EEBA Newsletter

The views expressed in these articles are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of EEBA staff, officers, or board members. EEBA welcomes guest articles from qualified authors, and we offer these articles as a service to the high-performance housing industry as a way to encourage discussion and collaboration between industry professionals on relevant issues.

A Revolution In Water Recycling?

New septic technology could help reduce pollution, save water and qualify homes for LEED points. It could also let you build on otherwise unbuildable lots.
A Revolution In Water Recycling?

Dave Hopper has been in the septic installation business since the late 1980's and rarely sees anything new that qualifies as a game-changer.  That was until last year when his company, H&M Construction in Walton, Kentucky was asked to install a new type of system from Cincinnati-based NextGen Septic.  He has since installed about a dozen of these systems and now offers them to builder customers where the project warrants.

Although his customers end up paying an installed cost about twice that of a conventional septic, none of them complain because it lets them build on lots they could not build on otherwise.  "The system basically sells itself," he says.

Problem Solver

The NextGen system consists of a stainless-steel treatment unit placed on top of a two-chamber septic tank.  The unit is small enough to fit between the tank's two risers.

Rather than flowing to a leach field, effluent from the septic tank is pumped through the NextGen unit, where biomedia remove nitrogen, phosphorus, viruses, bacteria and other organic contaminants.  Hopper says the unit's output is clean enough to be discharged into the environment or for use in landscape watering.  "It's cleaner than any system we have ever seen," he says.

In fact, NextGen claims that the unit's output exceeds the standards used for wastewater treatment plants.  It removes up to 99% of nitrogen and phosphorous from the effluent, the main causes of algae blooms and other water pollution issues.

It also eliminates the need for a leach field.  "That makes it a great solution for a lot with poor soil conditions, as well as one that's too small for a leach field or whose topography won't accommodate one," says Hopper.

Hopper isn't the only contractor who sees these advantages.  NextGen president and inventor Rakesh Govind, who is also a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, says that it has been installed in 37 homes since earning state certification from Kentucky and Ohio.

Water Saver

Govind believes that decentralized treatment technologies like his make a lot more sense from an environmental standpoint than even the most effective municipal treatment plants.  That's because the output from most municipal plants ends up in the ocean, which does nothing to replenish local groundwater.  "This has led to declining ground water levels worldwide," he points out.

But despite the case this makes for local water recycling, current on-site technologies often do more harm than good.  For instance, conventional leach fields clog over time, sending pollutants into aquifers, lakes and estuaries.  "There are more than two million failed leach fields in the U.S.," says Govind.  "I've seen ponds in subdivisions with algae blooms created by this discharge."

The technology also has water conservation potential.  The discharge is clean enough to be pumped to a graywater plumbing loop for use in flushing toilets and watering lawns, two of the biggest water loads in a typical home.  (Toilets alone account for 40% of most homes' water use.)  That would make it less environmentally damaging to build in places where water is scarce, like the desert Southwest.  The reduction in water use can also help earn the home LEED points.

The system has two pumps that obviously use electricity, but combining it with a solar panel will ensure that treatment continues even during power outages.

At this point, the NextGen system requires state-by-state approval as an alternative septic.  However, it's undergoing tests at a National Sanitation Foundation lab, a process that takes about six months.  Govind expects to earn certification by September, which would make it a recognized system in most of the country.


The NextGen Septic treatment system consists of a water treatment unit placed on top of a conventional septic tank.  Internal biomedia remove nitrogen, phosphorus, viruses, bacteria and other organic contaminants.  The system totally eliminates the need for a leach field.

How To Dominate A Competitive Market

A Seattle rater and consultant shares lessons he has learned working with the top green builders

Green building is like any other endeavor.  Look at a local market and you will see most green builders going about their business the usual way—doing good work but competing with one another for the best jobs.  You will also likely see a few companies that have managed to rise above the herd.

The latter companies are the ones who create a recognized brand based on their green building expertise.  They're less affected by price pressures and stay busy even when the real estate market cools.

The obvious question is: how did they get there?

You can get a good perspective on that question from industry professionals who work with those market leaders as well as with the rest of the pack. That's why we decided to spend some time with Tadashi Shiga.

Shiga is Principal of Evergreen Certified in Seattle.  He has worked with 250 builders in what may be the greenest building market in the U.S.  His company provides verifier and rater services for programs that include PHIUS+, HERS, ENERGY STAR, and the Seattle-area's BuiltGreen program.

Here are what he sees as the answers to that question.

1.  Partnerships are powerful

More builders will rise to that top tier when there's healthy consumer demand for green building. The best way to create that demand is to get industry and government working together, which is the case for Seattle's BuiltGreen certification program.

Shiga says that BuiltGreen is similar to LEED Gold.  To get certified, a home must perform 20% better than the Seattle energy code and has to meet additional requirements that include indoor air quality and recycling.  It has become a real benchmark for local build quality, with more than half of local new construction now meeting its standards and some types of housing doing even better. "I estimate that 90% of townhomes and row houses here have certification," says Shiga.

He credits much of that success to a partnership between government and industry.  The program is offered by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties—the Seattle metro area—but has been embraced by local permitting authorities.

Certification from BuiltGreen qualifies the builder to build a bigger home in certain areas and for faster permitting from the City of Seattle.  "I've seen them take six weeks off the permit time," says Shiga.  This has increased demand for green among consumers and builders.

2.  Standards are a starting point

Some builders seem to view program standards as performance ceilings.  The market leaders understand that they're minimums.

All of the 250 builders Shiga works with are pursuing BuiltGreen certification but just five have committed to exceeding the minimum standards.  Only three of those builders consistently succeed at it.  "We have five Passive House projects underway and will probably complete about 10 NetZero projects this year," he says.

In other words, in a market where consumers already embrace the benefits of a green home, just being green isn't enough.

3.  Architecture is Job One

While home performance is crucial, it's not enough.  "The top green builders offer sexy, cool designs," says Shiga.  "Their homes aren't just green—they're beautiful."

Builders that epitomize great green design include Dwell Development and Green Canopy.  They're two of the three consistent high performers Shiga mentioned (the other one is Cascade Built).

For instance, Dwell (which this newsletter profiled in December 2018) has won awards for architecture as well as for home performance.  Its projects sell faster, and for more dollars per square foot than any other local spec builder.  "People would buy from them even if they weren't green," says Shiga.

The same goes for the other top builders.  In each case, when visiting their websites you're greeted with two things: the company's commitment to making a difference for the environment—its green message—and photos of beautifully designed homes.

In this regard, Shiga thinks builders can learn something from the electric car industry, which was the first to demonstrate the power of combining aesthetics with environmental commitment.  "Electric cars didn't take off until Tesla came out with one that offered high performance and a real cool factor."

4. Passion and purpose are superpowers

How well a home performs and how well it's designed are reflections of the builder's priorities.  Those priorities grow out of what the builder sees as its defining purpose.

Of course, it's a cliché to talk about the purpose-driven company, but the fact that so few companies in any industry give this concept anything more than lip service makes it a powerful differentiator.

"The top builders are all driven by a purpose," says Shiga. "They each have a very clear vision about how they want to lead their field."  That invariably includes positioning their environmental commitment as something that helps make the local community a better place to live.

That commitment starts at the top of the organization.  "Company leaders have to really drive it," he says.  "Leadership is required to get employees and subs on board, and if you don't get them on board it will be an uphill battle."

In fact, he says that the best builders truly invest in their teams.  This creates a reputation that attracts the best workers.

5.  Leaders aren't afraid to share

Shiga regularly teams up with Anthony Maschmedt of Dwell Development to give presentations about green building to groups of consumers and builders.  He says that type of information sharing is typical for the top green builders.  "A great thing about truly sustainable builders is that they want to help each other out," he says.  "Their mission includes helping save the world, and they know they can't do it alone."

They also know that information sharing is a great business strategy.  Besides the obvious benefit of raising name recognition, it also helps the builder get better.  "The presentations that Anthony and I do are great networking events," he says.  "They're an opportunity to learn from other builders, contractors, and designers who are building green homes."

Public information sharing can also uncover business opportunities.  For instance, once Shiga became known, technology providers and product manufacturers began asking him if he knew any builders that would be interested in trying their products.  That led him to start EkoVate, a company that serves as a matchmaker of sorts between the two groups. He also saw a demand and became the area's first AeroBarrier installation company.

6.  There's no fast track

The final lesson is that patience pays.  Builders who want to rise in the green building game shouldn't expect to get there overnight.  "We advise them to start by taking baby steps," says Shiga.

"Get some training on building science.  A good start is one of EEBA's seminars or its annual Summit," he says.  "Then sign up for a program such as BuiltGreen or LEED that can give your homes some type of certification.  Then find a good consultant or HERS rater to help you along the path."

If you understand and follow the above lessons, and if you seek to join that top tier of green builders, then you will gain a real marketing edge.  A lot of builders have no idea how to attract a following on social media but a company with a real purpose, great architecture and a commitment to sharing information will find it easy.  They will earn more than likes: they will build a reputation that commands higher prices and helps carry them through the inevitable market shifts.

"Following these lessons is an insurance policy," says Shiga.  "The building industry is coming into a downturn.  What I learned from the last downturn was that the companies that did well were the ones that built a brand and gave real value to homeowners."


Tadashi Shiga is Principal of Evergreen Certified in Seattle. His company provides verifier and rater services for programs that include PHIUS+, HERS, ENERGY STAR, and the Seattle-area's BuiltGreen program.

HERS Raters: An Untapped Resource

These professionals can help with a lot more than inspections, but few builders understand that fact.
HERS Raters: An Untapped Resource

by Steve Byers

According to RESNET, just 20% of new single-family homes have a HERS rater involved.  When you consider that a rating is the most accurate way to gauge home performance, it's obvious that the industry has a long way to go.

Even those builders who regularly contract with HERS raters seldom take advantage of the full value these industry pros can provide.  That's unfortunate.  The best raters offer more than code or program compliance: they're extremely cost-effective quality assurance partners.  They can even help reduce a builder's liability for health and comfort issues, something today's overworked site supervisors seldom have time for.

As CEO of a building consulting and training company with more than 25 years in the home performance business, I find that builders are more willing to take advantage of a performance-focused rater's services if they better understand how we work.  The relationship is more like that with the architect or engineer than with the plumber.

What Raters Do

The most obvious job of a rater is to produce the HERS index score.  A good enough score will demonstrate energy code compliance and can qualify the home for certification from programs like ENERGY STAR, Zero Energy Ready and LEED.

However, the HERS Index is the cherry on top of our work, not the work itself.  When done properly, the rating process serves an important quality control (QC) function.  For instance, if the home doesn't pass the blower door test, the rater can tell the builder where the air leaks are.

But QC is just the minimum we offer.  Builders who want to leverage their rater's skills will make them part of the quality assurance (QA) program.  The difference here is one of depth: while QC is a simple and straightforward pass/fail test, a rater who offers QA will find the underlying reasons behind that air leakage (or any other performance-related issue), suggest approaches for doing better next time, and train the builder's team on those approaches.

The most effective QA starts at the design stage.  A performance-focused rater can look at a set of plans and see what's going to be difficult to get right in the field.  For instance, the rater might spot areas in a complicated roof design that will be a challenge to insulate and air seal.  The rater might work with the architect to determine the best locations for duct chases.

A good HERS rating organization will also likely have additional value-added services they can offer to builder clients.  For instance, my company does HVAC Design and performance services like airflow balancing.  We can train the builder's sub-contractors in high-performance building.  We have even offered builder clients post-closing walkthroughs to train homeowners on performance issues like how to use the smart thermostat as well as how and when to change the furnace filter.

These quality control steps are above and beyond what most project superintendents have time to provide.  When made part of the schedule for every home, they play an important role in lowering the builder's risk exposure.

Finding a Rater

Of course, builders who want to tap into the full potential of a performance-focused HERS Rater will have to find one first.  As with any trade or profession, quality and competence vary widely from company to company.

A good start is the RESNET Rater Registry (http://www.resnet.us/directory/search), which lets anyone find HERS Raters in their area.  However, it doesn't tell you how good each rater is.

Fortunately, every HERS Rater operates under the oversight of a HERS Provider, which performs periodic QA on the rater's work.  The builder should ask the Provider about any issues, past or present, with a particular HERS Rater they are considering.

Things to ask the rater directly include their pricing, what valued added services they offer, what trainings they have attended, how long they have been in business and how many homes they have rated.  And of course, get—and actually call— a few builder references.  Production builders should also ask the rater about their capacity and determine if they can keep up with the builder's volume.

It's a good idea to go to the ENERGY STAR website to see if the rater is qualified to deliver certification (https://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=new_homes_partners.locator&s=mega).  Even if you don't need this, it's a useful filter—ENERGY STAR sets a relatively low bar for raters, so I would be suspect of a rater who hasn't at least made that effort.

You should also look for signs that they stay current with industry trends and practices.  Do they belong to the local HBA?  Do they participate in ongoing training events like the annual EEBA Summit?  For instance, my company and others have formed a collaborative, Energy Professional Exchange (https://energyproexchange.com/) to advance the level of professionalism and performance in the rating industry.

Time invested in finding a good, performance-focused rater pays real dividends.  This pro can help you solve problems, put more effective construction details in place and, ultimately, build better homes for your customers.  It could be the best business relationship you never thought about.

Steve Byers is CEO of EnergyLogic, Inc., a building performance consulting company in Berthoud, Colorado.

The Problem with HRVs

When integrated with the HVAC system, most E/HRV's don't deliver the desired ventilation air. A new design seeks to solve this problem, but we need your input.
The Problem with HRVs
by Srikanth Puttagunta, PE
 

Builders believe that if they install an Energy Recovery or Heat Recovery Ventilator (E/HRV) they have ensured good indoor air quality. In reality, that's seldom the case.

To deliver the needed fresh air, an E/HRV must be installed in a way that guarantees balanced airflows—where the intake and exhaust airstreams move equal volumes. But the design of these units makes proper installation difficult and, when integrated with the HVAC system (as most are), almost ensures that they fail to work as advertised.

Of course, an E/HRV costs more than other ventilation strategies, so if it doesn't do what it's intended to, the builder has wasted that extra money.

Steven Winter Associates is collaborating with a major manufacturer to develop an ERV that solves the shortcomings of conventional units. We have completed the second prototype. We hope to have a final design by Fall of 2019 with commercial availability sometime in 2020.

Before moving to the final design, however, we would like input from the EEBA audience to make sure the product will meet your needs. We have included a link to a short survey at the end of this article.

The three major issues that lead to unbalanced airflow with today's E/HRV's are:

1. Typical duct configurations

2. The frost prevention controls they use

3. Installs that make them difficult to properly maintain

Duct Issues

Let’s start with typical duct configurations.

If the E/HRV's intake and exhaust ducts aren't similar lengths with the same number of bends, their resistance to airflow will vary, throwing the unit out of balance. To compensate, some manufacturers provide static pressure taps that let the installer adjust the unit's fans during installation. That compensation might be sufficient for an E/HRV that has its own ductwork, but it won't be for the majority that are integrated with the HVAC system's air handler unit (AHU). The following two scenarios explain why.

Scenario 1. Here, the E/HRV pulls stale air from the return duct, then delivers tempered outdoor air further downstream in the same duct, closer to the AHU. For this to work, the E/HRV needs to run in sync with the AHU fan. However, this also results in unbalanced air flow, as the larger AHU fan will impact the smaller E/HRV fans. In this case, result will be more supply than exhaust air.

The unit could be adjusted at startup to compensate for this imbalance (though we don’t commonly see this in the field). The problem is that most of today's AHUs have two-stage or variable-speed fans, so the E/HRV can only be balanced under one of those fan speed conditions.

Scenario 2. Here, the E/HRV pulls stale air from the return ductwork and delivers tempered outdoor air to the AHU's supply ductwork. While manufacturers recommend the AHU fan run in unison with the E/HRV, most don't require it and with the AHU off, the unit may end up ventilating the AHU but not the rest of the home.

Frost Prevention

Next, let’s look at cold climate frost prevention controls.

When the outdoor air falls below a certain temperature (which varies with the E/HRV model), the core will be at risk of freezing. Manufacturers prevent this in a variety of ways, none of which are ideal.

  • On/off cycling. When temperatures fall below the frost threshold, the unit switches off for a set period of time (in really cold conditions, this could be 20 minutes or so each hour) to give the core a chance to warm up.
  • Air recirculation. Here, the outdoor intake and exhaust ports are closed, and indoor air redirected through the core's outdoor air pathway to warm it up. During this period, no whole-house ventilation is provided.
  • Exhaust only. Some units run in exhaust-only for a period of time allowing the core to warm back up. During this period make-up air will be supplied through leaks in the building envelope.
 

In each case, the home has poor or no ventilation during frost prevention. Alternatively, an electric resistance pre-heater can be installed in the outdoor air duct to prevent frost from forming in the core. This maintains continuous airflow but is energy intensive.

Install Errors

A proper E/HRV installation leaves enough space around the unit for regular maintenance, which includes periodically changing the air filters and removing the core for cleaning. Based on what we see in the field, I wonder how many builders and installers understand this. Many installations make it difficult to access the filter and core, while in other cases access is blocked by ductwork and plumbing that was installed later.

You would also assume installers know how to connect the ducts, but I've seen a lot of problems here as well, including supply and exhaust ducts hooked up to the wrong sides of the E/HRV. I also see a lot of flex duct that's not pulled tight, creating static pressures that can severely restrict airflow through either side of the unit or both.

Our Solution

With support from the DOE's Building America program and industry partners, Steven Winter Associates is developing an integrated ERV that will make balanced ventilation easier in homes. Our design includes the following improvements.

1. Simplified installation through a better form factor.

The unit will connect directly to the return side of an air handler and will pull stale air from the air handler's return ductwork. Not only does this avoid the drawbacks of each configuration type, but the fact that the ERV unit only needs two duct connections rather than four makes proper installation easier.

The unit is sized for mechanical rooms with standard ceiling heights. For an up-flow configuration, the total combined height of the ventilation unit, the air handler, and a standard supply plenum will be less than 8 feet. Maintenance access for the core and filters is also from the front, so it matches the service area required for the AHU.

2. Fans that ensure balanced ventilation under constantly varying conditions (varying AHU fan speeds, outdoor winds and indoor pressure changes, for example).

We are incorporating ECM fans. Nothing new here, right? A lot of E/HRVs have ECM fans. But rather than the typical constant torque ECM fan we are using constant flow fans, which will maintain roughly a ± 5cfm airflow range. This also allows the unit to be configured with MERV 13+ filtration.

3. Better frost prevention

The system is designed to maintain balanced whole-house ventilation during the frost prevention cycle without using electric resistance pre-heat. It does this by using a modulating damper to mix a small amount of air from the AHU supply duct with the outdoor air to pre-temper it above the core's frost point. Overall airflow through the outdoor air pathway of the core is increased, but the portion of outdoor air to exhaust air remains balanced.

Have I piqued your interest? Then take a look at the drawing.

As we continue to make refinements to the components and controls, we hope you will assist us with some feedback. This will help us ensure that the final product truly meets the industry's needs. We have posted a short questionnaire online that will help us better understand your approach to whole-house ventilation as well as what features we need to prioritize.

The survey takes five minutes or less and can be completed anonymously. We thank you for your interest and look forward to hearing from you.

Srikanth Puttagunta, PE, is a Principal Mechanical Engineer with Steven Winter Associates, Inc.

How Well Do You Understand Your Buyers?

New research sheds light on the knowledge and attitudes of people shopping for high-performance, green homes
How Well Do You Understand Your Buyers?

Builders looking for ways to sell more high-performance green homes for more money can glean insight from the February issue of Professional Builder magazine. In it, Suzanne Shelton of The Shelton Group summarizes research from the company's 13th Annual Builder Pulse Study. The study asked homebuyers a series of questions designed to reveal what they actually thought and knew about green homes, and how much they were willing to pay. 

The study got responses from more than 2000 of what Shelton calls "Energy Savvy homebuyers." Shelton's researchers also polled 100 builders—drawn from the Pro Builder and EEBA audiences—to gauge how well they understood this market.

Here's our take on three of the main findings.

1. Most buyers can't clearly define what constitutes a "green" home or what the must-have features are. And, the features they do list as essential don't match those on most builders' lists. For instance, just 38 percent of buyers said a green home had to include a high-efficiency HVAC system, something all builders understand is needed.

There was also some confusion when it came to terms like “green,” “high-performance,” “sustainable,” and “net-zero.” Builders who assume that buyers understand these terms risk losing sales.

Shelton's advice is to remember a fundamental but sometimes ignored sales and marketing principle: emphasize benefits. Focus on selling a comprehensive package that promises quality, comfort, health, and peace of mind, while also showing buyers how your homes deliver those benefits. "And avoid industry jargon and green speak."

That, of course, means emulating what the most successful green builders are already doing, and what EEBA has long promoted at its conferences and trainings.

2. Buyers will pay more for green construction than builders think. Shelton says that while nearly half of respondents indicated a willingness to pay 6 to 10 percent more for a green home, two-thirds of the builders surveyed believed they would pay no more than an additional 5 percent. About a fifth of the builders surveyed doubted buyers' willingness to pay any extra.

This finding confirms to us that builders who don't properly market these homes are leaving money on the table.

                 
 

   

3.  Customers want to do business with companies that take a stand on issues they care about. When it comes to green building, they want to be able to tell their friends, family, and associates that their builder is a company known for its environmental commitment.

Shelton says that builders that want to be known for that will design homes with materials that are visibly green—items like rooftop solar, reclaimed wood walls, and learning thermostats—and will highlight those in their marketing materials.

In an age when people increasingly use social media to seek public approval, builders who help them do so will reap rewards.

The Professional Builder article includes a number of additional valuable insights and is well worth a read. You can find it here: https://www.probuilder.com/shades-green-how-builder-and-buyer-views-sustainability-diverge

Five Steps to High Performance Home Sales

If you partner with real estate agents, you need this advice
Five Steps to High Performance Home Sales

by Jan Green

High performance homes offer benefits every homeowner wants, including lower energy bills and better indoor air quality. These homes tend to sell more quickly and for more money than comparable, code-built homes, but only if they're correctly marketed. That includes describing them correctly in your real estate listings and working with an agent that knows how to list and sell these types of homes.

Unfortunately, some builders choose to ignore this advice. For instance, a basic rule of marketing is to emphasize features and benefits the buyer cares about, but I've seen more than one listing with sentences like this: “Solidly-built 2018 structure has Ballard engineered trusses, 8-inch LPI floor joists on triple 2X10s over concrete block piers built by a licensed masonry company. Home is dried in with Pella windows.”

Your competition will know what that sentence means but the average buyer won't, and will have to stop and ask why those terms are significant and why you're mentioning them. That puts you in violation of another basic marketing rule, which is to use messaging that's easily understood by the average buyer. (You can still make technical information available to buyers with construction knowledge, but put it in a linked document so the average buyer isn't forced to wade through it.)

In fact, homes that actually sell more quickly and for more money are those that are marketed in a way that helps buyers easily understand the features and benefits relevant to them. Such marketing will also help realtors, appraisers, and lenders fully value the homes.

An obvious example is that of energy savings: according to a 2017 study by the National Association of REALTORS, 84% of home buyers are either concerned or somewhat concerned about their energy bills. When writing a listing or designing a piece of marketing collateral, it will be more effective to lead with the fact that the home can offer an annual electric bill of zero dollars than with an industry term that needs explanation, like Net Zero Ready.

The same principle applies to indoor air quality. Say for instance that a home buyer has a child with Asthma. A listing that says the home uses no-VOC paints and has a tight building envelope and mechanical information won't leave a strong impression and may, in fact, confuse them and cause them to look elsewhere. It's better if your listing simply states that the home is designed and built to provide “healthy indoor air.” When the buyer asks you how it does that, you can get into those features.

The bottom line is that if you're a high-performance builder you need to make sure that your listings have the right message and that your realtor can accurately present your homes. The following five steps will ensure that.

1. Start by listing every high-performance feature in your homes including their benefits to consumers.  Examples might include:

  • Energy Efficient appliances and high SEER HVAC systems that use less electricity
  • Advanced insulation and air sealing that makes the home easier to heat and cool
  • A water recirculation pump that ensures instant hot water at the tap
  • WaterSense-rated shower heads that use less water while still providing great showers
  • No or low VOC paints that do not put chemicals into the home's air
  • A radon mitigation system that keeps cancer-causing isotopes from getting into the home
  • Climate-specific landscaping that needs less water and is easier to maintain than a lawn

 

2. Make sure your marketing materials highlight these features and benefits with easy to read fonts and graphics.

3. Locate and hire a real estate agent who has been trained to understand high performance homes, preferably someone who has earned the GREEN designation from the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR, GreenResourceCouncil.org) or the EcoBroker designation (EcoBroker.com.) These agents are trained to identify features that go above and beyond code-built homes.

                

An agent with this training can walk into a home under construction and recognize things like the insulation type and the home's non-toxic features, and will also be able to explain the full benefits of certifications like Indoor airPLUS or Net Zero Ready. An agent without this training won't be able to effectively communicate this information to buyers.

4. Make sure your agent highlights the relevant features and benefits on the listing on the local MLS and other listing sites.  If the listing site has a place for documents, upload the entire list of features including the HERS certificate, green building certificate, and any others you have earned.

To see examples of high performance home listings, go to GreenHomesForSale.com, VivaGreenHomes.com, and USGreenBrokers.com.

5. If the local MLS doesn't have the fields available to highlight high performance home features, ask your realtor to create a work group to assist the MLS in creating these fields. (I started such a workgroup in Phoenix in 2009 as part of my volunteer work with USGBC.) For information and examples, visit GreenResourceCouncil.org.

If you build high performance homes, you should be working with an agent that has a comprehensive understanding of those homes and can explain their features and benefits to buyers. Remember that the agent is your representative and works with you as a fiduciary, so you need to make sure they fully understand your approach to building. The value such an agent brings to the sale will mean more profit for the builder.  

Jan Green is a realtor in the Phoenix area who specializes in high-performance home sales. She has earned EcoBroker and NAR Green Designations. 

Reducing Liability When Building Net Zero

Practical advice for builders from a construction attorney
Reducing Liability When Building Net Zero

By Patrick Barthet

Homebuilders are accustomed to managing expectations. They do this at the initial client meeting, when drafting contract provisions, and in all progress meetings. As the project moves from design to occupancy, smart builders work hard to deliver the highest quality work possible while at the same time not promising more than they can deliver. Besides making for happier customers, this also helps minimize a builder’s liability.

Managing expectations is a bit more complicated when it comes to high-performance construction, as different homeowners will have different expectations about their home's performance in regards to heating and cooling, moisture issues and indoor air quality. Those expectations may or may not be realistic, and the only way to make sure they are is to put them in writing and to have everyone sign off.

In fact, as an attorney who works with builders I always recommend a written, contractual warranty that defines exactly what the builder is and isn't promising when it comes to home performance. Otherwise they're at the mercy of implied warranties, which vary in coverage and term from state to state and can be open to interpretation.

And interpretation can cause big problems. When you market yourself as a high performance builder, you are positioning yourself as an expert, and as such you will likely be held to a higher standard. Homeowners who contract for a home with a high-performance building expert will expect a comfortable and secure structure built to more stringent specifications than a home built to minimum code standards. Some will assume you are promising everything from low energy bills to great air quality.

Take the issue of indoor air quality, a growing source of liability. We have seen builders sued for everything from serious problems like an aggravated asthma condition to minor ones like undefined odors. How do you minimize these problems? By implementing a warranty.

In many cases a court will give precedence to a contractual warranty. Even if it's not as strict as the implied warranty, it is very helpful. This is an important piece of protection. You work hard to craft homes with a healthy indoor environment, but that environment has as much to do with how the homeowners operate the home after you deliver it, as it does with how you built it.

A contractual warranty can also assist the homeowners by defining what they need to do to maintain a healthy environment. That could include everything from advising them to keep doors and windows closed to how to properly run the mechanical ventilation system, and warning them not to use certain types of chemical cleaning products.

The warranty can also spell out what homeowners can expect from smart devices such as a NEST thermostat, or what types of light sources will work with their LED fixtures. In most cases you can simply reference the manufacturer's warranties. If the homeowner insists on a device that's not part of your standard specifications and not included in your warranty, then your contractual warranty should make those exclusions clear.

The standard duration of a builder’s warranty is one year for workmanship issues, possibly extended to two years for systems – HVAC, plumbing and electrical—and then ten years for structural failures. (Make sure to distinguish these from minor cracking and settling.)

When it comes to specific products, your warranty should clearly delineate between manufacturing defects and installation errors. It should also set fixed warranty terms that mirror what the manufacturer of each product or device provides.

The warranty should also limit liability by placing a realistic monetary cap on the sometimes ambitious goals set by homeowners. Excluded from all warranties should be matters involving the homeowner’s own negligence, abuse, or failure to maintain as required, as well as work done by the homeowner or the homeowner’s own contractors.

The warranty should also define things like expansion and contraction of wood, dampness, condensation and weather-related issues. This language will vary from builder to builder and from location to location. For instance a builder in Seattle would probably want more definition regarding its responsibility for moisture-related issues than a builder in Tucson.

Finally, every warranty needs to spell out the following:

1. How is a claim to be communicated to the builder? In writing, with a return receipt, is preferred. (This can be done electronically, for instance with an email read receipt.)

2. Who will do the warranty work, and when? I suggest limiting it to defined business hours by folks selected by the builder.

3. How will disputes be addressed? I prefer to specify a neutral but experienced mediator selected in advance and agreed on by both parties. A good way to do this is to provide three names and have the homeowner choose one. Mediation may result in an impasse, so you may want to set arbitration as the subsequent mechanism if mediation fails to resolve a dispute. (Be aware, however, that arbitration isn't subject to the same rules of evidence and testimony as a court, and that decisions can't be easily appealed.)

4. Who will pay legal fees? Your contractual warranty should also require that each party pay its own legal fees and costs. This prevents an opportunistic homeowner from trying to inflate a claim by suing for legal fees. This encourages both parties to settle.

None of this implies that you don't want to do the absolute best for your customers. However, the most effective way to limit liability exposure is to under-promise and over-deliver on your home’s performance, while having a detailed written warranty to protect you.

Patrick Barthet is founder and principal of The Barthet Firm, a 13 lawyer construction practice which has been serving South Florida’s construction industry for over 20 years. Publisher of the award-winning blog, thelienzone.com, he provides weekly advice to construction professionals.

Do I Really Need to Test My Homes?

A performance trainer shares answers to the most common questions he gets in his blower door seminars.
Do I Really Need to Test My Homes?

by Sam Myers

Blower doors have been around since the 1980s, but for a long time were used mostly by niche builders. However, with more and more codes and high-performance home programs requiring air leakage testing, this tool has entered the mainstream. That change has fueled a demand for training.

As a training consultant for a blower door manufacturer, I train and certify builders and other industry pros on the equipment and test methods. After completing around 60 of these trainings, ranging from one-to-ones to classroom-size groups, I've noticed that the same questions come up again and again. I thought it would be useful to offer answers to the top half-dozen questions I hear from my students. Here they are.

1. Why do we have to do this?

While the EEBA audience already understands the value of air sealing, the average builder who is forced to test by code often complies grudgingly, at least at first. They're more likely to embrace the test once they understand its value.

The real issue isn't "why do I have to test," but “why should I care about air tightness?" The answer is that proper air sealing helps create a better-quality home by:

  • Reducing the size and run time of the HVAC system
  • Eliminating drafts
  • Helping maintain uniform temperatures throughout the house.
  • Making it possible to use ventilation and filtration to ensure good indoor air quality and optimal indoor humidity
  • Keeping moist air from getting into wall cavities where it can lead to rot and mold
     

The blower door lets the builder verify—to the homeowners as well as to the code authorities—that they have done the air sealing required to reap the above benefits.

Of course, for air sealing to deliver these benefits, it has to be part of a holistic, building science-based approach to construction—the approach EEBA teaches in its seminars—so when answering this question my goal is to interest them in learning more about that.

2. Where are the biggest leaks in a home?

A March 2013 Professional Builder article reported on a study by David Wolf at Owens Corning that looked at which air sealing locations in a home provide the most bang for the buck. The information in that article, entitled "Some Leaks Matter More Than Others," still holds true in 2019.

According to Wolf, some of the most critical leakage areas are:

  • Gaps between top plates
  • Band joists
  • Bottom plate to subfloor connections
  • Seams between sheeting
  • Drywall intersections
  • HVAC supply boots and return boxes
  • Recessed lights and exhaust fan boxes
     

Basically, you can expect to find air leakage wherever two materials meet and where the gap hasn't been deliberately sealed.

3. How can apps help with testing?

People are addicted to their smartphones, so it's no surprise that a lot of my students ask about apps. The most useful blower door apps are for automated testing and remote control.

Retrotec's automated testing app is called rCloud, while The Energy Conservatory's is called Auto Test. They pair a smartphone or tablet with the blower door's gauge to run an automated test routine. The user need only enter some basic home characteristics. The app geo-locates the home, adjusts the test for local weather conditions, runs the test and generates a report that can be saved, shared or printed.

The two remote control apps I know of are Retrotec's GaugeRemote and The Energy Conservatory's Tec Gauge. They let the operator control the blower door from a phone or tablet while moving around the house searching for leaks.

4. Can blower door testing cause any problems?

The answer is that you can have problems if you don't take the correct precautions. For example, running a blower door test to depressurize an existing home with a wood-burning fireplace that hasn't been sealed off could pull ashes into the living space. Running the test with a gas-fired furnace, boiler or water heater turned on could draw combustion gasses into the house. Avoiding these problems is a simple matter of turning off all combustion appliances before the test.

5. What maintenance does the equipment require?

Although maintenance is minimal, you do need to keep an eye out for things like motor and fan alignment, which is why each manufacturer has a process for checking these. You also need to recalibrate the gauges every two to five years, depending on the manufacturer and the model.

It's also important to periodically inspect the tubing to make sure it's free of clogs from debris and water. Tubing openings can also get stretched out over time, but if that happens you can just cut the ends with a knife or scissors.

6. How can we integrate high performance into our projects without breaking the bank?

This isn't strictly a blower door question, but I hear it a lot. Building a high-performance home can be a challenge for builders who have never done it before. Working with a home performance specialist such as a HERS rater or BPI analyst from start to finish will help you craft a cost-effective home that's energy efficient, healthy and durable. These pros can also save you time and money the first time you build to a new energy code or to a third-party program like ENERGY STAR or Indoor airPLUS, by ensuring that the home will pass the final test.

  • that failed tests can require expensive corrections that include tearing out drywall. Working with an expert from the beginning can help you create a realistic budget for air sealing while eliminating unwelcome surprises.

An expert can also help you evaluate financial tradeoffs. As mentioned above, a tight home with good insulation may need a smaller, less expensive HVAC system. A structural sheathing product with a built-in air barrier and vapor retarder can eliminate the need for house wrap. Encapsulated crawlspaces can reduce moisture-related callbacks. A knowledgeable home performance pro can help you determine the right tradeoffs for your homes in your climate.

Sam Myers is a Marketing & Training Consultant for Retrotec, Inc. He's based in Raleigh, NC.

In addition to air sealing questions, a lot of builders want to know about apps. Shown here is RetroTec's remote control app.

Building a Sustainable Brand

Seattle's Dwell Development is a case study on how a high-performance builder can use branding to power growth regardless of where the market goes.
Building a Sustainable Brand

Shopping for a home has some important things in common with dating.  Your initial attraction may be based on looks, but the criteria for a long-term match will be more about substance and character.

Seattle builder Dwell Development has built a very successful marketing program around this principle.  Sales of its individually designed, sustainable spec homes tripled, from 10 to 28 homes per year, during the three years following 2008 when a lot of builders were either closing shop or struggling to stay alive.  At the bottom of the recession, the company was even pre-selling homes in one community for 20 to 25 percent more than competing homes of equal size.

They accomplished this by crafting a distinct local brand based on modern architecture, a high-performance message, and a disciplined marketing program.

Design First

According to company principal Anthony Maschmedt, Dwell has built more than 300 homes over the past 14 years, all of them detailed to perform at least 50% above energy code at the time of construction.  The company also built the first multi-family Passive House in Seattle and just broke ground on the city's first Passive House condo.  Today, all of its projects are Net Zero Ready: when outfitted with solar panels, those panels will generate more power over the course of a year than the home consumes.

Dwell has won 30 awards for its homes since 2012.  These include awards for design and performance, and range from a 2018 U.S. Department of Energy Housing Innovation Award to a Professional Builder Design Award.

However, Maschmedt says that while energy efficiency and other sustainable features tend to clinch the deal, they're not what initially attract most buyers.  In fact, he insists that high-performance builders who don't put as much care into design and marketing as they do into building science are leaving money on the table.

"A badly designed house won't be easier to sell just because it's energy efficient," he says. "You have to put design first.  That's what gets people out of the car and into the house.  Then you need to make the interior as architecturally interesting as possible."

A great looking home creates a wow factor that makes people more receptive to the sustainability discussion.  "Once people see our reclaimed wood floors, beautiful countertops and other finishes they're eager to hear more," he says.  "At that point we start peeling the onion, explaining how we detailed the construction and how, if the home includes solar panels, they will get free electricity for life."

That one-two punch also describes Dwell's online marketing.  The first thing one sees on its website and Instagram pages are professionally taken interior and exterior photos.  According to Amy Golden of Paxson Fay, the company's marketing firm, Dwell spends more on high-quality images than most of its competitors and gets a lot of traffic because of that.  "Instagram is about design. It has proven a great way to connect us to people who haven't heard about Dwell," she says.

But she emphasizes that photos are the key.  "The first thing I would suggest to most builders is that they put more emphasis on great photography," she says.

The Performance Message

While good design speaks for itself, sustainability needs to be promoted and explained.  One of Dwell's most successful promotional vehicles has been the awards it has won.  The company enters five or six competitions per year, and Golden devotes 6 to 8 hours to completing each entry.  "The awards really get homeowners excited about working with us," she says.

She also regularly submits projects to trade and consumer magazines and has gotten local and national coverage.  This exposure helps introduce the company to new audiences.

For customers who want to know more, Dwell's Facebook page includes regularly updated posts on its homes' performance, and on sustainability and energy efficiency in general.  "Once we draw people in, we want to get them to Facebook to read our messaging," says Golden.

The various pieces of the marketing program work together to lead potential customers to a particular conclusion: these homes are special in more ways than one.

The lesson for other builders?  Clarify your messaging on sustainability issues like Net Zero, indoor air quality and water conservation.  Then focus on populating your website and social media channels with educational content and great photography.  Assign someone to update everything regularly. And if you want awards and press coverage, understand that you need to actively seek them out.

Getting Partners on Board

As you would expect, most of Dwell's marketing efforts are aimed at attracting potential buyers.  But consumer marketing isn’t the whole story.  They also supplement it by bringing the high-performance message to their industry partners.

Maschmedt's secret weapon in this outreach is Tadashi Shiga, owner of Evergreen Certified, a Seattle green building consultant.  Evergreen's services include testing and certifying homes for green building programs, working with local code authorities, helping high-performance builders get code approvals and connecting them with the suppliers they will need.  Shiga also offers green building training and has spent the last 10 years helping Maschmedt raise the performance bar.

Maschmedt and Shiga do regular presentations to groups of real estate brokers, title reps, bankers, trade partners, code officials and builders, including one at this year's EEBA conference.  They have also brought their show to local TV stations.

Together, the company's consumer marketing and industry outreach have worked in tandem to create a recognizable brand with a clear mission.  Shiga doubts Dwell would have been so successful without this effort.  "You have to spend time building the brand," he says, adding that it took a couple of years for Dwell to start seeing a payoff.

The Envelope, Please

How Dwell settled on the double wall frame.

If you promise to build sustainable, Net Zero Ready homes that you need to be able to deliver on that promise while also making a profit.  Getting there can take some trial and error.

As a spec builder, Seattle's Dwell Development has to make its homes cost competitive, which means that any extra costs need to be offset by energy savings and electric generation if the home includes a PV system.  To pull that off, the builder has to build as much efficiency as possible into the home for the least amount of dollars.

Company principal Anthony Maschmedt says that his path to Zero Energy has included trying various details then tracking the results until he finds one that offers the optimal cost and performance. Products and systems he has settled on include solar hot water, triple pane windows, and Aero Barrier air sealing technology.

Dwell's homes also feature double 2x4 walls, a detail Maschmedt settled on after trying several others.

When the company first started its business in 2005 they built a standard 2x4 wall, which met code at the time.  Then they jumped up to 2x6 and 2x8 walls to get more insulation value.  They also tried SIPs panels and exterior insulation, all the while tracking cost, performance and the effect on the schedule.  “We found exterior insulation to be expensive and time-consuming, and the coordination process with siding installers was a challenge," he says.

Maschmedt finally settled on the double 2x4 wall because of its cost and flexibility.  For instance, a recent Dwell project that won the DOE's Housing Innovation Award had 12-inch thick walls, but it's easy enough to increase the space between the walls to get mechanicals into it if needed.  The walls can also be made narrower.  And he says you can't beat the cost and convenience.  "We like that 2x4's are cheap and available, and that our framers never complain about using them."

While this wall system works for Dwell's climate, architectural designs and trades, other builders will have different needs.  The point is that you may need some experimentation to identify the winning products for your homes.

He says it was worth the effort.  "Builders sometimes ask how much more they can get for a LEED platinum home compared to a code home."  The answer is that if you want to get a premium, customers need to know who you are or what you stand for.  "Getting your homes certified is important but in the end, it's about the company that builds them."

How QA Earns More Than It Costs

The numbers are in. Quality Assurance really does reduce liability costs for high-performance builders.
How QA Earns More Than It Costs

It's no surprise that builders with formal Quality Assurance programs report fewer warranty claims. For instance, Professional Builder magazine interviewed builders, National Housing Quality Awards judges and QA consultants around the U.S. for an August 2017 article and found that while most builders lack such programs, those who put who them in place get a quick return on their investment. One builder interviewed for the article reported a 70 percent reduction after just a couple of years.

But while quality gains are the obvious purposes of such programs, they can offer the added benefit of lowering insurance rates.

That's according to Nathan Kahre, High Performance and Healthy Home Manager at Thrive, a 250 home-per-year Denver builder. At a seminar he taught during EEBA's annual Summit in October, he said that within two years of launching its QA program, the company was rewarded with a hefty reduction in liability premiums—more than enough to pay for the program.

"After creating the QA department, we brought it to our insurance agent," he says. "They shopped it to several providers and came back with a great deal."

Thrive was given two choices: $5 million in liability coverage for slightly less than they were paying for their current $4 million policy, or the same $4 million in coverage for 44 percent less. They took the former. In addition, Thrive had been paying a yearly premium for the seven-year tail needed to cover Colorado's eight-year implied warranty. Because of the QA program, the insurer gave them the option of buying the entire tail upfront for 8 percent less.

In all, the company saved around $150,000 in insurance premiums. Kahre also credits the QA program for reducing variance costs by $1,000 per home—another $150,000 in annual savings—and for slashing cycle time by 27 days.

Other builders have gotten similar results. Glenn Cottrell, Managing Director of IBACOS, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm that helps production builders create and implement QA programs, co-taught the seminar with Kahre. He told the audience that one of his clients had reduced its warranty accruals by 12 percent over a five-year period, a total of about $5 million in savings. Another had seen a 25 percent increase in its customers' willingness to refer. Those numbers are typical.

While these savings are certainly impressive, insurance wasn't the main motivation for Thrive's program. Construction defect litigation had been increasing statewide, and they knew that having a documented process for eliminating defects and improving quality would reduce the chance of being targeted by opportunistic lawyers. "By lowering warranty claims, we stay off of their radar," he said.

The fact that the company collects and saves data on each individual home also makes it harder for lawyers to aggregate units, a process in which defects in a sample of homes are assumed to be present in all units. In effect, the data collected by the QA department has made the company a harder and less appealing target.

Kahre and Cottrell both stressed that while a formal QA program can benefit any builder, it's critical for those building high-performance homes.

The big issue is water management. Today's highly engineered homes have less of what's called Hygric Buffer Capacity, or the ability of building materials to suck up moisture then release it. In older homes, wood, stone, brick and plaster absorbed lots of water, and the airflow through their leaky wall cavities helped that moisture dry out before it caused problems. Older homes may have been energy pigs, but as building scientist Joe Lstiburek puts it, "they were durable pigs."

By contrast, newer homes use lightweight materials that absorb less moisture, and they place those materials in a highly insulated, airtight shell. Even a small leak can cause big problems over time.

It should be a no-brainer that builders of these homes need a process for ensuring the works gets done right. The good news is that with a formal QA program, a knowledgeable high-performance builder can craft new homes that are just as durable as those older ones.

So how do you go about getting these benefits? According to Kahre, it took about a year from the time the company decided to launch its QA program until it was fully implemented, then another year before they had collected enough data to make useful analysis possible. The analysis part is important because an effective QA program is proactive: it includes an inspection to catch and correct errors, but the real goal is to eliminate those errors going forward.

The details of an effective program are too much to go into here. However, the August 2017 Professional Builder article cited above—Best Practices for Quality Assurance—is a good introduction to the subject.

 

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