I'm at JLC Live '14 in Providence, and just got out of an extremely interesting conference called "Understanding the Big Picture" with presenter, Steve Baczek, a residential architect from Reading, Mass., who specializes in designing energy efficient homes—including homes that meet the passive house standards. Steve's talk was about building beyond the current energy code, why it makes sense, but more importantly, basic guidelines for how to make it happen. I went to this conference because at a recent Builders' Association meeting, I listened as a member tried to recruit others to go with him to the state house to protest proposed legislation that would boost the current energy code requirements. I just shook my head…

One of Steve's first slides pointed out that building to current code is just the minimum standard for creating an energy efficient home. Energy Star and LEED are just a few small increments up from current code requirements, and what Steve considers a "good" performing home is steps up from there. Above that, the passive house standard is the grail of energy efficient building. He equated builders who boast that they build to the current energy code with car companies whose vehicles are built to the minimum safety requirements. Which one would you want to drive, and better yet, which one would you want to sell? Raising energy code requirements is not an "IF" situation, but rather "WHEN" for a number of reasons. And getting on board earlier than later makes good sense.

In his conferences Steve presented his information in an accessible and understandable fashion without a lot of building science jargon. He says that there is no "Silver Bullet" solution to energy efficient building, and no miracle products that will instantly make building an energy efficient house easy and cheap. Instead he aspires to build with locally available materials, but in a smart way. One thing he kept repeating was, "Don't do anything stupid," and he had slides showing the results of "stupid" building practices that he'd encountered. Steve says that every building project is unique and should be approached that way. Following the basic concepts that he outlines will result in a more durable and more energy efficient homes.

So it behooves the savvy builder to embrace the changes that will make his houses perform better and make them more durable. But where does someone begin the process? The very first step is for builders to become more aware of the climate and the area that they are working in. He asked the audience if anyone could tell him the climate zone, the average yearly rainfall, and the number of heating-degree days in their area. No hands went up. Knowing these particulars is a good place to start. He also showed us a "rain rose" which I'd never heard of. It's basically the face of a compass with a shaded area that shows the direction that most of the precipitation comes from in a given location. If most of the wet weather comes from the east in your area, you'd better pay extra attention to the detailing on that side of the house.

I asked Steve the provocative question "Yeah, but how much does all this cost?" (the question that would be asked first at one of our builders meetings). After an exasperated sigh, he used the cost vs. investment concept, explaining that builders who master energy-efficient building will actually be in greater demand from an increasingly energy-conscious public. He said one mistake contractors make is trying to market the performance, health and comfort aspects of an energy efficient home. When it comes to their homes, most folks don't put those things at the top of their list. What they do want is durability—they want their home to last. Applying the basic concepts that he outlined will create a more durable home—the performance, health and comfort aspects come along with that.