Healthy Homes & Home Performance: WE HAVE NO BUSINESS MODEL - Part 1

The nexus of healthy homes and home performance continues to be at the forefront of our industry’s hope for the future. But, for all the cheery prognostication (including my own), serious effort by smart people, real progress on credentialing, and general optimism, we are failing to focus on the key issue: how is the “healthy home” concept a viable business model for the home performance industry?

With each passing day, I see signs that we are losing the market. When a magazine as mainstream as Vogue links poor indoor air quality with bad skin, you’d think we could take a victory lap. But the fix, according to that article, is simple: install a shiny Dyson Pure Cool Link -- a sexy fan/filtration device that solves all problems -- for a mere $499. No home upgrades needed. Read the endless comment stream on Elon Musk’s tweet mentioning Larry Page, and you’ll quickly see: everyone’s solution is filtration.

My view is: The healthy home movement benefits home performance only when it becomes a new and incremental driver of demand for whole-house retrofit work and high-performance new construction.

Stated a little more directly, until homeowners start hiring whole-house contractors to fix perceived health problems in homes, then WE HAVE NO BUSINESS MODEL. In order for the concept of "healthy homes" to grow the home performance market, the concept must become a demand driver in its own right.

Before I go further, it’s important to say that we’ve made a ton of progress, and credit is due to a great many people for where we are today. The BPI Healthy Home Evaluator micro-credential, the leadership of GHHI (Green & Healthy Homes Initiative), the brilliant guidance of Kevin Kennedy, progress on insurance -- these are all major strides and the people pushing them deserve high fives all around.

The value of what we already provide

Don’t misunderstand the real value we’re already providing: whole-house retrofits driven by energy reduction or comfort that have an ancillary benefit of a healthier home are great. Mike MacFarland’s case study in Redding CA about saving a child from regular visits to the emergency room still chokes me up. But that family engaged Energy Docs to take control of their PG&E bill. For them, the health benefit was ancillary. Speaking around the country, I title Mike’s story: Came to Reduce Energy. Saved a Kid.

The point I’m trying to make is that if we continue to treat healthy homes as a secondary benefit to what we already do, we won’t grow the size of the opportunity in a meaningful way. Instead of being peripheral, our goal needs to be to more directly connect the market driver of a healthy home to the comprehensive, whole-home approach.

Shifting the focus beyond diagnostics

For good reasons, the focus of IAQ-related services thus far has primarily been on diagnostics. To be sure, using and understanding diagnostics for IAQ is critical. But they are a means to an end, and we’re not talking enough about that end.

Just as is the case with energy auditing, healthy home audits are a challenging “product” to build a business around. (I hate writing that, by the way, but I’m afraid it’s reality.)  Under the best conditions, companies are getting $350 for a comprehensive energy audit. The market characteristics around home health testing are worse. Low-cost sensors in devices like Foobot are cheap, accessible and sit in your house year round, arguably providing more tangible value to a homeowner than a one-time health audit, regardless of how thorough. The growing awareness of IAQ is sure to boost demand for testing, but it will be low margin and low ticket size.

We need to be focusing more on how the companies that will execute whole-house fixes will do so as viable, profitable businesses. If taking control of air infiltration could be a central tenet of every healthy home fix, then we’re starting to get somewhere. Yet we all know in spades that the value of air sealing, for example, is not obvious to most homeowners and is often a tough sell. So we’re going to have to work hard to educate. With air control as the base measure, adding whole-house ventilation starts to get interesting, and certainly has meaningful impact. Technical practitioners who know building science should be the ones talking about these measures, not marketing guys like me.

Without question, consumer awareness of healthy home and the reality of indoor air quality is on the rise. All our data and testing show it. But, at least for now, we don’t have a business model to seize it, and are losing out, once again, to cheap, shiny objects.

Comments

Peter, excellent article (as I have come to expect from you). Three things:
1.) Can you send a link directly to the Energy Docs case study about the kid? The link you provided just goes to their FB page and I didn't see the case study.
2.) Perhaps it's time that, as an industry, we commission the research on the health benefits so that we can speak confidently about improved IAQ. I haven't heard of or seen any studies that unequivocally link whole home building performance upgrades to reduced asthma or other respiratory illness. Sure, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence (who doesn't, right?) but, as trained scientists, we know data is what matters. So? Where's the data? Once we have that, the sales and marketing teams can start citing confidently.
3.) Perhaps it's time we include testing for indoor air particulates as a standard part of the energy audit. I can already see the comments: but we do, George - we test for moisture. Alright, but moisture only accounts for a favorable environment for nasty stuff to grow. I'm talking about actual particulate measurements so we can say, "Mrs. Jones, you have X amount of dust, Y amount of mold and Z amount of (insert name of nasty stuff) in your air. These measurements (exceed/are at/are under) commonly accepted levels."

Thoughts?

Peter Troast's picture

George--thank you!

1. Here's a Youtube Case Study on the Energy Docs/Mike MacFarland story.

2. Great point. Ely Jacobsohn at DOE/Home Performance with Energy Star is in the midst of a comprehensive review of what literature exists currently. Not sure what the timing is on getting that out. 

3. While I agree with adding IAQ as a diagnostic service, I'm loathe to add more value (and effort and cost) to what is already underpriced. I'd recommend going to market with a Premium Energy Audit, charge more for it, and include IAQ. 

"For good reasons, the focus of IAQ-related services thus far has primarily been on diagnostics. To be sure, using and understanding diagnostics for IAQ is critical. But they are a means to an end, and we’re not talking enough about that end."

Absolutely. The end is why the audit only model is broken. Not only do we have to talk about the end, but we have to be involved in it getting done. Otherwise, things get screwed up. Heck, even when I'm involved things get messed up!

The shiny objects are immensely helpful in learning whether fixes work, and also in creating visuals for marketing that we actually CAN solve problems.

The proof is ultimately where it all lies. Until we can PROVE we are better, the Dyson superfilter is going to kick our butts. Once we show that is a band aid and that we have a real solution, we can create doubt at the very least, and likely demand.

On the adopter curve, early adopters want some proof that a solution works, early majority requires it. We need to build proof points.

Also, Peter, if it makes you feel any better, the monitors are likely to have limited appeal because they only show there is a problem, they do not show solutions. That's our job. We need to work together. (As usual, I have a harebrained scheme on that, more to come if it works out...)

Want some proof? Here is my album of screenshots with the Foobot dashboard. http://bit.ly/FoobotDashboard

Yes, excellent post, Peter!

George Kopf, here is a study....

My new friend, Caroline Shone**, Chief Executive of Community Energy Action in New Zealand shared an article on a study which concluded:

"The report... found that among the 900 people referred to CEA (Community Energy Action) from the hospital, there was a 29 per cent drop in hospital bed days in the year after insulation was put in compared to the year prior."

http://www.nzdoctor.co.nz/news/2016/july-2016/19/canterbury-insulation-s...$945,000-in-hospital-stays.aspx

** rhymes with Spohn, heh

Great article Peter.

It reminds me a lot of how the industry has failed to make the phrase "Home Performance" a more widely known term. (How many contractors out there tell friends, family, and acquaintances that they do energy efficiency and never even mention Home Performance?)

I agree with George that science-based case studies would be a good start, but what we also need is a coordinated branding campaign that keeps the message straightforward and consistent.

Let's not make the same mistake twice.

Peter,

Great article! Home Energy recently published an article on the Health and Household-Related Benefits of DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program, about a two-year evaluation of estimated energy savings attributable to the program, as well as its environmental emissions and health and household-related co-benefits. The article is freely available at http://homeenergy.org/show/article/id/2134 .

The challenge for the contractor is to describe and package these benefits in such a way that the consumer can quickly understand their value. When the consumer sees the immediate health and comfort value, that should result in more profitable, sustainable businesses.

I also heard recently about Carrier's study on The Impact Of Green Buildings On
Cognitive Function, at http://thecogfxstudy.naturalleader.com/.

The authors state that "the research was conducted in an office environment but the exposures are not unique to offices. Homes often have worse air quality in terms of ventilation and VOCs than offices, and we don't have reason to believe that similar effects wouldn't be found in those environments."

Terrific write-up, Peter! The Vogue article you cited is a perfect example of why consumer media narratives matter to the home performance industry. We need capable communicators who can get out in front of this rising interest in IAQ and home health with clear solutions based in sound building science, or we risk losing ground to manufacturers of these "sexy" products.

In my current role as a public servant, I've reached the same conclusion you have: we treat healthy homes as a secondary benefit. For example, our state weatherization manual encourages capping health and safety measures at a small percentage of the project budget, and makes no provision for evaluating their cost-effectivess. (The health section is also comparatively slim, and sequestered in the back of the book.) For all the good it's done for over the last 40 years, weatherization has treated health as incidental to energy conservation, a narrow focus I think the home performance industry has yet to fully shake off, too.

A panelist from an agency in New Zealand (very possibly the person Bill mentioned in his comment) had a useful way of framing this issue during a call I was on the other day: "The question we ask ourselves isn't 'How much energy can we save?', rather it's 'How can we use energy more effectively to improve public health?'"

Peter, you said you have a post coming on this subject and here it is. You made some great points. Not in the order you made them, but from what I remember.
1. Home Performance as a term (not just energy efficiency).
2. Shiny Devices like air cleaners and monitors
3. Moving folks from the data collection and reporting of an audit to doing stuff.
4. Measuring what you are actually changing.
5. Going back with the new measurements and improving on the progress or changing the approach.

Do those sound familiar to most? They should if you've had any management training. They are right out of Management 101. Assess, plan, implement, Evaluate, adjust the plan or keep on going.

For me the more immediate question is how can I improve my reporting after the audit on IAQ issues, refer some work to actual contractors and then assess how well the plan worked.

What materials or approaches do others use to take the technical and make it real to the home owner?

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