 1970s and finished college during the second big energy crisis in the early 1980s. One of her first jobs was with a state program that was teaching low-income people to weatherseal their windows. She is now retired and was most recently the director of National Grid, serving electricity to 3.4 million customers in New England and New York. She entered the world of residential energy efficiency at the grassroots level. “I didn’t think this would be a career,” she says, “but I kept seeing places where it was possible to conserve resources while at the same time empowering people to have more control of their lives.” Her perspective as a woman in a traditionally male industry gives her hope for the role of women in the residential energy efficiency industry over the next 25 years.
Today, with over three decades under her belt and having maintained a steady focus on making a difference in people’s lives, McNaughton has witnessed an enormous growth in the energy conservation movement, fueled in great part by the field of building science and organizations like ACI. “For me, it’s been incredibly exciting to have seen the industry grow in its sophistication and capability over the last 25 years. I feel very fortunate as a woman to have worked in this field, because it is technical- and construction-oriented,” says McNaughton. “The thing that I would like to see is more and more young women getting involved, because I think there are great opportunities for good jobs. I think the bridge between the technical and construction side and the conversation with the customer is a bridge that… women can span, because women are interested in communication from the time they are young. Having the field be more accessible to women is really critical, both to make sure we have the best and the brightest and to make sure we are creating good jobs for people. And we are definitely not there yet.
“I think ACI really started a movement of residential building science and efficiency experts, and I think the growth of the industry is unlimited. I congratulate ACI for its leadership; for keeping all this together when at times it seemed like nobody cared. ACI is the best organization to lead the way going forward.”
The Art and the Science
Joe Lstiburek is a building scientist. It’s what he does. It’s also who he is. Everyone in this industry knows him. He’s THE authority on moisture-related building problems and indoor air quality. He has written scores of papers; he delivers presentations at energy conferences all over the world; and he founded Building Science Corporation. He says ACI is the glue for the residential energy efficiency movement. “It’s the center point of idea exchange on the residential side and THE single most important organization in North America for that networking for that reason. There is no comparable organization on the commercial and institutional side. In other words, ACI is unique. There is nothing else like it in the other sectors. I attended the first or the second Affordable Comfort conference,” Lstiburek says. “I met Linda Wigington in a hallway and got hooked. I’ve been an ACI groupie ever since. Linda’s leadership, how the organization grew, is remarkable. It went from a small group of activists who had their hearts in the right place to a very competent organization that brings in thousands of people who go on to influence tens of thousands of people. I’m incredibly impressed with ACI.”
Did you say “activists?” “Activists are full of passion but not always knowledgeable enough to know what they should be passionate about,” says Lstiburek. “The key is when that passion is complemented with knowledge and experience. And that’s what’s been magnificent about ACI. The passion is still there, but now there’s the competence and experience. That’s quite remarkable.”
Advice for the next 25 years: “The best way to look forward is to also look backward. We seem to be revisiting the arguments and issues of 25 years ago without the wisdom that should have accrued in those years. It’s really important that we go boldly and confidently into the future, but based on the wisdom of the past. Too often, the pups in the profession feel that they have all of the answers. I know that’s how I felt when I was a pup. There is a lot of wisdom that you can build on, and nothing is more powerful than to take the enthusiasm of the youngsters and couple that with the wisdom of the elders to go forward.”
Advice for the newbie in the field: “It’s not about the energy! The best way to get an energy-efficient building is to make a good building—that is, design and engineer it well, make it comfortable, and build it well. If you do, the energy efficiency will be there—almost by leaving it out of the picture. The problem is, if you’re focusing on energy efficiency by itself, it’s too one dimensional. Get a really well-performing building—healthy, safe, comfortable, and durable—and the energy efficiency comes.”
Advice for the newbie at the conference: “The best way to do affordable is look for the outspoken newcomers, because they’re full of vim and vinegar. Look for the diamond in the rough and hear what they have to say. And make sure to see some of the old, famous names and the established pros. Also: 50% is the program itself and the other 50% is the people you hang around with. Find a group and go out with them and have dinner and drinks. Don’t be bashful—everybody’s from out of town. Get your network on.”
Happiness Is Stuff that Works
Jim Fitzgerald is director of building diagnostics for Conservation Services Group (CSGRP), which was founded in 1984, around the same time as ACI. From walking the streets of New England in the early ’80s after a snowstorm to see which houses still had snow on their roofs (meaning they were well insulated) to reaching more than 2 million homes in CSGRP’s 25-year history, Fitzgerald has found that what continues to fuel his passion for his career is happiness.
“I’m probably crazy, but if I’m holding an insulation hose in my hand and I’m blowing a ton of cellulose every hour into a big building with bad insulation that’s been using huge amounts of energy, I’m just grinning! It makes such good sense; I don’t have to think about it; it just makes me happy.
“The other thing I love is showing people that they can save energy themselves, and watching the lightbulbs in their heads turn on.” Jim’s outlook on the future of energy efficiency is bright. He credits the people as the best part of the movement, working creatively together and cooperating to arrive at solutions that benefit everyone. “At BPI, for example, we have a consensus working group with all the major insulation manufacturers at the same table, cooperating. I’ve worked with the cellulose people and others before, and it’s not usually like that. People are working together. It’s just wonderful, and Affordable Comfort has been providing a forum for the interaction, the sharing of information and community building all along the way. It’s been of enormous benefit to everybody and really hard work for the people at ACI to continue to keep this together.”
Jim’s advice for ACI’s next 25 years? “ACI is connecting better with—for one example—the market construction companies. I’d say more lineup. More contact with the remodeling industry, with builders and the contractors, the carpenters; with the people who are actually working on houses. Getting stuff that works integrated into the regular practice. We’re turning a corner. The other side is, it’s high time. We don’t have too many more mistakes we can afford to make. It’s all real. If we can get where this makes money for people that do better and use less energy, that’s the best. If the work rewards itself so that it grows in the direction we need, that’s way cool.”
There’s Room for More on the Edge
Jim LaRue has been an expert presenter and participant at Affordable Comfort conferences since the group’s pioneering days in the 1980s. His expertise lies in green building, troubleshooting moisture problems, and indoor air quality. Whether he was rehabbing houses in inner-city Cleveland or presenting state-of-the art green-building designs to code officials, his bottom line has always been: How can we help low-to-moderate-income people live more fully and effectively? “That’s why I got connected to Affordable Comfort. It was about affordable. I can’t imagine that a lot of things that are happening in the industry right now would have happened without them.”
What accounts for ACI’s success over the past 25 years? It engages newcomers and wise elders alike, says Jim LaRue. “One of the things that I’ve always admired about Affordable Comfort is that it has always worked in two directions. It was always trying to be on the cutting edge for new possibilities, so it could keep alive relationships with really talented and effective people. But on the other side, they were always concerned about the kind of person who just got involved in a weatherization program, or who just became a weatherization contractor. Affordable Comfort’s curriculum has always provided opportunities for people who were brand-new, and at the same time, people who were cutting edge and more established in the industry. The people who come for the first time are the people—many of them—who become the cutting-edge folks. I think that has been a real gift of Affordable Comfort, and they have served the industry well by virtue of that.”
Say you’re one of those people who are brand-new. How do you get the most out of your first ACI conference? “One of the things that Linda Wiggington has always said was, ‘If a presentation you are in doesn’t scratch where you itch, get up and go to one that does.’ Nobody here who is presenting is going to be offended by that,” adds LaRue.
And what about the next 25 years? How can ACI hold its lead as the best conference organization in its field? “It was ACI that took the initiative to start the deep energy retrofit, and that’s the next frontier. If fifty percent or more of the housing stock in this country will still be here in 2050, it is likely that the cost of energy will be so sky-high that if we don’t do something to retrofit those houses, we won’t be able to afford to heat them. ACI is the leader on this issue, and there will be presenters at this ACI conference who can show you what strategies are currently being tested to see what works best.
“Keep it up,” says LaRue. “There’s always a cutting edge when it comes to making our lives more sustainable.”
Leslie Jackson was associate editor for Home Energy and is now working on a revision of her popular book, Rocket Mass Heaters, with Ianto Evans (www.rocketstoves.com). She will continue to write for Home Energy in the future.
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