Riding with the Bogeyman
This endeavor we have chosen to pursue, which is simply to provide balanced information and (hopefully) useful options to our readers, can sometimes be a frustrating and seemingly thankless exercise.
For example, in response to a specific electronic invitation that we extended last week, for our readers to attend a free webinar on renewable energy options, which, by the way, has been viewed by more than 555 visitors so far, we found ourselves being scolded by one recipient who wrote: "I hope that you will involve the builders in the deliberations and decisions before you force your 'costly' green ideas on them!" Hmmm…
Maybe I'm a little slow on the uptake, but I honestly had not realized that by making an informational webinar available, completely without charge, to anyone who wants to voluntarily watch it, we would be forcing anything on anybody. And I am not really certain just what "deliberations" and "decisions" were being referred to but if someone can tell me where they are taking place I'll try to get there right away.
Our unhappy reader went on to say: "It is not possible to pass all new costs on to the buyers. This is a poor time to lay more costs on the building industry with the economy as it is and the escalation in energy, labor, and material costs!"
Even I am aware of the ongoing and punishing economic crisis we are all facing, and I agree that not every cost can be passed on to buyers but I have to ask, when have the costs of labor and materials not been of major concern to builders? As for the costs of energy, it seems to me that information about renewable options is especially timely and appropriate since the price and reliability of energy is a topic of concern to virtually every household in the country, particularly in the wake of the series of winter storms that recently knocked out power to hundreds of thousands—even millions—of utility customers, sometimes for days on end.
I don't know, maybe we should instead be suggesting that builders get rid of that high-priced indoor plumbing and expensive air conditioning that they have been including in their projects. Saving those big dollars would surely make them easier to sell, right?
All sarcasm aside, a century or so ago we might have easily found ourselves having a similar disagreement about whether or not we should provide free information to people who wanted to learn more about that "new-fangled stuff," known as electricity, which was beginning to find its way into homes and buildings across the continent.
There were certainly many who resisted that revolutionary technology, some because they were simply too lazy to learn anything, and some whose own ignorance and trepidation caused them to discourage others from exploring this new energy grid idea on the basis of increased expense and because it could be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Sadly, fear is a powerful force, a fact that is not lost on those who seized on the opportunity to try to intimidate consumers as part of their recent efforts to derail, or at least delay, the start of the proposed Homestar initiative that is currently being deliberated in Congress.
Homestar, also known as Cash for Caulkers, is described as "proposed new legislation to create jobs in existing industries by providing strong short-term incentives for energy efficiency improvements in residential buildings. The program will move quickly, with a minimum of red tape, and will act as a bridge to long-term market development of existing industries."
Although the program is supported and endorsed by more than 700 companies and organizations through the Home Star Coalition, not everyone is totally enamored with the proposal. Many people in the United States see the initiative as yet another frivolous spending spree on the part of the administration, even though the entire $6 billion proposal is equivalent to less than one week of the borrowing and spending that the government exercises on an ongoing basis to support the oil industry, even as we head back toward $4 per gallon gasoline prices with the summer driving season approaching.
The Homestar program was originally hailed on March 2 in an official statement by the NAHB, as having the potential to "be a real shot in the arm for the housing industry," adding that it "will help put America back to work and help families save on monthly energy bills." It went on to site the organization's own economists as estimating that "every $1 billion in remodeling and home improvement activity generates 11,000 jobs, $527 million in wages and salaries, and $300 million in business income."
"Making the existing housing stock more energy efficient is one of the most effective ways to achieve national energy conservation goals," according to NAHB, whose spokesman then went on to add "This can be an important step in reducing the nation's dependence on foreign energy supplies."
The underlying meaning of that final quote became much more transparent as additional written comments emerged from the organization espousing contentions which were subsequently reiterated over the past two weeks in Congressional hearings in which the spokesmen for NAHB cited concerns about a lead-based paint regulation of the EPA, the Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP), which was passed during the previous Administration and is slated to go into effect on April 22.
With a goal of reducing human exposures to lead, it will require that contractors, including plumbers, carpenters, painters and other trades people who disturb paint in homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978, must be certified by EPA in order to legally perform the work. Homeowners and others hoping to take advantage of the financial incentives offered through Homestar should be using only EPA-certified workers.
According to EPA, lead exposure can cause reduced IQ, learning disabilities, developmental delays, and behavioral problems in young children. Lead-based paint was used in more than 38 million homes before it was banned for residential use in 1978. Landlords, property managers, and their employees are responsible for ensuring compliance with the rule. Residents/homeowners who hire non-certified workers for their pre-1978 dwellings are apparently not subject to fines, but the remodelers themselves could be.
Citing Census Bureau data, NAHB points to the fact that of approximately 120 million existing homes in the United States, roughly 65% (78 million) were built before 1978 and would require a remodeler to be lead-paint certified in order to work on those projects. The association has been claiming that there are only 14,000 certified lead-safe workers, although according to USA Today, EPA says that it had actually trained 50,000 by March 15 and expects to train another 50,000 by the April 22 deadline.
In a statement to USA Today, NAHB suggests that because "consumers don't know about the rule … they could be tempted to hire less expensive, untrained workers." I suppose it is possible to support that leap in logic to some extent but it is an entirely moot point for the owners of the 35% (42 million or so) of existing homes which were built since 1978, and it also assumes that any remodeler who has the certification for handling lead-based paint is automatically going to charge more for the work than one who is untrained, and that the typical consumer would be "tempted" to hire an uncertified remodeler even if they are aware of the risks.
Interested parties who were in attendance at the latest set of Congressional hearings on this initiative, reported that NAHB's position was "severely marginalized" when their statistics were openly challenged by certain congressional members.
The organization, which has opposed the lead-based paint regulation from the beginning and remains the only group to speak against the Homestar program in the hearings, finds itself further isolated by the fact that many stakeholders believe the Association is engaging in disingenuous rhetoric in a thinly veiled attempt to forestall the actual enforcement of the EPA regulation. The leaders do this to buy time to position their own organization as an approved trainer for the requirement, a move that stands to net NAHB significant dollars over time.
Proving that the old adage "the perfect is the enemy of the good," the unfortunate employment of contradictory messages, and the strategy of using scare tactics designed to serve narrow special interests by planting seeds of confusion and concern with consumers, will only produce paralysis and result in delaying the launch of the Homestar initiative at a time when the benefits to consumers, product manufacturers, and those who would perform the work could not be more essential.
In spite of the building organization's carefully crafted public relations spin to the contrary, actions such as these further erode what little remaining faith and trust the population has for the residential construction industry, prolongs the abysmal energy performance of our nation's existing housing stock, and guarantees the continuation of the associated high energy costs for American families, not to mention our dependence on foreign energy sources and outdated technologies.
Just as renewable energy technologies are not the silver bullet that will end our energy issues, the Homestar initiative is not a perfect solution. It is only a temporary boost that will hopefully carry over to a more enduring set of policies and a more sustainable built environment.
Let's be the first to stop the game playing. The training "pie" is large enough to go around. Members of the industry have had enough advanced notice of what they need to do. The time has come to quit using the "bogeyman" we call "change" to frighten consumers, to stop being terrified by progress, and get on with discovering the future. It is past time to stop making excuses and perform to the level of excellence we are capable of.
Conceptually, I understand this so-called phenomenon of social networking—at least I think I do. But I have to admit to you, here and now, that motivation to get into the mix of it all has largely remained a stranger to me. Like some old dinosaur snoozing in warm, golden sunshine I honestly have simply not been roused to "Link In" in this way, at least until now. By way of personal revelation, I probably have—no… most assuredly have—more fondness for dogs than for most people; at least, I find myself smiling at and saying "hello" more often to dogs, including those I have never actually met before.
And my foot dragging received some unexpected positive reinforcement when I read a news article reporting that a significant number of the early adopters of the practice of social networking, and subscribers to the various popular platforms, are beginning to question the value of their involvement and second guessing whether their time is well spent in continuing.
So, it came as a bit of a personal challenge to me a while back when we became involved in a brand new initiative in collaboration with i365Tech in launching a totally online green building conference and trade show called GreenExpo365
Right from the beginning I was enchanted with the idea of being able to visit a virtual show floor, meandering from booth to booth at any time of the day or night, seven days a week, all year long. I mean, if I want to find out the latest news from Energy Star or indulge in a really close, leisurely look at the most recent offerings from any number of top tier green product manufacturers, all I have to do is point and click. And I could immediately see how it would be cool to participate in live conversations in the networking lounge while enjoying my first morning cup of coffee, still in my PJs and slippers.
I could definitely understand how this concept would make sense to exhibitors. For a financial and human resource commitment that is a tiny fraction of what a company would invest in a single, annual three or four day live trade show they can welcome visitors to their virtual booth any time day or night, including weekends and holidays, for an entire year … the main difference being that the exhibit hall doors are always open. There is a certain novel appeal in being able to "man" your booth in the morning, coach your kid's game in the afternoon, and then still sleep in your own bed that night.
If you are someone who works in the marketing department, you (and your colleagues in accounting) are going to like this idea a lot, and, as anybody who has ever worked a show booth knows, your feet are going to love it!
Besides, I had already dipped my "technophobe" toes into the pool of live webinars a few times, both as a presenter and as an attendee, so I had a first-hand appreciation for the convenience and economies they have to offer. But this was different. I was going to actually have to go onto www.greenexpo365.com and register. Oh, there is no charge, it's totally free to sign up and attend as often as you like, but it does require a person to declare a certain level of interest and participation. That did take some getting used to, at least for me.
Now fast forward…the first live events and booth tours at the expo have just been concluded. The turnout certainly surpassed my expectations and people genuinely seem to be impressed with the quality of the technology and appreciative of the opportunities to meet and connect with other folks who share their interests, their values, and their concerns.
Our lineup of live presenters—renowned green building experts and architects—drew eager, engaged industry professionals into fascinating presentations and interactive discussions. Folks from all sectors of the industry roamed the resource center, the exhibit hall, and the networking lounge, and engaged in conversations much like those at a live show.
One big difference is illustrated ingeniously on the home page. A meter continuously displays the ever increasing estimated savings that are by-products of a virtual event. In the very first week, the economic savings for visitors is about $4.5 million and the offset in carbon emissions from air travel alone has totaled more than 4.6 million pounds (23,000 tons), not to mention the savings in other precious resources like energy, water, paper, and waste.
GreenExpo365is a marvelously successful idea whose time has surely come, but it is even more than that. It is a bellwether that times are changing, and that the old models are becoming irreversibly out of date. I'm not suggesting for a minute that the live conferences and trade shows are dead—far from it. Live interaction, a warm smile, and a firm handshake will hopefully never be completely replaced by convenience and expediency. But the old, sleepy institutions are like that old dinosaur I described earlier, their best days have come and gone. Now we have alternatives.
I realized long ago that organizations like NAHB and USGBC no longer represent my core beliefs or my core interests, if they ever did. They are at best vestiges of another time and promote sets of values that never really did mesh with my own, and apparently with those of many others who are looking for balance, transparency, and simple truth.
There are countless industry professionals and concerned consumers out there who have never felt like they had representation, like they were being listened to. The sleeping giant is being awakened and those who have always felt that they were on the outside looking in, those who have never been quite at ease with the party line, are in discovery of a common voice.
I'm still not entirely plugged into the new social networking paradigm, perhaps it has passed me by, but I am finding an acceptable level of comfort that I wasn't sure I would ever experience. Only time and the actual events will give us the real results, but I am sure enjoying watching the numbers on that meter increase by the minute.