Moving Forward with Building Performance

January 01, 2005
Special Issue 2005
A version of this article appears in the Special Issue 2005 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Trends

What you’re doing is going to make all of our work worthwhile,” a colleague said to me as I packed my things up following a recent presentation. This vote of confidence came from a highly respected individual who has invested years of effort into building science research and the development of standards for the building science community.I was pleasantly surprised by the statement. The Building Performance Institute (BPI), the nonprofit that I direct, promotes excellence in the contracting trades by establishing standards of performance and technician certification.But the impacts of our work extend far beyond the contractors we certify and the customers they serve. Our work may well permanently change the face of the building science industry and its connection to the consuming public.

This is good news for the pioneers of our fledgling industry. BPI’s commitment to raising the bar both technically and professionally for the contracting, building, and weatherization industries by developing building science-based certification processes for the building trades offers potential benefits to many audiences (see “BPI Certifications” and “Testimonials to Certification”). Certified contractors benefit through increased sales and decreased liability. Consumers benefit from high-quality installations and safe, affordable living environments. But beyond that, BPI’s promotion of building science-based certifications puts into action—and justifies—two decades of building science research and development. If you’ve ever asked yourself,“Why are we doing this?” the answer may be about to reveal itself in spades.

It was not so long ago that the building science community was viewed as a fringe minority. Plagued by disasters and near-disasters caused by suboptimal technology and overzealous attempts at making homes more energy efficient, we energy people have sometimes been regarded as the source of more problems than solutions.We are all too familiar with the reputation earned by energy programs that weatherized houses without controlling moisture and ventilation properly. How many among us had the moral fortitude to put up with the poor light quality and the 60 Hz flicker of magnetic-ballast CFLs in our own homes as we forced them down the throats of our clients? And who can forget the solar water heating debacle, which sent even the strongest proponents of solar power running for cover? Showerheads that mist more than they rinse, ureaformaldehyde foam, and Jimmy Carter’s advice to the country to “put on an extra sweater”—the list goes on.

Having survived those pioneering attempts at “fixing” homes and saving energy, and having learned a few lessons in the meantime,we are a much better, stronger, and smarter industry. We know that testing in and testing out is a good way to make sure that a house functions the way we expect it to. We understand that any house is a system of interactive components, and that we are asking for trouble if we choose to ignore that simple fact. New technologies have emerged, resulting in vastly improved building products, materials, and equipment. And maybe best of all, an assortment of reliable performance-testing techniques and equipment—blower doors, CO detectors, infrared cameras, among others—is out there just waiting to become part of the standard package of tools of the trade for practitioners. Slowly but surely, programs are similarly evolving over time, adopting improved standards and requiring a wider skill set among the technicians who work for them. In recent years, new construction programs have led the way by introducing building science-based approaches to the private market. Having broken through the public/private sector barriers,we find large production builders and product manufacturers now supporting, and even embracing, programs like Environments for Living and Building America. The success of these partnerships is paving the way for retrofit initiatives like EPA’s Home Performance with Energy Star to take hold in the private sector as well, and to manifest long-term change in the contracting marketplace.

The Brave New World for Building Performance

The brave new world we now face offers both potential and challenge. Can market transformation become reality? Will a mature industry emerge from what was once considered peripheral to the reality of the private market? The indicators are positive for both questions.

New York contractors, introduced to building performance with the assistance of incentives provided by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), report that their businesses have developed in ways they never knew were possible. Some contractors report that their businesses have doubled in size since they took on the challenge of building performance as a business enterprise.

The implications for trades contractors do not stop at the obvious modifications to their technical approach to jobs. For a private market contractor, successfully adopting a building performance approach requires a complete cultural change to the contracting firm. Moving beyond a simple trades approach requires contracting firms to make corporate level changes, ranging from the establishment of dedicated administrative staff to instituting job-tracking and financial management programs capable of keeping track of partially completed jobs. While these business systems are commonplace among builders and general contractors, they are not typically found in any but the largest of HVAC companies and are virtually nonexistent in insulation firms.

So why do they do it? We find that once these contractors take the time to go through a class and learn how buildings really work,we have them hooked. They arrive as skeptics and leave with a new perspective on their work. By completing the certification and corporate accreditation process, the newly converted are equipped with the knowledge, tools, and technical standards they need to begin delivering whole-house services. Since we know that a few weeks of training and passing a competency exam are insufficient to prepare technicians for what they will find in the real world, technical support is available through BPI and its Technical Committee.

Plotting a Course

We now have a mechanism for bringing the standards and procedures developed from two decades of building science research to trades contractors whose primary business is construction and home improvement. For now, successful building performance contracting businesses are being created by visionary contractors who are willing to move on to the next level. Some contractors are making this transformation independently; in areas that receive program support from local public sector agencies or private market sponsors, more contractors are choosing to transform their businesses. And a transformation it is.

Contractors who have successfully adopted a whole-house approach, based on BPI’s standards, report that they will not go back to the old way of doing business if and when the program funding goes away. The incentives made it possible for them to gear up for change, but the changes we have brought to them stand on their merits alone. So my friend was right; everything we energy people have been working so hard for is finally coming full circle. By focusing our efforts on getting contractors to apply building science principles to their work, we are really making buildings better—which was the point all along.

We at BPI are working to take the building performance movement to the next level. But we are not doing this alone. It is only through the cooperative efforts of our partnerships with technical experts, trainers, program sponsors, government, and the building science industry at large that we can realistically effect change of any significance. To those who came before us, we are grateful for your experience and willingness to share your knowledge and support this movement.

Are we changing the world? Yes, I think we are.

Courtney Moriarta, executive director of BPI since 2000, trained as an engineer and is responsible for fixing more than a few buildings. She believes that change in the world is inevitable, and that we are responsible for guiding that change in the right direction.

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