Aaron Smith, CEO, Energy & Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA); CEO, GreenSmith Builders
Interview conducted and edited by Ted O’Callahan
May 26, 2023
Sustainably built homes cost more up front, but that investment can easily pay off over the decades with savings on heating and cooling—not to mention resiliency and improved indoor air quality. Aaron Smith ’16 is helping builders and buyers understand the benefits of building homes that can generate as much energy as they use.
Q: What is the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance?
The Energy and Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) is a community of 72,000 builders, architects, and other stakeholders across North America coming together to learn, share, and collaborate on how to build homes in a more sustainable manner.
Ultimately, we’re trying to transform an industry that has been doing things pretty much the same way for more than 100 years. We want to make healthier, electric, resilient, decarbonized, and net-zero homes the norm.
Q: Why is that important?
Forty percent of our energy use comes from buildings. That’s a significant contributor to climate change. Overall, the construction industry is very slow to adopt advances; even for great products and effective new approaches, it can take 20 years. But the technology’s there to do better, so if you want to innovate and disrupt, housing is a really interesting space right now.
The move to sustainable methods is a patchwork, but it’s ready to spread. We’re seeing the start of hockey stick growth. EEBA tracks single family homes and multi-family units built at or above a Zero Energy Ready standard across North America. Over the past two years there was a 440% increase.
Q: What do you mean by Zero Energy Ready and above?
The Zero Energy Ready Home is a standard set by the Department of Energy. To qualify a building must be energy efficient enough that a renewable energy system could offset the home’s annual energy use, so it’s extremely well insulated and extremely airtight, and may have an energy recovery ventilator. Above that is net zero, where a solar, wind, or renewable other system is producing all the energy the house needs. And the step beyond that is net positive, which is a building that actually exports energy into the grid.
There are a lot of standards and certification programs out there—LEED, National Green Building Standard, Passive House, Healthy Building, the Living Building Challenge. We tend to educate builders about all of them and allow them to choose the one that’s best for them and their clients.
Something that doesn’t have a certification program but we’re always focused on is building resiliency. How does it protect the occupants and continue to operate during a stressful period? With extreme weather events and potentially extended power outages that’s increasingly important.
The efficacy of solar panels has gone up so much that even a small amount of solar allows an efficient house to be net zero. Pairing that with new inverter technology, which lets your house feed excess solar power into the grid most of the time but switch to running the house directly off solar when the there’s a grid outage, adds resilience.
We’re seeing more and more battery deployment for backup within homes. Those can be dedicated systems or with something like the F-150 Lightning, Ford’s electric pickup, your EV can serve as backup power for the home during an outage.
Q: Is the interest in more sustainable building coming from builders, consumers, or somewhere else?
There are many drivers. In a few places, building codes are requiring new construction to be all electric. For those places, understanding how to build this way is really a license to operate. But for the most part, our members are professionals who want to be the best in their field. They have a sustainability mindset and a calling to build high-performance homes.
I learned about craftsmanship from my grandfather. He was proud of building homes that would last for 100 years. To me, sustainability is an extension of craftsmanship. It just makes sense. I hope my generation decides the building it’s putting up for the next 100 years will be sustainable. Building in the most sustainable way goes to a larger mission of being stewards of this planet for our kids and grandkids. I get excited by that.
And as millennials start to become the generation driving housing, their predisposition toward more sustainable and healthier is pushing awareness of building more sustainably into the industry.
In some cases, sustainability isn’t at the forefront. A builder in Texas who does net zero homes told me 15% of his customers do it for environmental reasons. Another 25% want the self-sufficiency of being able to go off the grid with their own water supply, solar power, and backup batteries. The remaining 60% do it for economic reasons. Between the rebates and incentives that are available and the certainty of owning their power supply so there won’t be escalating costs, they are ready to make the investment.
Q: Is it more expensive to build in a sustainable way?
It typically does cost from 1% to 11% more to build a very sustainable home. But it’s a lot like electric vehicles. The upfront cost is higher, but it you look at the total cost over time, it more than pays off the investment.
The problem is, when people consider buying a house, they look at the listing price. They don’t think to—and it’s not easy to—look at the operating costs or the health costs, which can be dramatically different from one house to another.
I didn’t ask about heating costs when I rented a wonderful 1740s farmhouse in Connecticut while I attended Yale SOM. It cost $1,000 a month to heat during the winter. Operating costs make a real difference.
In addition to running EEBA, I also co-founded GreenSmith Builders with Marc Wigder a classmate from Yale SOM. We build what we call attainable sustainable housing—energy-efficient single- and multi-family homes. I just got the monthly heating bill for a 27,000 square foot apartment building. It was $720 for the whole building in Minnesota in the winter.
Sustainable building makes housing more affordable when you look at total cost of ownership. When you think about living in a house for years, even decades, would you spend 1%, 5%, 11% more up front if you know you’ll get it back with savings on lower operating costs? Sustainable builders are starting to energy model each home so they can quantify the value long term.
And that’s only considering the energy costs. Health costs are harder to quantify, but in many homes, indoor air quality is worse than outdoor air quality. There are a lot of great systems that ensure a really healthful environment in the home.
Q: Why isn’t this approach the norm?
Market sector change is very difficult. It takes bringing stakeholders together. It takes sharing of ideas and best practices. It takes radical collaboration across organizations. We get up every day at EEBA and try to transform the industry. It’s extremely challenging and frustrating and exciting and rewarding, all at the same time.
Change is hard in any industry. For residential construction, there are a lot of incumbency issues. There’s huge demand for housing. You can sell every house that you build. Why would you change anything? That’s especially true in places where building codes haven’t been updated in years. It’s common to think that a house built to code means it’s all good. Another way to look at a house built to code is that it’s the worst house that’s not illegal. Depending on where you are, simply building to code isn’t desirable.
Switching costs are real, especially in an industry where it’s common to learn through apprenticeship on a job site—“This is how we do it.” At EEBA we try to make that mentoring culture a strength. Because builders work locally, for the most part they’re not in the same market as other EEBA members; they’re not competing against each other, so they can share and learn from each other and continually raise the level of knowledge of what it means to be a sustainable home builder. That’s a powerful part of EEBA.
What we’re trying to do is really speed the adoption of great technology, great building practices, and sustainable thinking across the industry. We’re making continuous learning easier. We provide online and in-person education. We do a yearly summit where we bring builders together.
Given the trends, if builders don’t have a plan to be building Zero Energy Ready houses, they may not be able to operate in the marketplace within a few years. I think it’s going to shift that quickly.
Q: Are there enough people going into the building trades to supply the required labor?
There are not enough people going into the trades. That’s starting to force change in interesting ways. Because builders can’t hire all the labor they’d like, offsite construction techniques are getting attention.
There are a variety of different approaches, but essentially components of the house are built in a factory. Then the floor cassettes or structured insulated panels that make up the walls are trucked to the building site and craned into place. It’s incredible how fast the modules go together.
There are a lot of investments in offsite construction. Builders are looking at it. Lumber yards and other suppliers are interested. We’re seeing a huge shift right now. It really helps with the labor issues. And it can be done to the highest sustainability standards.
Q: What led you to Yale SOM?
When I was an undergraduate there weren’t courses in sustainability, let alone a major. I learned about sustainability on the job as best I could. I went to Yale SOM to strengthen my understanding of sustainability and to learn how to have impact at scale.
When I came across EEBA, an incredible mission-driven organization that’s really changing the face of construction across North America, it just brought together everything that I had learned across my career. Now the goal is to grow the organization significantly and grow our impact significantly so we can speed up that change in the marketplace.