Is It Time To Give Up On High-Performance Homes?

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To those of us in the industry, the term 'high-performance home' has a clear definition. It's one with a good building enclosure. That is, it's airtight and insulated well. It has properly sized, installed, and commissioned heating and air conditioning systems, including the distribution side. Because it's airtight, it also has mechanical ventilation. The result is a home that's comfortable, healthful, durable, and energy efficient. Apparently that's not good enough.

Suzanne Shelton is the president of the Shelton Group, a marketing firm that focuses on the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors. Her company regularly surveys for attitudes and understanding in our industry, and they've found that 84% of the people don't know what the heck a high-performance home is. As a result, Shelton said in a recent Builder Magazine article, "We must stop using this term unless we’re going to really make the effort (i.e., support with marketing dollars) to make it meaningful to consumers."

I like the term myself, but I have to agree with her. If we want to make a difference—We do!—we need to speak in language that people will understand. Jargon is the death of communication with outsiders, and if the term 'high-performance home' isn't understood by the people we'd like to see living in them, it's just more jargon.

So what's the solution? That's the eternal question asked by programs like Passive House and LEED as well as contractors and building analysts on the front lines. What do we call these things?

As much as I'd like there to be a perfect name, though, I don't think there is. The answer, though, may lie in the stories we tell about what we do. An early version of the Energy Vanguard website had an intro on the home page that began, "Imagine a house..." I then described the benefits of living in a high-performance home so that it was perfectly clear to an outsider what they'd get out of investing in one, whether it be through renovation or new construction.

I like to follow William Zinsser's advice and write simply (except when it comes to turbo encabulators). Zinsser cut to the heart of the matter in his masterpiece, On Writing Well:

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

Do we really need a special name if we just tell them what they're getting?

 

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Comments

Tapani Talo

Indeed, even architects and engineers are in the 'vacuum' in understanding basics due lack of education, training, market forces. Real estate people could not care less.  
It is very sad to be in a conference at times where out of 500 there are maybe 3 participants addressing real information. 
We will never survive due to this. In USA we grew up in the land of plenty, never understanding that resources are limited, and wars always result with lack of them.

Danny Gough

Right on Allison. But I'm afraid there is no simple one or three word description that describes all the elements we BS nerds want to convey 
 
Some years ago, I was discussing this very topic with a friend who teaches marketing at Wake Forest. She told me the industry suffers from "the law of non-oneness". I think I know what she was saying. Then again, she could have made it all up. You know how those PHD's are.

Thomas Dugan

"high performance" should be expanded to include resistance to natural disasters, like hurricanes, tornadoes, wild-fires, earthquakes, etc. I build hurricane resistant homes that also resist other natural disasters and are extremely energy efficient.

pat

I still wonder if "high-performance" is the only term we have left. All the others are too difficult to explain to customers. Most people know what a high performance car is. It's a better performing, heavy duty longer lasting car. And its a term that has been around for awhile.  
A certain association has taken to calling a high-performance home as green and/or energy efficient AND has significant Universal Design features. Now I could see how the Realtors could wrap their arms around that. So it's not a stretch to call a subset of the housing market "high-performance" homes especially when they have been remodeled to achieve this level. Sometimes it is just about checklists. Everyone is looking for the "silver bullet" that defines certain homes. Maybe it comes from the remodeling industry that has to deal with the leaky,and non-green, 30-60 yr old homes. When you add in UD features you have a "high-performance" home that can appeal to all buyers young or old. 
The other scenario is what happens in states where the IECC 2012 is adopted and it all but takes away the marketing effort of building green. What is left for words to use to market these homes.

Armando

I disagree with y’all. I’ve stop talking to my clients about “green building” and use the High-performing house term only, and I explain why. The issue is how well we educate our clients. Several years ago I started doing a 20 min. PPT presentation in Building Science and High-performing homes, yes 20 minutes! It’s very simple presentation with lots of pictures, but drives all the critical steps of their home construction. After the 20 min. I seat back and start answering their questions. If explained correctly, folks get it.  
Once we get the job, and from the moment we start designing and building their house, we explain the reasons how and why we do certain things, so by the time our clients move in their new house, most of them feel that they have gone through school. It’s very well accepted and appreciated. 

Tom Miller

Hmmm. Interesting issue about the term High Performance Homes. What if we were talking instead about boats? 
 
Would Regular Boats leak? If boats all leaked we'd probably say that it is a pretty crappy boat. But if we're talking about a home, it would be called what....built to code? 
 
A Well-Built Boat keeps the water out. Perhaps a Well Built Home is one that keeps the weather out, for starters, anyway.  
 
I guess the point is, we wouldn't settle for a leaky boat, so why would we expect home buyers to settle for "leaky" homes?  
 
Probably not a perfect analogy, but I'd feel pretty good about living in a Well Built Home.

ted kidd

 
Hmmm... X% (20-40) less consumption per square foot than the neighborhood average? 
 
Idk about these euphamisms and abstractions for energy consumption. WHERE'S THE BEEF?  
 
We need metrics. 
 
'High performance car'is kinda empty without 0-60, 1/4 mile, and mpg. Simple, understandable numbers to compare against. 
 
Mpg isn't a great representation of vehicle fuel cost per mile, but it's better than the 'nothing' that preceded it.  
 
What simple metrics are tired to high performance homes? What is the kW and cost per sf/year? 
 
To have meaning I think it must have reference to real numbers, not just to more proxies. 

Ryan Moore

"We must stop using this term unless we’re going to really make the effort (i.e., support with marketing dollars) to make it meaningful to consumers," says Suzanne Shelton, and I agree 100%. It's a soundbite world, and lacking a better alternative I think we need to make the effort to make it meaningful to consumers. As an industry we need to be out front on it (as many of us are) and define it before it gets hijacked like "green."  
 
The question is, how do we coordinate the effort? Is it just too difficult to make the effort (which is what I think Ms. Shelton is implying)?

Thomas Dugan

At risk of repeating myself, we need to consider "high performance" beyond simple energy efficiency. Consider why they have started naming storms this past winter. I live at the coast and the insurance industry is very quick to exclude "named storms" as part of basic insurance. You have to buy wind/hail policies and flood policies and these are very expensive. High performance should include disaster resistance as well. Many of the things that I do to resist hurricanes also make my homes more energy efficient. For instance, closed cell foam is structural as well as highly efficient for stopping air infiltration and heat conduction. Metal roofs for high winds also works as a radiant barrier. Building science is not limited to energy efficiency.

Tapani Talo

at Zero to 10 deg weather in the winter or at blazing summer heat after a storm when power lines are down, one can still have 70 deg inside (summer or winter) , enough power to operate basics. refrigerator, freezer, water, cellular phones and cook. 
That's high performance that is very simple these days to build without extra cost.

Skye Dunning

Thomas, I may be mistaken but I thought it was just The Weather Channel that started naming winter storms. 
 
People don't know what high performance home means but they don't know what any of the other likely terms mean either. The term "high performance" indicates, to any sensible person, that the home performs better than the average home. It's true that they don't know the details behind that claim, but they know from experience with other things (cars mostly) what the idea behind the claim is, which is more than you can say about any of our other choices. 
 
I think Ted is exactly right that we should be using utility costs/sq.ft. to calculate and explain energy costs.

Debbie Coleman, Architect

I was about to post that we use the phrase "high-performance home" for the homes we design, but then a glance at our home page did not show that term! (I know I use it when speaking to clients.) Instead I saw "energy-smart", but again, what is that? I like the phrase "beyond-code" too, but feel that needs to go hand in hand with some education as I hear a lot of complaining about what "the code made me do..." Martin Holladay uses the phrase "pretty good house" which I also like for its simplicity. "Energy Star" seems to be the most marketable phrase at the current time. I suggest to clients that they at least strive for Energy Star even if they don't follow through with certification which can be difficult in rural areas where there might not be a HERS rater near by.

David Eakin

For the generic home buyer, there is no verbage that works. "High performance" compared to what? When is "built to code" not "good enough"? What we need (and has been talked to death) is a single, universally-applied (only 1; used everywhere regardless of builder preference or building codes) SCORE CARD. You can use it for comfort, health (mold, radon, etc.), energy use, storm damage resistance, just about anything you might think of importance to a buyer and that can be used in future iterations of technology.

Simon Paschalides

People relates more to Energy Efficient Homes instead? 
Once they understand, and accept this one, with the cost it involves. Then we could take the next step to high Performance homes.

Richard Beyer

Consumers do not know what high-performance home means no more than the men/women who build and design these homes do. Ask any small to mid size builder what building science means and they look at you like your hair is green. Most think it's a practical joke being played on them.  
 
There's something to be said for the old time builders who believe a home needs to breathe. I think their right. I also think we can have it both way's if we can construct a home with a safer plan than the current practices I see today.  
 
There's a much larger problem lurking in these "High Performance" homes. Chemical toxicity. A lack of standards for human health, chemical use, proper ventilation and filtration techniques. There's literately no unbiased research to prove these modern techniques are safe for adults and children to live in.  
Chemical lobbyist are preventing this. 
 
People are being blinded by energy conservation. Allison Bailes recently wrote about ventilation due to his interview of Berkeley Phd., Ian Walker. This proves Building Science is making the rules up as they go along. This makes each one of these High-Performance home buyer's modern day lab rats and the men/women who build them.  
 
"If it's not making them sick, it's okay. If it makes a few sick, it's okay. If it's good for the masses and only a few are affected, that's the sacrifice we must make"  
 
Wake up people!  
 
We are not building homes from a simple tree anymore. We are building homes with a tree modified by extreme chemistry. We are insulating these homes with known toxic chemicals.  
 
There seems to be a competition today over who can build the tightest home?  
 
Why are we doing this when we do not know how to properly ventilate these homes so they are safe? Where do you think all these toxic VOC's are going inside these homes? That's right! In your (grand)child's lungs, blood and organs and yours to. Think I'm a pain in the your back side? Just wait until all the Momma Bears in this country figure out building science is playing Frankenstein with their children.  
 
Seems some researchers in California are figuring this out faster than most care to admit to.

Dale Sherman

The term 'high-performance homes' doesn't provide a scaleable relationship to other homes. A national PSA campaign to introduce a performance metric such as Home Energy Score (HES) or HERS rating would provide the public with a clear definition of just what a high performance home looks like.  
HomeStar was supposed to provide a home rating, but didn't come to be for a number of reasons. As an industry, we would do well to have a universal home performance rating number that the public could readily relate to.

Thomas Dugan

As everyone is about to see, this is a very complex topic and we could write volumes about it. 
Let us take energy costs first: The shell of the building can only be modified so much to lower energy costs. That is because there is what I call a "habitation cost" that applies to energy used simply because we live there. The easiest way to get a simple base number is to take your energy costs for the swing months of April and September where inside and outside temps are very similar and the envelope makes the least amount of difference. Energy used is for lighting, cooking, entertainment, etc. So when you look at the dollars that can be saved in order to justify spending money to save it, the number can be considerably lower than many folks try to sell you. Plus you only have eight or nine months that are not swing months that you can influence with your savings. 
Next, I would like to comment further on the "breathing house" myth. When a house breathes on its own, you have no control over when and how it does so. That means nasty things like vermin feces dust, radon, vehicle fumes, pollen/dust and simple humidity come in as well. The whole point of sealing the structure is to allow building science to engineer in the proper air changes through venting that gives of control over what comes in and the means to treat it as necessary through filtering, dehumidifying or humidifying, etc.  
Sealing in bad chemicals is a simplistic response to not understanding the whole picture. Leaving a house drafty is just lazy building.

Harris Woodward

You guys are making things, as is typical for BS nerds, too complicated. The definition is "per·for·mance: the execution or accomplishment of work, acts, feats, etc." 
 
It's simple really: when compared to a code-built home (ok, IECC 2012 raises the bar) a "high performance" home accomplishes "work", "acts" and "feats" that include resisting thermal bridging and air infiltration, HVAC systems that act in harmony with the enclosure, managing indoor air quality and water/vapor, and generally performing in a manner that is better than minimum code. 
 
Measurably better. 
 
If past is prologue then the HERS Index of a built home is an efficacious indicator of a given builder's ability to deliver on performance. MPG, HERS Index, grams of Sugar, cholesterol level... all of these are accepted metrics and predictors of performance. 
 
High performance is not complicated. Communication is. This is apparent because we are having this damned conversation! 
 
Detroit took a cue after the bailouts of 2009 (GM, Chrysler). They are now making fantastic cars and trucks that don't even resemble the crap pushed on us in 2008. They perform and the sales numbers prove that Americans approve. 
 
But from the view of the typical home buyer/owner, they cannot test drive a high performance home. They cannot feel it perform during a rudimentary walk-through that is most often focused on granite countertops. Communication, therefore, is paramount. Without a car window sticker or an FDA approved label, we must educate buyers on what high performance means. 
 
Period. Full stop.

C Magli

I come at it from the homeowner perspective. My wife and I are in the process of designing our new home. Since this home will be built on family property and wanting it to last generations, I've spent months researching "high performance" homes. My payback period is longer and my threshold to abandon a malfunctinoing home on family land is really high, so I have huge incentive to get this right. That's not always the case with the general public.  
 
I've read that the average homeowner stays in their home seven years. According to the DOE, the average newly built home consumes somewhere around $2,400 a year in utilities. So speaking strictly to energy efficiency (and not including subjective measures of comfort), the most the public has to gain is saving $2,400 a year. That's nothing to sneeze at, I understand, but to achieve that savings would require a home on the cutting edge of building science.  
 
So let's say an achievable target in most situations is 50% of that number or $1,200 a year. That's still a lot of money. So why don't people seek out energy efficient homes? 
 
I don't think there is a single, complete answer to that question. Contrary to what I've read, it is going to cost me a premium over a code built house to achieve my energy efficiency goals. I don't think people want to pay a 5% to 15% premium for house with a chance to save $1,200 a year. Especially when they only plan to stay there 5 to 10 years. It seems a very rational decision to me. Further, If I'm a builder, why would I tell my subs to change what they've been doing for years so I can sell a house for the same money?  
 
Lastly, at least in terms of existing homes, we've had a HERS score for years. It's called the utility bill. I'm a commercial real estate broker and although I don't sell many homes, I've sold a a dozen or more over the years. I'd say in most of those instances, the Buyer asked for the previous 12 months utility bills. 
 
 
That'a a long-winded way to say, I don't have a good answer. I'm sure some of my analysis is based on faulty data, but if my experience is representative of the general public, then that's what is important anyway.  
 
 
 
 
 
 

Thomas Dugan

To Magli: Please read my previous entry regarding the math on energy consumption. Unless you have a totally vacant building with no people, it is virtually impossible to reduce energy consumption as you have depicted. A single family home with two people living in it will consume $50-$75 per month in electricity independent of HVAC usage. Then you have to remove the swing months from the envelope math. Out of the $2400 per year energy cost, you will be lucky to have $1500-$1800 to work with. So optimistically cutting that in half by using the best BS available only nets you about $750-$900 per year. That is a horrible payback in most cases. 
However, if you change you goal to building a disaster resistant home that also is energy efficient, you can achieve both while spending similar dollars. I highly recommend you look into precast insulated concrete wall panels from Superior Walls of America. It is all that I build with. The single weakest link in building today is the stick framed exterior wall. It is both structurally flawed and horribly inefficient from an energy viewpoint.

Harris Woodward

Good post @C Magli. Since most of us mortgage our homes, let's look at cost of performance in terms of the monthly nut. 
 
I can super-insulate a 3,000SF home for about $5K extra. Then spend $7K more for a high-efficiency heat pump. Spend $3K more for a heatpump-type water heater, Energy Star appliances, and light bulbs. Then I'll spend $30K for a 6kW solar PV array. 
 
TOTAL: $45K 
Monthly payment = $242 (on a 30yr note at 5%) 
 
> WHAT DO I GET FOR $242/mo you ask? Answer: 
 
1. Probably that much less on your monthly electric bill, so we're at break-even (save $242/mo in energy costs because your electric consumption is much lower, and you're producing solar power to offset most of that consumption). Think: Net Zero Energy home. 
2. Much greater durability, comfort, indoor air quality. 
3. A Federal Income Tax credit of $9,000 on the solar PV array. In most "blue" states you can expect even more incentives - visit www.dsireusa.org for more info. 
4. A home that will appraise for more than comparable homes. Maybe not so much now... but in the future when we're having global thermonuclear war over energy, it will. 
 
How does it feel to mortgage your energy efficiency investment, get a mortgage tax deduction, and get paid $9,000 for doing so? 
 
I'd say the juice is worth the squeeze.

Danny Gough

C Magli, 
Your comments were exceptionally insightful. We need more of that type wisdom from the folks we imply we work for.  
 
I'm curious if you have given comparable research time to determine what, if anything, you have to do to assure your new home will be healthy, safe and comfortable. If so, what have you found that is essential? 

C Magli

Harris,  
 
You just about described my house. Except I got quoted $33k for a 10kw solar array before tax credit. The solar company saw my plans and orientation and expect it to produce $1850 worth a year at current price. (cheaper) Solar is a game changer in my opinion. As you suggest, it makes net zero for the general public within striking distance.  
 
It took me a quite a bit of research to come to your conclusion. There is just so much variability and opinion. What kind of insulation and where? Sips, stick or icfs?, heat pump, gshp, or mini split? double pane or triple? On and on. Every situation is unique and all these seem to have there place in the "quiver" so to speak. Throw in the geographical differences and not just in terms of climate, but in building practices and it just gets more confusing. It doesn't help that I over analyze stuff to death, but that's just who I am. 
 
I would not recommend someone else to do what I did. I'd suggest they hire an expert, which is what I did anyway (to answer Danny's question), and I'm happy to have hired E3 Innovate as a consultant for the design and construction process.  
 

Bill Webb, MIRM

I am a career-long new home marketer who lives professionally to connect my builder and Realtor clients to their customers in ways that build market share and profit margins. With that as a launching point, may I suggest first that everyone read the Suzanne Shelton article. It contains many truths.  
 
In my opinion, Green is a philosophy. It has adherents who derive emotional satisfaction from their connection to it and thereby become willing to pay more to receive that extra reward. Energy Efficiency, on the other hand, is a strategy that in its very title conveys value. As Jimmy Fallon proved shortly before he burst on the scene full force, almost everybody loves cash back. 
 
My clients never mention Green. Our thinking is that home buyers believe Green costs more and never pays for itself. Only resale buyers of Green homes have a realistic chance of receiving a positive financial return.  
 
On the other hand, cost neutral energy efficiency is the best new home marketing strategy I have encountered in my career - all the more wonderful because it came from the federal government as part of the fabulous Builders Challenge program. Striving since to improve political correctness by diluting the clear value proposition of energy efficiency with Green add-ons, the current Challenge Home program seems to be flopping about like a dying fish.  
 
All of this is to suggest it does not matter how much building scientists are proud of building science or Green-believers are proud of Green. It only matters how much consumers find a personal benefit to them in whatever we choose to offer.  
 
This, then, is a clearly defined marketing challenge. Our building science is excellent. Our connection with consumers; not so much. 
 
I'm OK with "High Performance" as another adjective phrase that can be used in describing the value proposition of Energy Efficiency. My only reservation is that it carries with it a male-oriented connotation which is not an entirely happy circumstance.  
 
Even so, I tend to believe the solution lies not in withdrawing our use of "High Performance" as a descriptive term, but in branding the benefit package more powerfully. A topic for another day, perhaps?

John C.

How about letter grades, which everyone understands.... 
 
Translate HERS scores into letter grades such that a Passive House or net-zero house gets an A+, a PGH gets an A or A-, well-built or retrofit places get in the B's, current code houses get a 'C' (which is 'average' after all), and older leaky barns gets D's. 
 
Easy.

DIXIE WONG

I would appreciate your posting the article that you referred to...."Imagine a house......"