This article is the second installment of a three-part series checking in with past winners of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing. Click here for the first article, a Q&A with Edward Mazria, FAIA, of Architecture 2030. Click here for the second Q&A, with Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen and the Resilient Design Institute. 

Sam Rashkin, co-founder of the Energy Star program, was the 2012 recipient of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing. At the time of the award, he had just begun a new role as chief architect for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Building Technologies Program. There, he manages the Builders Challenge green building program. In addition, in 2012, Rashkin served as the Codes, Standards, and Rating Systems chair for the inaugural year of ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program, where he help track progress in this arena and forecast necessary steps forward in the green building industry.

Below, ECOHOME checks in with Rashkin about the first year of his new job and life after the Hanley Award.

What have you been working on since you won the Hanley Award?
Rashkin: I just really took on an amazing set of challenges going over to DOE, and if I had to characterize all of it in a simple phrase, it’s just increasing the effectiveness of linking world-class research and best practices to industry. Specifically [the job focuses on] completely revamping how we disseminate our content from DOE to the industry in a way that’s infinitely better, faster, more accurate, easier to use, and more customizable. We had all this great content that was amazingly impressive but equally impressive was how well we kept it a secret. It’s crazy to develop innovations and not make sure they’re optimized in their connection to industry.

I’m also working on ramping up advocacy from above-code building to zero-energy performance. Energy Star is such a great above-code effort, and I’m so proud of the building science that we’ve brought into the program incrementally. But now I get to advocate and promote what I would design and build as an architect, which is zero-energy-ready homes. 

I’m also working to improve the strategic path we’re taking in terms of what innovations we’re developing here at DOE.

What are some of those?
It’s  developing best practices and innovations that support the critical path technical requirements to get to zero-energy-ready performance. This includes developing more strategic whole-house demonstrations that prove that these innovations work. It’s developing guidance and tools so that the industry can apply them. And, it’s resolving the infrastructure issues that will resolve the bottlenecks in the market when these innovations are ready to go.

In that arena, it’s developing a whole building science education task force to make sure we have the next generation of professionals who know what to do with these innovations. It’s engaging the transaction process players involved so that we recognize the value of these innovations when we buy, sell, appraise, lend money for, or insure high-performance homes. And then it’s mitigating head on code and standards barriers that might block innovations because they are new to the processes they represent.

Your Hanley Award profile story mentioned that you wanted to retool the DOE Challenge Home. Has that happened? 
Yes, we’ve completely reinvented it. We revised the specifications, the marketing messaging, the training programs—everything we do. It needed to be aligned with Energy Star—which it wasn’t when I got here—to  make it consistent. From the very beginning, we had to make sure that the transition from Energy Star to Challenge Home was seamless so that if you liked Energy Star and wanted to step up, it would almost be as if you had nothing else to learn. You had to step up in rigor, but everything else was the same. 

And we had to develop much better marketing messages and much better tools that would help builders leverage that message. We also developed better training that would engage the industry. Everything was almost from scratch.

Are you seeing success come out of these changes?
It’s like pushing a rock uphill. I only released the specs back in January and we’re just breaking through now with some exciting commitments and interest in the program. We’ve got four or five large national or regional builders to commit to the Challenge Home program. We’ve ramped up builder training, and we’ve been able to train our raters to be our sales force. All the pieces are coming together real well. I think we’re really on track quite well.

It’s 10 times more difficult than what I was doing with Energy Star because we had a great team in place and we had the sales force set up.

You recently released the web-based Building America Solutions Center. How is that going?
When I mentioned earlier that we had to be better at disseminating the results faster, better, more accurate, more timely, and more customizable, I was referencing the Building American Solutions Center that we released in January. And now a mobile application of the tool is being finalized for the fall. It means that the massive legacy of information we have in the program is now accessible for the first time. It’s on the street and doing quite well.

Interestingly enough, one of the most significant groups embracing and singing its praises are the code officials. We’re really concerned that innovations don’t get blocked by the code process, but the code officials have had a tough time tracking a good, easy source of content that would help them understand innovations that were being submitted through various permitting procedures. Through the center, they now have a tool that helps them work through those issues. It’s a group that we didn’t think would be as large and receptive as it is.

Are you still traveling a lot?
All the time. I’m really engaged in getting the industry to move up to zero energy, and it’s a big challenge. I don’t have the sales force I used to have in the HERS raters, so I’m back at square one, reaching out directly to builders to make the business case. I don’t have as many employees or dollars as I did at Energy Star, but I don’t mind. It just means I have to find more friends and partners to get it done.

Click here to read the 2010 Hanley Award profile on Rashkin. The Hanley Award, which carries a $50,000 cash prize, is given out annually by The Hanley Foundation, a non-profit foundation that provides funding for housing, environmental, and other causes. Michael Hanley, retired chairman and co-founder of Hanley Wood, started the family foundation in 1999. In addition to funding the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing, the foundation supports local entities helping to provide shelter, such as Friendship Place in Washington, D.C., the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Click here to read about the 2013 winner of the Hanley Award: Dennis Creech, executive director and co-founder of Southface, a leading advocacy and research organization promoting sustainable homes, workplaces, and communities.