Home performance is to Apple as standard building practices are to the generic PC industry. We, the adherents to the whole house, high quality approach to assessing and managing the performance of homes, are Apple. The standard, old school, business-as-usual approach to building and renovating homes is the rest of the computer industry.
This idea got seeded after reading James Stewart's article, How Jobs Put Passion Into Product, in the New York Times over the weekend. The story of the triumph of Apple's approach to hardware design over the the grey boxes of Microsoft and Compaq has many parallels to the current state of the home performance concept.
Stay with me. It holds together.
For years, Apple toiled in the backwaters of small niches of the computer industry, with tiny market share. The massive growth of personal computers took place in the early 90's, and in those days Compaq and Dell and Gateway dominated the market. Doesn't that feel exactly analogous to the birth of the home performance concept in the 80's? We were building slowly, tuning our approach and methodologies, mainstreaming the whole house concept through BPI standards. Yet, relative to the impact of the massive housing boom that took place during those years, home performance remains what Apple was back then--an interesting niche with loyal, passionate fans but toiling in relative obscurity compared to the housing market as a whole.
But then, of course, the shit hit the fan. "Veal grey" plastic computer boxes, as Tom Wolfe called them, became commodities and big clumsy companies built too many of them. They raced each other to the bottom to win on price, and in doing so, neglected quality and design and customer experience and value. In computers, we overbuilt a pile of commoditized crap and today those companies are a wreck. Compaq, bought by HP for $25 billion less than 10 years ago may just get shut down.
Any part of that sound like what's happened in housing? Low quality boxes? Overbuilding? Race to the bottom pricing? Uh huh.
For computers, Steve Jobs held to a vision of something better. Brilliantly, he was able to foresee just how intimate our relationship with our digital devices would become. While Bill Gates dismissed hardware as unimportant, Jobs drove exacting standards for design, usability, beauty, function, quality, excellence.
Doesn't it make equal sense that in the new economic world of today that our relationship with the biggest asset in most of our lives will become equally intimate? When our homes are no longer 3 year waystations on the road to real estate uber wealth, won't all of us focus inwardly? I know my family is.
And when that happens the quality of that experience becomes paramount. Just as Jobs obsessed over 2 pixels of spacing on the placement of a button, we home performance people should (and do) obsess over the fine details that translate to comfort, health, safety, quality, durability, efficiency. Did Apple justify one particular feature on whether it, in isolation, produced a positive return on investment? No. Apple products won, and are great, because in aggregate they work so well. Every detail of the device and how it works makes it spectacular.
None of us who now own multiple iPods, iPads and Macs knew we needed them, just as so few home owners know they need home performance.
Let's not forget that Apple's trajectory had some rough spots. Before the second coming of Jobs, the company lost its way. I'm sure many home performance elders will equate this to the drought years between oil price shocks. But I would argue that the home performance industry is in the place Apple was before its resurgence.
As long as we stay the course, hold to quality standards in our work that Steve Jobs would approve of, and resist the tendency to mope about the current state of our market penetration, we will get there. Just as the first iPods were a tipping point for Apple, ours is on the horizon.