Selling Energy Conservation: The Art of Educating, Listening, Partnership, and Flexibility
The first step in selling energy conservation is gaining the confidence of your clients.
January 01, 2013
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
For nine years I have been riding the energy bandwagon and beating the drum that design professionals have a role to play in advancing energy efficiency with their clients. While I believed my passion would create followers, it has been my process that has helped professionals and clients embrace the idea that there is no need to sacrifice beauty for a better home—good design can marry energy, durability, comfort, and health to create something better than what we see on the surface. While developing a process to sell energy efficiency I’ve gained insights into what works and what doesn’t; what leads to successful home performance implementation and what doesn’t. The following stories are just some of the examples of the bumps in the road that provided me with insight and success for my clients.
By the look on Michelle’s face, I could tell she thought I was selling snake oil. I had just handed her a radon test kit and strongly suggested that she test her home. Even though she had chosen me because I was a green designer, this new conversation was unsettling to her. She thought green meant bamboo floors and low-VOC paint. No one she knew worried about radon. Moving beyond ordinary design and media spin was proving to be anything but easy with this client. My break came when I thought to pass along the name of a contact in her county environmental services department. Michelle didn’t believe me about the risks of radon, but perhaps she would listen to a neutral party. During our third design meeting, she revealed the results of the radon test she reluctantly performed after her talk with the county radon specialist. The test results showed radon levels two times higher than the EPA-recommended levels for action. While that put the whole family at risk, she was especially worried about her husband, who had an office in the basement, and a daughter who had a bedroom next to her husband’s office.
The radon exercise gave Michelle confidence in my knowledge—opening the door to learning more about green living. I took the opportunity to engage her in an energy discussion. When I mentioned the value of an energy audit, blower door test, and infrared (IR) thermal imaging, she revealed worries that went beyond the kitchen. She told me about mold near the bathroom ceilings and recurring mildew on the exterior siding below the soffits. She pointed out cold floors and walls that made the home uncomfortable. I said that many people would be coming into her home during the kitchen remodel. Planned disruption was the perfect time to hire the professionals who could make the house more comfortable and energy efficient.
I gave her the contact information for a HERS rater I know and a script of things to say when requesting an energy audit and describing the project. The rater told her how to connect with her utility company to request an audit using the rater’s services. Two weeks later, she had a home assessment that found missing insulation in the kitchen soffits, inadequate insulation and major air bypasses in the ceilings throughout the house, inadequate venting in the attic, and missing bath fans. (But luckily, no CO backdrafting.)
Michelle and I continued to meet, and I continued to design—noting strategies for radon mitigation and the rater’s recommendations for energy improvements—two new bath fans on timers; insulation of the rim joists; and air sealing, insulation, and ventilation in the attic. Once the contractor was chosen, we worked together in a design-build scenario looking for ways to balance energy, health, beauty, and budget for the expanding project.
In the end, Michelle’s team of designer, HERS rater, and contractor created the beautiful kitchen Michelle dreamed of while giving her the added peace of mind that came from knowing that she had an energy-efficient, healthier home. (The contractor got the added bonus of working with a budget that increased 25% beyond the original “not to exceed” figure for the kitchen!)
Tom and Jane had a different story. Their original remodeling goal was typical: They wanted to update the kitchen to ready their home for sale. They believed that moving to a newly built home would give them some years of freedom from the burgeoning stream of repairs and upgrades required of their 45-year-old rambler. Tired of their money pit, they had already begun the process of house hunting when they hired me to assist them through the kitchen design process. While they didn’t understand green design, they were interested in learning how it could add value beyond beauty. No other designer had talked about improving comfort, lowering utility bills, or enhancing the selling potential of their home in a changing green marketplace.
I also wanted to understand Jane and Tom’s reasons for leaving the home where they had raised their children, tended the gardens, and built a network of neighbors and friends. If their needs could be met with a whole-house remodel at a cost less than the cost of building new, the environmental impact of homeownership could be reduced while leaving money in their bank account.
Tom and Jane were involved clients who were open to discussions that went beyond their original goal of a kitchen remodel and typical design. They were intrigued by the idea of a home performance assessment and third-party verification. So we started the informed design process by having them call my HERS rater contact.
Tom and Jane followed the HERS rater as he moved through the house; the IR camera photographs and the changing computer screen hooked to the blower door apparatus captivated them. They were relieved to find their one-year-old high-efficiency furnace was functioning well, but dismayed that the original water heater was leaking CO and would need replacing. Dismay led to imagination: What if the old chimney could be removed and extra space found on the main floor? Soon, Jane and Tom were discussing the possibility of staying put and remodeling the whole house instead of buying new. They could now envision a more comfortable house with the home they already had.
With that change in attitude, I invited the rater to create a list of recommendations for energy improvements to the 45-year-old rambler. Some of those strategies included installing new triple-pane windows (many becoming bigger—especially in the bedrooms, to meet current standards for egress); removing plaster from the kitchen walls to apply closed-cell spray foam insulation; installing closed-cell spray foam at the rim joist and closed-cell spray foam and blown-in cellulose in the attic; adding two gas fireplace inserts; and installing 1 inch of rigid insulation on the exterior of the home (to improve wall R-value while minimizing disturbance to the interior plaster). It was at this point in the design that Jane and Tom hired a contractor, and we began a design-build process of balancing aesthetic vision, energy goals, and budget.
Prior to construction, the rater led a meeting with the construction team to educate team members on the energy strategies, the process of third-party verification, and how their work would be inspected for high-quality installation and energy performance. (None of the tradespeople had been involved in a job where their work had been inspected for performance.) Poor installation could mean drafty windows, trapped moisture in the walls, building rot, ceiling stains, and mold—all things the homeowners wanted to avoid in their “new” house, as they had already experienced them in the old one.
The final numbers from the blower door testing found that airtightness had been improved by 48%. While it would be difficult to separate out the costs for the energy improvements in the whole-house remodel (the project included four bathroom upgrades, a total kitchen redo, finish upgrades to all rooms on the main floor, and new siding), a generalized savings was apparent when the cost of the remodel was compared to the cost of buying new. The “new home remodel” cost approximately $250,000—half the price of the $500,000 home Tom and Jane had originally set out to build.
Sonia and Brad’s energy story is different yet again. They started out somewhat informed; they had done some Internet research on energy efficiency and healthy homes. I was hired to help select finish materials and to lead the discussions between architect and builder, as neither was knowledgeable about green design. But multiple meetings with the clients and their team saw two major, conflicting priorities emerge. Brad became steadfast about his “not to exceed” figure. He was paying cash to avoid a mortgage and wanted no extra expenses (even if the upgrades were energy strategies that would result in reduced monthly utility bills). Sonia was adamant that the floor plan, the total finished floor area (which included a finished walk-out basement), and the major materials (flooring, cabinetry, and countertops) not deviate from her original vision. The lack of flexibility in budget and design options relegated energy strategies to third place on the priority list. The attic, walls, foundation walls, and slab were not improved beyond the 2009 energy code for climate zone 6. No HERS rater was hired, so no HERS score was calculated and no third-party verification occurred.
On the bright side, high-efficiency mechanicals and Energy Star appliances and lighting were installed. The energy and green strategy discussions led to improved communication between Sonia and Brad. Each was able to define what mattered most to him or her in the long term. While there were many missed energy opportunities, the clients were satisfied with the final product.
Being Open Minded
Paul was the dream client—highly motivated to create a home off the grid and with the financial means to do it. His passion for sustainability and wise use of resources meant that he would update an existing structure rather than build new. What he didn’t realize was the complexity of making a 45-year-old home with an L-shaped foundation, a one-story area with a vaulted ceiling, and a two-story wing with little southern access into an energy-efficient, durable structure. He firmly believed that upgraded insulation, new windows, passive-solar strategies, and renewables would be all he needed. He had already purchased his 3,000 ft2 home before we met.
Paul is a math and science teacher with drafting skills to do most of the space planning, the ability to calculate sun angles and design window overhangs, and ample time during summer vacations to do the work himself. He also had previous remodeling experience, and he was willing to hire professionals who had the knowledge he lacked. He did not know about energy audits or HERS raters. But Paul was quick to understand the value of a home performance assessment and a HERS study to conduct what-if scenarios using the REM/Rate software. He was interested in the projected gains for various insulation strategies and renewables in combination with passive-solar strategies to determine the best route to get to HERS 0.
The HERS exercise turned out to be an eye-opening experience for Paul. He went into the project knowing that he would be insulating his home, but he didn’t realize the importance of air sealing, alignment of air barriers, and placement of insulation in reducing the heating-and-cooling load. The photographs from the IR thermal imaging helped him to target air leaks and wall insulation voids. The HERS study also determined that 3 inches of rigid insulation applied to the exterior of the structure would greatly reduce thermal bridging while maximizing insulation value. Other strategies critical to lowering the HERS score included insulating the rim joist and foundation walls, using spray foam and cellulose in the flat-ceiling portion of the home, and combining spray foam insulation on the interior of the vaulted ceiling with rigid foam on the exterior. The combination of all these building envelope strategies resulted in a predicted HERS score of 35. Paul then hired a solar designer to craft a system using solar-thermal and PV strategies to reduce the HERS score to 0. Paul didn’t even mind that the solar tracker and hot-water panels were located in front of the home to maximize exposure and energy production.
When it comes to selling energy conservation strategies to clients, education is the first step. Each homeowner understands energy efficiency differently, and is more or less interested in achieving it. And while there is a growing discussion in the popular media about the need to be more energy efficient, not everybody understands what that means. It is the role of the first person who interacts with the client to serve as the educator on energy efficiency—even if the first person is the design professional, the remodeling contractor, the builder’s sales professional, the builder, or a product or service sales rep. He or she is the gatekeeper to the client. Educator, however, is not synonymous with authority. If you are not an energy professional, create partnerships with those who are and recommend an energy professional to a client. Let the professional’s knowledge and experience, and the tangible results of a home performance assessment or HERS score, do the talking. Informed design gave Michelle the confidence to create a more energy-efficient and healthy home. Paul is still working toward a net-zero home, but his success in achieving a balance between energy used and energy produced will be the result of strategies born of the HERS process.
If clients resist new information, introduce a neutral method of gaining knowledge. Suggest that they speak with an energy professional or their utility company, or direct them to a web site they can browse for information independently. Help them gain confidence at their own pace. Yet be persistent and gently pushy. Taking an authoritative role pays off when they connect the dots and realize that your knowledge is valuable. Tom and Jane ended up remodeling their whole house instead of building when they realized that there were solutions to make their aging home feel and operate like new.
For those clients who say that energy is not a concern, change the conversation to comfort or home improvements. In this instance, talking should turn to asking and listening, to delve into concerns about radon, lead, CO, drafty windows, moldy-smelling basements, peeling paint, ceiling stains, and mildew on roofs and siding. You can also ask about health problems, such as asthma and allergies. These problems and their solutions may be a gateway to deeper energy discussions. Michelle resisted any conversation about energy until she connected radon to her family’s health.
Always talk about the impact of energy strategies on budget. Offer up design solutions that can help balance added expenses. Are there alternate flooring, cabinet, and countertop options that can reduce costs for finish materials so money can be shifted to energy strategy expenses? The flooring in Jane’s kitchen is linoleum tile—a beautiful, less expensive alternative to tile and wood. Michelle chose ceramic tile in place of imported stone, saving money that then went toward radon mitigation.
Find out more about Simply Green Design at www.simplygreendesign.com.
Commit to selling energy and get known for your more than ordinary knowledge and skills. Many design professionals and contractors can create beautiful projects. But there is still resistance in the industry to creating beautiful, energy-efficient homes. Focusing on energy efficiency is one way you can establish a reputation for caring about client satisfaction and creating repeat business. While you may still encounter clients like Sonia and Brad, you will gain more confidence to sell energy with every conversation you have. Give clients options and the opportunity to decide. Move past what can’t be changed and focus on what can. While some energy professionals use smoke and mirrors in their home energy assessments, they aren’t selling snake oil. With a collective effort at educating clients and forming partnerships, we can shift attitudes and action to greater energy conservation.
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