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Building Science

The Buy-in Problem

From code compliance to Passive House certification, getting good work from contractors is hard

Getting buy-in from the work crews is important when you're doing high-performance building.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard

Last week I read a nice little article by Steve Baczek about from the various stakeholders involved with building a home. He’s an architect who works closely with the people who build the homes he designs. He’s also a former U.S. Marine who understands the importance of what he calls “a ladder of leadership and responsibility.”

After meeting with the crew building a new high-performance home he designed, he said they’re “efficiently working on the project with a clear understanding of where to focus their efforts and where not to.” But he benefited, too. He gained “a better grasp of how the crew dealt with my drawings.”

When I talk to people who work with contractors, I often hear the other side of this issue. The big complaints are that it’s really difficult to get buy-in. I hear this from code compliance verifiers, home energy raters, and even folks involved with Passive House projects. The air sealing crew misses important details. Someone comes along later and cuts a hole that wasn’t planned. The HVAC installers don’t pull the flex duct tight. Builders say they can’t take the time to have the kind of meetings that Baczek described because they’re paying interest every day on a $400,000 lot.

What’s the solution? Is there a general solution? How do we get buy-in from the majority of stakeholders, not just a few on high-end or high-profile projects?

The obstacles to buy-in

When you see how homes are built, it’s kind of amazing that they turn out as well as they do. Corbett Lunsford nailed it in this little video comparing car manufacturing to homebuilding.

Here are a few things that I think make it difficult to get the kind of…

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  1. Lloyd Alter | | #1

    You nailed it
    Last week I visited Bensonwood’s factory in New Hampshire and saw them building super high quality housing, this is doable. Ronald Reagan also nailed it when he said “Trust, but verify”- nobody should buy a house which doesn’t have blower tests and thermographic photos demonstrating that it meets agreed standards.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #2

    Reply to Lloyd Alter
    Thanks, Lloyd!

  3. User avater
    Leigha Dickens | | #3

    walk-thrus, walk-thrus
    This--taking on a personal quest to improve buy-in for high performance with the subs on turnkey build projects (of our panelized home kits, shout out to high quality panelized homes!), has become a part of my job as "the green building person." It's not an aspect of my job that I think my boss or the builder expected me to focus on. But I recognized it was important so I took it on. And it's really hard sometimes, for all the reasons mentioned. And I don't know that I've really got it as good as I'd like. But, I have learned that taking the time to go on the first-day-on-the-jobsite walk-thrus with key subs as the building science expert and lending that perspective, does really help. (A builder could do it, or an architect, or the site superintendent, as long as somebody is.) HVAC and air-sealing and insulation at a minimum. I got away from it when I felt like we were making progress and getting the steps down, got subs we liked, that the site super-independent was trained and on it, etc. But I realized that every house is different in the minutia and that's where you gotta figure stuff out, complacency kind of sneaks up on you over time and blower door test scores can start slipping a bit, boy do you get rotating crews from subs sometimes, and when you have multiple jobs at once, it's easy for a site superintendent to get caught up in fighting fires and start eroding their record of attending all walk-thrus with subs in person. (My boss insists that being a good site superintendent is 90% planning weeks ahead and people management, only 10% actual construction work, and he's wise.) Especially as you grown from building 1 to 2 houses at a time to many more than that at a time, from being just a builder to having a site superintendent to having multiple site superintendents and multiple crews from the subs--fast growth is another obstacle to sustaining the quality standards you might have figured out how to do when you had fewer projects. But I think walk-thrus are a step that should not be skipped no matter how busy you are. I do try to explain why I'm asking for things when I go on them. It's usually pretty humbling because I often realize I'm staring in the face at something I totally did not even think about when pondering the building envelope or HVAC plan on a 2d paper--maybe when I'm experienced enough I'll finally manage to really anticipate everything correctly ahead of time--but sometimes demonstrating your process of figuring out what to do when you're there in the field is itself a way of earning buy-in.

    I do really thinking using HERS score and/or blower door test scores as a metric can help too. I have one site superintendent who likes learning for learning sake, so this is all interesting and fun for him. I have another who doesn't think that way and just wants to get stuff done, but is a really competitive person and likes to feel like he's winning. So, having a score to beat from last time, or taking pride that his air tightness score beats the competition, is motivating to him.

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