High Performance Coming of Age

This year's EEBA High Performance Home Summit was confirmation that our industry is headed in the right direction.

High Performance Coming of Age

 By Geoff Ferrell

If I had to choose one word to summarize this year's EEBA High Performance Home Summit in Denver, it would be optimism. The most visible sign of that was our record attendance of nearly 400 people, which reflects a growing interest in high-performance homebuilding.

But while the numbers were encouraging, where I really heard that optimism was in the presentations I attended and the conversations I had. It was by far the best energy I've felt at any industry gathering. Ever.

The sessions included lively and constructive debates, exciting research reports and stories of homes, buildings and communities that put the best research findings into practice. Everyone was fired up about the work they were doing.

As is true every year, one of the educational tracks focused on sales, marketing, and business performance. Excellence in these areas is exponentially more important in the high-performance world because every one of us is fighting to differentiate ourselves. To control costs, our businesses need to be well-oiled machines; to attract customers we need the marketing skills to demonstrate why our homes are great investments.

We also heard from local and national government officials, including representatives of the Department of Energy and the Mayor of Denver. It was a reminder that there are many in government who understand the value of high-performance building and want to encourage it.

One shift I noticed this year was an increased focus on building practice.

We have always had lots of great presentations on building science theory, but this year also saw more builders than ever teaming up with manufacturers to profile actual projects, like the amazing Atlanta home where builder Luis Imery partnered with Mitsubishi. It was gratifying to see research presented in previous years paying off in the field.

Industry Disruptors

In fact, many of manufacturer sponsors I heard and spoke with on the exhibit floor seemed intent on finding ways to drive the industry forward. Instead of just figuring out how to meet code, they were discussing how to truly disrupt the housing market and looking for builders to partner with.

Of course, that disruption has been underway for some time. For instance, five years ago the concept of balanced ventilation was cutting edge. However, the presentations at each successive Summit have seemed to reflect a better understanding of airflow in buildings and a higher priority on building healthy homes. Today, it has evolved to become a standard in approach among high-performance builders.

That evolution has included equipment. Not long ago the company I work for was installing ERVs that cost around $2,000. Today we're using a new model that's just as capable, and better in some respects, which costs only $800.

In fact, this year we had at least three ERV manufacturers exhibiting, along with companies in categories that ranged from testing equipment to heating and cooling, insulation, and air sealing.

What manufacturers get from having a booth or table at EEBA is different than what they get from a bigger show like IBS or PCBC. Those shows are focused on sales leads and on answering basic questions from builders. Manufacturers do get leads at EEBA, but from what I hear, those leads are more valuable.

Two manufacturers told me independently that this gathering isn't about quantity; it's about the quality of the attendees. Rather than having to explain the basics, they get to have fun, meat-and-potatoes conversations about what the product does and how to apply it. It's also an opportunity for manufacturers to hear valuable feedback from EEBA builders on how their products are working in the field and how they might be improved.

Opportunities for Collaboration

Another interesting thing I noticed on the expo floor was that vendors were interacting with each other. The battery folks were talking with the air barrier people and the air barrier people with the heat pump makers. Some of these discussions were about how their products can work together to create a better value proposition for the builder and the homeowner.

We've been talking for years about the need to think of the home as a system. Those conversations were one more indication that people are thinking in those terms.

All this interaction reminded me that, at its core, EEBA is a community—a community of like-minded people who all believe that we can build better homes if we work together and collaboratively share information.

And share we did. One great thing about this community is that we tend to freely discuss issues with one another. The builders, raters, specifiers, architects and manufacturers in attendance all wanted to talk about the progress they were making to drive the industry forward, and where they wanted to go next.

To be fair, unguarded collaboration is made easier by the fact that most discussions are between builders in non-competing markets. However, that's not always the case. In fact, one of my company's competitors was there, a company that will build 100 really great homes this year. They were more than happy to openly collaborate on their processes and the challenges they were striving to overcome just the same.

The bottom line is that high-performance homebuilders represent a small percentage of the U.S. construction market. We're all striving to build homes that are better for our customers, better for the environment and better for our businesses. We need each other to make that happen.

What's Next

Not surprisingly, there are things I believe we could do better. We're already thinking about next year's Summit, and our goal is to grow our community as well as our offerings.

For instance, I want to work at getting more large volume builders involved. Our builder community weighs heavily towards small to mid-sized production companies. They're doing great work, but we really need more involvement from the Builder 100, just the top 10 of whom closed nearly 170,000 homes last year in markets all over the U.S.1 These builders have the resources to drive affordability in high-performance housing without hurting quality.

I would also like to add sponsors and expand our educational tracks.

Our call for papers earlier this year yielded more session ideas than we were able to accommodate in the space we had available, and it was very difficult for the Summit committee to pass on topics they really wanted to include. Next year we hope to have the extra space to accommodate more of the great ideas we receive.

Next year's summit will be back in Denver, September 29th to October 1st.  For anyone interested in presenting to our community, a call for papers will go out in February, and registration will open shortly after that.

If you want to succeed in the high-performance homebuilding business, do yourself a favor and be there.  

EEBA president Geoff Ferrell is Chief Technology Officer for Mandalay Homes in Prescott Valley, Ariz. He oversees Mandalay’s home innovation, implementation, and strategies to improve efficiency, durability, health, and comfort, while maintaining market competitiveness.


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