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Steve Jobs's Lessons for the Home Performance Industry Professional content

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By Peter Troast - October 8th, 2011

Mac vs PCHome performance is to Apple as standard bulding 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. 


Hear, hear! Great piece, Peter. And thanks for reminding of those "I'm a Mac" ads from a few years ago. I loved those! Posted by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD on Oct 11, 2011 9:44am

Thanks Allison! Perhaps I'm a fanboy, but the analogy seemed to fit. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Oct 11, 2011 9:47am
I agree except for the part that Jobs didn't need the government backing to support the integrity if his products. In fact, he never used rebates or coupons unless he had a better product line that was about to be released. There is an elitist factor that is present in many sustainable products that attract/ detract many consumers like Apple has done. The problem you may face is implementing these items as standards when they are considered as upgrades. Posted by Anonymous on Oct 11, 2011 10:00am
Excellent article. Very applicable to our industry. Posted by Jim Bushart on Oct 11, 2011 10:17am

@JIm--thanks much

@anonymous--point taken that Apple held to premium pricing, and that limited their market to an extent. Over time, though, a lot of people were happy to pay those prices, and Apple's margins grew at the same time as their share. I'm completely with you on your distaste for high priced products in the name of sustainability (Carl Seville's "green bling") but wonder if, for home performance, some premium positioning might be what we need. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Oct 11, 2011 10:28am
I've been thinking about this as well and have a blog post started on Lean Startup and our industry. Random thoughts... Apple products are built overseas... Cost to build an iPad $11... what the market will bear? Need vs. want. Does anybody "need" an iPad? I appreciate Jobs as a business leader. I don't appreciate Apple for their lack of environmental leadership. Planned obsolescence taken to it's illogical extreme. Non-replaceable batteries, etc. They can do better on that front. I agree that there is so much to learn from Apple. Our product is inherently substance over style. However, we definitely need more style in our promotion of our product. Great post in spite of my grumpy response! Posted by Steve Byers on Oct 11, 2011 12:26pm
Not the best comparison. People really don't need the newest latest Ipod4 , Ipad2 but people really do need the latest home performance upgrades. Posted by Anonymous on Oct 11, 2011 12:58pm
@Anonymous #2: Those of us in the industry like to think that people need the latest home performance upgrade, but really they don't. What happens to those who don't get it? They may pay higher bills. Some may have financial problems as a result, but that's like sticking with the crappy tech products and having the headaches that go along with them. Yes, in the bigger picture, there are the global energy and environmental problems associated with higher home energy use, but people don't really need what we're selling. Their lives will be better if they get it, though, as will the the economy and environment for the rest of us who live here, too. Posted by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD on Oct 11, 2011 1:45pm
Great article! I'm going to refer to it in my blog! Posted by Kim Scarlett on Oct 11, 2011 2:38pm
Great analogy, as far as it goes. Although I've never owned an Apple product (I prefer to build my own computers, and I have no use for a smart phone), I do respect Apple's business philosophy. The real issue here is how Jobs' vision raised the bar for an entire industry. The problem with that is that computers are built in a factory. Jobs had total control. I've always felt that factory built homes are the way to go, but unfortunately, in this country, pre-fab mods are relegated to the lowest rung of the market for the most part. I recall back in the late 80's, a modular home manufacturer in PA made a run at the half-million dollar market. They got nowhere. Sigh. Posted by David Butler on Oct 11, 2011 5:02pm
i think jobs best lesson for home performance: design is critical, integration is key Posted by mike eliason on Oct 12, 2011 10:57am
Simplistic, but in the post mortem beautification of Steve Jobs, It almost makes you want to cry. :) The fact of the matter is, Microsoft and the Hardware makers have put millions of computers into peoples hands in poor areas and 3rd world countries who can only look in the window of an Apple Store. Every member of my family owns their own PC, something I could never have done with Apple products. No big problems, great performance and it may not be cool, but the bang for the buck is exceptional. Besides that, I would rather not need to make an appointment at some specialty store for privilegeedge of having my computer fixed. Posted by Steve McKenna on Oct 13, 2011 12:32pm
Great post, Peter. While I agree with your overall argument, I do have one issue that I’m grappling with. Yes, home performance homes as a whole are analogous to Apple’s high quality products. But my concern is that the high performance homes industry is segmented and composed of multiple companies that may or may not share business ideals. For example, in one particular market there may be multiple contractors competing for the same business. In these saturated markets prices tend to drop along with quality. Today many markets are plagued by drive by ENERGY STAR inspections. While it’s not inevitable that these more mature markets will suffer from quality problems, it is quite common. The challenge is to not only to set yourself apart from standard construction practices, but also less scrupulous contractors. Within the high performance construction industry there is also a position for an Apple. Posted by Abe Kruger on Oct 13, 2011 1:06pm
Having worked in the Information Systems/Information Technology field for almost 40 years (retired in 2000) I coined a phrase that I believe is still accurate: "If corporate America ever figures out what Bill Gates did to them, there will be the biggest lynching the nation has ever seen." It's technical mostly (and too complex to go into here) but suffice it to say I now own a MacBook Pro (for 2 years) and rue the days I held off. Three main reasons: Ease of use, customer support, and no viruses or malware. None. Oh that I could say that about my PC. The extra cost has proven to be a saving! Really. My fear has been all along that the home energy efficiency suppliers (some) would not do a great job. We know this is true. So, to bring it together ... Steve Jobs was a bear for not letting a product go to market before it's time. He took ultimate pride in his work and his products. We'd do well to make sure we do the same and have as few 'Bill Gates PC moments' as possible. Posted by Dirk Faegre on Oct 13, 2011 8:00pm
The analogy with housing does not stand. That the grey electronic boxes may have fallen out of favor with some was not for lack of demand. In fact, part of the reason was that Apple showed a better way. But with housing, the demand fell off. I believe that people still want the most square footage for the least cost, and energy is not yet a selling point. The pushback from builders in a down market against the 2012 energy code is quite intense as it would raise prices on housing that they can't sell now. And don't get me started om the success of VErsion 3 of Energy Star. There are a few bright spots - even though some of the big nationals are selling Energy Star that is not really Energy Star (allowing an R-4 for Low-E housewrap!). We have several very successful builders who specialize in efficiency with all houses below a HERS 65, most below a 55, and plenty getting the Federal Credit. Ed Minch Posted by Anonymous on Dec 17, 2011 10:29am

Ed--to be sure, houses and computers are very different things. Both demand and quality of construction, at the national level, remain discouraging. But like the builders you mention, we're seeing more and more pockets of success of companies specializing in high performance that are holding their own in this market. It's still early to be predicting what the long term outcome of the current housing crisis will be, but as more of us come to realize that our homes are places to live and not quick financial flips or credit cards, then I think the values of simplicity, efficiency, quality and performance will come to the fore. In that sense, the way Apple won the computer war still seems appropo. 

Thanks for the comment and Happy Holidays. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Dec 17, 2011 12:09pm
Peter: Well said. I am still not optimistic except in the light of some regulation - code. With cars, the manufacturers finally have woken up to the fact that there will be restrictions in the future, and that some portion of today's buyers are demanding efficiency, so this is raising the bar for ALL cars. Hopefully the same will be true of houses - you get a better house whether you want it or not. The real problem is with retrofitting older houses. We have whole developments of cinder block ranch houses with a 3/4" firring strip gap then drywall - and they are lower income neighborhoods. And I work in 4 major cities that have block after block of 100 year old townhouses with a similar problem, again mostly lower income. And there is not enough public money to fix all of them to the level we are now doing it, let alone a "deep retrofit" 15-20 years from now. MIles to go before I sleep. Ed Minch Posted by Anonymous on Dec 18, 2011 9:09am

Ed--your "miles to go before I sleep" should be the mantra for all of us. And I truly believe that with persistence, and by rejecting resignation, we will get there. I've probably beat the Apple analogy to death already, but they too toiled in obscurity for many many years, just as the home performance movement has. If it was the ubiquity of these devices in our lives that ultimately enabled a holistic view of performance to win in computers, the trend is in our favor for our homes, both old and new. I believe our relationship with our homes will become more intimate, and the drivers of value more subtle. All this speaks well to the future of home performance, even if the path to deep is incremental, part DIY, part professionally installed. Stay the course. Thanks again. 

Posted by Peter Troast on Dec 18, 2011 11:28am

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