The Building Science Buy-in Challenge
Last month I read a nice little article by Steve Baczek about getting buy-in from the various stakeholders involved with building a home. He's an architect who works closely with the people who build the homes he designs. He's also a former US Marine who understands the importance of what he calls "a ladder of leadership and responsibility." After meeting with the crew building a new high-performance home he designed, he said they're "efficiently working on the project with a clear understanding of where to focus their efforts and where not to." But he benefited, too. He gained "a better grasp of how the crew dealt with my drawings."
When I talk to people who work with contractors, I often hear the other side of this issue. The big complaints are that it's really difficult to get buy-in. I hear this from code compliance verifiers, home energy raters, and even folks involved with Passive House projects. The air sealing crew misses important details. Someone comes along later and cuts a hole that wasn't planned. The HVAC installers don't pull the flex duct tight. Builders say they can't take the time to have the kind of meetings that Baczek described because they're paying interest every day on a $400,000 lot.
What's the solution? Is there a general solution? How do we get buy-in from the majority of stakeholders, not just a few on high-end or high-profile projects?
The obstacles to buy-in
When you see how homes are built, it's kind of amazing that they turn out as well as they do. Corbett Lunsford nailed it in this little video comparing car manufacturing to homebuilding.
Here are a few things I think make it difficult to get the kind of buy-in on a large scale that Baczek gets with his projects:
A whole lot of independent companies working on each project - builder, framer, plumber, electrician, HVAC contractor, drywall installer, painter, cabinet installer, and on and on. Each company comes in with a greater or lesser degree of expertise in their own field but usually without a more general understanding of building science. And to make it worse, each company may have several crews. You might work with one of their crews and get them up to speed on one project and then get a different crew on the next project.
Lack of consistency among builders, codes, and programs - When the workers show up to different jobs and are told to meet different specs, it's hard for them to know what's expected from one day to the next. Statewide building codes can make this is easier, but then there's...
Varying levels of code or program enforcement - If building inspectors are too busy to much beyond a drive-by inspection, some folks take the easy way out and do less than they should. Same is true for third party home energy raters and code compliance verifiers. Some do sloppy work. And hey, let's just say it: Some companies cheat. If they do their own quality assurance, it's not impossible to get away with that either.
Not getting credit for energy efficiency and green features in appraisal - The Appraisal Institute has a provision for getting for those things but it hasn't really caught on yet.
Understanding the what but not the why - This one isn't an issue of buy-in really, but it definitely can affect the final product. The photo of the fiberglass insulation below shows an example the work of someone who got the what but not the why.
These are the things that occurred to me as I've been mulling over Baczek's article for the past few days.
Opportunities for increasing buy-in
Once we have an idea of what the obstacles are, we can formulate a plan. Home building is a business and I think one of the biggest ways to achieve the kind of buy-in we'd like is to show how it can make the business more profitable. One way to do that is in the list above: Get credit in the appraisal for green building features and certifications. Use the Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum from the Appraisal Institute. If the appraiser who shows up doesn't use it or won't use it properly, get a different appraiser who will.
As the video above makes clear, building houses on-site can lead to a lot of problems. Factory-built housing has a bad name in this country because people automatically think of mobile home parks. But factory-built housing includes a lot more than trailers. There are some really good modular builders and panelized construction companies who can reduce a lot of the problems of building on-site. The Passive House community has sprouted several here in North America: BuildSmart, Prefab Passive House, and GoLogic, for example.
Another way builders can be more profitable by buying into building science and green building: By reducing the amount of money they have to spend in their warranty programs. If you pay attention to the details and build good houses, you have fewer callbacks. Some builders get this. They've changed their practices and seen how the extra money they spend upfront to get buy-in saves them more money on the back end. When the crews that do the work, what Baczek calls the "fire teams," buy into the what and the why on a project, the result is a project that performs as it was intended. Yes, things can still go wrong, but overall, projects with buy-in will have fewer problems, fewer callbacks, and fewer dollars spent to fix things that should have been done right from the beginning.
Finally, perhaps the main ingredient is follow-through. If all you do is have a meeting to go over the details and then come back when the project is finished to see if they did what you wanted, you're likely to be disappointed. Someone has to be in charge of making sure things get done properly all the way through the project.
Baczek is one of those people who takes the follow-through part seriously. Here's a reply he posted to my LinkedIn comment on his article:
It's funny Allison, just yesterday I visited one of my projects under construction. The foundation sub asked "Who are you?" I said the Architect, to which he replied "No Shit, why you here" I said "Just checking in to ensure my drawings are working out for you, and you don't have any problems, or questions". He said " but I'm just putting in the footings and foundation" I said "I know, shouldn't we ensure we are getting this right" He said, "No your right, just never had the architect care about what I do" To which I replied, " We can't be a team, if we don't share our concerns as one". He said "Thank You"...
Getting buy-in is a big, complex topic. I've touched on a few of the issues here and ignored others. Of course a code-minimum house will be different from a house going for LEED or Passive House certification. Production builders, likewise, have different aims from small custom builders. Still, there's a lot of overlap and everyone wants to be more profitable (if they intend to stay in business, anyway).
What do you see as the big obstacles to getting buy-in? What solutions have you found?
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