Mark LaLiberte, the co-chair of Energy Efficiency + Building Science for Vision 2020, has been a national leader in the building industry for more than 25 years. A degree in solar engineering led him into working with solar, wind, and energy conservation organizations and then into business as a founding partner in Shelter Supply, selling energy-efficient products in Minnesota, before joining another company called Building Knowledge, a technology-transfer base. Since then, he has worked with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, Ala., and has served as board president for the Energy & Environment Building Alliance, for which he developed the curriculum for the "Houses that Work" teaching series.
Mark’s knowledge and experience has made him valued as a consultant to major manufacturers for product innovation, marketing intelligence, and corporate training. With his current initiatives,
Construction Instruction and
LaLiberte Online, he continues to teach, train, and consult nationwide to over 8,000 industry professionals annually.
How has your background brought you to this point?
I like the whole idea of looking at a building more as an integrated system, not just parts and pieces. It’s a little of both. You have to get down in the weeds if you want to complete the project, but you have to make sure that the pieces go all together when you have thousands of products and dozens of trade contractors, and a lot of them don’t know what the other guy is doing. In the end what seems like something that should be easy to accomplish becomes quite complex. Buyer unhappiness is usually based on not getting the pieces to fit. I try to help and say, "here’s the approach, here’s the vision," but how you execute [a project] is probably the greatest challenge.
How do you hope to contribute to Vision 2020—where do you fit in?
I can look at all of the ideas and disciplines that have been laid out in Vision 2020—they’re somewhat siloed—and help to marry them together. People tend to get focused on their discipline—conservation of water, indoor air quality, energy. The challenge and opportunity is that these silos are all about expertise, but you need integration in a harmonious way. I think this is what Vision 2020 hopes to accomplish—how do you get all of these stories together so that in the end it concludes in a well-built building that’s durable, safe, affordable to operate, sustainable—all of the things that a building should include. Hopefully, this is what I can help Vision 2020 bring together.
What do you want to accomplish with Vision 2020?
Maybe we can get to the really obvious story: We’d better do this well; we won’t have too many chances. It isn’t rocket science, it isn’t revolutionary, but it is systematic. Somehow we have to get the building industry, which is very antiquated and slow to change, to move in the right direction. [Builders need to know that] 88 percent of home buyers are going online before they walk in the door, they’ve already checked you out. If you’re an antique, they know it right away. We have to ask: Where are you on that spectrum? Where do I need to change?
What obstacles do you see?
Change is going to be knowledge, and knowledge is the obstacle, but knowledge will be king. I’ll go to lectures and ask, "How many of you [builders] know your HERS score?" And I’ll get five out of 50 who know. If the consumer is looking for this, and the builder is building that, there is going to be a challenge. The biggest problem we’re all going to face is in the field. A builder might say, "OK, I’ll do this" [meaning I'll build efficiently], but his plumber or heating contractor—who has been doing it the same way for 40 years—says he’s not going to do it, or he’ll double the price. So the builder who says, "I’m going to look at how I develop land, look at how I create my product, and look at the demographics of my buyers and build that product," That’s all about knowledge.
What if we, as a group in Vision 2020, say, "Folks, this is what it’s going to look like in 2020—that’s only seven years away—are you ready?" If you’re not, the time to start would be today because you can’t do it overnight, and you might want to begin integrating these changes into your business so that when you get to 2020 you’re not a dinosaur.
How do you see it getting better?
Things have changed in the building industry. When you look at the evolution of [building] codes, the 2009 and now the 2012 code are probably the most progressive and far-reaching codes in history. If you actually meet the 2012 code, you’ve built a pretty good house, where before it was just, "Get the damn thing up and put a roof on it." Today, the cost of building a high-performance, well-built home is miniscule when you can lower the energy bill by 30 percent and it easily offsets a conventional mortgage.
What would be your vision of the building industry in 2020?
I hope that we reach the point where no home gets built that isn’t water-efficient, sustainable, lasts longer, and stands the test of time, because we know how to do this. We’ve got astronauts welding satellites in space, and we can’t figure out how to put together a really great building.
It has to be a change of behavior, a change in everything. I still see builders put together the crappiest stuff and call it a million-dollar house. Homes in 2020 should be efficient, healthy, durable, safe, affordable to operate, affordable to maintain—those are the fundamentals of homeownership. They don’t exist now, but they should exist by then, and we’re only seven years away from making that happen.
Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability: Energy Efficiency + Building Science, Building Design + Performance, Materials + Products, Sustainable Communities, Water Efficiency, Codes, Standards + Rating Systems, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Economics + Financing. 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.