The Future of Home Performance is Wrapped in Cheese—Q&A with Dave Robinson

Dave Robinson, a principal of GreenEarthEquities, is a man in this industry that needs little introduction. If you didn’t see him at last year’s ACI event accepting the Tony Woods Award, you may have seen him teaching a class, serving as the former president of the California Building Performance Association, or performing deep energy retrofits on foreclosed homes.

When I got the chance to interview Dave last week, I knew I’d learn something. What I didn’t expect was that he’d ask to see what my wall-mounted heating unit looked like in my apartment or that he’d offer up some powerful metaphors for how the industry needs to package home performance to the mainstream public. (Hint: It involves metaphorical cheese.)

Below is our conversation—surprises and all.  

Home Energy: You’re well known in the home performance industry as the energy-wise house flipper…how many homes have you flipped to date?

Dave Robinson: I need to clarify the ‘Energy-Wise House Flipper’ moniker. That was totally how I started and exactly what I did for the first two years and the first 10 homes. Then the market changed and it became more beneficial to buy and hold, so that’s what we have done for the last two years with about 10 more homes. When you buy and hold, you quickly run out of cash, so we now work with investors. We have various ways and amounts that investors can invest.

HE: What kind of investors do you have?

DR: All of the investors that I have already have a green heart. They are already familiar with home performance and they are not just looking to maximize return. The easiest way is to invest is in one house—that’s a $200,000 to $300,000 investment. People can also invest any amount that they want. For example, if they just wanted to invest $20,000, then I just pay them a percentage in interest. It’s quite a bit more return than just money in the bank but it’s still limited to whatever that number is. Another way to invest is through a joint venture or partnership, where a partner puts up half the money to do a whole house and I put up the other half. There are many ways to invest. It’s a way to think outside the box…Investors make money and I get to be creative and do what I want to do. It’s a win-win.

HE: What has been the most memorable project/home you’ve worked on?

DR: The most memorable homes have been the ones that have been most challenging. There are two levels of challenge: the construction difficulty and then there’s the energy challenge of ‘how low can you go?’ for utility bills and kilowatt usage. For the first type of challenge, two homes come to mind; both of them required full-room additions. In both cases we added a complete master suite with a master bedroom and master bath. It’s always a challenge to renovate/remodel and make it look like it has always been there.

I think the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve done energy-wise—and the thing that is really advancing home performance—is my work hybridizing ducted and ductless mini-split heat pump systems.

It started in April 2009 at the ACI meeting, I was riding the airplane home and was with Charles Segerstrom and we were noting that many people at that convention had been saying that mini-splits were looking good but there wasn’t any data. I remember saying to Charles, ‘I’m working on a project right now and I’ll put one in.’ I called my HVAC contractor and said, ‘Stop what you’re doing and meet me on the job on Monday.’ I met with the contractor and on the hood of his truck we designed a system. We put it in, had it finished, and published in your magazine by November of that year.

As an energy-wise investor, if you get an idea in the morning you can implement it in the afternoon—and I do.

HE: What is the most surprising thing you’ve come across when retrofitting a home?

DR: The most surprising thing I’ve come across is that more people in our industry don’t jump on this golden opportunity. I’m making money, I’m having fun, and I’m doing the thing that we’re all committed to. Some people do it, but surprisingly few. Last year at ACI when I was receiving the Tony Woods Award, I challenged the crowd to think how great it would be if we—the best and the brightest in our industry—would all go out and buy a foreclosure and fix it up. Then when we meet again in Denver, what a great party we would have. What great stories we’d tell and what great lessons we’d have learned. That’s still my message.   

HE: What certifications do you hold in highest regard, or think mean the most in terms of efficiency, for homes?

DR: I’m not involved in certification. The way we sell and now rent our homes is totally a customer education process. We explain how their ERV works and why it’s needed, how a blower door works and what the CFM50 number means, how shell sealing is done, and a lot more.

At the end of our presentation, the customers know more about home performance than many contractors. Certifications attempt to boil all those numbers and all that education down to a score or a certificate. We feel we are serving our customer better by educating them about home performance and letting them make their decision based on knowledge. Unfortunately most of the current programs are geared toward contractors and don’t fit the owner/builder/investor like me and my students. Consequently, most of the people who are doing what we do here at GreenEarthEquities don’t use the various certificate or financing programs.

I have suggested modifications and a program that would incentivize investors to several leaders in the industry, but it has yet to gain traction.

HE: What benefits would there be for a program that incentivized investors?

I think that some people feel like investors shouldn’t really be helped because they are fat-cat investors anyway. Most investors are going to use contractors—a few will be full-blown DIY people but they are a real minority.

It seems to me like if we’ve got 60% of the housing stock that need deep renovation, the investor is the one in our society and our economy that is most able to do deep energy retrofits. Unfortunately most Americans live on 105% of their income so they aren’t really able to do what needs to be done. So what most people do is put band-aids on and they do the things they can see and that are pretty. That’s why a lot of windows get done and not a lot of shell sealing. When you use band-aids when a tourniquet is needed, you don’t get the results you’re looking for.

To use another metaphor, have you ever tried to give a dog a pill?

HE: Yes, it involved a lot of trickery. When my family dog didn’t want to take her pills, I wrapped it in cheese.  

It’s like giving a dog a pill—that’s how we sell green. If you try to sell green in the market, it won’t sell very well, especially the important parts of green like air sealing, insulation, and upgrading HVAC, especially the duct systems. None of which you can see. The buying public doesn’t readily spend money for the important stuff. You have to wrap it in cheese, which is crown molding and granite countertops.

A lot of what we teach at GreenEarthEquities is how to wrap the cheese around the pill. But there are different ways to wrap the cheese: When you do it in a new house and do it with a 30-year loan, millennials will stretch and pay for green. When they are already in a house, will they open their wallets to reduce their utility bills? Ninety percent of people in all generations won’t stretch to do a complete deep energy retrofit, opting rather for only the low-hanging fruit and the more-visible items. Putting it into the house at construction or sale is a way to make it palatable and people will do it. That’s the reason that energy-wise investors should be incentivized rather than excluded, which they currently are. Part of the way that they are excluded is that they are written out of many or most of the programs, which require the applicant to be the resident. That attitude that the landlords shouldn’t be helped because they are the fat-cat rich guys is backwards thinking. What they could do is wrap the cheese and get the people that wouldn’t normally spend money on shell sealing and insulation and package it into something that these people would buy and get it in spite of themselves.

HE: What do you think is the most important item that our industry needs to focus on in the next 5 years for home performance and/or building science to become more mainstream?
 
DR: I think there are two important things our industry must do. First, we need to shift away from relying totally on modeling and move toward programs based on real bill reduction. Secondly, we need to emphasize and begin quantifying the value of all the other reasons to do home performance besides energy saving and bill reduction.

This blog originally appeared at HomeEnergy.org

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Comment by Robert (Bob) Bacon on April 30, 2013 at 5:53am

I appreciate Dave's belief in educating the customer rather than dumbing the message down to a certification rating. I also like the "cheese" metaphor and consider "comfort" to be an attractive wrapper for the pill of investing in energy efficiency. 

Comment by Jon Haehnel on April 29, 2013 at 9:21am

Dave is right on the mark.  I hope the state efficiency programs take notice, they could help this kind of work if they would make changes in their policies. Without a natural driver for change, like high energy prices, we will  have to work with human nature to elicit change. 

Comment by Joseph Lamy on April 25, 2013 at 9:24am

My little (670 sq. ft) Boeing box (23 X 29) circa 1942, has four corners and a new roof...and TAA DAA a one head mini-split. This little whispering suitcase (12,000 BTU/h HANDLES the job. With tight and fuzzy all over it, the box is retrieved from the war.

When I moved in, the CO level inside the living space was the same as the CO in the exhaust. Out went the gas. Here in Seattle we only have 4741 degree days of heating and a few days of cooling. The Manual J says 9,900 would handle it, and the inverter-driven mini-split is so QUIET! Neighbors come by just to listen for the whisper and stand amazed at the far end and feel the warmth shoot and spread. They marvel at the wisdom of NO DUCTS!! They watch the eye scoping the room and then aiming the flow to the cool spot. And then they stand in awe at the tiny little utility bills. i'm quick to add" That's the hot water, clothes and cooking too!" Buck a day until the solar plops onto the carport. And it's not ugly like I thought. It disappears after a day. Put a picture under it. Stand under it on a cold morning after a shower, haa haa aahhaa

Seattle gets most of our sun (75%) in the four+ months of summer. Our 'cheese' is quick, but our pie is the hydro. We are 90%+ hydro-based, a kwh ranges from a nickel to 8 cents, and most folks here have green hearts anyway.

So the motivation here is reaching critical mass, thanks to pioneers like Dave. For most of the residential market, the combustion-free technology stands alone in a smokey backdrop of carbonaceous sky. Everyone else is re-arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Being in it for the duration means taking responsibility for undoing the mistakes of yesteryear - asbestos abatement before air-seal, knob-n-tube out before coming up to electric code and insulating walls, etc. There's flipping, upgrading and rooting. I'd hazard a guess that rooters will find themselves onto something from going where no man has gone before - beyond energy saving, comfort and familiar realms.

Comment by Kari Sauder on April 23, 2013 at 1:33pm

Well, we're taking you up on your challenge.  My husband, the financial brains of our outfit, came home from the ACI conference ready to buy a foreclosure.  We found an ugly duckling -- not a foreclosure- but at $28K for a 3 bed/1bath you can only imagine how much it's needed.  I've had fun with the shell sealing work & I'm not quite done with mastic on the ductwork but the 90+ NG unit we had put in works like a dream.  The over $300/ mo. electric portable space heaters (keeping the house at about 55 deg.) have given way to a NG bill of about $125/ mo. -- nice. Can't wait to see what it will be when all the air-sealing is done and the attic floor is insulated.

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