EEBA News

The Problem with HRVs

When integrated with the HVAC system, most E/HRV's don't deliver the desired ventilation air. A new design seeks to solve this problem, but we need your input.
The Problem with HRVs
by Srikanth Puttagunta, PE
 

Builders believe that if they install an Energy Recovery or Heat Recovery Ventilator (E/HRV) they have ensured good indoor air quality. In reality, that's seldom the case.

To deliver the needed fresh air, an E/HRV must be installed in a way that guarantees balanced airflows—where the intake and exhaust airstreams move equal volumes. But the design of these units makes proper installation difficult and, when integrated with the HVAC system (as most are), almost ensures that they fail to work as advertised.

Of course, an E/HRV costs more than other ventilation strategies, so if it doesn't do what it's intended to, the builder has wasted that extra money.

Steven Winter Associates is collaborating with a major manufacturer to develop an ERV that solves the shortcomings of conventional units. We have completed the second prototype. We hope to have a final design by Fall of 2019 with commercial availability sometime in 2020.

Before moving to the final design, however, we would like input from the EEBA audience to make sure the product will meet your needs. We have included a link to a short survey at the end of this article.

The three major issues that lead to unbalanced airflow with today's E/HRV's are:

1. Typical duct configurations

2. The frost prevention controls they use

3. Installs that make them difficult to properly maintain

Duct Issues

Let’s start with typical duct configurations.

If the E/HRV's intake and exhaust ducts aren't similar lengths with the same number of bends, their resistance to airflow will vary, throwing the unit out of balance. To compensate, some manufacturers provide static pressure taps that let the installer adjust the unit's fans during installation. That compensation might be sufficient for an E/HRV that has its own ductwork, but it won't be for the majority that are integrated with the HVAC system's air handler unit (AHU). The following two scenarios explain why.

Scenario 1. Here, the E/HRV pulls stale air from the return duct, then delivers tempered outdoor air further downstream in the same duct, closer to the AHU. For this to work, the E/HRV needs to run in sync with the AHU fan. However, this also results in unbalanced air flow, as the larger AHU fan will impact the smaller E/HRV fans. In this case, result will be more supply than exhaust air.

The unit could be adjusted at startup to compensate for this imbalance (though we don’t commonly see this in the field). The problem is that most of today's AHUs have two-stage or variable-speed fans, so the E/HRV can only be balanced under one of those fan speed conditions.

Scenario 2. Here, the E/HRV pulls stale air from the return ductwork and delivers tempered outdoor air to the AHU's supply ductwork. While manufacturers recommend the AHU fan run in unison with the E/HRV, most don't require it and with the AHU off, the unit may end up ventilating the AHU but not the rest of the home.

Frost Prevention

Next, let’s look at cold climate frost prevention controls.

When the outdoor air falls below a certain temperature (which varies with the E/HRV model), the core will be at risk of freezing. Manufacturers prevent this in a variety of ways, none of which are ideal.

  • On/off cycling. When temperatures fall below the frost threshold, the unit switches off for a set period of time (in really cold conditions, this could be 20 minutes or so each hour) to give the core a chance to warm up.
  • Air recirculation. Here, the outdoor intake and exhaust ports are closed, and indoor air redirected through the core's outdoor air pathway to warm it up. During this period, no whole-house ventilation is provided.
  • Exhaust only. Some units run in exhaust-only for a period of time allowing the core to warm back up. During this period make-up air will be supplied through leaks in the building envelope.
 

In each case, the home has poor or no ventilation during frost prevention. Alternatively, an electric resistance pre-heater can be installed in the outdoor air duct to prevent frost from forming in the core. This maintains continuous airflow but is energy intensive.

Install Errors

A proper E/HRV installation leaves enough space around the unit for regular maintenance, which includes periodically changing the air filters and removing the core for cleaning. Based on what we see in the field, I wonder how many builders and installers understand this. Many installations make it difficult to access the filter and core, while in other cases access is blocked by ductwork and plumbing that was installed later.

You would also assume installers know how to connect the ducts, but I've seen a lot of problems here as well, including supply and exhaust ducts hooked up to the wrong sides of the E/HRV. I also see a lot of flex duct that's not pulled tight, creating static pressures that can severely restrict airflow through either side of the unit or both.

Our Solution

With support from the DOE's Building America program and industry partners, Steven Winter Associates is developing an integrated ERV that will make balanced ventilation easier in homes. Our design includes the following improvements.

1. Simplified installation through a better form factor.

The unit will connect directly to the return side of an air handler and will pull stale air from the air handler's return ductwork. Not only does this avoid the drawbacks of each configuration type, but the fact that the ERV unit only needs two duct connections rather than four makes proper installation easier.

The unit is sized for mechanical rooms with standard ceiling heights. For an up-flow configuration, the total combined height of the ventilation unit, the air handler, and a standard supply plenum will be less than 8 feet. Maintenance access for the core and filters is also from the front, so it matches the service area required for the AHU.

2. Fans that ensure balanced ventilation under constantly varying conditions (varying AHU fan speeds, outdoor winds and indoor pressure changes, for example).

We are incorporating ECM fans. Nothing new here, right? A lot of E/HRVs have ECM fans. But rather than the typical constant torque ECM fan we are using constant flow fans, which will maintain roughly a ± 5cfm airflow range. This also allows the unit to be configured with MERV 13+ filtration.

3. Better frost prevention

The system is designed to maintain balanced whole-house ventilation during the frost prevention cycle without using electric resistance pre-heat. It does this by using a modulating damper to mix a small amount of air from the AHU supply duct with the outdoor air to pre-temper it above the core's frost point. Overall airflow through the outdoor air pathway of the core is increased, but the portion of outdoor air to exhaust air remains balanced.

Have I piqued your interest? Then take a look at the drawing.

As we continue to make refinements to the components and controls, we hope you will assist us with some feedback. This will help us ensure that the final product truly meets the industry's needs. We have posted a short questionnaire online that will help us better understand your approach to whole-house ventilation as well as what features we need to prioritize.

The survey takes five minutes or less and can be completed anonymously. We thank you for your interest and look forward to hearing from you.

Srikanth Puttagunta, PE, is a Principal Mechanical Engineer with Steven Winter Associates, Inc.

How Well Do You Understand Your Buyers?

New research sheds light on the knowledge and attitudes of people shopping for high-performance, green homes
How Well Do You Understand Your Buyers?

Builders looking for ways to sell more high-performance green homes for more money can glean insight from the February issue of Professional Builder magazine. In it, Suzanne Shelton of The Shelton Group summarizes research from the company's 13th Annual Builder Pulse Study. The study asked homebuyers a series of questions designed to reveal what they actually thought and knew about green homes, and how much they were willing to pay. 

The study got responses from more than 2000 of what Shelton calls "Energy Savvy homebuyers." Shelton's researchers also polled 100 builders—drawn from the Pro Builder and EEBA audiences—to gauge how well they understood this market.

Here's our take on three of the main findings.

1. Most buyers can't clearly define what constitutes a "green" home or what the must-have features are. And, the features they do list as essential don't match those on most builders' lists. For instance, just 38 percent of buyers said a green home had to include a high-efficiency HVAC system, something all builders understand is needed.

There was also some confusion when it came to terms like “green,” “high-performance,” “sustainable,” and “net-zero.” Builders who assume that buyers understand these terms risk losing sales.

Shelton's advice is to remember a fundamental but sometimes ignored sales and marketing principle: emphasize benefits. Focus on selling a comprehensive package that promises quality, comfort, health, and peace of mind, while also showing buyers how your homes deliver those benefits. "And avoid industry jargon and green speak."

That, of course, means emulating what the most successful green builders are already doing, and what EEBA has long promoted at its conferences and trainings.

2. Buyers will pay more for green construction than builders think. Shelton says that while nearly half of respondents indicated a willingness to pay 6 to 10 percent more for a green home, two-thirds of the builders surveyed believed they would pay no more than an additional 5 percent. About a fifth of the builders surveyed doubted buyers' willingness to pay any extra.

This finding confirms to us that builders who don't properly market these homes are leaving money on the table.

                 
 

   

3.  Customers want to do business with companies that take a stand on issues they care about. When it comes to green building, they want to be able to tell their friends, family, and associates that their builder is a company known for its environmental commitment.

Shelton says that builders that want to be known for that will design homes with materials that are visibly green—items like rooftop solar, reclaimed wood walls, and learning thermostats—and will highlight those in their marketing materials.

In an age when people increasingly use social media to seek public approval, builders who help them do so will reap rewards.

The Professional Builder article includes a number of additional valuable insights and is well worth a read. You can find it here: https://www.probuilder.com/shades-green-how-builder-and-buyer-views-sustainability-diverge

Five Steps to High Performance Home Sales

If you partner with real estate agents, you need this advice
Five Steps to High Performance Home Sales

by Jan Green

High performance homes offer benefits every homeowner wants, including lower energy bills and better indoor air quality. These homes tend to sell more quickly and for more money than comparable, code-built homes, but only if they're correctly marketed. That includes describing them correctly in your real estate listings and working with an agent that knows how to list and sell these types of homes.

Unfortunately, some builders choose to ignore this advice. For instance, a basic rule of marketing is to emphasize features and benefits the buyer cares about, but I've seen more than one listing with sentences like this: “Solidly-built 2018 structure has Ballard engineered trusses, 8-inch LPI floor joists on triple 2X10s over concrete block piers built by a licensed masonry company. Home is dried in with Pella windows.”

Your competition will know what that sentence means but the average buyer won't, and will have to stop and ask why those terms are significant and why you're mentioning them. That puts you in violation of another basic marketing rule, which is to use messaging that's easily understood by the average buyer. (You can still make technical information available to buyers with construction knowledge, but put it in a linked document so the average buyer isn't forced to wade through it.)

In fact, homes that actually sell more quickly and for more money are those that are marketed in a way that helps buyers easily understand the features and benefits relevant to them. Such marketing will also help realtors, appraisers, and lenders fully value the homes.

An obvious example is that of energy savings: according to a 2017 study by the National Association of REALTORS, 84% of home buyers are either concerned or somewhat concerned about their energy bills. When writing a listing or designing a piece of marketing collateral, it will be more effective to lead with the fact that the home can offer an annual electric bill of zero dollars than with an industry term that needs explanation, like Net Zero Ready.

The same principle applies to indoor air quality. Say for instance that a home buyer has a child with Asthma. A listing that says the home uses no-VOC paints and has a tight building envelope and mechanical information won't leave a strong impression and may, in fact, confuse them and cause them to look elsewhere. It's better if your listing simply states that the home is designed and built to provide “healthy indoor air.” When the buyer asks you how it does that, you can get into those features.

The bottom line is that if you're a high-performance builder you need to make sure that your listings have the right message and that your realtor can accurately present your homes. The following five steps will ensure that.

1. Start by listing every high-performance feature in your homes including their benefits to consumers.  Examples might include:

  • Energy Efficient appliances and high SEER HVAC systems that use less electricity
  • Advanced insulation and air sealing that makes the home easier to heat and cool
  • A water recirculation pump that ensures instant hot water at the tap
  • WaterSense-rated shower heads that use less water while still providing great showers
  • No or low VOC paints that do not put chemicals into the home's air
  • A radon mitigation system that keeps cancer-causing isotopes from getting into the home
  • Climate-specific landscaping that needs less water and is easier to maintain than a lawn

 

2. Make sure your marketing materials highlight these features and benefits with easy to read fonts and graphics.

3. Locate and hire a real estate agent who has been trained to understand high performance homes, preferably someone who has earned the GREEN designation from the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR, GreenResourceCouncil.org) or the EcoBroker designation (EcoBroker.com.) These agents are trained to identify features that go above and beyond code-built homes.

                

An agent with this training can walk into a home under construction and recognize things like the insulation type and the home's non-toxic features, and will also be able to explain the full benefits of certifications like Indoor airPLUS or Net Zero Ready. An agent without this training won't be able to effectively communicate this information to buyers.

4. Make sure your agent highlights the relevant features and benefits on the listing on the local MLS and other listing sites.  If the listing site has a place for documents, upload the entire list of features including the HERS certificate, green building certificate, and any others you have earned.

To see examples of high performance home listings, go to GreenHomesForSale.com, VivaGreenHomes.com, and USGreenBrokers.com.

5. If the local MLS doesn't have the fields available to highlight high performance home features, ask your realtor to create a work group to assist the MLS in creating these fields. (I started such a workgroup in Phoenix in 2009 as part of my volunteer work with USGBC.) For information and examples, visit GreenResourceCouncil.org.

If you build high performance homes, you should be working with an agent that has a comprehensive understanding of those homes and can explain their features and benefits to buyers. Remember that the agent is your representative and works with you as a fiduciary, so you need to make sure they fully understand your approach to building. The value such an agent brings to the sale will mean more profit for the builder.  

Jan Green is a realtor in the Phoenix area who specializes in high-performance home sales. She has earned EcoBroker and NAR Green Designations. 

Reducing Liability When Building Net Zero

Practical advice for builders from a construction attorney
Reducing Liability When Building Net Zero

By Patrick Barthet

Homebuilders are accustomed to managing expectations. They do this at the initial client meeting, when drafting contract provisions, and in all progress meetings. As the project moves from design to occupancy, smart builders work hard to deliver the highest quality work possible while at the same time not promising more than they can deliver. Besides making for happier customers, this also helps minimize a builder’s liability.

Managing expectations is a bit more complicated when it comes to high-performance construction, as different homeowners will have different expectations about their home's performance in regards to heating and cooling, moisture issues and indoor air quality. Those expectations may or may not be realistic, and the only way to make sure they are is to put them in writing and to have everyone sign off.

In fact, as an attorney who works with builders I always recommend a written, contractual warranty that defines exactly what the builder is and isn't promising when it comes to home performance. Otherwise they're at the mercy of implied warranties, which vary in coverage and term from state to state and can be open to interpretation.

And interpretation can cause big problems. When you market yourself as a high performance builder, you are positioning yourself as an expert, and as such you will likely be held to a higher standard. Homeowners who contract for a home with a high-performance building expert will expect a comfortable and secure structure built to more stringent specifications than a home built to minimum code standards. Some will assume you are promising everything from low energy bills to great air quality.

Take the issue of indoor air quality, a growing source of liability. We have seen builders sued for everything from serious problems like an aggravated asthma condition to minor ones like undefined odors. How do you minimize these problems? By implementing a warranty.

In many cases a court will give precedence to a contractual warranty. Even if it's not as strict as the implied warranty, it is very helpful. This is an important piece of protection. You work hard to craft homes with a healthy indoor environment, but that environment has as much to do with how the homeowners operate the home after you deliver it, as it does with how you built it.

A contractual warranty can also assist the homeowners by defining what they need to do to maintain a healthy environment. That could include everything from advising them to keep doors and windows closed to how to properly run the mechanical ventilation system, and warning them not to use certain types of chemical cleaning products.

The warranty can also spell out what homeowners can expect from smart devices such as a NEST thermostat, or what types of light sources will work with their LED fixtures. In most cases you can simply reference the manufacturer's warranties. If the homeowner insists on a device that's not part of your standard specifications and not included in your warranty, then your contractual warranty should make those exclusions clear.

The standard duration of a builder’s warranty is one year for workmanship issues, possibly extended to two years for systems – HVAC, plumbing and electrical—and then ten years for structural failures. (Make sure to distinguish these from minor cracking and settling.)

When it comes to specific products, your warranty should clearly delineate between manufacturing defects and installation errors. It should also set fixed warranty terms that mirror what the manufacturer of each product or device provides.

The warranty should also limit liability by placing a realistic monetary cap on the sometimes ambitious goals set by homeowners. Excluded from all warranties should be matters involving the homeowner’s own negligence, abuse, or failure to maintain as required, as well as work done by the homeowner or the homeowner’s own contractors.

The warranty should also define things like expansion and contraction of wood, dampness, condensation and weather-related issues. This language will vary from builder to builder and from location to location. For instance a builder in Seattle would probably want more definition regarding its responsibility for moisture-related issues than a builder in Tucson.

Finally, every warranty needs to spell out the following:

1. How is a claim to be communicated to the builder? In writing, with a return receipt, is preferred. (This can be done electronically, for instance with an email read receipt.)

2. Who will do the warranty work, and when? I suggest limiting it to defined business hours by folks selected by the builder.

3. How will disputes be addressed? I prefer to specify a neutral but experienced mediator selected in advance and agreed on by both parties. A good way to do this is to provide three names and have the homeowner choose one. Mediation may result in an impasse, so you may want to set arbitration as the subsequent mechanism if mediation fails to resolve a dispute. (Be aware, however, that arbitration isn't subject to the same rules of evidence and testimony as a court, and that decisions can't be easily appealed.)

4. Who will pay legal fees? Your contractual warranty should also require that each party pay its own legal fees and costs. This prevents an opportunistic homeowner from trying to inflate a claim by suing for legal fees. This encourages both parties to settle.

None of this implies that you don't want to do the absolute best for your customers. However, the most effective way to limit liability exposure is to under-promise and over-deliver on your home’s performance, while having a detailed written warranty to protect you.

Patrick Barthet is founder and principal of The Barthet Firm, a 13 lawyer construction practice which has been serving South Florida’s construction industry for over 20 years. Publisher of the award-winning blog, thelienzone.com, he provides weekly advice to construction professionals.

Do I Really Need to Test My Homes?

A performance trainer shares answers to the most common questions he gets in his blower door seminars.
Do I Really Need to Test My Homes?

by Sam Myers

Blower doors have been around since the 1980s, but for a long time were used mostly by niche builders. However, with more and more codes and high-performance home programs requiring air leakage testing, this tool has entered the mainstream. That change has fueled a demand for training.

As a training consultant for a blower door manufacturer, I train and certify builders and other industry pros on the equipment and test methods. After completing around 60 of these trainings, ranging from one-to-ones to classroom-size groups, I've noticed that the same questions come up again and again. I thought it would be useful to offer answers to the top half-dozen questions I hear from my students. Here they are.

1. Why do we have to do this?

While the EEBA audience already understands the value of air sealing, the average builder who is forced to test by code often complies grudgingly, at least at first. They're more likely to embrace the test once they understand its value.

The real issue isn't "why do I have to test," but “why should I care about air tightness?" The answer is that proper air sealing helps create a better-quality home by:

  • Reducing the size and run time of the HVAC system
  • Eliminating drafts
  • Helping maintain uniform temperatures throughout the house.
  • Making it possible to use ventilation and filtration to ensure good indoor air quality and optimal indoor humidity
  • Keeping moist air from getting into wall cavities where it can lead to rot and mold
     

The blower door lets the builder verify—to the homeowners as well as to the code authorities—that they have done the air sealing required to reap the above benefits.

Of course, for air sealing to deliver these benefits, it has to be part of a holistic, building science-based approach to construction—the approach EEBA teaches in its seminars—so when answering this question my goal is to interest them in learning more about that.

2. Where are the biggest leaks in a home?

A March 2013 Professional Builder article reported on a study by David Wolf at Owens Corning that looked at which air sealing locations in a home provide the most bang for the buck. The information in that article, entitled "Some Leaks Matter More Than Others," still holds true in 2019.

According to Wolf, some of the most critical leakage areas are:

  • Gaps between top plates
  • Band joists
  • Bottom plate to subfloor connections
  • Seams between sheeting
  • Drywall intersections
  • HVAC supply boots and return boxes
  • Recessed lights and exhaust fan boxes
     

Basically, you can expect to find air leakage wherever two materials meet and where the gap hasn't been deliberately sealed.

3. How can apps help with testing?

People are addicted to their smartphones, so it's no surprise that a lot of my students ask about apps. The most useful blower door apps are for automated testing and remote control.

Retrotec's automated testing app is called rCloud, while The Energy Conservatory's is called Auto Test. They pair a smartphone or tablet with the blower door's gauge to run an automated test routine. The user need only enter some basic home characteristics. The app geo-locates the home, adjusts the test for local weather conditions, runs the test and generates a report that can be saved, shared or printed.

The two remote control apps I know of are Retrotec's GaugeRemote and The Energy Conservatory's Tec Gauge. They let the operator control the blower door from a phone or tablet while moving around the house searching for leaks.

4. Can blower door testing cause any problems?

The answer is that you can have problems if you don't take the correct precautions. For example, running a blower door test to depressurize an existing home with a wood-burning fireplace that hasn't been sealed off could pull ashes into the living space. Running the test with a gas-fired furnace, boiler or water heater turned on could draw combustion gasses into the house. Avoiding these problems is a simple matter of turning off all combustion appliances before the test.

5. What maintenance does the equipment require?

Although maintenance is minimal, you do need to keep an eye out for things like motor and fan alignment, which is why each manufacturer has a process for checking these. You also need to recalibrate the gauges every two to five years, depending on the manufacturer and the model.

It's also important to periodically inspect the tubing to make sure it's free of clogs from debris and water. Tubing openings can also get stretched out over time, but if that happens you can just cut the ends with a knife or scissors.

6. How can we integrate high performance into our projects without breaking the bank?

This isn't strictly a blower door question, but I hear it a lot. Building a high-performance home can be a challenge for builders who have never done it before. Working with a home performance specialist such as a HERS rater or BPI analyst from start to finish will help you craft a cost-effective home that's energy efficient, healthy and durable. These pros can also save you time and money the first time you build to a new energy code or to a third-party program like ENERGY STAR or Indoor airPLUS, by ensuring that the home will pass the final test.

  • that failed tests can require expensive corrections that include tearing out drywall. Working with an expert from the beginning can help you create a realistic budget for air sealing while eliminating unwelcome surprises.

An expert can also help you evaluate financial tradeoffs. As mentioned above, a tight home with good insulation may need a smaller, less expensive HVAC system. A structural sheathing product with a built-in air barrier and vapor retarder can eliminate the need for house wrap. Encapsulated crawlspaces can reduce moisture-related callbacks. A knowledgeable home performance pro can help you determine the right tradeoffs for your homes in your climate.

Sam Myers is a Marketing & Training Consultant for Retrotec, Inc. He's based in Raleigh, NC.

In addition to air sealing questions, a lot of builders want to know about apps. Shown here is RetroTec's remote control app.

Building a Sustainable Brand

Seattle's Dwell Development is a case study on how a high-performance builder can use branding to power growth regardless of where the market goes.
Building a Sustainable Brand

Shopping for a home has some important things in common with dating.  Your initial attraction may be based on looks, but the criteria for a long-term match will be more about substance and character.

Seattle builder Dwell Development has built a very successful marketing program around this principle.  Sales of its individually designed, sustainable spec homes tripled, from 10 to 28 homes per year, during the three years following 2008 when a lot of builders were either closing shop or struggling to stay alive.  At the bottom of the recession, the company was even pre-selling homes in one community for 20 to 25 percent more than competing homes of equal size.

They accomplished this by crafting a distinct local brand based on modern architecture, a high-performance message, and a disciplined marketing program.

Design First

According to company principal Anthony Maschmedt, Dwell has built more than 300 homes over the past 14 years, all of them detailed to perform at least 50% above energy code at the time of construction.  The company also built the first multi-family Passive House in Seattle and just broke ground on the city's first Passive House condo.  Today, all of its projects are Net Zero Ready: when outfitted with solar panels, those panels will generate more power over the course of a year than the home consumes.

Dwell has won 30 awards for its homes since 2012.  These include awards for design and performance, and range from a 2018 U.S. Department of Energy Housing Innovation Award to a Professional Builder Design Award.

However, Maschmedt says that while energy efficiency and other sustainable features tend to clinch the deal, they're not what initially attract most buyers.  In fact, he insists that high-performance builders who don't put as much care into design and marketing as they do into building science are leaving money on the table.

"A badly designed house won't be easier to sell just because it's energy efficient," he says. "You have to put design first.  That's what gets people out of the car and into the house.  Then you need to make the interior as architecturally interesting as possible."

A great looking home creates a wow factor that makes people more receptive to the sustainability discussion.  "Once people see our reclaimed wood floors, beautiful countertops and other finishes they're eager to hear more," he says.  "At that point we start peeling the onion, explaining how we detailed the construction and how, if the home includes solar panels, they will get free electricity for life."

That one-two punch also describes Dwell's online marketing.  The first thing one sees on its website and Instagram pages are professionally taken interior and exterior photos.  According to Amy Golden of Paxson Fay, the company's marketing firm, Dwell spends more on high-quality images than most of its competitors and gets a lot of traffic because of that.  "Instagram is about design. It has proven a great way to connect us to people who haven't heard about Dwell," she says.

But she emphasizes that photos are the key.  "The first thing I would suggest to most builders is that they put more emphasis on great photography," she says.

The Performance Message

While good design speaks for itself, sustainability needs to be promoted and explained.  One of Dwell's most successful promotional vehicles has been the awards it has won.  The company enters five or six competitions per year, and Golden devotes 6 to 8 hours to completing each entry.  "The awards really get homeowners excited about working with us," she says.

She also regularly submits projects to trade and consumer magazines and has gotten local and national coverage.  This exposure helps introduce the company to new audiences.

For customers who want to know more, Dwell's Facebook page includes regularly updated posts on its homes' performance, and on sustainability and energy efficiency in general.  "Once we draw people in, we want to get them to Facebook to read our messaging," says Golden.

The various pieces of the marketing program work together to lead potential customers to a particular conclusion: these homes are special in more ways than one.

The lesson for other builders?  Clarify your messaging on sustainability issues like Net Zero, indoor air quality and water conservation.  Then focus on populating your website and social media channels with educational content and great photography.  Assign someone to update everything regularly. And if you want awards and press coverage, understand that you need to actively seek them out.

Getting Partners on Board

As you would expect, most of Dwell's marketing efforts are aimed at attracting potential buyers.  But consumer marketing isn’t the whole story.  They also supplement it by bringing the high-performance message to their industry partners.

Maschmedt's secret weapon in this outreach is Tadashi Shiga, owner of Evergreen Certified, a Seattle green building consultant.  Evergreen's services include testing and certifying homes for green building programs, working with local code authorities, helping high-performance builders get code approvals and connecting them with the suppliers they will need.  Shiga also offers green building training and has spent the last 10 years helping Maschmedt raise the performance bar.

Maschmedt and Shiga do regular presentations to groups of real estate brokers, title reps, bankers, trade partners, code officials and builders, including one at this year's EEBA conference.  They have also brought their show to local TV stations.

Together, the company's consumer marketing and industry outreach have worked in tandem to create a recognizable brand with a clear mission.  Shiga doubts Dwell would have been so successful without this effort.  "You have to spend time building the brand," he says, adding that it took a couple of years for Dwell to start seeing a payoff.

The Envelope, Please

How Dwell settled on the double wall frame.

If you promise to build sustainable, Net Zero Ready homes that you need to be able to deliver on that promise while also making a profit.  Getting there can take some trial and error.

As a spec builder, Seattle's Dwell Development has to make its homes cost competitive, which means that any extra costs need to be offset by energy savings and electric generation if the home includes a PV system.  To pull that off, the builder has to build as much efficiency as possible into the home for the least amount of dollars.

Company principal Anthony Maschmedt says that his path to Zero Energy has included trying various details then tracking the results until he finds one that offers the optimal cost and performance. Products and systems he has settled on include solar hot water, triple pane windows, and Aero Barrier air sealing technology.

Dwell's homes also feature double 2x4 walls, a detail Maschmedt settled on after trying several others.

When the company first started its business in 2005 they built a standard 2x4 wall, which met code at the time.  Then they jumped up to 2x6 and 2x8 walls to get more insulation value.  They also tried SIPs panels and exterior insulation, all the while tracking cost, performance and the effect on the schedule.  “We found exterior insulation to be expensive and time-consuming, and the coordination process with siding installers was a challenge," he says.

Maschmedt finally settled on the double 2x4 wall because of its cost and flexibility.  For instance, a recent Dwell project that won the DOE's Housing Innovation Award had 12-inch thick walls, but it's easy enough to increase the space between the walls to get mechanicals into it if needed.  The walls can also be made narrower.  And he says you can't beat the cost and convenience.  "We like that 2x4's are cheap and available, and that our framers never complain about using them."

While this wall system works for Dwell's climate, architectural designs and trades, other builders will have different needs.  The point is that you may need some experimentation to identify the winning products for your homes.

He says it was worth the effort.  "Builders sometimes ask how much more they can get for a LEED platinum home compared to a code home."  The answer is that if you want to get a premium, customers need to know who you are or what you stand for.  "Getting your homes certified is important but in the end, it's about the company that builds them."

How QA Earns More Than It Costs

The numbers are in. Quality Assurance really does reduce liability costs for high-performance builders.
How QA Earns More Than It Costs

It's no surprise that builders with formal Quality Assurance programs report fewer warranty claims. For instance, Professional Builder magazine interviewed builders, National Housing Quality Awards judges and QA consultants around the U.S. for an August 2017 article and found that while most builders lack such programs, those who put who them in place get a quick return on their investment. One builder interviewed for the article reported a 70 percent reduction after just a couple of years.

But while quality gains are the obvious purposes of such programs, they can offer the added benefit of lowering insurance rates.

That's according to Nathan Kahre, High Performance and Healthy Home Manager at Thrive, a 250 home-per-year Denver builder. At a seminar he taught during EEBA's annual Summit in October, he said that within two years of launching its QA program, the company was rewarded with a hefty reduction in liability premiums—more than enough to pay for the program.

"After creating the QA department, we brought it to our insurance agent," he says. "They shopped it to several providers and came back with a great deal."

Thrive was given two choices: $5 million in liability coverage for slightly less than they were paying for their current $4 million policy, or the same $4 million in coverage for 44 percent less. They took the former. In addition, Thrive had been paying a yearly premium for the seven-year tail needed to cover Colorado's eight-year implied warranty. Because of the QA program, the insurer gave them the option of buying the entire tail upfront for 8 percent less.

In all, the company saved around $150,000 in insurance premiums. Kahre also credits the QA program for reducing variance costs by $1,000 per home—another $150,000 in annual savings—and for slashing cycle time by 27 days.

Other builders have gotten similar results. Glenn Cottrell, Managing Director of IBACOS, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm that helps production builders create and implement QA programs, co-taught the seminar with Kahre. He told the audience that one of his clients had reduced its warranty accruals by 12 percent over a five-year period, a total of about $5 million in savings. Another had seen a 25 percent increase in its customers' willingness to refer. Those numbers are typical.

While these savings are certainly impressive, insurance wasn't the main motivation for Thrive's program. Construction defect litigation had been increasing statewide, and they knew that having a documented process for eliminating defects and improving quality would reduce the chance of being targeted by opportunistic lawyers. "By lowering warranty claims, we stay off of their radar," he said.

The fact that the company collects and saves data on each individual home also makes it harder for lawyers to aggregate units, a process in which defects in a sample of homes are assumed to be present in all units. In effect, the data collected by the QA department has made the company a harder and less appealing target.

Kahre and Cottrell both stressed that while a formal QA program can benefit any builder, it's critical for those building high-performance homes.

The big issue is water management. Today's highly engineered homes have less of what's called Hygric Buffer Capacity, or the ability of building materials to suck up moisture then release it. In older homes, wood, stone, brick and plaster absorbed lots of water, and the airflow through their leaky wall cavities helped that moisture dry out before it caused problems. Older homes may have been energy pigs, but as building scientist Joe Lstiburek puts it, "they were durable pigs."

By contrast, newer homes use lightweight materials that absorb less moisture, and they place those materials in a highly insulated, airtight shell. Even a small leak can cause big problems over time.

It should be a no-brainer that builders of these homes need a process for ensuring the works gets done right. The good news is that with a formal QA program, a knowledgeable high-performance builder can craft new homes that are just as durable as those older ones.

So how do you go about getting these benefits? According to Kahre, it took about a year from the time the company decided to launch its QA program until it was fully implemented, then another year before they had collected enough data to make useful analysis possible. The analysis part is important because an effective QA program is proactive: it includes an inspection to catch and correct errors, but the real goal is to eliminate those errors going forward.

The details of an effective program are too much to go into here. However, the August 2017 Professional Builder article cited above—Best Practices for Quality Assurance—is a good introduction to the subject.

 

EEBA Summit Showcased Building's Best

The organization's annual meeting introduced the winners of three prestigious industry awards

The mission of the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) is to help industry pros design, build and sell well-crafted high-performance homes. Since great examples are great teachers, EEBA is always honored to showcase the best work of high- performance builders and designers.

For the first time ever, this year's annual Summit, held in October in San Diego, hosted three prestigious awards programs. The U.S. Department of Energy's Housing Innovation Awards and the Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor airPLUS Leader Awards recognized accomplishments of industry leaders. The Department of Energy's annual “Race to Zero” competition showcased the best designs created by student design teams from around the U.S.

 

DOE Housing Innovation Awards

The Department of Energy's Housing Innovation Awards honors forward-thinking builders who take innovative approaches to zero energy ready homes. This year's awards paid tribute to “Grand Winners for Innovation” in six categories.

Affordable Homes

For Profit: Thrive Home Builders, Denver Colo.

Nonprofit: Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity, Kalamazoo, Mich.

Custom Homes (for Buyers)

High Performance Homes, Gettysburg, Penn.

Custom Homes (Spec)

Dwell Development, Seattle, Wash.

Dwell Development in Seattle won the top Housing Innovation Award in the Spec home category for a 3-story, 3700 square foot net zero energy home on Lake Washington. The company builds one-of-a-kind net-zero homes designed and detailed to compete with code-built homes.

Dwell Development in Seattle won the top Housing Innovation Award in the Spec home category for a 3-story, 3700 square foot net-zero energy home on Lake Washington. The company builds one-of-a-kind net-zero homes designed and detailed to compete with code-built homes.

Multifamily Homes

Revive Properties and Philgreen Construction, Fort Collins, Colo.

Production Homes

Thrive Home Builders

Most Homes Certified

Thrive Home Builders

For more information on the Housing Innovation Award winners please go to https://www.energy.gov/eere/buildings/housing-innovation-awards

 

Indoor airPLUS

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor airPLUS Leader Awards recognize builders who lead their markets in creating safer, healthier, and more comfortable indoor environments for their homebuyers.

This year's awards recognized eight organizations with Indoor airPLUS Leader Awards, including two Leaders of the Year, cited for their ongoing commitment to building healthier homes.

2018 Leaders of the Year

Home Energy Rater:  Energy Inspectors Corporation, Las Vegas, Nev.

Home Builder:  Fulton Homes, Tempe, Ariz.

Phoenix-area Fulton Homes built 650 Indoor airPLUS labeled homes in 2017, earning it the Leader of the Year award. The company has made the Indoor airPLUS label a major part of its marketing message.

Affordable Builder Winner

Thrive Home Builders, Denver, Colo.

Small Builder Winners

C&B Custom Homes, Cottonwood, Ariz.

Charis Homes, North Canton, Ohio

Large Builder Winners

Fulton Homes, Thrive Home Builders, and Mandalay Homes (Prescott, AZ)

Rater Winners

Energy Inspectors Corporation, E3 Energy, LLC, Flagstaff, Ariz.

Steven Winter Associates, Inc., Norwalk, Conn.

For more information on the Indoor airPLUS Awards winners please go to https://www.epa.gov/indoorairplus/indoor-airplus-leader-award-winners

The value of these award programs is that they show builders and design professionals how to craft healthy, zero-energy homes while making a profit. “I found it enlightening and inspiring to learn about the amazing homes being offered by EEBA builders at market rates," said Brett C. Singer, Staff Scientist and leader of the Indoor Environment Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "They are demonstrating not only that high performance homes are possible, but also that they can be built at competitive prices."

 

The Race to Zero

Another highlight of this year’s Summit were presentations by seven winning teams that participated in the 2018 U.S Department of Energy “Race to Zero” Student Design Competition. The program's goal is to inspire students to become the next generation of building science professionals through a design challenge for zero energy ready buildings.

On the Summit’s final day, EEBA staged a special session where “Race to Zero” students delivered brief, but compelling overviews of their winning projects. The winners were as follows.

Grand Winner, Urban Single-Family Housing

Prairie View A&M University

A team from Prairie View A&M University in Texas was Grand Winner in the Race to Zero Student Design Completion for its "FlyFlat" urban single-family home design. A full project profile is on the Race to Zero Website.

Suburban Single-Family Housing

1st Place: The Pennsylvania State University

2nd Place (2 winners): University of Missouri-Columbia and Ball State University

Attached Housing

1st Place: University of Waterloo

2nd Place: Miami University

Small Multifamily Housing

1st Place: Miami University

2nd Place: Illinois Institute of Technology

Elementary Schools

1st Place: Middlebury College

2nd Place: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

For more information on the Race to Zero Awards, including a description of this year's winning projects, please go to https://www.energy.gov/eere/buildings/2018-results

 

Next Year's EEBA Summit will be from October 1-3 at the Embassy Suites in Downtown Denver, Colo. Registration will open in January. For more information, visit http://summit.eeba.org. Visitors to the site can also subscribe to EEBA’s newsletter and blog.

 

 

 

 

 

EEBA Tackles the Big Questions

Annual Summit is a huge success, as high-performance builders look to the future of the industry.
EEBA Tackles the Big Questions

Declaring the mission of the Energy & Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) as “changing the world,” EEBA President Gene Myers reminded attendees at the group’s annual High Performance Home Summit in San Diego of their true impact. "We're all environmentalists," he said, "but we express this by creating the environment in which our customers live. It's our duty to make sure they thrive and prosper."

Myers is owner and CEO of Thrive Home Builders in Denver. The company has won numerous awards for its high-performance homes, a track record he credits to his involvement with EEBA.

His remarks gave voice to a common belief among the 300 plus builders, architects, raters and other professionals in attendance—that high-performance, green building represents the industry's future, and that it will play an important role in solving the most difficult issues builders face, from rising insurance costs to a shrinking labor pool.

Problem Solvers

The annual event teaches professionals how to design, build and sell high performance homes. This year it included 32 educational workshops in four tracks: Sales and Marketing; Building Science; Energy Codes and Policy; and Resiliency, Durability, and Quality.

Topics ranged from advanced air sealing to delivering clean air and water, to resiliency in the face of natural disasters, to creating a Quality Assurance program that pays for itself. EEBA also offered its Houses That Work fundamentals of building science course and, for the first time, a Site Supervisor Certification for high-performance homebuilders.

The growing complexity of today's homes makes education like this crucial. As one instructor put it: "when you advertise yourself as a high-performance builder your clients have high expectations for everything from comfort to craftsmanship."

One of the most valuable benefits offered by Summit attendance is the ability to learn from pros with a track record of meeting those expectations. "Nowhere else will you find a collective group of individuals as dedicated to leading the drive and changing the culture of home building," said Jim Ingman, Customer Care Manager and Quality Assurance Lead at Tim O'Brien Homes in Milwaukee.

    

Attracting Talent

One theme that came up throughout the three-day event concerned what many see as the biggest challenges facing today's builders—the difficulty of finding young talent.

EEBA has begun addressing this with a new program called “Bring a Student to EEBA” that covers travel expenses to the event for a group of college students. The scholarship fund raised a total of $15,500 this year, thanks to generous contributions from Addison Homes, AeroBarrier, DuPont Tyvek, EnergyLogic, Imery Group, Mandalay Homes, Revive Properties & Philgreen Construction, Thrive Home Builders, and TopBuild/Environments for Living. EEBA expects to continue the program in 2019.

    

"I heard uniformly great comments on our inclusion of students," said Myers. "Everyone saw it as a positive move EEBA was making to attract the next generation."

In fact, many attendees expressed the belief that high-performance green building offers the three biggest elements younger workers consistently say makes a job attractive: a commitment to sustainability, use of the latest technology, and the opportunity to make a positive impact. (The average of Myers' 62 employees is just 40, with half of them in their 20's and 30's.)

Ron Jones, president of Green Builder Media, echoed Myers by telling the gathering that the most effective way to attract young talent is to focus on how green, high-performance builders impact people's lives. “What we do is extremely important, and not just for the economy," he noted. "Think about the importance of shelter and the security it gives to a person, a family or a community. We have one of the richest and most wonderful jobs in the world.”

Jones also noted that builders who want to keep that talent need to make a commitment to investing in their future. "We have to pony up," he said. "We have to pay a reasonable wage, compensate people in a fair way, and provide decent benefits. We have to instill in them the pride in workmanship and the pride of being in this industry, and give them a realistic opportunity to advance.”

Event sponsors included AeroBarrier, Aprilaire, Cardinal Glass Industries, CertainTeed Gypsum, Dorken Systems, DuPont Tyvek, Goodman, James Hardie, LP Building Products, Mitsubishi Cooling & Heating, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Owens Corning, Panasonic, Sonnen, the Structural Panel Association, Uponor, and TopBuild/Environments for Living and NAHB.

Next Year's EEBA Summit will be from October 1-3 at the Embassy Suites in Downtown Denver, Colo. Registration will open in January. Don't miss it.

Promising New Tool for High Performance Home Sales

The Meeting Map aims to disarm prospects' status quo bias
Promising New Tool for High Performance Home Sales

High-performance and Zero Energy homes are a growing percentage of the housing market. But while these homes offer tangible benefits—including a healthy, comfortable environment and enough energy savings to offset any extra construction costs—some people still balk at the price premium.

According to James Geppner, resistance persists in large part because of how architects and builders communicate those benefits.  He says that buyers will embrace high-performance homes if those homes offer solutions to real-life problems, but that most salespeople aren't doing a great job helping them see that connection.

Now, he thinks he has just the tool to open their eyes, a tool that will help buyers conclude that their most important needs can only be met by a high-performance or Zero Energy home.

Geppner is Executive Director of Erase40, a company whose mission is "to use behavioral science to speed the adoption of low and zero energy buildings."  He believes that the application of small behavioral levers during the sales process will raise demand for these homes more effectively than code mandates or financial incentives like solar tax credits.

Erase40 released the first version of its Meeting Map in late September.  The Map is a way to structure and guide the buyer's decision-making process and forms the basis of a sales training the company will offer.  Salespeople can use it to guide buyers through the five areas most impacted by high-performance homes: thermal comfort, indoor air quality, noise issues that interrupt sleep, savings on energy and maintenance, and home resale value.

Each section of the Map covers one of these issues in language that leads buyers to make that issue a priority.  After each section, there is a series of questions for them to answer about what kind of home they believe will best address that priority.

Geppner says that walking the prospect through each of these sections separately will help them see past the exclusive focus on price that leads so many people to choose conventional homes.  It does this by short-circuiting what he calls future discounting.

Future discounting is why people reach for a donut even though they want to lose weight: the immediate appeal of something sweet has more power than better health in the future. It's also why people put great effort into choosing kitchen cabinets while ignoring outcomes that will have more impact on their long-term happiness, such as better air quality and lower operating costs.  As a result, they end up with homes that make them poorer and less healthy.

Moving the Conversation

The Map relies on carefully crafted behavioral levers to steer buyers toward making those long-term benefits a priority.  Each lever need only make a small adjustment.  "A decision is less like a flash than a train that follows a track and is diverted one way or another by switches along the way," according to Geppner.

Levers used in the Map process include:

Independent evaluation of criteria.  When making decisions that require them to weigh lots of variables, people rely on mental shortcuts. "They unconsciously winnow down the variables to the five or six most important to them, then produce an intuition," says Geppner.  In the case of choosing a home, buyers who aren't properly led will likely discount the benefits of Zero Energy construction.  The Map's goal is to keep those benefits top-of-mind.

Public commitment.  Each section requires the buyer to verbally commit to evaluating homes in a specific way.  For instance, in the health section, the buyer agrees to prioritize features and benefits that will keep their kids from getting asthma.

Framing.  The map is very deliberate in the way it frames each of the five issues.  For instance, the money section groups home expenses into two emotionally charged categories. "Yours to keep," is money used to help pay down an appreciating asset (the mortgage payment); "Gone for Good" expenses include utility bills and maintenance— costs that high-performance homes reduce.

Loss aversion.  Because people will pay more to avoid a loss than to realize a gain, the Map positions the benefits of Zero Energy construction as loss reduction strategy.  For instance, the acoustic benefits help homeowners avoid sleep loss. "Some homes are quiet and effectively block out noise from outside," it says.  "Others don’t give the occupants any escape from the noise beyond their doors."

Research Based

To develop the Map, Geppner drew on his background as a financial analyst.  "I know how to evaluate a market.  I can see where it's going and also what's broken," he says.  He also relied on peer-reviewed behavioral science models.  These include the Theory of Planned Behavior, which predicts how people's beliefs influence their actions, and the Stages of Change Framework, which explores how people make decisions.

To tailor the behavioral models to homebuyers and sellers, Geppner had about 300 conversations with 80 different architects, builders and homebuyers over the course of a year.  He learned what lies behind the decision to buy or not buy a high-performance home, then crafted an intervention that took these findings into account.

His research also identified what doesn't move people to action.  Emphasizing the payback period of energy-saving features isn't a compelling psychological driver.  Neither is talking about climate change.  "Some buyers want the social rewards of saying they're concerned about climate change," says Geppner.  "What they're usually just saying is 'please like me'."  The smart builder will offer that approval, but will realize that people seldom back these signals with dollars.

In fact, the list of psychological drivers isn't limited to those covered in the Map, though they’re the most universal and powerful.  Other motivations vary according to the buyer, but Geppner says the training will make the salesperson better able to uncover them and include them in the discussion.  "I'm neutral on what drives someone's decision," he says. "If they think that buying a Zero Energy home will ward off a zombie attack, I'm not going to argue with them."

The Map and its sales methodology are just the first in a series of planned tools.  Erase40 is also working on an intervention that Zero Energy builders can use with developers to help them see the benefits of including these homes in their communities, as well as one to help get lenders on board.

All of this work has the same goal: to make it easier for architects and builders to find clients for high performance homes—and to get clients to place a higher value on those homes. 

Geppner is seeking architects and builders who would like to put the Map methodology into practice and help validate its effectiveness.  He invites anyone interested to contact him at James@Erase40.org.

 

The Energy and Environmental Building Alliance is the leading professional organization devoted to making healthy, safe, durable, resource-efficient and smart-grid friendly homes mainstream. For information on its Annual Summit as well as its ongoing training events, please go to www.EEBA.org

 

ILLUSTRATIONS

Cover Photo: Salespeople can use the Meeting Map to guide homeowners through the five issues most impacted by their home homes.

 

James Geppner, a former financial analyst, believes that the use of behavioral science can help builders sell more high-performance homes.

 

The Map uses comparisons and questions to help buyers think through each issue. The goal is to help them conclude that a high-performance home is the only type that will meet their needs.

 

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