Why Proof Will Be the New Normal // Part 4: A Hook for Home Performance

May 30, 2017
Summer 2017
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2017 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Corbett and Grace have their work cut out for them. In a decade that has seen employment in the solar-energy sector surge to over 260,000 jobs, home performance enterprises have struggled to find similar traction. SolarCity pulled the plug on its home efficiency services in June 2013, six months after the company went public. Last year, Next Step Living, a venture-backed home energy firm based in Boston, closed its doors and laid off 200 people. Powersmith Home Energy Solutions upgraded over 1,000 homes in the Long Island area before ceasing operations around the same time.

According to Greentech Media, the value of the $200 billion advanced-energy market—which includes energy efficiency, as well as electric vehicles, grid modernization, and clean energy—now exceeds that of the pharmaceutical industry. Meanwhile, Business Insider projects that shipments of connected-home devices, led by interest in energy-related gadgets like smart thermostats and lighting, will reach 1.8 billion units by 2019. Spending on utility energy efficiency programs, including rebates for homeowners, tripled between 2007 and 2015. So why haven’t whole-home energy upgrades caught on?

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It’s never too early to learn how buildings work. Corbett shows off the TinyLab to an elementary school class in Wilmington, Delaware.

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Through dozens of workshops and open houses like this one, Corbett and Grace have helped to create a shared language between energy pros and everyday people.

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A group of college students visits the TinyLab in St. Augustine, Florida. Researchers expect younger homebuyers, with their data-driven purchasing habits and strong interest in sustainability, to reshape the housing market in the years to come.

Corbett draws an explanation from pop music. “It's like any Sheryl Crow song, which you can probably sing in your head,” he says. “She gets that the song is nothing without a hook. I think it's the same thing—home performance has no hook.”

A report coauthored last fall by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and BPI, Peer Diffusion: A Promising Way for Service Providers to Unlock Investments in Home Energy Upgrades, draws a similar conclusion. Acknowledging the “relatively limited success of existing state and utility home retrofit programs,” it stresses “the importance of increasing social and emotional appeals to spur homeowner investments in energy upgrades.” The report is an outgrowth of RMI’s Residential Energy+ initiative, which aims to help jump-start an estimated $144 billion market for home performance retrofits by engaging homeowners, in part, through “popular television programs” that make energy upgrades “conversational, relatable, and desirable.”

That sounds a lot like what the Lunsfords intend to do. Corbett spent years working to get people excited about the benefits of building science, and found in the PROOF IS POSSIBLE tour the ideal way to finally make those concepts tangible. Making life in the TinyLab a family affair brought an emotional credibility to the message as well.

“I've been talking about home performance and trying to present at different places all along. The fact is that this is a lived-in house—and not just by a bachelor, but by an actual family—and it doesn't smell like a sock,” he says. It is much easier to inspire the kind of understanding that leads to action “when you bring people into a space and you show them home performance. That is what we've done.”

We need to close the language gap between home energy professionals and consumers, Corbett says. Going on about flue gases or blower door results does not communicate the home’s qualities in a manner that homeowners can easily grasp.

“What people want to know about is like, what school district is the house in? How big is it? How much does it cost to buy? What kind of countertops does it have? Does it have a man cave or not? Stuff like that. And if we talk about airtightness, it sounds really dorky. But if you talk about quietness and you talk about perfect control and, you know, all the stuff that Nest [the smart thermostat manufacturer] really has down pat . . . that’s what people want.”

Having shared that language with thousands of people, the Lunsfords are taking a well-deserved rest from the spotlight to put the finishing touches on Home Diagnosis and raise Nanette. Now based in Atlanta, whose sweeping Power to Change initiative aims to make the city a national leader in sustainability, they are in good company alongside local top-tier building science groups like Energy Vanguard and Southface Energy Institute.

The TinyLab is not destined to become a museum piece anytime soon. The Lunsfords plan to live in it for the foreseeable future and then turn it into what might just be the highest-performance rental suite ever listed on AirBnb, where it will continue to demonstrate, one guest at a time, that proof really is possible.

If you ask Bill Spohn, that’s how home performance will reach its fullest potential.

“Experts don’t move this industry,” he says. “You do.”

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

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