Better Living Through Better Buildings

Been meaning to install that programmable thermostat for a while? Been planning to seal up the cracks in those drafty windows? For homeowners in Southeast Michigan, there’s no time like the present. That’s not just because your energy bills are getting bigger, or that the global impact of your personal carbon footprint isn’t getting smaller, or even because the BetterBuildings for Michigan program, which offers low-cost energy efficiency assessments to homeowners, is nearing it’s end.

Really, says Jacob Corvidae, co-founder and co-director of the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office, it’s about living a more comfortable life.

“For people on the ground this translates into understanding that their homes can be more comfortable,” he says. “They don’t have to be drafty or noisy. A lot of people say, “I did this because of my winter heating bill, but it made my summer much more pleasant.'”

That’s because, Corvidae explains, when air, moisture, and noise circulate through a home in odd ways it can create an uncomfortable atmosphere that residents can’t quite put their finger on. Oftentimes, they don’t even know about the weaknesses in their homes that are allow such conditions.

“It’s amazing how much we don’t know about what’s going on in our own homes,” says Corvidae.

And that’s not just something that energy geeks say to dupe you into caulking the edges of your basement’s ceiling. Sherry Wells thought she knew an awful lot about what was going on inside her Ferndale home. She’d been dedicated to energy efficiency for years, but when she was among the first residents to participate in the BetterBuildings for Michigan pilot program in 2010, she was amazed at how many recommendations the assessors had for her – and the difference it made in her quality of life.

“I was raised by people who were raised in the Depression,” says Wells, 68, who has lived in Ferndale for 20 years. “My mom would say, ‘I hate the electric company! Turn the lights off!'”

Even though Wells already had energy efficient light bulbs, extra insulation and replacement windows in place, and had been in the practice of keeping her blinds drawn during the day, after four hours with the energy efficiency experts in her home, she had another whole list of ways to improve.

“These guys showed me things I didn’t know about,” she says. “Being able to live here without all that extra heating and cooling on has been so much more comfortable.”

That new-found comfort came from the BetterBuildings for Michigan program, which began with a $30 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and a rather unlikely alliance.

“A group of us got together and pulled together the City of the Detroit, suburbs of Detroit, the state, and the City of Grand Rapids,” says Corvidae.  “These are not the usual players who come to play together. But we managed to get the collaboration in place to help deliver these services.”

Of all of those communities, a portion of homes in Ferndale was chosen to serve as a pilot program area.

“Ferndale has long been a progressive community,” says Corvidae. “They stepped forward and said that they wanted to make this priority.”

The premise for the pilot program was simple: For $50, a team of energy experts would visit a home, run some tests and find where and how a house is losing energy. For example, during blower door test, a doorway is filled with a blower, and the testers track how that air circulates through the home – and where it escapes.

“Most homes at Michigan are leaking air at such a rate that your home is replacing all its air once an hour,” Corvidae says. “You have to reheat or re-cool that air all the time.”

Once those leaks are found, homeowners are empowered to do something about it. Sherry Wells was so convinced by the services and resulting recommendations that she became a vocal advocate for expanding the program throughout her community. She spoke at Ferndale City Council meetings and to her neighbors about its benefits.

“I hope that more people will make use of it,” Wells says. “I’ve had neighbors who haven’t. Some people were afraid they were getting some high sales pitch.”

For $50, Wells tells them, it’s not much of a sale. Corvidae says the average participating home saves $235 per year.

She also tries to impress upon her neighbors the unexpected benefits of the assessment team’s recommendations, such as noise dampening.

“A bar moved right next door to our residential area,” Wells says. “It’s really difficult to listen to. I had already gotten new windows, but I didn’t realize it was still drafty around the outside of the window frame. We sealed that, and the stuff made it quieter.”

Wells’ advocacy paid off. BetterBuildings for Michigan has spread throughout Ferndale, and 22 communities throughout Southeast Michigan. The program has reached more than 1,000 homes in Southeast Michigan and Corvidae estimates 3,000 to 4,000 home statewide. BetterBuildings for Michigan will continue through the end of this year, and, according to the program’s website, the goal is to reach 11,000 homes.

Another big number the website boasts is 2,000 green jobs. All of those energy efficiency assessment teams are made of local contractors who received specialized training.

“One of the great things about this is those are Michigan jobs,” says Corvidae. “They are part of this select group of contractors. We also tied it in with local jobs training programs, so we’ve been able to encourage contractors to hire people from local training programs, because they have real world experience.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the BetterBuilings for Michigan program will soon be ending.

“We have a limited time left,” Corvidae says. “As it stands now, it ends this calendar year. Then our job is to figure out how to move forward.”

The silver lining is that the contractors put to work by the program will still be ready and able to perform the same services for the commercial market, and, hopefully, the program will have jump-started demand for more of those services.

“It’s about creating jobs, but also launching the energy industry in the state,” says Corvidae.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography