Why Proof Will Be the New Normal // Part 1: Meet the First Family of Home Performance

March 12, 2017
Summer 2017
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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This is part 1 of a series of articles on Corbett Lunsford and Grace McPhillips Lunsford’s PROOF is POSSIBLE tiny house tour.

Chances are you need no introduction to Corbett Lunsford. You may have listened to his Building Performance podcast, read Home Performance Diagnostics, his guide to advanced testing, or seen advertisements for his Fall Fast Track seminars in the pages of this publication. Maybe you’re among the 4,500+ subscribers to his YouTube channel, Home Performance, one of the most popular sources of building science content online.

Last year, however, Corbett and his wife, Grace McPhillips Lunsford, launched their most ambitious undertaking—Home Diagnosis, a television series Grace, an actress and filmmaker, describes as “This Old House meets CSI.”

They could have produced the show, which features the telegenic duo solving problems in real houses, from Chicago, where they’ve lived since 2008. Instead, they built the TinyLab, a 200 ft2 live-in studio on wheels, in which they cheerily plied the country’s interstates on a 12-month not-for-profit tour—while raising their newborn daughter, Nanette.

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Grace and Corbett Lunsford, the creative team behind upcoming reality television series Home Diagnosis, are arguably the most popular personalities in building performance.

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Passersby gather at a farmers market in Washington, D.C. for a chance to step inside the TinyLab and experience the benefits of proven performance firsthand.

Their tour slogan, PROOF is POSSIBLE, evinces what Home Energy readers have known for decades: Homeowners can demand scientific verification of construction quality, while builders can use it as a seal of integrity to hone their competitive edge. Armed with film cameras, diagnostic equipment, and arguably the most efficient and livable tiny house ever built, the Lunsfords set out from Florida in February 2016 to spark a new conversation about home improvement. The tour, which included open houses, workshops, and episodes of Home Diagnosis shot on location, reached over 5,000 people in 26 states before concluding in Atlanta in January 2017.

I caught up with the Lunsfords last May, at an organic food co-op just outside Washington, D.C. Clad in blue corrugated metal swept over attractive cedar siding, the TinyLab is a striking presence. About 30 onlookers—city officials, curious shoppers, and tiny-house enthusiasts—queued to check out its battery-backed solar array, right-sized ductless mini-split heat pump, zero-VOC interior, and superquiet ventilation systems.

“I'd call this house the Tesla of tiny houses,” Corbett says. The all-electric cars are coveted less for their green credentials than for their sex appeal, a lesson he says home energy practitioners still need to learn. Tesla is “not trying to sell this car that's going to save the planet [or] save you money. They're trying to sell you a car that's pretty freaking expensive that just makes your life more badass.”

As the line of visitors thronged around the TinyLab, Corbett’s public message emerged. “Right now, builders are trained to think that we’re all cheapskates, and that we all want the biggest house possible for the least amount of money, which is totally ridiculous,” he told the crowd. “We all shop at Whole Foods—at least sometimes. We are perfectly willing to pay more money for something that is better.”

Ebullient, savvy, and irrepressible, the Lunsfords, both in their 30s, embody the promise of the Information Age. The broader construction industry has also taken note as digitally fluent consumers used to being informed come into the market. Rose Quint, assistant vice president for Survey Research at the National Association of Home Builders, said at a 2016 conference that millennials are “poised to make a significant impact on home design with their strong preferences for energy efficiency and smart-home technology.”

But the Lunsfords’ target audience isn’t just the smartphone generation. Corbett, who worked as a theater musician—“playing piano for ballerinas,” as he puts it—before plunging into building science eight years ago, has a talent for dismantling popular misconceptions in a vivid way that appeals to people of all ages. (See his animated YouTube video, If Cars Were Built Like Houses.) He credits his success with a willingness to show off his failures.

“If you stand up in front of a bunch of people and say, ‘Hey, I’m amazing, [look at] all the things I’ve done,’ people don’t generally connect with you,” he says. “But if you say, ‘Hey, I’ve lost a lot of money, I’ve made a lot of mistakes,’ then people go, ‘Yeah, that’s like me!’”

As he pivoted from theater to home performance, Corbett also noticed the role tradition and machismo play in the building trades, and how self-defeating the dynamics of ego can become.

“The man’s thing, where you’re not vulnerable or asking questions or looking dumb ever, is dead wrong,” he says. “That’s probably the main thorn in the side of anyone who does building performance, because the first step you have to take is be willing to admit you might be wrong and you might do a bad job, and put yourself in that vulnerable place.”

Griffin Hagle is an energy and environment communicator living in Barrow, Alaska.

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