Marketing into the Void

by Heather Rae
for cleantechblog.com

A chunk of my responsibilities in managing a home performance project is marketing the concept of home performance to homeowners, contractors, affiliates, trade allies, funding partners and…just about everyone. The challenge is to create awareness (and undying desire for the service) by homeowners, and awareness (and unwavering desire for providing the service…according to a set of standards and certifications) by would-be contractors. Delivering measured results to funding partners in Washington is the albatross hovering at my stern, but that’s another matter.

In a smartass mood, I called home performance a living room recital, since without brand or any other kind of recognition, it might as well be a kid playing the flute in a parlor. The name, home performance, like ‘energy efficiency’ is a mouthful of uncertain definition. The nebulous nature of marketing into a void is on some days welcomed, on others days reviled.

The mission of the program in this State is to create a sustainable market for the diagnosis and treatment of homes to make them healthy, comfortable and energy efficient. Homeowners would first have to recognize that calls to HVAC outfits, utilities, plumbers, oil delivery companies, mold and radon remediators (etc.) will get them the solution that fits that industry’s bailiwick. Call the electric utility and don’t be surprised if they try to sell an electric water heater, for example. Solar thermal will not be on the tips of their tongues. Joe Kuonen, a home performance contractor out of Arkansas, calls it the ‘one tool toolkit solution.’

Homeowners would, second, have to call on a contractor who sees the whole picture — what we call the whole-house, house-as-a-system picture. Think Bob Vila Goes Green.

There’s an old man in Maine who had his entire heating system replaced. The house was still drafty and the utility bills high. He then paid for replacement of all the windows in his house. The house was still drafty and the utility bills high. Eventually, heaven knows why or how (a good question for a marketer to answer) he called in a home performance contractor who found that the house was uninsulated. It ought to be a crime for one-tool industries to sell old men band-aid solutions, but it isn’t, and there are many stories like these from home performance contractors.

I’ve been fortunate to have The Balsam Group working on my old house. We had another walk-through this past Monday. They came over to measure for replacing the copper in the basement with PEX, but the conversation was long and complex. We decided the wisest next move in the context of a small budget would be to replace the front roof overhang and air seal the uninsulated area communicating with the space between the floors. The space between the floors has been acting as a refrigerator coil all these years. (Hey, it’s an old house, one that was built to have several wood stoves going full bore throughout the heating season — which is extensive here, like from September to June.)

I had arranged for a local roofer to fix the overhang but would have needed to coordinate his work with that of an insulation contractor who understands air sealant. (And I did not want to be arguing with anyone about air sealant versus blown-in cellulose. The latter for this particular application is O-U-T, out because there’s some knob and tube in there and because my anal tendencies around cleanliness and neatness react badly to the mess of blown-in cellulose. But that’s just me.)

Here’s the rub. The Balsam Group would be ideal for this home performance program. Not only do these design/build and renovation contractors get the green, whole-house picture, but they can actually do the work. Their carpentry is exquisite. The foundation supports they installed under the ‘ell’ are plumb and clean. Their recommendations for a new heating system account for my ‘green’ sensibilities — biofuels if we stay with oil, for example and a recognition that propane/gas is not the best idea for a leaky house. They can replace a roof membrane and air seal. Aesthetically and technically, they are right on target. And, they have no interest in plugging into the system of certifications and measuring and reporting required by government-initiated programs like mine. That’s my challenge. What’s the incentive (is there an incentive of any kind) that would get contractors like The Balsam Group to come on board? Is the best solution to create a stable of home performance consultants who tap into a network of like-minded tradespeople — leaving the testing and measuring and reporting to the consultants with energy on the brain?

It’s questions like these that make sanding and finishing floors somewhat appealing. It’s straightforward hard work with visible results. I have pretty pine floors, blisters and a good night’s sleep to prove it.

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

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