Greening of a Home Performance Contractor

A contractor shares his odyssey toward considering himself - and advertising himself as - a green builder.

May 01, 2005
May/June 2005
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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        How many times have you tried to explain what you do for a living? You say home performance, and your new acquaintance nods blankly. You know better than to say energy efficiency or, even worse, energy conservation; those are real sleep inducers. So you start talking about green buildings and indoor air quality. You see some light of recognition and then your acquaintance says,“Oh, do you put in solar panels?”
        After too many times of saying, “No, we install energy efficiency improvements and you really should improve efficiency before you invest in long-term paybacks like PV, and you really ought to fix your existing house instead of building a new strawbale house,” and then having the new acquaintance immediately lose interest, I decided that our company would at least start installing solar PV panels. Solar electricity and green building have been getting a lot of free publicity through newspaper and magazine articles and societal support.This social marketing effort is bigger than all the investments that EPA and others are making in marketing the Energy Star label. So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and bring your Energy Star with you (see “Letting Green Do Your Marketing,” p. 27).

Real-Life Education

        A number of years ago, as a single dad, I brought my kids to an energy efficiency conference where I was doing a presentation. And it wasn’t just any energy efficiency conference, but a conference focusing on K-12 energy education. I was responsible for my own lodging, so I got a room at a local bed-and-breakfast (B&B) that was marketed as a green building. When we landed at the airport and trudged over to the rental car agency, it didn’t have any compact cars left. So the agency offered us a free upgrade to a brand-new sports-utility vehicle (SUV). I was not interested in the SUV or in driving up to the green B&B in an SUV.My son, Brendan, however, was ecstatic. I explained why I wasn’t, but my resistance did little to dampen his enthusiasm. All it did was put me in the position of denying him. Not wanting his experience of my ethics to be one of denial, I acceded to the SUV, but explained my position.
        We got to the B&B and the conference. We all had a great time. My kids were the only kids there, and all the vendors of educational materials were thrilled to have real kids to talk to.As a result,my kids got a great energy education from someone besides Dad. My son met the conference plenary speaker at the B&B and got him to sign the speaker’s book that he had won in a raffle. Then, during the speaker’s talk, after the review of all the environmental disasters around the world, this speaker paused and said,“So what can we do, here at home? The most important thing we can do here is to stop driving SUVs.” Brendan was mortified and gave me a look to match. The chickens had come home to roost.
        Later that same day, we went to the exhibit floor for the American Solar Energy Society conference that was being held in the same town. Toyota had one of their first Prius cars at the conference. It was so new that all the dash controls were labeled in Japanese. Brendan fell in love with the car. It was new, cool, high-tech, and green, all at the same time. He could have his cake and ride in it too. He didn’t have to deny his desire to be cool in order to be environmentally responsible.
        This same challenge is facing home performance contractors. How do we position home performance as cool, hightech, and green? You and I both know that improving the energy efficiency and performance of existing housing is one of the very best ways to improve our environment, but this truism is not at all well understood by people you might talk to informally at parties,or more importantly, by potential customers. How bad is it? It is so bad that when we recently ran a fullpage newspaper advertising insert, with all sorts of information about efficiency, and one small mention of solar, 80% of the leads we got were solar leads. And this was in New York State, where the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has done a great job of advertising the benefits of home performance to consumers. We got the same relative levels of response in our more progressive hometown, Ithaca, as we got in the nearby, but more conservative, Elmira. The local paper is always doing articles about renewable energy; it hardly ever publishes articles about home performance.
        If you need any further confirmation of the growing market appeal of solar, take a look at California. There, a Republican governor put his Hummer behind a massive solar subsidy program, despite the fact that energy efficiency has better paybacks and more impact on the environment per dollar spent (see “Environmental Trade-offs,” p. 28). But governors understand politics, and the public is behind solar in a big way— much more so than it supports just another humdrum energy efficiency program.
        To appreciate the rising tide of green building’s popularity, take a look at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) annual conference, the Greenbuild Expo. My company, Performance Systems Development, Incorporated, had the honor of helping to start and support this conference and experienced its rapid growth firsthand. For the first year’s conference in Austin,we had hoped for 2,000 attendees; we got more than 3,500. In the second year, in Pittsburgh, there was a repeat performance with over 5,000 attendees. In the third year, in Portland, there were over 7,500 attendees. And all bets are off for the November 2005 conference in Atlanta.
        Still, I don’t want to get trapped by the green label. We are helping many people who don’t care two bits about the green aspect of what we do and in fact may consider solar and green as being too far out. I don’t want those customers to perceive our company as only doing green building and solar. So we have moved gingerly into solar and are walking a careful line. We don’t want to get left behind, and at the same time we don’t want to get too far ahead.

Green Recognition for Building Performance

        We are moving to green in large part because the public recognition of green does not include building performance, even though building performance is, or ought to be, the critical foundation of any green building project. Unfortunately, it is not only the public who fail to recognize the value of building performance. Not all buildings that are built to what the market considers green have good building performance characteristics. For example, two of the buildings at EcoVillage in Ithaca, where the owners took what they considered to be additional steps to make their buildings green, ended up with performance problems as a direct result of taking those steps. The additional green features increased energy use and created building durability problems. In one case, the owners chose to build with strawbale but didn’t compensate for the high level of air connectivity in the strawbales; this created pathways for air to reach the roof deck and cause ice dams. In the other case, the homeowner thought it would be greener and more self-reliant to install ownerbuilt windows—as an uncontrolled label, green is in the eye of the beholder—but these windows were so leaky that we were unable to get the building to pass Energy Star certification. In the rest of the housing development, the typical Energy Star rating was over 90. These green-motivated owners wanted to go beyond the standard to do something better—but without a clear understanding of, and respect for, building performance issues, they ended up worse off. Clearly, taking control of a building and producing a high-quality, low-impact living environment can be made more difficult when natural materials are installed without regard to building performance issues.
        It is very important for the building performance community to reach out to both the green building community and the general public to help both sides to understand how green building and building performance work hand in glove. Seek out the green builders in your area and start to educate them in the principles of building performance, emphasizing the common ground that we already have. Systems thinking is at the heart of both green building and home performance. We teach people to think of the house as a system. True green building expands that approach to thinking of the planet as system. Draw on this common perspective to communicate with green builders. In the commercial sector, it is already clear that the demand for building performance and energy efficiency services is being driven by the market appeal of green building. Will the same thing happen in the residential sector? I think so!

More Than a Green Makeover

        So what does it mean to truly be green? A lot of organizations are trying to establish thresholds of greenness that can be used to support the marketing of green labels. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has just launched a new green building program (see “New NAHB Green Building Guidelines,”p. 11).Regional green building programs are also popping up around the country. And the USGBC is looking to apply its success in the commercial market to the residential market (see “The Evolution of Green Building,” HE Nov/Dec ’04, p. 30).
        I personally like the categories for green that the USGBC set up for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification programs.These include sustainable sites; water efficiency; energy and atmosphere; materials and resources; indoor environmental quality; and innovation and design process. I also appreciate the memberbased public process that established these categories and their associated point scores. I expect that the LEED for Homes rating system, when it comes out, will incorporate these same categories.
        Energy is fundamental to any definition of either “green” or “sustainability.” In the USGBC scoring system, energy is the category that has the most potential points. One of the basic metrics that the sustainability movement uses is the ecological footprint. Simply stated, a footprint calculation involves assessing the impacts associated with all aspects of a person’s lifestyle and comparing that to the carrying capacity of the planet, assuming, for example, that all solar energy on the planet is successfully utilized. When one person uses more than the average carrying capacity, that means that eventually someone else has to go without. The more you use, the faster you will hit the point where the need for energy starts to cause serious conflicts elsewhere. Depending on whom you talk to, our country will reach this point either sooner or later—or it may have already done so.The ecological footprint idea is a key linkage point between the sustainability movement and the environmental benefits provided by energy efficiency poviders.
        And beyond the problem of running out of resources, nonrenewable energy use also creates a wide range of pollutants. In fact, even renewable energy technology creates pollutants in its manufacture— just not as many pollutants and not in the same place as fossil fuels.
        Closely related to a footprint is the concept of embodied energy. An embodied energy calculation captures the energy use of the fabrication and transportation of building materials and incorporates those figures into a reckoning of the total energy use of the building.This goes beyond just figuring the building’s operational energy use, as we in home performance are used to doing. Embodied energy calculations that I have been involved with show that 5%–20% of the total energy used for materials, construction, and operation of a building over its lifetime is embodied in the structure of the building. The less operational energy a building uses, the greater the percentage of embodied energy. So the more efficient a building you are creating—the common goal for both home performance and green building professionals— the more important that building’s embodied energy becomes.
        Another increasingly common metric for green building is the life cycle assessment (LCA). An LCA looks at products from cradle to grave—from materials extraction to product disposal—and it considers a range of impacts, from biodiversity to toxicity. This invites a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons. For example, how do you compare the impact of a wood stud to that of a steel stud? At first glance the steel stud is “artificial” and the wood is “natural.” But where did the wood come from, and what happened to the forests where the wood was harvested? Steel is very easy to recycle or even reuse, and nearly all steel already has substantial recycled content. In most cases, there is no easy answer. And we may not even want one, because if everyone used one product, that product’s overuse might well result

in a different LCA. Conducting a comprehensive LCA is difficult and time-consuming, and beyond the scope of most home performance contractors.However,LCA information for different building materials is available on the Internet, so home performance contractors  can start thinking in this way about the materials we are putting into our houses.
        Health and safety is another important aspect of green building. A building that starts out green in terms of wise materials use but shortly turns green with mold (hopefully not black mold) not only wastes resources but may also be making people sick. Similarly, durability is a key consideration. Paraphrasing David Byrne of the Talking Heads: Build something once—why build it again? Resource-, construction-, and maintenance-related energy use is reduced if buildings are built to last and to adapt to changes over time. I like to recommend Stewart Brand’s excellent book, How Buildings Learn, to both green builders and building performance types. Brand examines how buildings evolve over time to meet changing needs, and which types of building survive by continuing to meet their occupants’ needs; his book is a sort of Darwin’s The Origin of Species for buildings. One conclusion he draws is that buildings that perform well encourage people to take care of them. You can get people to spend the extra effort to take care of poorly performing buildings by making them architecturally significant—Frank Lloyd Wright was good at that—but for the rest of us, one of the best ways to get a building taken care of is to make it a high-performance building.
        Another aspect of green building is minimizing toxins. One toxin that is, or ought to be, already on every home performance contractor’s mind is lead. We have put all our crews through lead-safe training, and they automatically adopt lead-safe practices on every job that has any potential for lead exposure.We have been lucky to get additional training from the local weatherization lead trainers, the New York State Weatherization Directors Association. Another commonly encountered toxin is asbestos. We use only certified asbestos removal contractors.All our crews have their personal high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter masks and Tyvek suits available at all times, and our supervisors reinforce the need to use safety practices.

What Have We Left Out?

        Since performance is really the foundation for green homes, what is home performance currently missing? What does home performance need to be able to proudly receive public recognition for its inherent greenness? In addressing this question for my company, I have tried to focus on the big items. I don’t want to get too caught up in the fuzzy details of trying to be green and lose sight of the big picture of making buildings work. But when my company can reduce our environmental impact by making clear and economically viable choices,we will make them.
        We can go beyond our regular operations in several key areas. We can reduce our introduction of toxic substances into the environment.We can use recycled materials and recycle our own waste.We can improve the efficiency of our own operations. And when we implement changes that make us different, we can effectively communicate that to our customers.
        First let’s look at the materials we use. As home performance contractors, we install a lot of materials in the houses we work on. We should already be being careful about the toxins we might introduce directly into the home. But what about the hazardous compounds created and then lost into the environment, as seen in the LCA? The bigimpact actions on the materials list are reducing materials with a toxic production process, eliminating toxic materials that can eventually get into the environment through the waste stream, reducing smog-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs),and reducing gases that increase global warming.When we started looking at how to make our business greener,we came up with the concept of total toxic load. How do we avoid putting more toxic substances into the environment—not just in the house, but anywhere in the world, as part of resource extraction, fabrication, transportation, installation, or disposal?
        The materials list for a home performance contractor is much shorter than that for a home builder. Just nine items account for 95% of the materials we install. These items are insulation, windows, doors, air sealing, boilers and piping, furnaces and air conditioners, ductwork, lighting, and appliances. So let’s examine these items.
        Insulation. We mostly install cellulose insulation. Cellulose is created from waste wood fiber in the form of newspaper. It is treated with a boric acid fire retardant, a relatively nontoxic substance that, by the way, helps to control insects—a big winner, though we are getting some pushback from chemically sensitive folks who are concerned about the inks in the newspaper. Our response is to be sure that we install the cellulose behind a sealed air barrier when we can, especially when we are dealing with a client who is chemically sensitive.We are considering spray foams for certain installations and will choose foam that is based on soy oil, both for its reduced environmental impact and for its green marketing potential. Our installation process deals with lead and asbestos in appropriate ways.
        Windows.We used to install a vinyl replacement window, because of its cost competitiveness and durability, but we have moved to metal or vinyl-clad wood replacement windows. The wood replacement windows reduce the amount of vinyl we are using. The production of vinyl has been targeted by groups such as Greenpeace for its impact on the environment. We like the low-maintenance aspect of the vinyl,but we see no need for the entire window to be vinyl.
        Air sealing. We are working to reduce the amount of foam we use in air sealing, and are moving toward using mastics and other innovative techniques. Most foam insulation has propellant chemicals in it that degrade the atmosphere— either through smog production or by increasing global warming. Foams tend to be overused, even though they are not inexpensive; their main saving is in labor. Who has not seen a pile of foam used to fill a small hole? We are looking for labor- and cost-saving alternatives.For example, Darin Hughes of Hughesco, Incorporated, has started mixing latex with joint compound and spraying the mixture using a compressed-air setup.
        Boilers and piping. The key green issue in installing boilers and piping are plastic piping and mercury. Mercury is a very persistent toxic substance that damages the nervous system at low levels of exposure. Mercury is found in switches, thermostats, controls, and the like. We avoid mercury in all our installations and are very careful when we remove it from the buildings we treat. We find appropriate ways to collect and dispose of the mercury we remove. I understand that Honeywell, a major manufacturer of thermostats and controls, has a mercuryrecycling program. (There is a mercury recyclers association; their Web site is We still use PVC for exhaust piping. Combustion exhaust is not an area for experimentation. Metal piping has a history of failing when it is exposed to the corrosive acids in the exhaust. Other plastics lose structural integrity and sag at a lower temperature than PVC does. So we feel that this is an appropriate use of vinyl.
        Furnaces, air conditioners, and ductwork. The challenges here are pretty much the same as they are with boilers, except for the effects of using flex duct and the global warming impacts associated with the use, and corresponding loss, of refrigerants. As home performance contractors, we know the performance hazards of flex duct
and we are already on a mission to reduce its use. We also like to bury ducts with cellulose when we get the chance. There are several environmentally appropriate refrigerant choices for new equipment. The relative global warming impact of most refrigerants is very high.According to the Energy Information Agency, 2003 emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), typically used in refrigerants,were equivalent to 111 million tons of CO2, so capturing old refrigerants and preventing refrigerant leaks is a big way to improve the environment. We are also promoting groundsource heat pump systems as a choice in our climate, which has both a heating and a cooling demand.
        Lighting and appliances.There is a variable amount of mercury content in fluorescent lighting. Research by groups such as Envirospec is helping to develop databases that large purchasers or even contractors can use to help them select lighting that is lower in mercury. Our nonenergy efforts in the appliance area are limited at this point to recycling. NYSERDA has wisely included appliance recycling in its refrigerator replacement program. Of course we install only Energy Star appliances, and we educate our customers about plug load issues.
        Finally, there is the issue of recycling and reducing waste.We recycle and reuse houses by making them work better and last longer. This becomes increasingly important as land becomes more and more scarce. The greenest building you can build is not a new one; it is a reused old one. So the more we know about making existing buildings work, the bigger the positive impact we have on the environment.We also recycle waste at the job site and salvage materials like radiators. These reusable materials are donated to a local nonprofit materials recycler in exchange for donation receipts.
        We continue to make our operations more efficient by taking into account the fuel economy of our vehicles when we purchase them, and by improving the efficiency of our building. We also purchase green products for use in our own office.
        All of the above information can be used to help customers understand how we are greening our business. We put this information on our Web site and include it in our presentations to customers. The more they feel that we are treating the environment right, the more we will get referrals from customers who care about that part of our work.
        Greening your business is the right thing to do, both to help protect the environment and to help create important linkages to a rapidly expanding market (see “The Business Advantages of Home Performance Versus Renewable Energy”). There are a lot of commonsense things we can do to take the next step to green our businesses. We may think we are already green—maybe even greener than the neighbors— but if we don’t learn to speak the language and effectively communicate what we are doing, we may miss major opportunities. Residential green construction and remodeling is busy and growing, with or without building performance. My experience is that green remodelers,and even consumers, are ready to hear about the importance of building performance. Building performance is part of what they see as a general move toward best practices that include protecting the environment. We may tend to see green building as represented by the more fringe elements, as is often the case with social movements,but there are also a lot of solid practitioners who want to do the right thing and they see the right thing as green building. We are doing building performance for just the same reason. I think we have a lot to talk about together.

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