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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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This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. The most pressing problem
    The most pressing problem right now in my area is that we are trying to build at a “boom” rate using a labor force still shrunken by the long bust…in other words anybody any good is super busy.

    It will be interesting to see when and whether the labor force expands again.

    I teach part time at a local apprentice program which gives me some sense of the labor pipeline.

  2. My problem so far is the
    My problem so far is the belief that MEP systems are solely responsible for energy savings. Getting an opportunity to retrofit an existing building to be net zero energy. Make suggestions to significantly increase the amount of insulation, all new triple pane windows, add skylights for daylight harvesting. Shot down. That is too expensive. We don’t have money for that. But there is money for moving existing overhead utility lines away so the building is more photogenic.

    I’m getting very cynical. I have not found solutions. Architects are artists first. Building science is a list of restrictions that they don’t like.

  3. Design charrettes are helpful
    Design charrettes are helpful. Our work is largely retrofit, but if all involved can give their feedback and ideas, it helps immensely. We don’t do a single large charrette, but rather the bids and work are mini-charrettes with the homeowner plus the insulation and HVAC company owners (we use smaller shops, so owners bid) and then the insulation and HVAC company crews during the jobs (which I’m there for much of the time.)

    Most of our projects see 40%+ leakage reductions and solve client problems. It’s tricky to translate that to new construction, but basically open communication like Steve did is critical. It just takes more time, there are no shortcuts.

    Also, efficient homes really need to be valued more. And it need to be based on actual consumption, not modeled. I’ve written some and will be writing more about this. If we don’t create demand pull rather than supply push, we will continue to struggle. Demand pull comes from happy clients and market value. We need to create both.

  4. Hi Allison (and Steve),
    Hi Allison (and Steve),

    I’ve been thinking about this topic from a different perspective. In 2004 I made a decision to pigeonhole my frim as ‘only green’ architects. It was really rough going for a long time (man I was poor! and I was mocked!) but now we are securely pigeonholed and loving it. We only ever talk to people who are invested and all of our contractors and subs are fully on board and knowledgeable about how to make anything from a Pretty Good House to a Passive House happen. We never have to convince any of the stakeholders. Clients come to us for this reason and they are already believers.

    But we live in a bubble. I understand this because every once in a while I run into someone who really wants to get into our niche or dabbles in it (whether architect or builder). And all they talk about is the question of how to get stakeholders invested. They speak constantly of people who are not on board with the program and who are non-believers and how hard it is to convince people so they usually end up giving up.

    Fully understandable. Within our bubble we are currently trying to stop using spray foam. So hard! Because I have to convince my ‘already full believer clients’ to take it to the next level. I give up half the time. Some clients are not ready for that level. It’s exhausting to keep pushing and people get upset.

    I do believe that the bottom line that always does work is simple evidence. Usually this comes in the form of money savings, healthy homes, and in the experience of living in one of these houses.

    Data, and keeping it simple may be some of the keys to our success. We are making some inroads into Greening the MLS and codes have changed. We have made progress…

    But I know that people glaze over when I start explaining too much. I was at a cocktail party talking to a “normal” person, explaining what I do. First I made my elevator speech. Vague Nodding. Second, I started with the more in-depth explanation of how and why we do what we do. Crickets. Finally, tired of talking, I said ‘Basically if you live in one of our houses you pay about $18 per month for all of your utilities, the air temperature and humidity are always perfect- like living in LA, your kids have no more allergies, and you never hear any sounds of equipment kicking on or off- it’s really really quiet. The person looked at me and said ‘Wow! You can really live in a house like that?’ I said “Yeah, really, you can. That’s what I do.”

    Maybe we have to just talk REALLY LOUDLY AND REALLY SIMPLY (like our glorious leader!) about how what we build is COMPLETELY different. I am not sure… but man I’m happy in my bubble. Now we just got to expand the bubble!

    1. Yes, let’s expand the bubble!
      Yes, let’s expand the bubble! As a Passive House homeowner, I do my part by hosting tours. We share utility bills as well as data on temperature and humidity. Being in the house gives the visceral feel of comfort. The people who come to the house may “get it” by feeling it, but how they convey and pass on the message is questionable.

      That’s why I love your simple message: “Basically if you live in one of our houses you pay about $18 per month for all of your utilities, the air temperature and humidity are always perfect- like living in LA, your kids have no more allergies, and you never hear any sounds of equipment kicking on or off- it’s really really quiet.” It’s simple, memorable, and repeatable. I’ll use that line. Thanks!

      I’m also sharing stories of my home renovation journey (my house is 96 years old and was renovated to meet Passive House standard 5 years ago) in a book. It’s written by a homeowner for other homeowners who wants a high performance green home. I think your clients and prospective clients may enjoy it.

  5. I recently read that we have
    I recently read that we have a shortage of 400,000 trades workers in the US. In North Carolina, we have help wanted signs everywhere. With this low unemployment, anyone not working is worthless (that is why they are not working). As the housing market is a major engine that drives our economy, worker shortages are holding the Nation back. The answer from Washington, deport the workers we do have. We don’t need a wall, we need better bridges.

  6. Allison, Another fine
    Allison, Another fine article and some great comments too. I think Elizabeth from CT nailed the issue… buy-in is about selling the sizzle, not the steak.

  7. I know this is a really
    I know this is a really simplistic and not entirely accurate reaction, but my first reaction to that video was “That WAS how cars were built before Ralph Nader!” 😛

  8. Where I live in the south,
    Where I live in the south, most buyers of new homes want steep roofs (9/12 or greater) and some new subdivisions even require it in their covenants. I just bought a new house with a steep roof and spray foam roof deck which is unusual for this area and considered quite energy efficient. It is nice to have my ductwork and air handlers in a conditioned attic space, both in terms of reduced duct losses and easier maintenance, but it drives me crazy to see how much building material and energy is wasted by the steep roof due to its higher surface area. My attic is probably 16 feet tall at the peak. My point here is that we waste a lot of material and energy due to aesthetics. How do we change that?

    1. A lot of new homes in the
      A lot of new homes in the south are built on slabs so a 9/12 roof pitch allows for more room for mechanicals and additional finished space (builder upsell opportunity).

      Besides 9/12 isn’t particularly steep. In fact it fits more in the “just right” range of roof pitches.

      1. I looked up the requirement
        I looked up the requirement again to be sure that I was right, but the minimum is 10/12, not 9/12, so it is even a little “worse” than I thought. I agree that it is nice to have plenty of room for mechanical systems in the attic, but this goes way beyond that, especially for relatively square floor plans like mine. I agree that a lot of this space can and sometimes is used for additional living space, but then you have add dormers for windows and have sloped ceilings that are hard to insulate and seal, so I don’t consider this to be a very energy-efficient option either.

        So here is a question: What is the “optimal” roof configuration for cost-effective energy efficiency, neglecting aesthetics for the time being? I would claim that it would be a gable roof with no valleys, at least 4/12 pitch, and with at least 8 feet of attic height at the ridge.

        1. “So here is a question: What
          “So here is a question: What is the “optimal” roof configuration for cost-effective energy efficiency, neglecting aesthetics for the time being? I would claim that it would be a gable roof with no valleys, at least 4/12 pitch, and with at least 8 feet of attic height at the ridge.”

          I’d guess that it depends on how cost sensitive one is. Off the top of my head I would think a single-slope “shed roof” where the downward slope faces the equator would be in the top 3.

          1. Yea, a shed roof could make
            Yea, a shed roof could make sense. I wasn’t specific in that I was thinking of a southern climate with slab on grade where the air handlers and ductwork would be in a conditioned attic (insulated roof deck). So a shed roof with an attic might be a viable option, but it would tend to push the air handler towards the high side of the attic, rather than the center and thus might result in longer ducts.

  9. Interesting thoughts on the
    Interesting thoughts on the buy-in.
    I am a new HERS Rater and have run into this with builders, architects, and homeowners. It seems easier to get the homeowners into the concept. More so because of comfort instead of savings. Builders just seem to want me to do what I have to do for the building permit. Architects and designers seem to think they want to go greener, but don’t allow the room for proper insulation, and don’t seem to even know the code minimums. And they love windows here.

    I am in area where the HERS rating system is fairly new. Right now I am the only local person doing the ratings. The company that has been doing most of the ratings here have not been the most honest in terms of sticking to what should be done. So much so that the neighboring town finally caught on, and implemented an affidavit for HERS Raters. I have heard many stories from builders and trades of this company fudging the final score. So it will be interesting to find out if builders expect me to do the same.

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