Growing Up Together

Affordable Comfort, Incorporated (now ACI) began its life when very few of us knew what a blower door was. Today ACI plays a pivotal role in promoting the home performance profession.

January 01, 2007
January/February 2007
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2007 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Home Energy magazine and ACI have grown up together. Home Energy published its first issue in 1984, while ACI held its first conference in 1986. There has been much collaboration among the staff of the two organizations, and often the hopes, dreams, and challenges have been shared as well. Speaking out of our collective memories, we remember when no one knew what a blower door was. Speaking from our collective hopes, we wish more people used them.

In the beginning, remembers Linda Wigington, one of ACI’s founders and currently its manager for program design and development, ACI asked, “How can we as a society provide people with affordable and comfortable homes?” The big challenge at the time, says Wigington, was expanding on the engineered solutions that went something like, “If you install 100,000 widgets, then you get a certain amount of energy efficiency, and that solves the problem.” The idea that you could diagnose a home the way a doctor diagnoses a patient, and use applied building science to come up with the best solution to that home’s comfort, efficiency, durability, and safety problems, was not yet in vogue. But that attitude has shifted as ACI has preached the whole-house approach to home performance to anyone who might listen and apply that approach to building and retrofitting U.S. and Canadian homes. Over the last 21 years ACI has been responsible for educating thousands of people about the whole-house systems engineering approach to home performance, but its staff still has its work cut out for it.

“We want to create and foster knowledgeable individuals,  organizations, and communities, and not just promote technology, in order to achieve our goals, and that has been our hope and our challenge all through our history,” says Wigington. ACI wanted to put people who were knowledgeable about policy, program design, evaluation, contracting, and energy rating at the center of the work of home building, remodeling, and weatherization. And it wanted to create infrastructures to support the communities it fostered. “We weren’t pooh-poohing technology; we thought that without knowledgeable people making case-specific decisions about choices, the technologies would not work as promised or predicted,” says Wigington.

From the beginning, the organization has focused on a hands-on approach to teaching and learning. “Our audiences have an inclination for ‘show me’ and ‘let me try that’ versus classroom-style theoretical and lecture methods,” says Helen Perrine, ACI’s executive director. “In-field sessions are helpful, hard on ACI to set up, and very much in demand.” ACI continues to put extra effort into in-field sessions to provide this kind of educational experience.

Good Old Days

Perrine speaks to ACI’s foundational role in creating the home performance profession. “ACI has played a part in the introduction of the words ‘home performance’ and the launch of the home performance industry adding to the building science vocabulary. ACI has provided a national platform for the exchange of ideas about codes, best practice, setting of standards, and deployment of treatments and practices as the research shows better methods.  Ventilation issues, combustion safety, IAQ and the connection between house condition and occupant health, duct sealing, plus more have all been important topics on the ACI agenda before they were topics of common concern to the larger building industry.”
ACI started as a project within a host organization, ACTION-Housing, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  There was no plan to begin a tradition; the plan was just to convene a conference.  When the conference shifted to Philadelphia, it found another host organization. After several years of being passed from one organization to another, it became clear that the Affordable Comfort Conference needed a permanent home.  A task force was convened and the decision was made to form a nonprofit organization, Affordable Comfort, Incorporated.  Initially, part-time consultants managed the conference. The board of directors voted to hire the first staff, Helen Perrine, as executive director, in 1995.  ACI’s first permanent office was in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Additional staff were hired, and ACI slowly transitioned from having contractors working in home offices to having 12 full-time staff in an office in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.  These staff changes gave the organization the capacity to carry on projects throughout the year, so that in addition to organizing the annual conference, which addresses housing issues from both the United States and Canada, ACI began to implement regional events catered to regional needs and challenges.

The first regional event was the brainchild of the California Energy Commission (CEC), who asked ACI in 1994 to convene a conference to address the specific needs of California, and to introduce the house-as-a-system approach.  Since that first regional conference, ACI has held California-focused events in both Northern and Southern California.  Wisconsin has also been the site of two regional conferences. New York followed and then Illinois, New England, and the Pacific Northwest. In August 2006, ACI held its largest regional conference to date, the U.S. DOE Midwest Regional Weatherization Conference in Columbus, Ohio, with over 700 people in attendance.  New Jersey will host its first home performance conference in January 2007 in conjunction with the rollout of the New Jersey Clean Energy program (see www.njcleanenergy.com).

ACI’s regional conferences are custom designed to respond to a region’s needs. They focus on climate- and program-specific opportunities and techniques.  They build on the programs that are being offered within the region; they are used to generate awareness, to recruit contractors and builders, and to develop the technical capacity of the program staff. Some regional conferences focus on new construction, and some on existing construction, but most regional conferences focus on both.  Since attendance is smaller than attendance at the national conference, regional conferences can be held in smaller facilities.  The two-day format allows ACI to charge registration fees that are lower than those for the annual conference.

ACI held its first conference in 1986, soon after a big oil overcharge settlement.  In July 1986, the U.S. District Court in Kansas issued its Opinion and Order Approving Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) 378, the Stripper Well Agreement. The agreement settled litigation from 42 separate oil overcharge cases brought by DOE, states, petroleum refiners and resellers, and others against oil producers. A lot of money was made available through the states to fund energy efficiency programs—programs that could, in effect, put money into the pockets of energy consumers. Consequently, the first ACI conferences catered mostly to nonprofit and government organizations, utility program managers, and weatherization professionals. At the time, most people in the field thought that blower doors were good only for the laboratory. The context was there to bring better diagnostics into the process and to produce better energy savings. “When a program achieved 50% of predicted savings, people thought that was great,” says Wigington.

Early on, ACI struggled with the perception that the conferences were just for addressing the problems of low-income families, although at the first national conference, only 40% of the participants worked in the low-income sector. ACI tried to reach out to everyone in the existing-home and renovation industries, but because of the early misperception that the focus was on low-income households, ACI has made a special effort to attract private contractors to both the national and regional conferences. Over the years, this effort has paid off. “For several years about one-third of our national conference attendees have been from the private sector, one-third are involved in low-income housing work, and about one-third are government workers or educators. It varies by plus or minus 10% each year,” says Wigington.

Network

Lately, in order to further its goals, ACI has formed strategic alliances with organizations such as Home Energy, the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), the Building Performance Institute (BPI), and North American Training Excellence (NATE). ACI is also talking with the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE), a nonprofit that promotes energy-efficient products and services. According to Perrine, “ACI attempts whenever possible to provide the opportunity for our partners to offer certification testing.  RESNET, BPI, and NATE tests are offered in conjunction with ACI events.”

ACI has grown into the Internet age as well. The organization recently launched an eight-session pilot Webcast (also known as Duct Camp) to provide a low-cost training opportunity. Participants can revisit the sessions as often as they like after the broadcast. And ACI is seeing an increased interest in certification. Participants can earn continuing education units (CEUs) through the Webcasts and other ACI events. “The demand for CEUs is increasing, along with the interest among people in the home performance industry in raising the bar for home performance professionals through certifications,” says Perrine. BPI, RESNET, and NATE now accept CEUs through ACI. The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) also offers continuing education credits to its members who take advantage of ACI’s Web training courses.

Even Better Days Ahead

“We want to see more manufacturers and private companies represented at our conferences,” says Wigington. While it has been easy for ACI to attract companies that sell diagnostic equipment, insulation manufacturers and HVAC companies have been reluctant to spend time at ACI conferences. “It goes back to our original vision of creating knowledgeable individuals and organizations,” says Wigington. “The insulation and HVAC people need to become a part of the home performance community in order for it to work best and in order for it to meet the goal of offering everyone affordable comfort.” And so the original challenge still frustrates and inspires.

In some ways ACI, and the industry it serves, have come full circle. With the high price of oil and gas, there is a renewed interest among consumers on saving money by being more energy efficient. Those high-tech, energy efficiency “widgets” become pretty attractive short-term solutions to big energy bills. More people want PV systems to supply the electricity to more plug loads, such as megawatt entertainment centers (see “Roadblocks to Zero-Energy Homes,” p. 24). And more people are trading in their gas-guzzlers for hybrid vehicles, but there’s much more work to do in convincing consumers to take a whole-house approach to home performance.

“We’re not geared up for consumer education; that’s not our kind of nonprofit,” says Wigington. “But about 40%–45% of our conference attendees say they are involved in training home performance professionals, and about 35% say they are involved in consumer education.” Perrine agrees. “Never has a year gone by when we don’t discuss the need for sessions and educational strategies for consumers.  We agree with the general wisdom that says that for success, programs must build the delivery infrastructure (capable, quality contractors and builders) and create consumer demand simultaneously.  Historically, ACI’s role has been to support and assist the building of the delivery infrastructure. The fact of the matter is that if builders, remodelers, and homeowners suddenly bought into the idea of energy-efficient homes on the scale we would like to see, they would have great difficulty finding qualified professionals to deliver the goods.  To ensure customer satisfaction and the promised energy savings that government programs expect, it is crucial that contractors in the housing industry receive proper training on energy-efficient technologies, and that their services are available in all parts of the nation.  ACI is in a unique position to make this happen.”

It is through the strength of the networks built and fostered by ACI, and the transforming effect that those networks are having and will have on consumers, that ACI and its partners will continue to define and promote the home performance profession. With the stage set for rapid market transformation, ACI believes that a plan of action must be set in motion now to solidify these gains in home performance contracting and move them into the North American mainstream smoothly and effectively.

ACI, Home Energy, and other organizations have grown up together and have certainly hit their stride, but we haven’t peaked yet. The best is yet to come.

Jim Gunshinan is the managing editor of Home Energy.


For more information:

Visit the ACI Web site at www.affordablecomfort.org.

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