Do Words Matter for High Performance Homes?

When people consider high performance homes the term “label” gets used most broadly – in both a positive or negative context.  In general, when people talk about distinguishing homes related to energy efficiency, or other greenness it is referred to a label.

Also, the available research on sales of high performance homes tends to use the presence of what is called a label as the means to distinguish one population of homes from another.

But in reality a label, or labeling is one of four core methods. The others are a rating, certificate and score. Their definitions, methodology and the information provided by each vary quite dramatically.

  • Label - Slip of paper marked or inscribed, for attachment to a home to indicate its manufacturer, nature, etc. Qualitative - Informative, factual, no value judgment.
  • Certification - Document which serves as written testimony of truth.  Confirms the achievement of a defined qualification. Qualitative - Informative, factual, with a value judgment.
  • Score - Performance of a home based on a test - expressed by a number, letter, or other symbol.  Quantitative - Finely grained.  Hierarchical, assigned based on a value judgment.
  • Rating - Classification according to grade or rank. A relational assignment.  Quantitative - Broadly grained.  Hierarchical, assigned based on a value judgment.

I asked a diverse group of 50 professionals who encounter labels, ratings, certificates or scores in their day-to-day work. I asked them to review four potential definitions and sort 11 possible programs/techniques into the four definitions.  Twelve people participated.  They were allowed to skip terms they did not know, or assign a term to more than one definition.

The results are not at all scientific. But they do point to a big problem in working with high-performance homes, especially when one is available for sale. The problem is that there is far more confusion than agreement among this group of professionals.  That does not bode well for how consumers make sense of any of this!

Scores                                       Agreement? Agreement Confused with?
Home Energy Score              100%


Blower Door Test                   100%


WalkScore                               73%


HERS                                     60% (Also - Rating)


Also - Rating
The results of the survey show there is greatest consistency when matching programs to scores.  In other words, people know a
score when they see it.
WaterSense for New Homes       86% (also - Certificate)


Also – Certificate
IndoorAir Plus for New Homes    56% (also - Certificate)


Also – Certificate
ENERGY STAR for New Homes 50% (also - Certificate)


Also – Certificate
Inspection Checklist                     50% (also - Score or Rating)


Also - Score, Rating
The next most consistent match is for labels.  But the techniques which came out high as a label also were defined by many as a
certificate, by definition a step up from a label with a judgement call on qualifications   Likewise certificates were often also
considered a label or a rating.  No technique came out most clearly defined as a rating.
Home Performance with ENERGY STAR    67% (also - Label)


Also – Label
NAHB National Green Building Standard    58% (also - Rating or Certificate)


Also - Rating or Label
LEED                                                            46% (also - Rating or Certificate)


Also - Rating or Label
As I understand Home Performance with ENERGY STAR it is a process and not a certificate, although there has been some early conversation about the ramifications of it being a certificate.  Nonetheless, it was identified as a certificate.
The other programs that were identified as certificates were also identified in large part at a Rating too.  So LEED and NAHB National Green Building Standard provide not just certification, but a rating as to delivery against building scope.

Implications for Program Administrators/Policy-Makers

In my experience the term “label” is a polarizing word, especially within the real estate industry.  But the definition of label is pretty innocuous in my opinion.  Programs that allow consumers to identify high-quality specialty building techniques are perceived as a label.

It is also interesting to note that something like an inspection checklist was highly perceived as a label. I believe this is where the polarization comes from!  An inspection at time-of-sale to confirm a home’s energy efficiency could be easily mandated in a city or state.  Such an inspection would clearly and almost instantaneously define the updated homes from those that are not.

On the other hand, confirming that a home has completed the building steps defined in a program like WaterSense is much different, and is simply a means for a homeowner or builder who has invested in such steps to signal they should be compared to a different peer group, and that a third-party has evaluated the work.

It would behoove program managers to consider shifting towards the definition of a certificate to step out of the controversy of a label. Likewise, those concerned within the real estate industry should clarify the difference between a peer label that signals an opt-in investment into a third-party program, versus a universal label that could be mandated and stigmatizing.

Finally, a note about Home Performance with ENERGY STAR.  In my opinion, there is nothing the existing home market needs more than a certificate for energy retrofits to do what LEED and NAHB National Green Building Standard has done to distinguish these properties with confidence and clarify value!

Would you like to join this conversation? Please leave your comments or participate in the survey online.

Reprinted with permission by NotYetGreen.  Original article online.

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Tags: confustion, definitions, label, labeling, meanings, problems, words


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Comment by tedkidd on January 24, 2013 at 10:08am

Nice work Laura! 

I guess words matter when results matter, so the answer when it comes to energy efficiency appears to be predominantly and unfortunately; no.  

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