That’s Building Performance
Ryan Miller talks real estate valuation, workforce development, and what makes North Carolina an energy-efficiency leader
Ryan Miller, founder and executive director of the North Carolina Building Performance Association, has advocated for green building in the Tar Heel State and beyond since 2014. He’s launched not just one, but four statewide trade associations in the Southeastern U.S., and was recently awarded the National Association of Home Builders’ Best in Green “Young Professional of the Year” at the NAHB International Builders’ Show in January 2018. Here, he discusses creating value for association members, getting young people interested in trade careers, and how he defines building performance — and why that matters.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Griffin Hagle — How did you get started in building performance?
Ryan Miller — I spent about four and a half years working for the Electric Cooperative Association out in Texas. When I was there as a business process manager, I just got personally interested in renewables, mostly, and then learned a little bit about energy efficiency. So when I made a personal decision to move to North Carolina, I wanted to be in what I thought was going to be the renewables and clean energy industry, but not having any kind of experience in solar or an engineering degree, there really weren’t any available jobs for me at the time. This was back in 2010.
I started working for a home performance contractor in Durham called Green Horizons and was the operations manager there. … That lasted for about a year and a half, until I sort of had to fire myself. We weren’t making enough money, and I ended up going over to Advanced Energy here in Raleigh, a non-profit, just doing some project management and program management. That’s how I got started.
GH — What is your association’s slogan, #ThatsBuildingPerformance, intended to capture about the industry’s spirit and culture?
RM — The reason we came up with that was because, for the first time, we really were trying to bring together residential and commercial industry professionals to one conference and show them what the building performance industry can do together, and what opportunities we have.
When we put air-sealing and load calculation and automation and different types of insulation and things like that on a piece of paper or on a poster … building performance is sort of the bigger umbrella for it.
The last part of that is just saying (that) all of those benefits of energy savings, water savings, durability, increased market value, health safety, comfort … we’re branding all of those things as a result of building performance.
Energy savings, water savings, durability, increased market value, health safety, comfort … we’re branding all of those things as a result of building performance.
The slogan that we’re working on (for workforce development) is “Another Way to 70k,” meaning jobs in the trade — our trade specifically — can get you a salary of $70,000 to spray insulation, or audit homes, or do home energy ratings, or do building efficiency testing.
GH—Federal data show the average trade worker is now in their 50s. What will take to interest young people in careers in high-performance construction?
RM — That’s a great question. I don’t think that our industry is really facing anything all that different from traditional construction industries. I really enjoy watching “This Old House” on PBS on the weekends. Earlier this year, they had three apprentices on the program, and were teaching them masonry, and carpentry, and branding, and all those kinds of things.
Mike Rowe from “Dirty Jobs” has great information and he’s very passionate about this … The only thing that I see a difference in is that we don’t have anybody leading those efforts, again, at the national level, and then a network to push them out at the state level.
The homebuilding industry — for example, NAHB — is well aware the number one issue for them right now is lumber pricing. The second issue is a lack of skilled labor. They pushed those issues down to state organizations. State homebuilders’ associations have been pushing down to local organizations. They have skilled working programs, and job training, and things like that. Our industry doesn’t have those resources already.
You’ve got very spot instances: Connecticut, (and) the retrofit apprenticeship program that you guys have there in Alaska, which is amazing. We’d like to bring those resources to North Carolina, and do that in a way that we could share how we did that with other states. That information is not even available. So for our industry to be successful, we need to start acting like traditional trades and mirroring the same resources, and projects, and policies that they’re working on that they’ve been successful.
For our industry to be successful, we need to start acting like traditional trades and mirroring the same resources, and projects, and policies that they’re working on.
GH — In March you released possibly the most comprehensive high-performance home sales analysis performed to date in the country, on three North Carolina metro areas. Why is proper market valuation so critical to scaling performance?
RM — Well there’s maybe a couple pieces to it. The one that we’ve been speaking to the most lately is the new construction residential building industry. The homebuilders are very concerned about the upfront cost of energy efficiency or high performance. They think those things cost too much money.
What we showed them in that data was, OK, admittedly in some cases you’re going to have pay a little bit more for another HVAC system, more insulation, more third party verification, something like that. But when you do that in the Raleigh market, you’re going to be able to sell that home for 22% more than a code-built home. Across those three markets together, it averaged out to 9.5% that you saved. Smart builders who are interested in this market can see that and say, “All right, well I’m going to put maybe $5,000 extra into the home, but on top of that $5,000 extra, I’m going to get a 9.5% premium on the total sale price,” which is not 9.5% on $5,000, it’s 9.5% on $275,000 for an average home sale.
On the builder side, I think that we needed to show them that there is more value in high-performance homes. On the consumer side, we needed to show them that if they are going to invest in upgrades at their home, they’re going to have tangible benefits being returned to them over time for the life of their time there, hopefully.
GH — You’ve launched and helped manage three sister associations, in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia. When do you sleep?
RM — The ongoing joke with my industry friends is I’m either half robot or half X-Man. What is really comes down to is I’m very passionate and interested in this work. … Personally, I’m still enjoying my time doing it.
GH — Was it easier after riding out the learning curve in North Carolina?
RM — It definitely was. … There was already a group (in Georgia) that … ended up being the Georgia Building Performance Association. It really did come together pretty quickly. We ran that one for about nine months or so, and then ended up hiring a part-time executive director. We followed the exact same model when we set up Maryland for the fourth one.
Unfortunately, that’s what’s not worked out for us in South Carolina. It’s a small market. (There are) not a lot of contractors there. The construction market is not as strong as it is in North Carolina. Just today, we made an announcement to our membership that we were merging with the South Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance.
I do see that there’s a tremendous opportunity to have these types of building performance associations in other states. We’ve had great conversations with folks in Texas that are interested in it. There used to be a home energy rating organization there that didn’t work out, so there’s still a lot of interest. Virginia would be a great one … Anywhere there’s either a strong enough state market, or maybe a regional market of a couple of states (working) together, I think those are tremendous opportunities.
GH — NCBPA has about 250 members. What’s your typical pitch to a potential member company?
RM — Selling membership is best done in person … It’s just not enough of a clear value proposition when you put something like that in an email, or even call them. A lot of our membership recruitment — and how we find out about people, and how they find out about us — is by just going to meetings, and going to events, and hosting events of our own.
While we all might acknowledge that energy code, and regulatory work, and maybe incentives and things like that are important, our members do not pay us for policy. We incorporate some policy work into their membership dues, which is right now an average of about $300 a year per company, but we also cover workforce development. We cover educating their staff. We cover giving them leads referrals and lead generation.
Generally, what gets them the most interested is seeing that there’s a very direct return for their investment, as opposed to, “Here’s $300, go fight the good fight.” We have some people that do that, but it’s really quite rare for us.
Generally, what gets (our members) most interested is seeing that there’s a very direct return for their investment.
GH — North Carolina is represented particularly well at this year’s Habitat X Conference. What makes that state such fertile ground for energy efficiency leadership? Is it because it’s a punching bag for hurricanes?
RM — Oh, you’re funny! I do have a theory about this. I don’t think anybody knows for sure, but there (are) two sides to it. The market side is that North Carolina has had a really strong construction market, (particularly) for the last ten years. We made it through the recession pretty well, and folks that work here know that green and energy efficient homes sold better … (When) we started the association, it was a really good time to do it in North Carolina.
The other thing about North Carolina is that with Advanced Energy having been around for 35 years or so, there has been a lot of training on building science for a long time, and that is credit to John Tooley, and Keith Aldridge, and Brian Coble, and Bruce Davis, and a lot of people that came before me and that have been organizing a lot of these initiatives. … We had this pool of educated contractors, hard working folks, that knew each other and knew that something else needed to be done. It just really took one person jumping off the bridge and saying, “Who’s coming with me?” I was that one person.
It just really took one person jumping off the bridge and saying, “Who’s coming with me?” I was that one person.
GH — What is your favorite type of hands-on project?
I really like repurposing used materials … so building a screened in patio out of pallet wood and taking an old fridge from a horse farm in Chapel Hill and doing raised garden beds in my garden. I think that’s really fun.
The work that I really like seeing done from an industry perspective is whatever work is really going to help solve someone’s health problems. … You just see the most reward in those kinds of situations. Saving energy is great, and adding insulation has its benefits of course, but when our members are able to help people live better (and) be more healthy, I’m really always happy to hear about those kinds of stories.
Ryan Miller will attend the 2018 Habitat X Conference, where he’ll join a panel discussion on energy-efficiency policy and politics in the U.S.