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.
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.
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.
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…”
Habitat X Fellow Griffin Hagle shows us the surprising difficulty associated with home performance — and home performance contractors — in a mild climate. This article is the first in a series as we follow this project to completion.
“Sunshine, beaches, and sparkling pools: few cities can compete with San Diego’s lifestyle. Housing costs are high, but natural gas is cheap, and solar electricity gets cheaper by the day. Considering that you could probably live comfortably year-round in a treehouse, why should anyone fuss with building performance in the first place?
Corbett Lunsford outlines a case for moving the home performance industry closer to widespread acceptance by offering simple (and understandable) proof of performance to consumers.
“If you work in the business of home performance, or what I’ll call performance-based contracting, I’ll bet $100 that you came in through the Energy Efficiency door. I did, too. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that, once through the door, many of us now think that we’ve arrived in energy efficiency land, and we have nothing more to learn. When the reality is that our door was just one of many entry points to performance-based contracting. And if you look back at the door through which we entered, you’ll see that’s its gilded with tons of outdated assumptions.
For example, common industry knowledge says that we need an army of energy auditors. Really? I don’t think so, because I don’t think we need to do as much analysis as we often have. Then, consider the very word “audit”. It definitely does not connote warmth and joy, but what does it connote?”
A report on the success of a highly effective industry player, by Brad Turner of Southface Energy Institute.
“Southface is a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote sustainable homes, workplaces, and communities through education, research, advocacy and technical assistance. My efforts at Southface largely focus on the education pillar of our mission.
Among other projects, I manage the Southeast Weatherization and Energy Efficiency Training center (SWEET), a U.S. DOE Weatherization Training Center (WTC). We were the second WTC in the country to earn accreditation by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), and in January of this year we became one of only eight training centers in the country to have achieved IREC Accreditation for all four Home Energy Professional Training Programs: Energy Auditor, Retrofit Installer & Technician, Crew Leader, and Quality Control Inspector.”
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.
Last August, in an essay in Fortune, Jigar Shah and Raj Pannu laid bare the basic problem of the green energy movement: its image has never wholly recovered from its association with hippies. The piece wastes no time dissecting this folly:
“Clean, renewable, or alternative: take your pick. Clean energy in the United States has been defined by earnest environmentalists who, to their credit, embraced it wholeheartedly, but, to our collective detriment, spun an ideological, naïve story divorced from the reality of the energy economy transformation actually taking shape around us.”
It’s a jolting pronouncement. But if it hurt feelings, it also helped clean a wound that’s been festering since the seventies. Almost overnight, clean energy has become a legitimate economic engine presaging smarter, more resilient infrastructure, yet the mainstream narrative remains defined by events that predate the cell phone.
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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