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New Paths to Home Performance

Through its training courses, the California Building Performance Contractors Association (CBPCA) gets to know contractors interested in home performance and others you wouldn't expect.

September 07, 2008
September/October 2008
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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For years, many contractors have touted the value of home performance for themselves and their customers.  But a new and surprising crop of innovative professionals are now incorporating home performance into their businesses—with great results.

Through its training courses, the California Building Performance Contractors Association (CBPCA) gets to know them all: the experienced general contractors with an instinct for creating energy-efficient, healthy homes who want to quantify the results of their efforts; the HVAC contractors who know their business inside and out, but who want to integrate their work better with the work of other re mediation professionals; and the insulation contractors who base their estimates on the HVAC system, but who want data to identify the flaws in that system when those flaws affect their work.

But what about the green designers, ecoconsultants, and real estate agents? What are they doing learning how to use blower doors, infrared cameras, and smoke pencils? Well, they’re just taking a page from the contractors’ playbook, finding ways to use home performance to provide better service, attract customers, expand their businesses, and gain more referrals—and to support their over arching goal of providing their customers with more comfortable, energy-efficient, and healthy homes.

Harry Ford, program administrator of the CBPCA, explains it this way: “These folks don’t necessarily take their classroom skills, buy the equipment, and begin home performance testing (although some do), but they take the idea of whole-house evaluations and remediation out into the world. By channeling the home performance concept through their daily work and interactions with homeowners, they can make the public aware of its benefits and reach qualified new customers in a way that contractors may not be able to.”

The CBPCA contacted four of its former students to see how they were using their home performance knowledge in their businesses. Charisse Dunn is a green designer who owns Healing Spaces by Design, in Pasadena, California. Galo LeBron is CEO of Energy Inspectors, with offices in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Diana England is a green consultant and the owner of Homes 2 Health, in Lake Arrowhead, California. And Bryon Minton is a Realtor who owns Live Green Realty Group in Tustin, California. Their stories show that home performance isn’t just for contractors anymore.

Healing Spaces by Design

Charisse Dunn was halfway through design school when a relative’s illness made her realize that she wanted to focus on green design that minimized the use of toxic substances. When she graduated, she worked with other designers on remodels, using traditional approaches and materials. But she wasn’t happy with the results. “I had finished a couple of remodels when I realized that it was like putting icing on a rotting cake,” says Dunn.

In 2006, Dunn went to the West Coast Green conference, and that changed everything. She took training from Build It Green and started performing green home assessments. Her first major project was an 1,800 ft2 house that the owners loved but could barely stand to occupy for four summer months, because the house was unbearably hot. Dunn quickly realized that she needed home diagnostic skills and tools to address the house’s problems.

About two months into that job, she took the CBPCA’s home performance training and brought the trainer, Rick Chitwood of Chitwood Energy Management, to the project to conduct home performance testing. When Dunn conducted her initial assessment before the home performance test, the wife was excited, but the husband was skeptical.

“He looked like ‘You’re going to tell me what’s wrong with my house just by walking around it?’” says Dunn. But she gained his confidence when they looked at the roof and she suggested improving the roof insulation when he had expected her to suggest adding solar panels. “My job is to find the low-hanging-fruit first,” she told him. “Once we reduce your energy use, then we can look at solar panels.”

The owners did eventually decide to add the solar panels, but not until they had decided to take care of the more basic issues first.  These included reducing the size of the air conditioner, adding more roof insulation, and installing Energy Star appliances and energy-efficient lighting.

The most startling suggestion that Dunn and Chitwood made after the testing was to replace the 10-SEER 4-ton air conditioner with a 13-SEER 1.5-ton unit. The couple was floored by the idea. “They told me they couldn’t get cool enough as it was, and just couldn’t understand how that would work,” says Dunn. “Rick explained to them how it would, based on the testing results and the other work that would be done to the house.”

Because Dunn is not a general contractor, she recommends good, qualified contractors trained in home performance. The homeowner then contracts directly with one of these contractors. However, Dunn acts as project manager. She was in the house when the polyisocyanurate insulation was being installed, and she realized that the polyiso would off-gas through gaps in the tongue-and-groove ceiling. She had the contractor seal all the gaps, which not only protected the homeowners from the off-gassing, but also improved the aesthetics of the ceiling.

Another personal touch is the home maintenance manual that Dunn leaves with homeowners after the work is done, complete with before-and-after photos, maintenance tips and a schedule, equipment manuals, and contact information for all the project contractors.

When Dunn’s first project was finished, the homeowners were delighted with the results. “They wrote me a very nice letter expressing how grateful they were,” she says.

Not only did the work increase the homeowners’ comfort, save energy, and improve the aesthetics and usability of the house, but the roof insulation also helped soundproof the home.
 
The success of that initial project, and Dunn’s interest in home performance, have expanded her business. The president-elect of the Pasadena chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) heard her give a presentation on “Green Design and More” at a Green Pasadena Leadership Summit and asked her to present the material to ASID as well.

Dunn also began conducting GreenPoint ratings, has been in the pilot for GreenPoint ratings for existing homes, and has introduced the system to Pasadena Water and Power as a means of rewarding homeowners who conduct energy efficiency retrofits. She thinks the ratings are valuable, but for her own projects, she wants another rater to do the job. “I think it gives the work more credibility,” she says.

Dunn is also developing a library of green products, with displays of insulation made with recycled or renewable materials, bamboo flooring, and so forth, so that designers and contractors can become better acquainted with these materials.  She hopes to have a resource facility available by the end of the year, with one area for professionals and one for the public. She believes that better familiarity with green materials will increase their use.  



Energy Inspectors


Energy Inspectors is the largest HERS company in the United States. Conducting energy inspections and consulting for more than 25,000 new homes and smaller commercial structures in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah each year, the company has found its successful niche in the home energy market. Energy Inspectors was Energy Star Partner of the Year two years running, in 2007 and 2008—the first company ever to achieve that distinction. To top it off, EPA has the company participating in a pilot project to develop and apply energy efficiency standards for high-rise buildings.
So with success in so many areas, why branch out into home performance contracting? “We wanted to take it to the next level,” says Galo LeBron, CEO of Energy Inspectors. “To do thorough energy audits of existing homes.”  In April 2008 LeBron took the CBPCA training course, which helped him chart his company’s future course.

Conducting the home performance audits quickly led to a decision to expand into the remediation aspects of the work as well, and the company is now developing its employee base to provide those services. To ensure reliability, LeBron prefers to provide HVAC, insulation, and other services in-house, rather than contracting them out. “Everyone will be employees of the company,” he says. “That way we’ll be able to provide a consistent service that we can stand behind.”
Energy Inspectors has been a licensed general contractor in Nevada for eight years, and the company is in the process of becoming a general contractor in California and Arizona, so that the company can perform home performance contracting work in those states.

Homes 2 Health

In a world of specialization, Diana England refuses to be constrained. “I help homeowners create a healthy home by using a green approach,” she says. “We may start with simple life changes and end up remodeling their home, from the floor to replacing attic insulation and HVAC systems.”

When England started her business, she focused on steering her clients toward less-toxic products, to make for a healthier indoor environment.   But she quickly realized that this didn’t offset the basic problems that she saw in the houses themselves. “My customers complain that their homes aren’t comfortable and their utility bills are too high, but they don’t know what to do about it,” England says. —And like her customers, she felt less than fully equipped to address those larger issues. “I felt I was doing them a disservice,” she says. “I could recommend using low-VOC paints, but it was clear that because of a bad HVAC system, the air quality in the home would still be a concern.”

Casting about for solutions, she attended a Build It Green conference, where one of the participants suggested that England take the CBPCA home performance training classes. “I thought the CBPCA class was incredible,” she says. “Every green consultant should attend these classes. I took my brother, who has been in home remodeling and repair for years, and he learned a lot too.” In particular, England was impressed by Rick Chitwood, one of the instructors. “He has incredible integrity,” she says.

“He kept emphasizing how it was always necessary to get in there and do the right thing—to work toward the best solution for the whole house.”

Today, conducting home performance audits is a big part of England’s work. For the remediation options suggested by the audits, she recommends a team of contractors she knows who have taken the CBPCA training. Her clients contract directly with members of this team.  There are not a lot of green contractors where England lives, in Lake Arrowhead, California, but she has another team waiting in the wings who are looking forward to taking the next CBPCA class.
England’s customer base is more limited than it would be if she were in a more populous area. Still, she’s finding that local homeowners are interested in home performance. “I have three inspections scheduled for next week,” she says. “The home performance work is getting me in the door of clients that might not have otherwise contacted me for my other services. Coming from an energy perspective, people are more open to it, and they’re more educated about energy use.”

England continues that education, carrying the torch of home performance in presentations at the library and Rotary Club, and with Realtors and brokers. Recently she even went to a local contractors show and just talked with individual attendees. “I got a great response and a lot of interest from the contractors. This is a grassroots effort that can change the housing industry,” she says.

Live Green Realty Group

Bryon Minton started in real estate a decade ago. Since then he has worked as an agent and trained hundreds of agents for Century 21’s Superstar franchise and for ERA. Last year, he and his wife, Joanna, started their own company—Live Green Realty Group, in Tustin, California.

Live Green Realty Group’s mission—“Saving the Planet One Home at a Time”—is listed prominently on its Web site. To work toward this ambitious goal, Bryon knew he needed some pretty effective tools. First, he decided to have all his agents take the EcoBroker training. Certified EcoBrokers identify and market real estate properties with green features to the increasing number of buyers eager to purchase energy-efficient, healthy homes. The training familiarizes agents with the major environmental and energy issues that may arise in housing transactions.

Live Green Realty also does what it can to maximize a healthy office environment and minimize its carbon footprint by using sustainable materials and milk-based paints, by recycling, and even by turning the usual mountain of real estate closing documents into a paperless transaction. At the closing, clients are given a CD of all their home’s important papers.

However, Minton was interested in finding yet better ways to meet customers’ desire for a green home. Joanna Minton researched possibilities on the Internet and found the CBPCA Web site. “She told me the courses sounded like exactly what I needed,” says Minton, “and they were. I was blown away by all the great information. It was such a wonderful education in those nine days.”

Minton brought his knowledge and training back to the office, and the company began conducting home performance evaluations for its real estate clients. Live Green Realty offers a free evaluation to anyone who buys a house through the company. This gives clients sound guidelines for actions they can take to make their house healthier and more energy efficient. “The classes definitely give me an advantage over my competition,” says Minton.

The home performance training is helping Minton to expand his professional contacts in other areas. Recently the California Association of Realtors (CAR) chose Minton as one of three participants in the state to attend a green roundtable meeting about green home issues. Headed by CAR’s vice president, the event was covered in the association’s magazine, which is sent to Realtors throughout the state—giving Minton’s company broad exposure.
For a fee, Minton will conduct home performance evaluations for nonclients, but he has to fit them into his real estate schedule. As for contractors to recommend for remediation work, he’s still looking.  “In my area so far, it’s hard to find home performance contractors to recommend to clients,” he says. He’s working with CBPCA to change that.

Asked if he has trouble finding green homes to sell, his answer is unequivocal. “Every home is a green home,” he says. “By that I mean, there aren’t many green homes available, but with a little home performance and a little time, they can be turned green.”

Minton is happy to have home performance in his tool kit. “Now we encompass so much more than finding a healthy home for our clients,” he says, “and it’s great to have found a way to educate clients in such a simple manner. A few things can make such a difference in comfort, health, and energy savings.”
 
No Matter What the Path, It’s a Winning Game

Conversations with these four graduates of CBPCA’s home performance training illustrated the very different paths that can lead from the training. They also highlighted some key benefits of the training—both for the individuals themselves and for the field of home performance:
  • Noncontractor home professionals can use home performance training to expand their services to their existing client base.
  • The training often gives noncontractors access to, and credibility with, highly qualified homeowners who would not otherwise be aware of ways to improve  their home’s performance.
  • Home professionals who take home performance training but do not conduct remediation themselves can ally themselves with trained home performance contractors whom they can recommend to clients. The home  performance contractors will provide  quality assurance and help to ensure good  customer relations. Some home professionals may move into contracting.
  • Public awareness of the existence and benefits of home performance is increasing as more noncontractor home professionals discuss it with their clients.
For many years, home performance was a contractor’s game. Now others are playing—and winning.

Mark Wilson writes about energy and environmental issues from Nevada City, California. He can be reached at
markwilson@pacbell.net.

For more information:
To find out more about the California Building Performance Contractors Association training and other
services, go to www.cbpca.org.
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