Hard-working hands have always been the tools needed to make good houses.

Five Ways Trickle-Down Education Fails the Building Industry

Shawna HendersonNovember 28, 2017

There is a significant knowledge gap that shows up in different parts of our industry at different times and with different players. That’s not a question. Building Science is as misunderstood as it is understood. Solutions to problems are based on intuition, a spackling of training, or ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’, and then there’s code compliance... 

For generations, carpenters and (where I come from) shipbuilders framed houses for those who could afford them, while farmers, neighbours and communities raised houses and barns for each other. Whole stratas of society relied on hand labour, making many people handy enough with tools to raise a structure.

It was wayyyy simpler to build a house.

The home construction industry as we know it today hasn’t been in existence for very long -- homebuilding only became a career ‘choice’ after World War II, when thousands of unemployed and demobbed soldiers needed both work and shelter.

The Building Industry: 8 Craft Guilds That Need Cohesion

In its evolution, the building and renovation industry essentially became a series of craft guilds. Today, we see the effects of that with the separate trades. Each trade is reliant on the other to create or upgrade houses, and each trade is also made up of separate and autonomous experts who must follow the legal instrument called the building code. And they must follow the interpretation of that legal instrument by the authority having jurisdiction, that is the building official.

Sam Rashkin uses the following chart to show the many players in the building industry. You can see how the industry is broken into 8 distinct silos that have never been very tightly knit together as an industry.

A chart showing the 8 main classifications of the home construction industry.

In this model, everyone has a role that is framed by industry standards and workforce classifications in their silo. You learn how to do the tasks by gaining the appropriate knowledge, skills and abilities.

In an industry that sprawls across 8 workforce classifications, the focus can be too much on doing your own job well, to the detriment of someone else’s job, or the overall product.

You know what I’m talking about right?

Drywallers, electricians and plumbers vs. insulators and air sealers. Sales agents who ignore the energy rating in their listings, making it impossible for appraisers to determine the value of energy efficient new construction, home performance measures, and/or renewable energy systems. There are broken and non-existent communication lines everywhere.

We’ve got workforce improvement down. Defined, and definable, workforce classifications have specific tasks assigned to them. A person filling these roles needs specific knowledge, skills and abilities to carry out those tasks. But that’s not enough. Here are Sam Rashkin’s guidelines for building science education.

A chart showing how the framework, means, and end goals of Workforce Improvement and Building Science Education match up.

See how that framework wraps around all workforce classifications? That’s what we need. 

A good dose of building science skills.

Before building codes up the ante on energy efficiency for both prescriptive and and performance path requirements, we need to wholeheartedly transition between workforce improvement and a real building science education. However, those who are coming up through the education system will not be in the workforce in positions of authority for years to come. We need better, quicker, and more training opportunities for those already in the field and making the decisions that count.

The existing model of siloed workforce classifications, in home performance contracting and renovation, as well as new home construction -- especially as relates to high-performance programs like Energy Star and Zero Net Energy Houses --  is burdened with a ‘trickle down education’ system. One person -- the builder or perhaps the officer of the company gets a certification or license, and the rest of the firm will ‘get it’, eventually, depending on the capacity of the certified person to train others, or the commitment of the firm to get everyone else trained.

There’s no requirement for an Energy Star builder to have the skills of an adult educator.

That’s not their job.

Builders have limited access to well trained trades and professionals. And code officials are not always up on new techniques and products. These are just two of the recognized barriers to market transformation.

Here’s 5 ways that trickle down education hurts the our industry:

If you’re a program provider, you aren’t leading the revolution. You’ve got funders, stakeholders, regulatory bodies to answer to, meaning you have clear limits on what you can do, and for whom you can do it. Top down is often the only way to manage these programs. You’ve got to balance incentives with costs, internally, and then also convince builders that it’s worth their while to invest in your program and your training. That results in dollars out of the builder’s pocket no matter how you slice it. Time away from building sites = money lost. On the other hand, no builders in your program = failed program = money lost.

If you’re a builder, the program you enrolled in has provided some training in how to meet certification requirements, but the program sure as hell did not provide you with any ‘Train the Trainer’ options. You didn’t sign on to be an educator. You’re running a business, your goal is to make money by building or renovating housing. On-site corrections and tips on methods might be all you, or your site super, have got time for. Certainly the value to the company of you running the business, generating more projects, keeping the workflow smooth and on time, is higher than you training your crew. But not training your crew = higher callbacks, more warranty issues, bigger pains in the neck.

If you’re an energy advisor or rater, your knowledge comes at a premium. You’ve invested in your expertise so you can pass it the information on to your builder. But the builder needs help getting hitting the program targets, so you work with the trades to make it right. But you likely don’t get to charge for the extra time you spend helping your builders’ crews get it right. If you can charge for it, you’re likely not able to charge enough. But the builders want what you’ve got. NAIMA’s 2016 study has shown that.

If you’re a contractor working with energy efficiency programs, you’ve got some chops and bench strength, maybe some training from the programs you participate in, but you’re up against a lot of bottom line bid wars and high crew turnover rates. Who are you going to train? How do you keep them?

If you’re part of a crew working on houses that need to meet energy efficiency standards, you get the end of the trickle - whatever you’ve figured out on your own, whatever the site super, crew chief, or builder has been able to find time to pass along to you. How the hell are you supposed to know best practices when you don’t get any training? Your insulating and air sealing work is hard, grubby, hot, and often itchy - it’s also the key to success in the industry. You’re the person who needs to know the hands-on details about what works best.

We need proactive ways of making the transition happen from trickle down to bottom up education in building science. Because the people who the rest of the industry relies on for the performance -- those charged with specifying, estimating, installing, and inspecting insulation and air sealing -- aren’t getting the training they need in this area.

Our aim at Blue House Energy is to be a part of the bigger solution to improving industry capacity in real time, now. Our on-demand, online training can’t ever take the place of classroom and field training, it’s meant to support, augment, benchmark, backfill, and enhance face-to-face training of all varieties. We designed it so that it’s a cheap and cheerful way to get the fundamentals and broad concepts of building science to the widest range of people in the industry.

contact us with your thoughts, opinions, concerns, and transformative ideas around industry capacity and building science in the field. We want to keep the discussion real, so we can help make change happen!

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