The U.S. building industry in general is fragmented and slow to change—a problem in the best of times that is now generating serious headwind against the recent upsurge in building activity as the economy regains strength. Reports of new-construction manpower shortages are already making news, along with shortages of building products.
What may be even more critical, according to 2013 Vision 2020 Energy Efficiency + Building Science co-chair Mark LaLiberte, is the “brain drain” of skilled building practitioners over the past few years, and a resulting retreat from building science progress that had been accelerating up to the recession. Many progressive, informed builders left the industry as business dried up, and those that remain seem less interested in creating state-of-art structures, and more concerned with finding skilled labor or simply meeting rising consumer demand. (LaLiberte notes that these issues are location-specific and not equally critical in all areas.) In a similar way, building supply distributors are also being forced to ramp-up quickly with relatively new, untrained staff that are less knowledgeable and understanding of building science; and building inspectors and code officials are equally hard-pressed to keep up. A re-emphasis on builder—and supplier—training in code requirements and green building techniques will be required as the industry revives.
Vision 2020 Co-chair Dennis Creech agrees, but cautions that although “we’ve got standards for how we assemble a building and standards for products, we really lag behind in standards for training and education in the industry. That’s beginning to get attention now, where in the past it hasn’t.” Creech adds that “beyond code regulation, the industry itself needs a system that identifies quality standards in new-home and retrofit construction, checks each step, and involves the builder and all of the trades in the process. In terms of education, we’ve got a long way to go.”
Not all of the progress gained in pre-recession building science has been lost. Over the past several years, Creech and his organization, Southface Energy Institute, have been helping the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop “Workforce Guidelines for Retrofit Improvements.” The first set of guidelines, for single-family residential retrofit construction and improvements, was published this year. The guidelines focus on completion goals using job-task analyses, and include certification standards for energy auditors, retrofit installers, and quality-assurance inspectors. The pilot phase for those certifications has just been completed.
Also in development is a training program for accreditation of training centers, which will provide an additional layer of certification. Altogether, the program will include certifications for builders and tradespeople, accreditations for the training centers and trainers, as well as guidelines for how to get the work done. The federal Weatherization Assistance Program will require certification by quality-control inspectors beginning in program-year 2014.
According to Creech, initially this will be an optional program, and beyond that it will be up to utilities or local municipalities to join in. Most importantly, it will establish guidelines for retrofit work and will give builders training and credentials that can provide a market advantage.
“In most states you can’t cut hair without certification, but anyone can be a residential energy efficiency professional,” Creech notes. “We need to move ahead so that our training is also held to standards of quality, and then recognize those professionals who make a commitment to being trained with some sort of certification. I think you’ll see this coming from DOE, which has control over the federal weatherization program. The green-building world is also probably going move in this direction. In our green-building program, EarthCraft, we provide certification training for heating and cooling contractors. I think the industry [in general] is moving toward this.”
In Washington, D.C., Congress has already drafted legislation for homeowner tax credits that would require following the Workforce Guidelines and using certified contractors to perform the work. Unlike current energy tax credits, these credits will be performance-based and determined by the actual percentage of energy savings realized using computer modeling or other verification methods.
Click here for more information on the DOE guidelines mentioned above.
Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.