Q: You co-founded the EPA’s Energy Star for Homes program, perhaps the most widely adopted and successful program in improving the efficiency and quality of the U.S. housing stock, but you’ve recently moved on. What are you doing now that will impact how building standards move forward?

A: Now I’m chief architect for the DOE’s Building Technologies Program. Among other duties, I manage a voluntary peak performance label called Builders Challenge. My hope is that Builders Challenge will function like a farm team for future generations of Energy Star specifications; where Energy Star improves a home from 20% to 30% better than code, including comprehensive building science, Builders Challenge completes the journey with the remaining details that make a home ready for renewable energy systems.

Specifically, Builders Challenge includes a tighter sealed envelope, higher levels of insulation, better windows, higher efficient equipment, ducts within the conditioned space, and additional requirements from two EPA programs that address indoor environmental quality (Indoor airPLUS) and water conservation (WaterSense). If a home is located in an area with significant annual solar insolation, there are also low-cost requirements that will make the home ready for future solar electric and thermal systems, saving thousands of dollars in downstream installation expenses. We’re also encouraging regionally appropriate disaster mitigation measures (e.g., hurricane, earthquake, flood, and fire), since Builders Challenge-qualified homes are designed to last anywhere from 200 to 300 years. This will all affect future building standards because once innovations are proven in the field, codes are able to adopt them.

Q: I understand DOE is developing a sophisticated data resource for builders.

A: You’re referring to the Building America Resource Tool, which is scheduled to be released this coming November. This tool will provide access to a massive DOE database of practical information on building science technologies and best practices from any device with access to the Internet, such as a tablet, smart phone, or laptop. There are three major interface options that allow users to choose the exact topic and type of information needed, including scope of work language, graphic explanations, CAD drawings, images depicting proper installation, case studies, and detailed reference documents. Thus, users can quickly meet their precise needs for content from the world’s best and most powerful library of high-performance construction information for new and retrofit projects. There are many ways DOE expects this tool to serve a diverse array of stakeholders. For instance, if you want to show a non-English-speaking worker how to complete an air barrier detail, you have immediate access to images that do not require an understanding of English. If you’re at the building department and the code official is unwilling to approve a proven practice, such as unvented crawl space design, you will be able to immediately produce a long list of case studies from numerous jurisdictions that already accept unvented crawl spaces as a compelling precedent.

Q: In retrospect, what were the most significant accomplishments of Energy Star, and what’s next? 

A: Maybe the most significant accomplishment is that Energy Star guided the home building industry toward comprehensive building science. The early specs for Energy Star were not rigorous by today’s standards, but they started the process and ensured a much better building than the building code in effect at that time. Now the Energy Star standards ensure much more comprehensive building science with extensive prescriptive details. For example, in the first generation specifications, an Energy Star-certified house was only required to meet a blower-door test level of air tightness necessary to achieve a threshold HERS score; the current specifications also require 15 prescriptive details that help ensure no critical air leakage details are missing. In addition to moving the housing industry toward a comprehensive building science approach, a major accomplishment of Energy Star has been its ability to engage volunteer builder partners. Today there are approximately 1.3 million certified homes, and Energy Star now represents over 25% of annual new housing starts. As far as what comes next, every house built should be affordable, comfortable, healthy, and durable enough to last 200 to 300 years, and should be ready for renewable energy systems that can result in no net utility bill. Builders Challenge is currently road-testing specifications that achieve this vision and hopefully will help guide development of the forthcoming Energy Star for Homes Version 4 criteria. 

Q: Besides your work with Energy Star, you were on both the LEED for Homes and NAHB Green Building Guidelines steering committees. Do you see the role of voluntary certification programs as a tool for helping the industry stay ahead of code, or will codes catch up on their own and then highperformance building becomes the basic standard?

A: The voluntary programs are highly effective, moving the bar so codes can continue to increase in rigor. So yes, we will reach a point where guys like me that work on voluntary programs might be out of a job. Northern European nations are already currently working under a directive to have all residential buildings meet a net-zero code by the year 2025. When the worst-performing house built is so efficient that it requires virtually no energy to heat, cool, and light, why do you need additional, voluntary energy-efficiency labeling? Voluntary programs will have to evolve toward a research and development mission, focused on improving and refining the methods and materials used to achieve such high standards, including lowering initial costs and further reducing environmental impacts.

Q: Are the certification agency initiatives and increasing voluntary labels from around the building industry a sufficient mechanism for improvement, or should the government become more active in promoting these kinds of solutions?

A: The government’s role is to set goals and then to allow the industry the freedom to accomplish them. Right now we have a system of programs that’s working extremely well. The DOE’s Building America program functions as an important research and development laboratory for the home building industry; Builders Challenge acts like a farm team, beta-testing the most advanced forms of building science in the real world; Energy Star adopts proven technology from Building America and Builders Challenge into a widely adopted voluntary label; and eventually codes adopt Energy Star standards into law. For example, the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) incorporates the thermal bypass checklist form Energy Star Version 2 criteria. Future IECC codes may incorporate the detailed thermal enclosure and HVAC checklists from Energy Star Version 3, which are substantially based on best practices from Building America and Builders Challenge. Some say that the codes impose economic hardships on the industry, but the market will only adopt voluntary standards if they prove to be an effective business solution. Once adopted widely, these standards have proven themselves in the marketplace and are ready to become codes.

Q: What would codes need to look like by 2020 so that we would be on our way to achieve the AIA goal of carbon neutrality in the home building industry by 2030?

A: If you look at the latest Builders Challenge specifications, they substantially provide the technical requirements to meet this AIA goal, and we’re already engaging the housing industry with these specifications. Thus, it's not at all crazy to think we can get there if codes can eventually ramp up to Builders Challenge Version 2 criteria.

Q: In your book, Retooling the U.S. Housing Industry (Delmar, 2012), you argue that critical improvements to each of the five key components of home construction will transform the building industry and revive the market—how and why? 

A: The basis for my views comes from extensive observations of the housing industry for the past quarter-century. This includes taking note of successful high-performance builders, who represent an elite club in my view. These builders appear to experience near zero callbacks because their homes are built to such high standards, incur no or minimal marketing expenses because they have a loyal clientele that serve as a continual source of referral business, and enjoy higher profit margins because their customers know the value of their product. People will buy new homes if they represent a compelling value proposition. They will understand new technology if it is marketed properly. I am moving aggressively to show builders that the resurrection of the home building industry will mirror the resurrection of the U.S. auto industry, on the basis of better products that not only incorporate advancing technology, but celebrate it. When I buy a Lexus, it does not look like a Toyota Corolla. Advances under the hood must be reflected in the visible shell and interior. High-performance homes need to look distinctively different and communicate to the buyer, “Take notice, this is something special. It is better, and you won’t find anything like it on the foreclosure listings.” I believe builders using this approach can have much greater success. I’m excited to bring this business case to mainstream builders.