Build Light

Posted by Kevin Beck on August 27, 2013
Build Light

After I hung up my tool belt from contracting after 25 years, I had an itch to teach others what I knew and had learned—good and bad. I was eventually hired by a small but effective non-profit in San Francisco called Build It Green. They had a green building professional certification program for builders and industry professionals as well as a pretty darn good green labeling program.

While honing my newfound skills as an educator, I would frequently shadow other instructors to gain more insight on how to deliver knowledge and education more effectively to busy professionals. One of my mentors back then was Marc Richmond. Marc had been a builder like me but he had more experience in the green building arena. I was always fascinated how Marc delivered his messages. This was in the early 2000s and green building had gained some traction in the San Francisco Bay Area and builders and architects probably had more clients who wanted to build "green" than your typical town, but we still had attendees who still just didn't get it. I loved watching Marc teach, especially seeing how he got these skeptics to look at green building differently.

One of Marc's methods was to ask the builders in the room, "How much did the last house you build weigh?" After Marc asked the question I would scan the room for facial expressions and it was always looks of, "How the hell should I know?" In retrospect, I believe that was Marc's point. Not that they needed to weigh their houses to see if they were anorexic or obese, but to look at how we construct things differently so that they do make sense to us individually. Each one of us has our own frame of reference that we use to validate truth from fiction, believability from flim-flam. Simply telling builders and architects to design and build buildings a certain way doesn’t work. They have to believe for themselves that this new way to build is smarter, safer, and more valuable to themselves and to their clients.

Perhaps if they and their clients can’t grasp the concept of building tighter, more energy efficient buildings with better indoor air quality that are environmentally responsible maybe they would understand, "Build Light"? We all know beer, right?

When I was growing up, light beer was for sissies. Nowadays, more than half of the beer sold seems to be a light beer of some sort. What happened? Did beer manufacturers succeed at convincing beer guzzlers they needed a new brand of beer to buy, or was it the desire to enjoy a cold one without the fear of developing a beer belly? Personally, I think it was the latter.

What Does Build Light Mean?

So, what do I mean by this new phrase, "build light”? Building light means taking everything into consideration when designing, orienting, building, and maintaining a structure whether it is a skyscraper or one-bedroom house. The term "efficiency" should be used at all phases and in all trades. When folks think efficiency, they commonly think of energy saved and smaller utility bills. I have broadened my own definition of efficiency to include time efficiency, labor efficiency, material extraction efficiency, and long-term maintenance efficiency. I get frustrated when so-called "green" builders install a product or a material that has traveled half way around the world to get to the job site. This is definitely not “green” building, nor is it "built light." For me, I don't care how energy efficient that new ventilation system might be that comes all the way from Europe. I won't use it in any of my projects because of the "heavy" embodied energy it takes to get it here.

What will it take to influence homeowners and building professionals to do the right thing?

I talk with a lot of builders and architects who are smart, responsible people. The one thing I have heard over and over is that they are tired of being told what to do. If they have this mindset just think of their clients. Their clients certainly don't want people to tell them how to build their dream home even if it’s for a good reason. So, how do we get them to look at things differently? How do we get them to try and Build Light?

Understanding "Build Light"

A fellow Habitat X’er, John Costello, shared a great quote at the last Habitat X Conference that simplified the problem and offered a logical solution. The quote goes something like this, "If you want the things you look at to change, then you have to change the way you look at things.” I think this should be our industry’s motto. I have been in this business for a while now and have tried all sorts of ways to convince prospective clients to do the right thing. We've tried 30-page reports full of data and horrific photos of all the bad stuff we found. We've tried showing them energy models of predicted energy savings. We've offered discounts, dinner coupons, even free testing. For the most part, none of these was a fool-proof method of selling home performance.

Today, when I’m talking to a prospect I say nothing about efficiency, indoor air quality, or leaky building envelopes. I pay attention to what’s in their home and the words they use to describe their problems, concerns, wishes, and desires. When they have shared all their issues, I try to find a common example of how to look at things differently. If they’re building a new home I ask them, “Do you want your home to be strong and healthy or weak and overweight?” Along with the smiles and giggles I get for asking this silly question I get the wires in their brain to connect the image they had in their heads with the solutions I am suggesting. Unless we get our prospects to grasp and understand what it is we’re proposing in a super-simplified way that they can relate to, we’re in for a long, hard walk uphill.

My belief is that once someone has understood and bought into the concept of Build Light that they won't go back. They'll enjoy that same cool, refreshing living environment without all the calories (energy bills) associated with it. They'll be the envy of the neighborhood and folks will be amazed at how comfortable and great feeling it is to live in a Built Light home.


Kevin Beck is the COO of the Building Performance Center, Incorporated.

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