Mark LaLiberte: Better Buildings For A Brighter (And Greener) Tomorrow—Part I

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The time is now. Or so says building science expert and green building advocate Mark LaLiberte. The time is now to construct better buildings—smarter buildings that are more efficient, less toxic and more durable than what we know now. Mark will keynote the 2011 EcoVative Conference and Expo on May 10. If you’re in the homebuilding industry, he’s someone you need to hear from. After a half an hour talking with him, we’re convinced that if you don’t leave the conversation motivated to be the best damn builder out there, something’s up. Part one of our interview series with Mark is a dive into industry opportunities, challenges and investing in efficiency for higher performance.

EcoVative: What have you seen change in the last five years in the home building industry in terms of techniques? Are there exciting, new trends transforming the landscape?
Mark LaLiberte: There’s a lot of really amazing things going on. I’ve been in the business for 28 years and been able to watch the discussion progress on building and building science. The amazing thing is the effect we’re starting to have on so many different market segments. We’re seeing consumers and builders look hard at what it means to build “better buildings.” The innovation and change are quite exciting.

We’re seeing things like more sophisticated blown-in insulations and foams; better product suites on the market; and innovative air-sealing techniques being adopted by all the major manufacturers. We’re seeing improvements in HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air and Cooling) equipment and those units are becoming smaller and more efficient; higher performing windows; lower VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints as well as carpeting and hard surfaces.

You can see a nice progression happening in terms of how the industry is transitioning after a really challenging time. I think there is a lot of opportunity in new techniques and practices that seem to be making a difference in our priorities—which have shifted from building as fast as we could to stopping and discovering what’s most important.

EV: Can you give us a status update on where the consumer demand v. technology balance stands? Who is in the lead? Is there more technology than consumers want? Is the technology struggling to keep up with demand? Or is it perhaps held back from hitting the mainstream market due to issues of scale or cost?
ML: The challenge ends up being creating demand for change. The technology is on par with where we should be—though we always hope that technology is working a bit further out and pulling us along into progress. Creating that demand for change is really something that’s only happened in the last year or so for the mainstream.

We’re seeing that consumers are interested in seeing what’s better and innovative. They have the power of Google and search engines at their fingertips to help them do a better job of learning and investigating. They want to know why they should leave their existing house, which is OK, but maybe not ideal. And it ends up being for things like innovations in lighting, the use of water and improvements in energy efficiency. I think people have a genuine interest in improving their footprint, but they don’t always know what that really means or how to go about doing it. We’ve seen a lot of studies that cite the finding that consumers want better performance out of their homes and a more advanced home in general—they just don’t know their options.

Unfortunately builders often times steer consumers in the wrong direction as well. They tell consumers that certain things are very expensive, when actually the end cost is not. For instance, we’re learning that improving the ventilation of a building simplifies the heating and cooling system—which lowers costs substantially. And if they’re educated about it, people are willing to make some minor trade offs to get a smaller footprint, with improved performance.

In looking at the general technology that most consumers are interested in, you find pretty high levels consumer demand for innovation and advancement. If you look at the new cars—the Fords and the Audis—they all have remarkably sophisticated technology built in. People are easily adapting to that and want the benefits it brings. Even our smartphones have gone over the top in what they can do for us. But our houses have been a little slow to adapt to integrating new available technology. Part of that has to do with educating our industry. The other part is making sure consumers understand that the cost differential is really quite reasonable and nothing to be afraid of. But both parties do have to be educated.

EV: What is the payoff for homebuilders and contractors learning about greener technology, sustainable techniques and practices by attending industry events like EcoVative? What’s in it for them?
ML: I expect the people I work with—whether it’s a doctor, dentist or car dealer—to invest in education that helps them progress in what they’re doing and be the very best they can be. Stephen Covey said in The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People that everyone needs to continually sharpen their saw. And I think the sharpness of our own personal saw depends on making sure we’re paying attention and learning so that we don’t get left behind.

In this lull of building that’s happened in the last few years, it has actually allowed some builders to stay better up-to-speed with building science and trends. They’ve had time to read magazines like EcoHome that are covering some great changes and advancements. But industry events like EcoVative give direct, concentrated access to contacts, innovation, people who have the know-how to help you, and classes to teach you about the latest advancements and techniques. Every builder needs to attend events like this one. It shouldn’t just be home builders who need to attend these classes to keep their license. Builders and contractors should want to attend classes in order to be at the forefront of what they do. It’s the only way you’re going to be a leader and the best in your industry.

People that strive for excellence know that going to educational forums are the only way to do that. They’re the only place where you can get involved and engaged, learn and ask questions. The opportunity EcoVative presents is quite remarkable, because you’re bringing together the brightest minds in this certain segment for the benefit of any builder who recognizes the value in it. I think that should be all of them. The room should be packed with builders saying, “What do I need to learn and how do I help move sustainable building forward?”

EV: We know the Pacific Northwest is a bit farther along in terms of mainstream sustainable building. But is this a trend you’re seeing pickup speed nationally? Or is green building still stuck in small regional pockets?
ML: We do see a bit of differentiation of course. Market segmentation and climate segmentation do that. We’ve noticed that in colder climates, the adoption of better principles and techniques usually comes faster. And that’s mainly due to the cost of energy.

Now the Pacific Northwest is an area that’s notorious for having fairly low energy costs, but always maintaining a decent progression for improving performance. That’s a really interesting mix, but I think it’s because the people of the Pacific Northwest are generally educated, forward thinking and expectant of progress. That includes lowering energy costs.

There are also pockets of the country—California and parts of the Southwest where I live—where people are getting $500, $800, $1000 a month energy bills. And these people are starting to question that. It’s pretty absurd. They’re paying so much when it’s actually unnecessary. We can show from the experience of builders and homeowners how investing maybe $50 more a month in a mortgage payment in order to improve efficiency will yield $150 in savings on monthly energy bills. Who wouldn’t do that? You give me $50 and I’ll give you back $150? That’s an easy decision. It’s that simple and that straightforward.
The problem is that most consumers, to be honest, don’t know enough and aren’t being presented those options. I can’t imagine a builder in today’s market that wouldn’t want to tell a customer they could get them into a more efficient house and help them enroll in national and local programs to offset those upfront costs, considering how spectacular the returns are. Compare that to returns in the stock market or interest you earn from a bank. Why opt for 0.5% interest from a bank, when you can invest in your home and get 10% back? That’s not wishy-washy whatsoever. It’s just smart.

Stay tuned for Part II of our interview with Mark LaLiberte! Mark is a world renowned speaker and building science expert. He will be the keynote speaker at the 2011 EcoVative Conference and Expo, May 10 at the Holiday Inn Portland South in Wilsonville. For more details on EcoVative and to register, please visit: http://www.ecovativeconference.com. Get updates and the latest news on the EcoVative Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/ecovative.

Learn more about Mark LaLiberte on his website: http://www.laliberteonline.com

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