Minnesota Builders Breed Success in State Home Weatherization Effort
With assistance from its home builders and remodelers, Minnesota is one of the states that has successfully dispersed federal stimulus money intended to boost employment and weatherize homes.
The Builders Association of Minnesota's Project ReEnergize made 1,300 homes more energy-efficient this fall — bringing needed jobs to the state’s remodelers and stimulating the purchase of building materials, appliances, fixtures and products — including 8,700 windows during the month of October alone.
The state home builders association created the program after convincing state officials that it had the knowledge and the resources to do the job quickly and efficiently, said Pam Perri Weaver, its executive officer.
The HBA distributed more than $3 million in stimulus money and trained 840 of the state’s 13,000 licensed residential contractors and 140 insulation contractors to spread the green building message of the importance of energy efficiency, correctly installed insulation and maintaining indoor environmental quality. The effort resulted in a positive public relations message as well as needed work for the industry.
When the stimulus packages were announced and the federal government began giving money to the states last spring, Minnesota’s first thought was to distribute the money through the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency to augment second mortgages for low-income home owners so they could weatherize their homes.
The home builders did not think this was a particularly effective way to spend the money, Weaver recalled. “Our message was that in the economy we are in, asking a family of four making $70,000 a year to take on a second mortgage was not a successful strategy to get home owners to spend money on energy upgrades,” she said.
The HBA recommended that the state remove income caps from any program they created and consider direct consumer rebates to encourage more people to apply for the weatherization money. Programs must factor in the current market conditions the industry is facing, the association told the agency.
When summer came and the state agency still had not prepared a program to disburse the money, the staff at the Office of Energy Security of the Minnesota Department of Commerce turned to the HBA. “They asked us, ‘If you could create a program, what would it be?’” Weaver said.
The Builders Association of Minnesota got to work.
Making a Plan
The HBA immediately held a series of roundtables for window manufacturers, insulation installers and remodelers to elicit ideas about designing a program that would get the greatest number of homes weatherized while generating the most work for the industry.
Among their suggestions was to offer incentives for window replacement, but make the incentives even higher if the home owner combined the window replacement with air sealing work, like insulating the attic.
Because the combination of correctly installed insulation and energy-efficient windows produces a much more air-tight home — in turn raising indoor air quality issues, particularly if the home’s water heater or furnace could no longer draft correctly — incentives were also made available for replacing “orphaned” atmospherically vented water heaters.
Participating remodelers would be required to participate in a free, two-hour, training class so they could better explain to home owners the principles behind the energy-efficient changes they were making.
An additional 150 contractors interested in providing air-sealing work would have to complete an eight-hour course focusing on proper insulation techniques and air quality issues. They would also be required to obtain RESNET (Residential Energy Services Network) certification for performing before-and-after blower-door tests on the homes to confirm the work was done correctly and to measure energy savings.
The association said it could arrange the training and certification. Its grant proposal included funding for training remodelers and contractors, promotion and administering the application process — called a pre-rebate application — and disbursing the money to home owners.
“The state was highly motivated to get the money out the door and get this industry back to work,” Weaver said. The HBA’s plan made sense to state officials, and the HBA won the contract.
It took only a month to disburse more than $3 million in weatherization funding, and the HBA is set up to do even more if the money becomes available.
More Benefits for Remodelers
Remodeler Shawn Nelson’s Burnsville firm, New Spaces, worked on two projects in which the home owners received the benefits of the stimulus money.
One window-replacement and insulation project led to a larger renovation of the home owner’s bathroom and kitchen. The other project involved weatherization work alone, but the home owner recommended Nelson’s company to a friend who in turned hired the company for a remodeling job.
“It’s unfortunate that more people were not able to generate even more business, but we couldn’t just sit around and wait; the money went pretty fast,” Nelson said.
And the stimulus money clearly encouraged many home owners to hire contractors for work they would not have considered otherwise, he said.
Weaver said she hopes that EOs in other states can also get on the weatherization bandwagon and that the success in Minnesota might inspire additional efforts to loosen the purse strings on more federal money to promote energy efficiency.
Oregon and New York, following in the footsteps of Minnesota, are preparing HBA-led weatherization programs for consideration in their states.
In addition to a highly motivated executive officer and active support from member leaders, Minnesota’s success was also aided by regulations that govern work in that state.
For example, Minnesota has a statewide energy code that cannot be amended locally, Weaver pointed out. It creates a uniform standard for window replacement and other construction work that all contractors are familiar with, so the weatherization projects did not require significant additional training.
In addition, all contractors performing more than two different kinds of services in a home are required to be licensed, and licensed contractors in Minnesota have continuing education requirements. This made for a ready supply of trainers, and the HBA has strong ties to most of them, Weaver said.
The federal legislation includes requirements for contractors to be paid the prevailing wage, and the paperwork associated with that requirement continues to discourage many remodeling companies from seeking weatherization work. Because the HBA provided the rebates directly to the consumer, it was able to bypass the paperwork requirement.
Administering the program was a “successful and surprising” source of non-dues revenue for the HBA, Weaver added. The program also helped open the eyes of non-members who didn’t realize how much the HBA contributes to the success of the industry.
“I think this program gave them a flavor of what an association does for them,” Weaver said.
For more information, e-mail Calli Schmidt at NAHB, or call her at 800-368-5242 x8132.