Why do we keep making sustainability so hard? (Version 367)

by Oct 19, 2017

I’ve written about this a lot. But it’s worth writing about again.


As a general rule of thumb, I intentionally put myself through whatever we ask regular Americans to go through in order to live more sustainably. It turns out I also have a passion for old homes – the craftsmanship and grandeur make me swoon.

And the fact that they’re all leaking energy like a sieve gives me a good excuse to get a “real world” experience with efficiency and sustainability.

Every time I put myself through a house project, I walk away muttering to myself, “No wonder less than 1% of our housing stock has gotten a deep energy retrofit. It’s too #@%!!*$ hard!!!”

So here we go: I’ve recently bought a fixer-upper built in 1928.

Problem #1
I couldn’t hire someone who could do a home inspection AND an energy inspection. No such human being exists in Knoxville, TN.
Problem #2
There’s literally only one guy in Knoxville with a Building Performance Institute (BPI) certification. So I spent an additional $250, on top of what I was paying the home inspector, to have him do the energy audit and give me recommendations about what needed to be done to fix the home. The skimpy evaluation/proposal I received from him didn’t look at the house as a system, didn’t consider/address the 17-year-old HVAC systems, and left me thinking, “He’s not my guy.”
What normal person would even take these steps?

Let’s pause here. What average American even knows there’s such a thing as an energy inspection? A BPI certification? Or that there’s a contractor lookup on the BPI website?

As a person who owns a marketing agency that does an awful lot of research, I’d love to tell you the exact percentage. We haven’t probed on this … but my professional instinct says the percentage is wildly low.

So, here’s an opportunity.

I know the National Association of REALTORS® is committed to sustainability. REALTORS could begin advising clients that they get an energy inspection at the same time as their home inspection (which they almost always recommend). Maybe they even go one step further and call it a comfort inspection. Or a Healthy Home Inspection (playing to very real consumer drivers/concerns).

Bottom line, there’s a HUGE opportunity here for REALTORS to be heroes and help their clients.

There’s also an opportunity here for lenders. Lenders could ask, “Did you do a Healthy Home Inspection? If so, we can actually include $X in your mortgage/give you an additional loan at closing to improve the health and comfort of your home.” That’s extra money in the bank for lenders … and it creates the easy button for the homebuyer to do the right thing. Yes!

Problem #3

I started asking people I know in the home performance industry to help … but I’ve gone down a time-consuming rabbit hole. The first guys I talked to, whom I have a real affinity and great respect for, wanted somewhere in the $3,000-$5,000 range just to diagnose the problems and create a prescription. That includes zero actual work to fix the house. I just couldn’t find a way to feel good about that.

Now I’ve got a couple of other contractors I’m talking with, thanks to some manufacturer friends trying to help. That’ll be more time and, if past experience holds true, I’ll get a couple of conflicting recommendations. I’ll be locked up about what to actually do.

Problem #4

I also called a solar company. The house has a lot of wide-open, south-facing roof coverage. I have the benefit of having just judged the Solar Decathlon, so I even turned the local solar company on to high-performance panels I learned about at SD ‘17. They still came back with a $25,000 proposal that will only produce enough energy to cover 20-30% of my current utility bill. Sigh …

So, let’s break this down.

I’m COMMITTED to sustainability. I’ll wind up doing some combination of air sealing, insulation and HVAC improvements and maybe even a little solar. I’ll toss and turn over whether or not I’m doing the right thing, I’ll call lots of people I know and ask for help and opinions, and I’ll generally behave in a way that’s the polar opposite of normal people’s behavior.

Most people simply wouldn’t put themselves through this.

Last week I spoke a couple of times at the EEBA conference. I heard someone say, “We’re in a post-Building Science world.” Not in Mainstream America we’re not. If we had actual science going on, all of this would be easier, surely. Surely there would be simple formulas and diagnoses and prescriptions. Surely we’d all take the red pill (or was it the blue pill?) and we’d all be committed to fixing our houses and solving a massive carbon problem.

But that, indeed, is not where we are.

What will you do, and what will your organization do, to make this all easier for people? To facilitate change? To be a hero?
The leadership mantle is out there, just waiting for you to claim it. Let me know if you want to grab it – I’ll do everything I can to help you.
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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.


  1. Peter Sundberg

    Hi Susan,
    Good post. Your situation sounds familiar.

    In British Columbia, Canada our organization is working with the Provincial Government and to our two primary energy utilities BC Hydro and FortisBC to provide homeowners with solutions and resources to assist homeowners. Most importantly there is some one to call or email to ask questions.


    It is a brand new program launched in September 2017. We have a long to do list of plans to make the program a better resource for homeowners. And we are doing detailed tracking of consumer calls to better understand their issues, questions and concerns so we can develop resources and have expertise on hand to direct them to the right energy advisor, contractor or do-it-yourself resource to make their home energy improvement a success.

  2. Erik Haagensen

    Hi Suzanne,
    You should talk to Ian Huddleston at Greene Tech Renewable Energy in Greeneville, TN. He did the solar installation on our house, it was around $24K to completely offset our energy use, and included a battery backup system for critical circuits. Between the 30% Fed income tax credit, and a USDA rural business 25% cash back, our ROI on the system is under 10 years but we get to sell power back for 20! We priced a similar system with other installers and nobody could touch his price, and he did high quality work. So for our investment we get a 55% one year return in government offsets, and a guaranteed 5 or 10 (depending on how you look at it) return for 20 years.
    I’m not affiliated with Ian or his business, I’m just an extremely happy customer passionate about solar. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about our experience or the investment returns.

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  4. Dale Sherman

    Ah, you need a Nate Adams (Energy Smart Ohio), Tamasin Sterner (Pure Energy Coach), or Michel Musser (The Village Green). These folks will spend the time to properly gather the data and analyze your home. This includes a variety of tests as well as a significant interview with the homeowner to learn everything they can about your home. They will perform energy modeling, diagnostics, and eventually several proposed solutions. There are others with the same deep skills but they are still a minority in the home diagnostics world.

    Being patient and taking the time to cultivate a customer relationship for the long-term is a very different approach than that of most companies. A Darn Good Auditor (DGA) is focused on solving your problems, not maximizing a sale. If (s)he is good at the former, the latter will follow.

    Personally, I like the master sustainability plan which lists all the things you can do to improve your home. A DGA prioritizes, groups, and rates for payback the energy savings, comfort improvements, IAQ (indoor air quality) and IEQ (indoor environmental quality), and carbon footprint reduction.

    You may never get to all of the steps in such a master plan, but with a clear roadmap, it’s up to you how far you go. It’s a matter of identifying your pain points (high energy costs, cold drafts, musty basement, and stuffy bedroom) and determining how you’ll address them. A DGA will lay out the options and help a homeowner work through the choices. They’ll even provide support if you decide to use a different contractor for some of the work.

    If you end up moving, the master sustainability plan stays with the house for the new owners. Your car, your refrigerator, even your toaster comes with a user’s manual, why not your home?

    It doesn’t help that there are many ways to rate a home, HERS, HES, HEY, EUI, HHI, PHIUS+, LEED. Home buyers can be easily confused. The Building Science Corp and Rocky Mountain Institute have offered some solutions to this, but we have yet to land on a single rating that realtors can use to educate home buyers.

    Unfortunately, BPI, RESNET and GHHI are not focused on this master approach to existing homes. They are all very good at what they are doing so far, but they are not at the cutting edge where the early adopter market is for progressive homeowners looking to take their homes beyond what these organizations offer. They (you and I) want a master plan that is clearly spelled out for solving their house problems as well as helping solve the bigger problems of their community and the world.

    Indeed, the market is there for the taking.

  5. Nate Adams

    Well said, Dale Sherman. It’s funny, I am the $3-5K guy she’s talking about. I get $1200-1500 for local audits of 2000-3000 square foot homes and another $3-5K for project management. Normal folks.

    We suggested having a local guy help out, and ended up going in the direction of me driving down there, 8 hours each way and 2 days on site. Plus a spectacularly complicated energy model of a large home with the highest blower door number the tester had ever seen (25,000 cfm50.) The risk and complexity of this home is off the chain. But yes, a plan can be made with high odds of success. And the project can be managed to a successful completion. We do it all the time, and have the case studies to prove it. It’s pretty hard to do, though. So is being a top notch diagnostician or surgeon, which in effect we are.

    To me, the real problem is value. One of our clients who did an $18,000 Home Performance retrofit that he called “a resounding success” recently sold his home. Know what he got back from that $18K? Zilch. Nada. Bupkis. I HATE THAT.

    I’ve been pushing for about 2 years now for EUI, or Energy Use Intensity. (Google Nate Adams, EUI, and GreenTech Media to read my plan.) No black box, just real energy use from real homes, compared against each other. How does your home compare against comps? If it’s $50/mo less expensive than the median to operate, shouldn’t it be worth the Net Present Value of that $50/mo over 15 or 30 years? Does the fact that it is less prone to expensive moisture failures add value too? Or that the HVAC is likely to last longer because it’s not horribly choked and doomed to early failure? I think so. But that’s the market’s job to decide. EUI could begin to show real value and make effective retrofits something other than a way to burn a fairly large pile of cash. (If you look at it from a purely financial perspective, when in fact the problems solved in the process are often worth the cost of admission.)

    Back to that client, though, he just bought a brand new 5000 square foot home with 3 furnaces. Guess what. It’s far less comfortable than his last home which was built in 1959, thanks to our work. And he’s planning on having us out. Those 6 month old HVAC systems are likely to get ripped out. Likely $30-50K wasted. That’s freaking stupid. Asinine. Choose your word, but it shouldn’t happen anymore. But it will because there is no value to better homes, and no accountability or transparency for contractors building uncomfortable and unhealthy houses, or slamming horribly chosen and designed HVAC systems.

    EUI and a contractor ranking system (our One Knob program design concept) could radically change this market. Home values would increase and good work would be rewarded. It’s construction, the work is going to be expensive. 40 years of trying to keep costs low rather than creating real value have left us with programs wasting ratepayer money and a non-existent energy. It costs what it costs. Let’s make it worth what it costs.

    Until then, frankly I can’t blame you Suzanne, it’s a logical reaction, there literally is no value. I’m doing the little bit that I can to change that, but the market is going to stay small until that nut is cracked. We’re here if you need us.

  6. George Kopf

    You are so right on with many of these points. However, the reality is that the real estate industry has not stepped up to work with the home performance industry for a number of very good reasons. Here are the reasons (as I see them):

    1. They don’t need to. That’s the harsh reality. Why would a real estate professional (agent, broker, lender, etc.) bother with all this “green” stuff when they can sell a house just fine without it?

    2. Real estate professionals have no idea what building performance is. Thankfully, there are efforts to change this (NAR Green Designation is a good example) but compare the number of REALTORS® with the NAR GD and those that don’t. Go ahead. I dare you. It’s not going to be pretty.

    3. All of this (energy ratings, EEMs, energy audits, etc.) is new and unfamiliar – and when a real estate professional encounters “new” and “unfamiliar” they see obstacles to close of escrow. Period. Full stop. “But it’s good for your client!” Nope. They ain’t buying it.

    The only way the real estate community is going to include energy data in a real estate transaction is when it’s mandated. Sure, there may be some early adopters on the bleeding edge but they will be the mavericks and constitute a small percentage of actual transactions. Nope, the only way this happens is when they don’t have a choice. That’s how it was with home inspections: the real estate community fought it tooth and nail but eventually acquiesced because they saw it was good for business, it was what the customer wanted and it was inevitable.

    And that’s what we need real estate needs to understand about home performance. Look at Portland and Berkeley mandating energy ratings at time of sale – this is the future today.

    And then there’s home energy data becoming available on websites like hotpads and zillow. You might see an uptick in real estate professional interest when their clients start asking about it but not before.

    And of course all of this assumes that the construction industry is ready and able to deliver building science based upgrades. But that’s a topic for another day.

    Thank you Suzanne. You are such a boon to the building science community. Keep up the amazing work.

  7. Dan Phillips

    Odds are you do have some people in your neck of the woods that might have the building science knowledge and are doing energy retrofits every single work day. Unfortunately, they might not be for hire, as they exclusively work on income qualified homes for DOE/LIHEAP’s Weatherization program. The best shell tech/auditor here in Indiana doesn’t have the time (and few are willing to pay the premium) to have him sus out the home’s problems and install the retrofits in the private sector. But on just about every Monday through Thursday (working 4-10’s like any sane person), he’s auditing, installing, or inspecting for those who really can’t afford to live in a wasteful home.

    And if it were cheaper to do, selling it wouldn’t be a problem. Here in the midwest, energy is pretty affordable, which also hurts the economics of selling high performance retrofits.

    Nothing is simple in existing home retrofits. Each house is a unique and beautiful snowflake. You’d be disappointed with a cookie-cutter audit and the lame results it would provide. And if you want a good audit with good recommendations from a DGA trying to keep food on the table in a bigger, slightly more complicated home, it is going to take time (read: be expensive).

    Energy Efficiency/High Performance homes in the midwest is a Luxury good for most homes & people. Unfortunately, most boots on the ground right now working in the existing home energy field here in the midwest are working for Weatherization. The opposite of the market you are in.

  8. Suzanne Shelton

    Thank you, everyone, for your suggestions and commiseration! Couple of bits back:

    – Bruce, you just added another layer to the point about “why do we keep making this hard?” When I searched “Home Performance Contractors, Knoxville, TN” I didn’t find you — or anybody else that actually does what I mean by that. Using the BPI “find a contractor” lookup was the only way I could figure to find somebody…and most Consumers wouldn’t even know to do that.

    – Nate, I’m such a fan of your approach and work. And for me, this isn’t about return on investment. I think promising people they’ll save money by making EE upgrades is all wrong — most people don’t see the savings and they just get mad. And when we anchor on money, it just brings up other objections. But this is a fundamental matter of budget. Most of us only have so many dollars to do the home performance work…so we need as much money as possible to go into the implementation. That’s my objection to a $5,000 prescription. And I think most folks would want the prescription and the implementation bundled together.

    – Diane — My utility does offer an energy audit…but it’s not a blower door audit; it’s just a walk through. I had one done on my current house and left that experience not really knowing what I needed to do next, and what the right investment range should be (and the two contractors I called told me I needed to do something different than my utility told me to do, so I got totally locked up.)

    Let’s simplify this! One easy to find website, a few options to choose from (understanding the price will have to be a range since every home is different and size matters), and let’s find a way to motivate and inspire REALTORs and lenders to support the process. A tall order, I realize.

  9. Ted Kidd

    Hi Suzanne,

    Here is our process:

    1. Help uncover problems and goals.
    2. Perform diagnostics to understand what the house needs.
    3. Help develop budget.
    4. Build 3 computer modeled packages that make goals, house needs and budget play nice.
    5. Finalize plans to include workscopes.
    6. Decide together what the final plan is.
    7. Build loading order.
    8. Get bids.
    9. Watch over execution, quality control on shell work, & optimize HVAC.
    10. Follow up to see what worked and what didn’t.
    11. Make Adjustments if needed.
    12. Track/Solicit feedback throughout.

    Miss any one, fail. Force what WE want, fail.

    Anyone who really thinks a contractor providing free designs is providing design that serve the clients interests first should probably not own a house. Hiring a contractor without a plan for what you are going to fix probably isn’t a great idea either, unless it’s something simple like a door lock, or painting a closet.

    Good comprehensive design costs money. Having an advocate for your interests costs money. Doing these things well without getting paid isn’t a business model I’ve seen succeed. Even if design is hidden in the cost of your project, you ARE paying for it. If it’s bad design you are paying in lots of ways.

    The problem for new homeowners is they don’t understand what problems they have. 1 through 8 happen before bid. It’s a big commitment. If they don’t know what problems they have, why would they engage in this exercise? They can’t even provide meaningful contribution to the very first step.

    So this is a dumb marketplace to chase. There are lots and lots and lots of existing homes that suck, with homeowners who know they suck.

    Live in your house. Figure out how it sucks. Spitball some expensive fixes and feel the pain of taking shortcuts. Only then do you become an ideal prospect for our Comprehensive Planning Process.

    With so many people with problems, why try to heal patients who don’t yet understand that they are sick?

    This is why we fix broken homes people have lived in. People need to be fed up, and likely have spent a good deal of time and money attempting spitball fixes, design by low bid contractors, that failed and had to be redone, before they are willing to spend what it takes to build a plan BEFORE they start to fix things.

    So we really want people to call us when their house SUCKS and they know it, because we can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.

  10. Nate Adams

    HI Suzanne,

    Two questions:

    1. How many mistakes do you need to make to waste $5,000 on a construction project? (FYI Most planning processes for us are in the $1-2K range. I’ve made plenty of mistakes that large on personal construction projects. I see it all the time, one client just paid $2500 to remove insulation he installed last fall so we can air seal properly. Planning Home Performance saves money. Full stop.)

    2. To your simplicity comment, if you had to explain the field of medicine, how the body works, and how to solve disease in 30 seconds, or even 30 minutes, how would you do it? Truly dealing with root causes of problems in homes is precisely like the field of medicine. There are many different patients and problems. It takes step by step diagnosis to get a good result.

    To me, the simplicity comes from 1) creating consumer trust so they’ll follow and expert who can prove they deliver results, which requires ranking practitioners and 2) a natural process not unlike a doctor’s. We broke down our process, it has 12 steps. Apparently homes need an intervention. Skip any step, and failure is likely. I wish there was another way, but I’ve found a lot of ways to fail by shortcutting. It’s complex.

    Rather than trying to do simpler and cheaper, which the industry has been trying to figure out for 40 years, spending billions with mediocre success, how about we embrace a process that takes things one step at a time and feels natural. Mixed with a financing program to spread projects out over 15 years, we find most homes can be substantially fixed for $75-150/mo. That fits in a majority of budgets.

    Embrace the complexity and cost. One of our clients bought a house for $40K and proceeded to do a $37K Home Performance job (the 1900 House of the Future Case Study.) To quote him, he is extremely……………satisfied with the comfort and energy use of his home. (He speaks slowly and nearly gave me a heart attack before “satisfied” came out of his mouth.) That house is 1300 sf. And that’s what THAT house needed to make it awesome and achieve his goals. Paul would be happy to talk with you if you like, we are good friends.

    I’ve heard you consistently say you get locked up making a decision. That probably means you are skipping steps. And maybe not fully grasping the complexity and cost of these projects. Plan up front, take things one step at a time, and work with a realistic budget. For your home that’s likely $30-40K in HVAC, and then likely another $40-60K in shell work to get good results.

    Yes, that’s expensive. It is what it is. It’s construction. I’ve seen $100K kitchens and garages. How easy is it to make a wrong call for a couple grand in a $80-100K project? What if you had to spend $20K undoing $20K of bad work? Then another $30K to do it right? Or replacing your HVAC AGAIN? That is what planning helps prevent.

    Home Performance is complex and expensive. I’d rather find solutions that acknowledge those facts and work from there. We don’t have another 40 years to fail.

    We’re selling complex and expensive jobs to $75-150K income households here in Cleveland. We’ve removed 5 gas meters with 2 more on the way this year, eliminating fossil fuel usage in those homes (in Cleveland!) These are 1300-2500 square foot homes, middle market. It can be done, if you take it one step at a time starting with diagnosis and planning. Simple is step by step, not cheaper and easier.

  11. Carlton Sears

    Seems the heart of this post is about the challenge of creating a new reality in which sustainability is the norm. And even more, it’s about maintaining hope that such a future can even be real.

    Paths forward to new realities are for sure challenging. Changing norms is hard – in any sector. It takes time and it rarely happens quickly. The question becomes – can we accelerate change? Yes, we can. We can accelerate change when we understand how change happens. It happens incrementally, over time. It can be accelerated when we act intentionally. Change typically starts in small pockets and spreads. The secret nectar for spreading change? It’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Spreading stories of new norms that demonstrate the kind of future we want can strengthen hope that more sustainable norms can be made real. Less hopeful stories about ourselves engenders disbelief. I don’t mean we should sugar coat the truth. You have to be honest about the challenge. Otherwise, new, hopeful narratives won’t ring true.

    Assets may not presently exist in Knoxville on which stories of paths to sustainability can be told. But that doesn’t mean paths don’t exist, that success hasn’t been found, and that those pockets of change aren’t spreading. If you want to a new norm of sustainability, find those successes and celebrate them.

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