Keep your high-performance building standing tall and make sure green benefits last

Making sustainability stick is a major aspect of residential green building, and it all boils down to the occupant. Builders and architects can design and construct a beautiful high-performance home, a monument to green building, and it’s all for naught if the occupant neglects to change the air filter or leaves the outdoor hose running to overwater their native azaleas.

When it comes to the long-term sustainability of a home, the homeowner needs to be engaged. As a child, I remember the old infomercial for the Ronco Rotisserie Oven that played on TV when I stayed up too late at night. It had the famous catchphrase, “Set it and forget it!” This is what people do to their homes, though a home is not a rotisserie oven. The catchphrase should be, “Set it and develop a pattern of good practices and maintenance to ensure optimal performance of my home and in turn reduce my environmental impact.” But of course that’s not as catchy.

And yet the theory remains the same. In order for the high-performance home to stay that way, it must continue to be high performing well into occupancy. This requires an established pattern of good operation and maintenance practices by the homeowner. So, how do you engage these individuals and make sustainability stick?

Developing a pattern of good practices like creating a checklist of monthly to-dos makes sustainability easy.

Just dust off your old copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and re-read how beloved kids’ show Blue’s Clues achieved a high “stickiness factor.” We can take a clue from this show for preschoolers as to how we—as homeowners, homebuilders, or designers—can make the practice of sustainability stick. The same ideas and practices are included (some are mandatory) in the ICC/ASHRAE 700-2015 National Green Building Standard™, the first residential green building standard to undergo full consensus and approval by the American National Standards Institute.

Tell a Story

Blue’s Clues told a story each episode, and the person watching felt like they were a part of that story. The same goes for a home. A green home is a story, and the occupant is the most important part.

By providing the homeowner with a list of their home’s green features and a narrative detailing the importance of maintenance and good practices in
retaining the home’s green attributes, it gets them invested. They know not only how it was designed and built, but also how and why it’s important to take advantage of these green features. They’ll better understand the relationship between themselves, their home, and the environment.   

Instead of simply installing CFLs or LEDs, you can provide an explanation of the benefits of using each. This allows homeowners to understand why these benefit both them and the environment, especially in the long-term. It shows them how they can directly affect the story of their own home, all the way down to the lightbulbs they choose.

Get Involved

Blue’s Clues got the viewer directly involved in the learning experience from the beginning. The show encouraged children to utilize and demonstrate the lessons of each episode.

Similarly, firsthand training of homeowners is a requirement for any home seeking certification, and it gets the occupant directly involved from day one. As we all know, many people don’t read instruction manuals. They get tossed aside for everything from DIY furniture to TV remote controls. When it comes to complex systems like a programmable thermostat, the resident may read the instructions but still be confused.

Hands-on practice with HVAC filters, thermostat programming, water heater settings, and even recycling and composting practices gives the resident a solid foundation of involvement and experience. They weren’t simply handed another manual—they were directly involved in the learning process.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Blue’s Clues repeated each episode five times in a row, Monday through Friday. This helped the lessons from each episode stick.

You could do the same with sustainability in the home. Providing a checklist of recurring maintenance practices for the resident encourages them to establish a pattern. They complete the same checklist again and again, and eventually, checking the A/C filter once a month becomes habit.

With simple practices like these, homes have a better chance of maintaining their high-performance status, and homeowners can see the continued benefits of owning a green home. Maybe should see what other shows from our childhood can teach us about the building industry. Bob the Builder, anyone?

Eric Tilden
Eric Tilden is a program manager of sustainability and green building at the National Association of Home Builders, one of the largest trade associations in the United States. He participates in the development of proactive strategies for addressing sustainability issues, growing the market for high-performance homes, and advancing NAHB’s leadership role in the green building industry.