Building Science ‘Black Belt’ – Interview with Chris Baker
Chris Baker’s career in weatherization and energy efficiency spans some 19 years.
As the energy training and technical assistance coordinator for the FSL Southwest Building Science Training Center (SWBSTC), self-described building science black belt Chris Baker has more than 15 years at SWBSTC’s weatherization program as a program administrator, crew trainer and energy auditor/technician. In 2010, he was on a panel of experts assembled by Vice President Joe Biden which developed the New Energy for America, a plan by Obama and Biden to invest in renewable energy sources, reduce reliance on foreign oil, address climate change and create jobs. Baker, along with fellow SWBSTC training team members, Ken Pacost and Charlie Gohman, helped develop the national Department of Energy workforce guidelines.
The Southwest Building Science Training Center, located on the Phoenix campus of FSL Home Energy Solutions, offers hands-on laboratory learning as well as classroom training in weatherization, energy efficiency and building science. One of only 15 Department of Energy “legacy” training centers in the country, SWBSTC in an IREC Accredited Training Provider/Retrofit Installer Technician.
Back from a much-deserved vacation, Chris made time to visit with us about his work.
IREC: ‘Building science black belt’ is in your bio on the SWBSTC website. You take this work seriously. How did SWBSTC learn about IREC?
CB: We were aware of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Guidelines for Home Energy Professionals certifications. That’s how we learned about IREC and its credentialing program.
CB: Our core building science courses, including the home energy professionals (HEP) program certification tracks are almost exclusively male ranging from early 20’s to late 50’s. However, we do a building science for administrative personnel class that is 99% women. We also offer a home performance sales class that is more like 25% women, 75% men.
The bulk of our classes have at least some sort of hands on or interactive element.
Our sales class contains a significant amount of role playing where students play roles of customer or auditor, practicing techniques and reversing roles. We also offer short specialized workshops on particular elements of building science that people tend to struggle with like combustion appliance zone (CAZ) testing, static pressure testing and strategies. Those also always contain hands on elements in our combustion or pressure labs.
IREC: What’s SWBSTC’s placement record look like? Is it good locally? Regionally?
CB: Our Home Performance program has grown beyond the capabilities of its trained workforce. The largest hurdle is that everyone believes that being an energy auditor somehow gets you out of any physical labor. That is not the case at all.
We believe that a truly good auditor works his/her way up from installer. In the home performance industry, the auditor must also have sales and estimating skills. With no background in doing the physical work this industry demands, they tend to make very poor decisions in “what it takes” to get the work done and how to communicate with homeowners. This leads to under-bidding, missed opportunities, unhappy customers and ultimately lost profits for the home performance contracting company. We need installers, and any one who is willing to do the time will have work and can climb the ladder to auditor/crew chief/ quality control inspector. How about you? Need a job? You can start tomorrow morning!
IREC: Really? So with all the right skills, what’s the role for local industry? Do you tailor your curriculum to align training with industry needs in a rapidly-changing industry to avoid a skills gap?
CB: Absolutely. That is what keeps the lights on around here! I have a direct relationship with the quality assurance (QA) arm of the home performance program managers and key people at the utilities. They tell me of any trends or patterns of weak performance and we design classes to fill the need.
The bulk of our trainings were developed specifically for the home performance market. From basic business process management to sales, to administrative trainings geared towards building science, modeling software trainings, they also include onsite mentorships and one-on-one consulting services.
We also have labs specifically set up for the air conditioning industry, the latest, advanced tools and techniques on typical systems. We’re now the southwest traininbg hub for Fujitsu air conditioning training because we have a lab with Fujitsu mini-split systems. We also do custom trainings for our utilities, government and home performance managers, as well as research and third party product testing services with products or concepts relating to building science.
IREC: So you’d say that industry and training is an essential relationship essential to building a locally, quality-trained clean energy workforce?
CB: Absolutely. I’ve watched many fly-by night “BPI Training centers” come and go in Phoenix. Their lack of understanding of what the industry actually needs in favor of just trying to be a certificate mill is why we are still standing and they are not.
IREC: What advice do you give to incoming students, those considering entering the clean energy field? What advice would you give to young women thinking about a career in clean energy?
CB: Start at the bottom. Work as an installer first. Do high quality work efficiently. Learn from those with more experience than you. Keep pestering the management that you want to move up the ladder. Become the crew chief. Become the auditor. And start reading books on sales techniques. I recommend “How to win customers and keep them for life” by Michael LeBoeuf, Ph.D. This industry has to work its way from government to private sales of our services. A truly good auditor with sales skills is the most valuable person in our industry right now, and also the most lacking in my opinion.
IREC: What’s been the biggest challenge of running a program like this? Finding the right instructors? Keeping funding streams robust?
CB: One day, I do see the general public recognizing the importance of our industry and when that day comes, we will be ready and valued for those credentials. But the challenge right now in terms of revenue is finding those gaps in the home performance market and developing trainings specific to them. This brings in the private contracting companies. That relationship also keeps them coming back for every new class we offer. One day soon I hope that the BPI Energy Auditor credential offered through an IREC certified program is required in the home performance with Energy Star program. Then I will see all of these contractors in my classroom once again. Finding the right instructors is always a concern, but we do have a lot of people around here who have been in the business long enough that I have not had to struggle with that.
IREC: What’s next in the queue for you re clean energy programs/training/credentials?
CB: Business management principles! A lot of mom-and-pop shop AC contractors are very good at the work they do, but very few of them have any formal training in business management principles. We have started down this path, but there is much more work to do.
IREC: What’s surprised you the most about this work?
CB: How quickly we were able to improve the quality of the workmanship of the installed measures, and the actual audits in the four year-old home performance program in our market to exceed our state weatherization market. A couple of years ago, we partnered with Advanced Energy out of North Carolina and designed a product called Critical Details, a step-by-step illustrated process for how to accomplish the 75 most common measures installed in our housing stock/climate. They all match to the standard work specification (SWS) standards, they revolutionized how we train, and more importantly how home performance contractors conduct business in this market. It almost completely eliminated failed workmanship.
Since then, it has been written into our state weatherization plan in anticipation of the new quality work plan initiative from DOE. I just finished training our WAP workforce so the jury is still out as to its impact on the program. We handed all of our materials over to DOE and NREL and they developed a tool on the SWS site that allows individual agencies to create their own customized critical details now. We have also started a pilot program with OptiMizer that has these tools built into their reporting system to further reduce administrative burden on home performance contractors and increase quality and processing speed.
IREC: Why is this work so important?
CB: Energy is not going to get cheaper any time soon. (At least I hope not before my retirement age!) Greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere are not receding. It is our responsibility as a nation to set the goals and show the world how to do it regardless of the pollution produced by developing nations. I have a five year-old daughter. It is my job as a father, and all other parents to try and provide that to our children and grandchildren. We must convert our economic system over to a cleaner system. I honestly believe a major part of that process is efficiency in transportation, industry and in our homes. Efficiency always wins. Efficiency is really the first logical step. I preach it every day.