What Does It Take to Win A Housing Innovation Award?

We asked the program's judges for their perspectives on this question.

What Does It Take to Win A Housing Innovation Award?

Each year the Department of Energy honors winners of its annual Housing Innovation Awards at the EEBA Summit. The awards showcase the best of Net Zero Ready Homebuilding.

Benefits to winners include a profile on the DOE's Tour of Zero website, third-party recognition they can use in their marketing and the opportunity to meet with and learn from other winners.

DOE recently hosted two webinars for builders who are interested in applying. The webinars provided step-by-step instructions for filling out and submitting applications, as well as resources to help them with questions. The webinars are now archived at the program website.

Each home is entered in one of five categories: Custom for Buyer, Custom Spec, Production, Multifamily and Affordable. Each judge specializes in one category, and each category has at least three judges. The application is done online and asks for data in a variety of areas, from home performance to land use to sales and marketing. Each of these areas gets a point score, with some counting more than others.

Those are the basics. However, some applicants want to know how judges approach the applications. With that in mind we interviewed some judges to get their thoughts. Here is what we heard.

It's Not All About You

Builder recognition is important, but judges also have a wider objective: identifying best practice models for the industry. "The idea is to create case studies in every category that can be showcased at the EEBA Summit," says Steve Easley, a Phoenix-based building science consultant. That means your chances improve if you offer some lessons to the industry.

The best lessons go beyond the basics. "Energy efficiency is the cost of entry," says Scott Sanders, CEO of BrightLeaf Homes in Chicago. "We also consider things like how healthy and how durable the home is."

Innovation Is Partly in The Eye of The Beholder

Judges live in different regions and represent various disciplines, so they tend to prioritize different things.

For instance, a builder will hone in on buildability. "How I look at a framing detail will differ from that of a code official who doesn’t consider how to build the assembly," say Sanders. "If my first reaction is 'no way,' I listen to that, and I scrutinize the application more closely."

A rater might focus on the interplay between the envelope and the mechanicals. "I like to see equipment that gives the best comfort and IAQ at a reasonable price," says Karla Butterfield, a Sustainability Director at Steven Winter Associates who serves as a rater and energy modeler for programs that include NGBS and PHIUS.

She also looks favorably on simplicity. Take the example of home energy management. "Automation may be all the rage, but a hard to operate or ridiculous to install system, while it may serve as a showcase of what's possible, won't make sense."

A building scientist might want applicants to understand the why behind their choices. "I look for a solid grounding in building science, a knowledge of how to optimize the laws of physics to create durable buildings," says Pat Huelman, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota and Coordinator of the Cold Climate Housing Program. He also looks for a lack of understanding. "If the builder chooses the AC system that their contractor recommended and I see that it's oversized, that will work against them."

According to Joe Nebbia of Newport Partners, the company that manages the program for DOE, having a different perspective ensures that each part of the application gets the attention it deserves. If there's disagreement on a specific project, the judges involved will hold a conference call to look for consensus. The goal is for each applicant to receive a thorough and fair review.

"New and Improved" Isn't a Cliché

A winning project will push the envelope in some way and the applicant needs to articulate how it does that. "Builders who offer 'innovations' we've already seen in magazines and in other award programs is wasting their time," says Sanders.

Take the example of HVAC. "There's a difference between putting an ERV in the basement to check off a box and looking for ways to get more from it, for example, by using it to eliminate a bath fan," says Huelman.

Innovations are possible in any area, from how the builder manages water runoff on the lot, to the products used, to the way the home protects the structure from moisture. It could even be a marketing program designed to bring Zero Energy homes to an underserved market.

It could even be simplified maintenance. "You don't want the homeowners scratching their heads when it comes to how to operate their home systems," says Butterfield.

Looks Matter

All else being equal, an attractive home with good space planning will get a more favorable look. In fact, architecture is one of the categories applicants are judged on.

"Sometimes all the performance details are done right but the home isn't very attractive," says Easley. "It makes me wonder how marketable it will be." This consideration holds more weight in a production home that must appeal to a wide market, than in a custom project that reflects one client's priorities.

Judges Also Rate Your Business

In addition to promoting high-performance homes, the program wants to help builders create high-performance businesses—the kind of businesses that can build those homes consistently and profitably. Judges want to know that applicants are serious about making this a core part of their culture. "I want to see building science integrated into all their processes," says Huelman.

This also includes the builder's commitment to training. "If your answer to how you train crews is to say that you hold weekly meetings, that's not enough," says Easley. "We need more detail."

It Pays to Respect Judges' Time

The application allows the builder to submit supplementary materials. Sanders competed in the program before becoming a judge and says that he used that option to provide short summaries.

"We would write bullets or short paragraphs about each section of the application," he says. "Then we expanded on those points in the appropriate sections. We wanted to make it easy for the judges to drill down to the parts that were important to them." As a judge, he appreciates applications that do the same.

Stupid Mistakes Will Cost You

Some potential winners get passed over because they lacked sufficient detail. That could be something as simple as missing utility bill data or a missing HERS score.

"We're not mind-readers and can only judge what we see," says Easley. "It's disappointing when we we would like to give an applicant more points but can't because of missing supporting documentation."

That means the person filling out the application has to be tenacious about details and needs a deep knowledge of the company's operation. "If it's written by the sales team it probably won't have enough depth of information," says Huelman.

Even seemingly small mistakes can hurt. "These include mis-spellings or sentence fragments that are hard to decipher," says Sanders. "It may sound silly, but judges are human, and these things degrade first impressions."

Put the Time In

The above begs the question of how much time the application requires. Sanders says that the first year it took him a full day to review the materials, put together narratives and gather photos and supporting documents.

Williamsburg, Virginia builder and developer Jay Epstein goes even further. In addition to the required information he also submits detailed descriptions and photos of each part of the project. Last year he spent the better part of two weeks on the application. He has entered the competition four times and won an award each time.

You Will Become a Better Builder

Sanders and Epstein both say that the application process has helped them improve their businesses. Sanders likens it to a less rigorous version of the National Housing Quality Awards process, which builders have also credited with making them better. "Gathering information, writing narratives and gathering information is a learning experience," says Sanders.

At the end of the judging, applicants also get a report that shows their score in each category and how that score compares to other applicants, along with suggestions on how their project could be improved.

One of the most valuable benefits winners get is the opportunity to network with other builders who are pursuing excellence. "If selected you get access to the LinkedIn group and to a networking event at the EEBA summit. This really puts you in tune with the high performance building community," says Sanders.

The bottom line is that if you're already a Zero Energy Homes builder, then applying for the Housing Innovation Award is a great investment. As Sanders puts it: "Do you really not have a few hours to spend improving your business?"

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