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Institutionalizing Building Performance: A Collaborative Experience

Chris-webThe installation of building envelope components or HVAC equipment happens in a fleeting moment in the life of a building, yet is so important to long-term durability, performance, and occupant health. Installation failures do happen. With buildings, the key is to catch a potential failure or problem early to head off more complicated issues and fixes in the future. One of the benefits of 3rd party verified green building programs like LEED, Built Green, and Energy Star  is that they put a different pair of eyes on the project, focusing specifically on the details that contribute to better long-term outcomes.

Ideally, when a failure is identified in the field by a verifier, it is communicated with a side of education to the installer, and fixed. Sometimes the installer is not present and that poorly installed detail incurs cost for a return trip of both installer and verifier. When failures are repeated, they point to a deeper issue – the need for root cause analysis to understand why the same error is being repeated. Sometimes the answer is a physical or logistical one (“we can’t do it that way because piece A won’t fit into piece B”). Often, however, it’s about divergent priorities and perspectives: Contractor is rightly focused on delivering their service according to how they understand the scope, and the verifier is, also rightly, looking for compliance with the scope but has a different (we like to think better) understanding of it. When the contractor at the head office receives repeated non-compliance reports from the verifier in the field, they can begin to feel frustrated – They “know” the installers are doing what they are supposed to do and the verifiers “are just being picky” and “not understanding the real world.” Without careful (as in “care-full”) communications, things can sometimes get tricky.

After one such spree of non-compliance reports, I was surprised one morning when three managers from an insulation company showed up and asked to shadow me for a day of four inspections. Ok. I was tempted to get defensive! Instead, I went into uber-educational mode and I showed them my inspection process. What I am looking for and why; the building science behind the requirements. My capacity-building trap was sprung.

Picture the scene. Me and three guys hanging from the attic rafters above a white sea of blown attic insulation, careful not to disturb the loft, with an assortment of personal lighting devices and measuring tapes in hand. The scene shifts to the crawl space. Same lighting, now we’re on our backs, inspecting floor insulation. The dialogue of the day boils down to… This is what I am looking for, I say. This is how we could improve our process to make it easier for our installer, they say. Through this trading of understanding each other’s expectations and limitations, a common ground was being formed. A better product for our client would be delivered.

Verification work is part of our day to day to work. Rarely, though, do we have the opportunity to work in the field (literally) with managers to identify problems and solutions in this collaborative manner. At the end of the day, these guys were not a threat, they were allies and their showing up became an opportunity. They admitted they had arrived with some resistance, with the idea that we were being picky in our inspections. It wasn’t until we established an understanding of where each of us were coming from and the reasoning behind it that a level of trust formed. This allowed easier communication to flow.

Sea of opportunityBut the story is not over. The dual benefit of an effective verification process is not just those realized within buildings themselves (such as demonstrated by the excellent installation in the photo) but also increased awareness and skills among the trades who work on them. To reap these fruits, the solutions discovered in our collaborative exploration have to be institutionalized at both company leadership and practitioner levels. I look forward to the next step, in which these lessons will be transferred across the board to installation crews. And not just technique, proper sizing and placement, but the "why." The "why" energizes tradespersons with pride in their craft to do the job the right way. I've seen it, with field installers signing their work after successfully passing a verification inspection. Imagine that!

Chris Edlin, CSBA, LEED AP Homes and LEED for Homes Rater, Energy Star Northwest Verifier and Performance Tester, and LEED AP BD+C is Project Associate with O'Brien & Company, Inc. and a regular contributor to Building Capacity Blog. Chris provides technical assistance, plan reviews, and performance testing on a number of sustainable building projects ranging from single-family residential to high-rise commercial buildings.

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