The House is a System … So is Housing

The author highlights the five important parts of the user experience in housing.

I’ve been excited and privileged to be part of the building science community through my tenure leading ENERGY STAR Certified Home and DOE Zero Energy Ready Home. For many years prior, I coveted getting involved with this outstanding and passionate group of professionals but was limited to in-state travel while leading energy efficiency and renewable energy programs at the California Energy Commission.

Housing UX adobe stock

Once I became part of this community, I learned to embrace one of the oft-cited key building science principles, “the house is a system.” With any change to one key component, there are ripple effects throughout the home that can impact risks and performance related to air, thermal, and moisture flow. I couldn’t be prouder of the results collaborating with this community: over 2.5 million voluntarily certified high-performance homes that completely transformed the national energy codes. After all, objections to the cost-effectiveness of more rigorous new codes could no longer be raised with the massive participation in voluntary above-code certifications.

That said, much more work needs to be done as we march to zero carbon. This is a daunting challenge. And this brings me to a personal epiphany I had observing of 10,000’s of homes being constructed across the country. High-performance is not enough … it is not nearly enough. Just the way the home is a system, so is housing. It entails a taxonomy of interrelated user experiences (UX’s) that have to be fully integrated to truly build “houses that work.” Getting just one UX wrong can undermine any builder’s reputation and ability to get referrals.

What does this all mean? As passionate as my building science community friends are about getting to zero carbon, the persistence of this vital movement cannot succeed if we fail to also deliver a complete housing UX.

Too many of us are familiar with the challenge getting builders to embrace high-performance when overwhelmed with endless other business challenges (e.g., code changes, regulations, supply chain issues, escalating material costs, skilled workforce shortage, rising interest rates, changing design trends, unqualified buyers, and the list goes on). Similarly, while all of us promoting sustainability are consumed trying to do our incremental part, I’m suggesting we all need to expand our focus and embrace a new principle: “housing is a system” that includes five key housing UX’s:

  • Community Experience: Place Matters
    It’s intuitive that where you live matters. There is a reason the universal mantra among real estate professionals is: “location, location, location.” Thus, it should be obvious you can’t get this wrong. Yet, it is stunning how many proven best practices for delivering a great community experience are consistently missing from new developments.
  • Design Experience: Space Matters
    In the product world, we all know that design usually trumps other attributes when engaging consumer interest. This is even more crucial with the ultimate consumer product, “homes.” Nothing comes close to it in size, cost, emotion, risk, and transaction complexity. It is tragic to Ignore the power of design because best practices for exterior and interior spaces leverage substantial cost savings by minimizing waste, complexity, and excessive customization while optimizing system integration.
  • Performance Experience: Protection Matters
    If you’re reading this article, I suspect you’re also a sustainable housing professional and couldn’t agree more that high performance is a must-have UX. Besides helping to save the planet, it provides protection from high utility bills, moisture-related maintenance expenses, health problems, uneven comfort, excessive noise, prevailing disaster risks, and water scarcity in drought-prone regions. Admittedly homebuyers get most excited about location and design when looking for new homes (see prior paragraphs). But once they move in, these home performance experiences grow significantly in priority. Ask anyone who has had chronically sick children, a wet basement or cold floors.
  • Quality Experience: Excellence Matters
    Builders cannot afford a crisis of confidence with homebuyers making what is typically the largest purchase of a lifetime. And nothing instills a lack of confidence as effectively as construction defects and poor-quality materials and components. Yet, as I frequently survey my audiences with the question, “what does ‘builder grade’ mean,” I always get the same resounding response shouted back at me, “cheap!” I’m baffled wondering how an industry that sells the ultimate consumer product can be complacent with the common consumer perception that builders left to their own devices always choose the lowest quality option. It is critical builders build a reputation for excellence by delivering a compelling quality experience.
  • Sales Experience: Trust Matters
    Yes, sales is an experience. And I’ll go on to suggest it may be the experience with the greatest opportunity for improvement among builders. This includes extensive observations that they lack a compelling “why” value proposition, do not effectively translate the added value of invisible features like high-performance measures, do not effectively back up their value, and offer minimal to no services after the sale including many opportunities for ongoing revenue. Every new homebuyer should be an automatic addition to each builder’s sales force providing referrals and testimonials. That doesn’t happen without trust.

Time to Take Action:

With one of the most extreme global heat waves on record this summer, I believe all of us in the sustainable home community can agree failure is not an option. The zero energy movement has to succeed. That’s why I hope one action you all take is to read my latest book, “Housing 2.0: A Disruption Survival Guide.” It provides a detailed framework for consistently optimizing UX at lower cost including the five key UX’s, 19 strategies, and over 160 best practices (see figure below). Most importantly, it has been vetted over eight years with hundreds of housing professionals and is extensively referenced with over 420 citations.

Housing UX Optimization Framework

Figure: Housing 2.0 Framework for consistently delivering optimized UX

In addition to the book, I’m going to bring a full-day Housing 2.0 workshop to my favorite building science event, the EEBA High Performance Builder Summit 2023 in Salt Lake City on October 9. I’d love to have you join us.

We spend 70 percent of our lives in our homes. Home is where life happens. Let’s build on our amazing progress transforming the housing industry to high performance.

This Housing 2.0 presentation is sponsored by:  Jinko Solar, LP Building Solutions,  Mitsubishi Electric Panasonic, Schneider Electric  and Sunnova.