A lot of folks have asked how I ended up here. This article, from the Building Performance Journal, tells some of the story.
— Chris Dorsi. April 2022.
I’m fortunate to have taken a top-to-bottom vocational tour of the housing industry over the last 50 years. Raised on a horse farm in Northern California, I took my first non-agricultural job as a logger high in the Sierra Nevada at age 18. Working there in the woods, I first gained what was to become a lifelong respect for tradespeople who work skillfully with their hands. My advocacy for those doers endures as a keystone in my career to this day.
I soon moved beyond the logging business to running a small lumber mill, stepping up the supply chain of the housing industry for the first time. I stuck this out until I had learned enough about the lumber business, at which point I went to work as a builder of custom wood-frame homes. I had been working in the woods for about five years.
This vocational transition, like many upon which I’d embark over the years, was what seemed to me to be a logical transition. One industry puzzle piece at a time, I learned each new skill, got a little bored, then leveraged that new knowledge into the next segment of the housing industry. I liked the new complexity and logistics of housebuilding and began to develop what the consultants now call a systems approach to construction. We just figured it made sense to avoid making the same mistake twice.
I worked the construction industry, on both the new and remodel side, for several decades. My focus on efficiency and health seemed obvious at the time since I always attracted clients who expected it. Why build lousy houses when it was increasingly apparent how to do it right? Somewhere in there, I moved to Montana and segued into real estate investment, focusing primarily on the rehab of multifamily residential buildings. Dirtier indeed than new construction, I did enjoy rescuing buildings-at-risk, and for the first time I actually made some money. The list of buildings I brought back from obsolescence still makes me proud.
By middle age, I recognized that I possessed a lot of skills, or at least interests, that tradespeople around me often did not. With an intent to fix this corner of the world, I moved into the business of technical education, curriculum development, and knowledge management. My focus was on capturing and promulgating the how-to details of the emerging sustainable housing industry. To that end I’ve been working to create career ladders for workers in the sustainable housing ever since. A lot of folks know of this career stage from my work as a co-owner of Saturn Resource Management, where I published books and technical manuals, or as the founder of Habitat X, the professional development platform.
Today I work for Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana where I’m the director of their Montana Weatherization Training Center. We provide training and technical assistance to the weatherization and home performance industries, and occupy a respected niche that spans both academic and practical education. We deliver plenty of face-to-face training in our tricked-out new facility, but we’re also adept at distance education and TV production. It’s a circular vocational path for me—running this technical academy feels a lot like going back to high school shop class, but for motivated working adults. I’ve surrounded myself with a skilled and cheerful staff who recognize and implement a mission that reflects both my own career trajectory and the scope of work under which the Training Center operates: to expand the knowledge and career possibilities of the men and women who design, build, and maintain the buildings of North America. That’s a tall order for sure and there’s a lot to learn for all of us. But I think it’s a noble task and I’m honored to be in this position. I’m going to call it a vocational success.How Assembly-Line Innovation Can Shape the Future of Sustainable Housing
“When I work with insulation contractors and I ask them how often they do Grade III work (insulation installed with “substantial defects,” according to RESNET standards), they always reply ‘never.’ Whenever I am a part of or hear these conversations, my mind moves to another conversation, where someone told me that the difference between an apprentice and a master is that a master knows how to mask their mistakes. This makes me wonder, with so many masters of their respective crafts, what is being covered up?”
The 2019 Habitat X Journal is now in wide distribution on medium.com. This is the digital successor to the printed magazines shown in our header. The articles in this issue cover a big range of sustainable housing topics:
Each of these articles was written by one of our Habitat X colleagues. It’s a great insight into the expertise of this brilliant group of people.
Bill Spohn has been involved in the home performance industry for years now. First as an engineer and designer of tools (Bacharach, Testo), most recently as a pusher of tools (TruTech Tools), but always as a believer in the power of simple knowledge as a route to success. Bill’s a generous soul, you see, and has spent most of his life helping his friends, colleagues, and customers excel.
His most recent project takes his innate knowledge and generosity to a new level. Building HVAC Science is Bill’s new podcast, and in it he showcases the people who are making the home performance industry tick: builders, HVAC technicians, scientists, or sales people — he gives them each a stage from which to tell their heartfelt stories. It’s a good formula.
Bill hosts several Habitat Xers, too: James Childre, Larry Zarker, J West, Chris Dorsi, Steve Baden, Robin LeBaron, Susan Davison, and Bill Spohn Jr all make appearances. Each episode is a fun listen, and plenty bite-sized at 25-35 minutes each. It’s worth taking time to give a listen.
>>> check out Bill’s podcast here, or on your favorite podcast platform.The Cobbler’s Home
For years now, many of the most connected North American housing professionals have derived inspiration and guidance from A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, the seminal handbook to community and housing design that was authored by Christopher Alexander and colleagues back in 1977.
It’s the type of advice that ages well, but some housing practitioners have recognized that the timeless knowledge captured in this treatise could use an update. Though A Pattern Language became a bible of sorts that informed the work of many housing pros, there has never been a strong connection between the humanist principles expressed in the book and the stark practicality of the high performance housing industry.
Making that connection — assuring that high performance housing is designed and built to truly meet the needs of the people who live there — is the goal of an initiative we launched at the 2018 Habitat X Summer National Conference. We knew that people in the Habitat X network could add a lot of modern relevance to this work. We tagged the new initiative The Cobblers’ Home: How the Best House Their Families, and we shared the early results of our work with conference participants in session with Casey Murphy, Bill Spohn, and Kevin Brenner.
We’ve also published an article by the same name in the Habitat X Journal. We present there case studies from personal home construction projects undertaken by some of the most experienced home performance professionals around.
Read the article here and add your voice to the discussion.Reflections on the Habitat X Fellowship
The Habitat X Fellowship is one of the most rewarding opportunities available to the up-and-coming generation of home performance professionals. As a former Fellow, I know this firsthand.
I had been in the weatherization and energy efficiency sector for just under a decade when I applied for the Fellowship in 2015, hopeful that I could leverage what I’d learned along the way to make a difference. To do that, I needed more than building science knowledge or a passion for sustainability. I needed a singular community, a strategic venue where accomplished, dedicated people gather and pool insights that illuminate the future of the energy transition in the built environment.
What happened next changed my career in profound, unexpected ways. As its name suggests, Habitat X is an intersection: of housing, culture, and environment, for sure, but also of ideas, both tried-and-true and pioneering. It’s where veterans pass treasured wisdom down to a new cohort of committed change-makers. It’s a chance to forge new enterprises, outlooks, and friendships. Above all, it’s where you’ll find the brilliant people at the center of the transformation toward sustainable housing.
It’s hard to top the experience of becoming a Habitat X Fellow, of course, but watching others step into that role always inspires me. Recently, I spoke with 2016 Fellows Michelle Nochisaki and Ed Matos, who I am privileged to call friends and colleagues, about their work and what Habitat X and the Fellowship means to them.
Q: Who should apply for the 2018 Habitat X Fellowship and what should they hope to get out of it?
Someone applying for the Habitat X Fellowship should be obviously passionate about our industry, and also driven to do more—meaning to really dive deep into either whatever arena they’re currently in, or looking to maybe jump sectors a little bit—but take their passion, learn from the folks in the room and then hit the ground running. It’s a killer support system. You gain, essentially, experience and insight from the best of the best.
Q: How did the Habitat X Fellowship impact your career?
Habitat X was really the first entry point for me to having a real seat at the table—just the style of conference, the fact of being a participant and a presenter and having a voice. Instead of being one of the masses, I was now one of the industry professionals that I had always looked up to, and I think that added to my career in a lot of ways.
Q: How did you first become involved in building performance?
I graduated from business school and decided that I wanted to be a social worker. I put my resume into a temp agency and asked them to place me anywhere that was a nonprofit organization while I was researching how to take my business education and turn that into social work. They placed me at Building Performance Institute, where I spent two weeks stuffing certification envelopes around a conference room table and learning about the organization—learning about building science, home performance, the contractors that were involved, the certifications and standards behind the certifications.
“I was like, ‘Man, if people knew about this, everyone would be in.’”
It just clicked with me: the house is a system, and if we want to build homes the right way, and if we want to improve folks’ lives who live in those homes, then we need to go about this the right way. I walked into the COO’s office with my actual resume and said, “Hey, I know I’ve been here two weeks as a temp, but what position do you have for me?” and the rest is history. I was like, “Man, if people knew about this, everyone would be in.”
Q: What does the big picture for healthy homes and home performance look like to you in 2018 and beyond, and what developments excite you most?
Health and home performance have always been tied together in my world. I think we are now at the beginning stages of having data to back it up. I think that’s extremely important because, regardless of what anyone says, data is what we should really rely on and use as the backbone of how we do the work that we do.
Because we’re a low-income program, a lot of times the clients that we work with see tremendous improvements in their health due to this holistic approach when addressing all issues in their home. Working on ways to get funders and/or medical dollars to pay for the home performance work up front because of the medical-dollar savings on the back end—that, to me, is some of our most exciting work.
Q: How did the Habitat X Fellowship impact your career?
The fellowship came at a really great time for me. I was looking for new career opportunities, and I wanted to find an opportunity that could challenge me intellectually as well as motivate me, and hopefully introduce me to new opportunities. It was a great learning experience for me to be in the same room with people that have been doing this for so long at a high level. It actually led to new business for me, which was more than I could have expected.
Q: How did you first become involved in building performance?
I was 28 at the time. I still remember the exact conversation. I was coming off years of being very focused on music and in a band, and I was not taking my career too seriously. A friend of mine, Dan Kartzman, had just come back from California, and he said, “I want to start my own company out here on the East Coast making homes energy efficient and green.” I said, “That sounds really cool! Sign me up.”
“I’ve really always appreciated that I got into an industry, not just a job.”
I’ve been in the industry eight years now. I don’t think that I necessarily wanted to be in a green industry, or that I sought it out or anything like that, but I knew I wanted to do something that mattered to me, and once I got in, I was hooked. I’ve really always appreciated that I got into an industry, not just a job.
Q: You seem to approach sales as both a science and a craft. Where did you get that perspective?
One of my beliefs is that this industry has done an incredible job of creating a foundation for building science and knowledge of energy efficient construction, but not enough of a foundation for sales. I’ve been in sales a long time, and I’ve always looked at sales as a true profession as well as a craft and art form—one that takes the same amount of training as any other craft.
I was given the opportunity to write an article for Home Energy magazine [“Why Home Performance Sales Needs a Deep Retrofit,” Winter 2016] as part of my Fellowship, in which I express a lot of my views. I told myself I was going to write a book. I haven’t quite gotten there yet. (Laughs.) I do still think it’s very much needed to have more resources for sales professionals in home performance and building performance.
Editor’s note: Griffin, Michelle, and Ed have recently formed the Brighter Energy Collective to support young professionals in the home performance industry. They are the administrators of the Habitat X Fellowship.Connected Devices for Home Performance
There’s a movement afoot in the home performance industry, and it’s being driven by a combination of technology, business, and culture. Finally, after years of working on all the separate pieces of the industry — research and development, training, installation, quality control — we can integrate these separate endeavors. For a lot of us in the home performance industry, it’s about time. We now have a suite of tools that offer the possibility of pushing the implementation of high performance construction into the mainstream.
This industry-shifting evolution is being driven in various ways by evolving sensors, smarter software, connected devices, and streaming data. None of these technologies are new at this stage, since we’ve had versions of each in use for several years. But we’re now seeing a rapid shift in how these tools are used because they’ve all become more robust, more widely available, and more connected.
This increased connectivity between devices is undeniably the most impactful of these changes. It also fosters greater industry coordination, as the work done by manufacturers in the lab, trainers in the classroom, technicians in the field, and quality control staff in the office can now be connected, compared, and aligned in an integral process. The possibility of creating real synergy among all these disparate parties, who often struggle to work together because of mixed incentives and obscured market signals, will create a huge shift in how the home performance industry operates. More data is becoming more available, it’s more transparent, and this is good for everyone involved.
We’re not there yet, though, and the ideal of one big harmonious industry that’s informed by facts, not fiction, may still be off in the future. But it’s clear that this current round of rapid evolution, driven by data on the actual performance of our homes, will support the promulgation of measures that are proven to improve our homes. It’s getting more and more difficult to kid ourselves about what works and what does not work when it comes to high performance construction. Transparent data and clear market signals are increasingly available to support the design, funding, and installation of high performance construction measures.
When it comes to dispersal of information, things tend to happen quickly. Consider how your learning channels have shifted over your lifetime: remember encyclopedias, road maps, and phone books? In all industries, the smart money is flowing towards remote communication, honest evaluation, and targeted management. In the construction and home performance industries, this is changing how we evaluate, tune, and maintain equipment in the home. By integrating data seamlessly into day-to-day tasks, these devices will not only make life easier for home performance practitioners and program managers, but could effectively help bridge some of the longstanding cultural and practical differences between the home performance industry and mainstream construction.
Take the simple forced air heating and cooling system that’s installed in millions of North American homes. It should be simple enough to install so it operates properly, but research has shown time and time again that several issues—especially the twin pressure points of poor airflow and incorrect charge—keep these systems from operating at anything close to their peak efficiency.
But when you add on-board sensors and diagnostics (whether installed by the manufacturer or as aftermarket items), connecting the data stream to a local network, and giving everyone involved access to the data, suddenly issues like airflow and charge become simply check-listed items that determine who gets paid and when. This simple feedback loop rewards good installers, reduces finger-pointing among all parties, and takes us a long ways toward embedding energy efficiency, comfort, and safety into mainstream construction.
Connected thermostats, such as Ecobee, LuxGEO, and Nest clearly have a place in these connected comfort systems, especially when they connect with equipment from other manufacturers. Honeywell, for example, recently launched an API (application programming interface) for their home thermostats that allows third parties to write custom applications that integrate their equipment with Honeywell equipment. These connected devices are also being pressed into increasing roles in demand response systems, such as the one offered by utility partner Opower, that allow utilities to shape their loads and reduce peak loads by managing equipment remotely. I suspect that manufacturers who don’t take this open approach will face shrinking markets.
Some connected devices produce instantaneous readings that are utilized during the process of construction, commissioning, or retrofit jobs. The rCloud system, for example, captures data from blower door and duct tests, connects to existing networks, and streams the geo-tagged and time-stamped data to secure servers. From there, users can share selected access to the data with other parties. It’s an obvious connection between field personnel and staff who manage their work.
By sharing data with quality assurance (QA) people, a new level of job-site supervision is possible, with less opportunity to falsify data or ignore improperly trained personnel. Having access to test data closes the loop on training, too: when suspect data is reviewed in real time by remote colleagues, it creates a good opportunity for on-the-job training. When the QA people see a problem, they can offer advice, and the technician can update their procedure.
Connected devices are not just about comfort systems or envelope integrity, either. There’s a whole new batch of reasonably-priced consumer-level devices on the market (including Awair, Foobot, NetAtMo, and others) that measure and report various attributes of indoor air quality (IAQ). Some provide only instantaneous information to the homeowner, which will build awareness for the user, but doesn’t offer the ability to compare IAQ over time. The best home monitors include data-logging that shows trends, and connectivity that allows remote monitoring and management. A few, like the Foobot, are available with an interface that controls ventilation equipment—a good approach for those pollutants such as moisture or particulates that can be effectively managed with dilution or filtration.
A “Gateway” Device for Homeowners? There is plenty of debate within industry about the correct metrics and responses for managing IAQ, but it’s clear that the internet of things is about to shift how homeowners interact with their buildings AND with their service people. Most homeowners have little awareness of the nuances of their home’s operation, and having easy access to real-time data about their home may jump-start their interest in managing their home’s performance in general. One need look no further than the success of smartphone apps like CreditKarma and Mint, which function respectively as “gateways” for credit score and personal finance data, for examples of how convenience, transparency, and connectedness can transform consumers’ relationship with information. The devices we have available right now may not be perfect, but the fact that homeowners can now see what’s happening in their homes is a good start.
Connected devices, and the sharing of accurate information that they allow, are driving this next evolution in housing. There will surely be winners and losers in this shifting marketplace, but I think that the performance of our buildings can only improve, and this will be good for everyone. You’ll be wise to consider where you will fit into this changing marketplace, for there will be both opportunity for smart forward-looking organizations AND a few dead-end industry sectors that suffer the fate of encyclopedias, road maps, and phone books.
— Chris Dorsi. (contact)
Portions of this article were first published in Home Energy Magazine.Anatomy of an Analyzer
An exploration of technology with Bill Spohn (who has, by the way, a record of perfect attendance at the Habitat X Conferences).
“It’s an odd relationship we have with technology. We regard each new invention with the awe it deserves, and then somewhere along the line we begin to regard the miracle as something normal, and we take it for granted. But every now and then, I like to stop and truly appreciate our amazing tools, and to consider what they do for us…”
Every other summer, the American Council for the an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) releases its International Energy Efficiency Scorecard. This year’s report is now on the street, and we think there is a lot to learn from its smart analysis and insight.
For many of us, this report provides an insightful and neutral assessment of our progress over the last year. By reviewing these rankings, we can learn a lot about the broad success of each country’s attempts to build paths to a sustainable future.
In our analysis of the 2014 ACEEE scorecard, published here, we bemoaned the fact that the U.S. and Canada had fallen far behind most countries in the developed world when it came to progress toward sustainable energy policies (coming in scarcely ahead of Mexico, India, and South Korea). And though there are a few bright spots in this year’s reports, the news this year is still sobering.
In 2009, desperate for economic relief, governors of all 50 U.S. states pledged to increase energy efficiency in buildings in exchange for a combined $3.1 billion in state energy program funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
While a larger share of Recovery Act funds was poured into other longstanding programs, such as weatherization, a provision of the bill, Section 410, linked state energy program funding to tougher energy codes for new construction and major renovations.
About 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption provides heat, cooling and power to buildings. Building energy codes are widely seen as cost-effective policy tools to combat emissions, lower homeowner utility costs, and increase home comfort and value.
Section 410 required states not only to implement codes that met or exceeded the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code and the 2007 ASHRAE 90.1 standard for houses and commercial facilities, respectively, but also to develop a plan to achieve compliance “within 8 years…in at least 90 percent of new and renovated residential and commercial building space.”
Reaching that target now appears unlikely. Predictably, the strings attached to the Recovery Act funding stirred controversy among a few governors at the time — most notably Alaska’s Sarah Palin, whose veto prompted a rare threat of legislative override. All states eventually accepted the money, but now, seven years later, 16 still either lack a statewide energy code altogether or have old codes that fall short of the ARRA requirements.
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