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March 23rd, 2021
Cities • Energy • Innovation

BetterBuildings Michigan: Detroit, U.S.

BetterBuildings Michigan, part of the national BetterBuildings Neighbourhood Programme, was a pilot initiative to improve energy efficiency across urban homes in Detroit (in Michigan, U.S.) between 2010 to 2013.

The initiative targeted households in 27 urban neighbourhoods across Detroit through door-to-door “sweeps” driving awareness on home energy efficiency upgrade options. Local community-based organisations were responsible for the marketing and outreach around the sweeps, which was followed by an energy assessment allowing homeowners to personalise their home energy upgrades to meet their needs and resource capacity.

The initiative is estimated to have reached more than 11,000 homeowners in total, built demand for more than 2000 green jobs, and created an estimated USD 7.4 million in energy savings.

Background and Context

Michigan was hit hard by the financial crisis in 2009 and unemployment reached as high as 14.3%.1 The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a response to the high unemployment and poor economic conditions created by the global financial crisis and was designed to create jobs in new sectors.2 USD 80 billion was allocated through the Act specifically for projects related to energy and the environment, with much of this money targeted toward improving energy efficiency in homes and buildings. 

The nation-wide BetterBuildings Neighbourhood Programme, by the U.S. Department of Energy, presented initial awards of USD 452 million from this funding pot to 25 competitively selected state and local governments to ramp up energy efficiency building retrofits.3 It was designed with the intention to address market and non-market barriers to home energy upgrades identified by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in their ‘Recovery to Retrofit’ report, namely a) homeowners' lack of access to clear and reliable information on upgrades; b) homeowners’ lack of financing; and c) lack of skilled workers to perform home energy retrofits.4 

BetterBuildings Michigan was one of the state-led initiatives of the national programme, aimed at upgrading the energy efficiency of homes and buildings in Detroit between 2010 and 2013.5

The Initiative

BetterBuildings Michigan was implemented by the Michigan Energy Office and Michigan Saves—a non-profit organisation dedicated to making energy improvements easy and affordable—in collaboration with public, private, and non-profit partners throughout the state.6 The programme consisted of three components: a) driving demand for energy efficiency upgrades, particularly in older homes built prior to 1970; b) delivering energy efficiency upgrades through partnerships with 130 commercial, industrial, and small business owners; c) workforce development and financing to put skilled professionals back to work by “supporting and providing energy efficiency training”.7 

Between 2010-2013, the programme targeted 27 urban neighbourhoods (approximately 400 homes each) across Detroit, Michigan.8 The neighbourhoods were organised in four different residential zones within the state, where each neighbourhood reflected a set of varied characteristics with regards to income distribution and building types (targeted building types included residential, commercial, industrial and public buildings). The programme combined citizen outreach, contractor scheduling, and short-term energy efficiency promotions and affordable loans in the target communities. It did this through a political-campaign style ‘sweep’ across neighbourhoods, targeting individual homeowners as well as local businesses.9 The ‘sweeps’ involved an intensive, house-by-house campaign, designed to convince homeowners to complete an energy efficiency upgrade.10 

To ensure learnings and identify best practices to inform other energy efficiency programmes in the state, each neighbourhood sweep tested different marketing and outreach strategies as well as financing-models for upgrades.11 To this end, each sweep had a budget of nearly USD 290,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy for marketing and outreach efforts with the aim of targeting around one neighbourhood per month.12

How was the need for energy efficiency upgrades presented and communicated?

Before the Sweeps

The 27 urban neighbourhoods implementing the BetterBuildings programme across Detroit had strong community associations, and local community-based organisations were handed the reins on driving local marketing and outreach activities. These community-based organisations included municipalities, community action agencies, churches, employers, school districts, non-profit organisations and utilities.13 

Prior to the door-to-door sweep, the community-based organisations involved were responsible for the regional marketing of the initiative. They reached out to residents through local news and media channels to drive awareness on the benefits of energy efficiency upgrades and the associated financial promotions available at the time, while also ensuring contractors were made aware of how they could engage with the programme. Messaging focussed on the increased comfort of homes following upgrades, along with community-level messaging encouraging homeowners to be less ‘wasteful’ of energy, was found to be particularly effective in convincing people to participate in the programme.14

During the Sweeps

The local community-based organisations went door-to-door in each neighbourhood to build homeowners’ awareness about the benefits of increased energy efficiency, potential upgrade options, and the means to finance them. They attempted to “make contact with a home at least eight times through in-person visits, phone calls, and flyers” and even continued to engage with homeowners after the programme had ended to encourage more invested upgrades.15 Collaborating with trusted community organisations also increased homeowners’ willingness to engage in a dialogue, even when the programme was fairly new, around how energy-efficient homes contribute to saving money, and creating comfortable micro-environments that benefit its residents.16

Following the awareness drives, interested homeowners were given personalised home energy assessment reports via a consultation with trained local energy-specialists working with the BetterBuildings programme. The assessment report outlined key components in the home causing energy losses, for example air leakages or lack of adequate insulation, as well as an action plan with a range of energy efficiency retrofit options. Homeowners were then asked to determine what additional energy efficiency measures made the most sense for their home and budget. In each neighbourhood sweep, homeowners were offered several options of packages for their energy efficiency upgrade, allowing the programme to experiment with various ways to bundle efficiency measures.17 Local contractors engaged with the programme were then brought on board to implement the home upgrades. This addressed a key challenge to increased uptake of home energy efficiency upgrades, namely the resource-intensive steps a homeowner traditionally needs to take to get appointments with individual energy specialists who address the different aspects and sources of a home’s energy system. The BetterBuildings Michigan programme, on the other hand, provided home retrofit packages that addressed all the different components of making a home more energy-efficient at once.18

Ferndale Sweep

The first neighbourhood sweep of the BetterBuildings initiative kicked off in Ferndale, in November 2010, and concluded in January 2011. It included knocking on doors, distributing mailers, organising community group meetings, hosting in-home informational meetings for neighbours, and sponsoring a programme-wide press event with Michigan’s governor. Strategically placed yard signs and magnetic signs with the national BetterBuildings logo on contractor vans attracted homeowners’ attention and helped create significant word-of-mouth buzz about the programme. At the close of that sweep, 91 of the 420 homes (22 percent) had completed the base package—close to the anticipated 28 percent penetration rate.19

One testimonial from Edith Reed, a local resident who took advantage of the BetterBuildings Michigan upgrades, states "This programme is worth it. I was able to afford the improvements that needed to be done to save money, and my utility bills have gone down, my house is less drafty, and we're more comfortable."20 

After the Sweeps

Post the programme, Michigan Saves, the local NGO partner for the BetterBuildings Michigan programme, shifted its focus to sustaining public engagement around energy-efficient buildings, through peer-to-peer exchanges and workshops. It also established ways by which contractors could continue to contact homeowners to support any further upgrades after the sweeps had ended.21

What was the extent and nature of citizen collaboration in the Programme?

Collaboration between target households during the BetterBuildings Michigan programme was facilitated by the local community-based organisation in each neighbourhood, and where capacity and resources allowed, this involved group workshops and meetings. However, the primary focus of the initiative involved separate and individual engagement with households through a door-to-door campaign.

However, it is important to note that across the overall programme, collaboration was actively encouraged and facilitated between local contractors in each neighbourhood. Michigan Saves actively engaged with the network of local contractors, offering them collective training and up-skilling opportunities.22 This involved classroom training, on-site training and peer-to-peer networking opportunities focussed on building their skills and knowledge on programme requirements, business development and sales.23 These collective training sessions helped contractors support and build relationships with each other, improving retention. It also helped improve programme processes, quality control, sales and installation processes.24

What was the level of action addressed by the public engagement?

Citizen engagement was facilitated at both an individual and community level to drive the uptake of home energy efficiency upgrades. Individually, investing in a more energy-efficient home was financially incentivised by mapping out homeowners’ utility cost savings, and providing access to loans; at the community level, socialising the programme across the neighbourhood also boosted programme uptake. For example, when homeowners saw that their neighbours were receiving an energy efficiency upgrade provided by the BetterBuildings programme, this helped lead to enhanced engagement and uptake across the neighbourhood. 

The secondary goal of the initiative was to promote local workforce development and demand for sustainable green jobs in both the construction and energy sector.25 The competitive bidding process to bring local contractors on board the programme and comprehensive training sessions built the capacity of local workers to diversify their skills, knowledge and expertise in a quickly-evolving sector, also increasing their opportunities.26

The Public Impact

  • The programme is estimated to have reached more than 11,000 homeowners in total, and built demand for more than 2000 green jobs.27 

  • Between 2010 and 2013, 6546 single-family homes and 113 multi-family units were upgraded. In addition, 12.9 million sq. ft. was upgraded in 84 commercial buildings with USD 7.4 million of estimated total energy cost-savings.28

  • Uptake rates of the base energy efficiency package (including home weatherisation and basic efficiency measures) was around 28% (approx. 120 households) per neighbourhood (approx. 420 households). Estimated savings was USD 300 - 400 per household per year.29

Further Considerations and Learnings from this Case

From CPI’s extensive work on public engagement, we have found three important drivers to public impact that are relevant to discuss when designing public engagement processes around climate change: Enabling adaptability and learning; Designing for Inclusion; and Embracing Complexity. We discuss the relevance of each to the case study below:

Enabling Adaptability and Learning

The BetterBuildings initiative was experimental by nature and was designed with continuous learning and improvement in mind.30 The sweeps were undertaken as ‘mini-experiments’ to test how residents would respond to different marketing and outreach strategies, financing options and incentives. The goal was to learn from each sweep and use the outcome of these pilots to inform similar initiatives in the future. In keeping with this objective, monitoring and assessment of the sweeps were structured to measure the initiative in terms of its ability to meet learning objectives. 

In addition, the initiative was designed with a clear understanding that there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all option for households, even where similarities between them existed. To identify how to adapt the solution to the values and needs of each household, trusted community-based organisations were brought on-board to engage with the households. By grounding the learning process in local knowledge, through these relationships, the programme did well to ensure the focus of the learning and improvement was community-centred and not simply put in place to build efficiencies across the programme.

Overall, while the initiative was quite resource-intensive, it had a fundamentally place-focussed approach - a key attribute of its success. While the model was adapted in many states across the US, it was never the same across places or even within one place.31

Designing for Inclusion

The placed-focussed experimental nature of the BetterBuildings Michigan programme lends itself well to designing for deeper inclusion. The use of local community-based organisations and a door-to-door campaign process allowed the programme to reach people that may not have been identified by other actors using other methods. The outreach was aimed at reaching various groups and sub-groups of residents in the neighbourhoods. In some cases, this was done by enlisting programme ambassadors from among the residents; hosting open educational neighbourhood block meetings; offering additional rebates from the local utility etc.32 The community organisations’ established legitimacy in the eyes of local communities, and their understanding of local circumstances and politics was vital to engaging and building trusted relationships with communities across the socio-economic spectrum. However, there is limited in-depth information available on how marginalised, seldom-heard communities were engaged with, and how home retrofits were incentivised and financed in those cases.

Another important point to raise while discussing inclusion in the residential sector, is the ‘principal-agent’ problem that generally affects domestic energy efficiency programme uptake rates. To elaborate - in cases where tenants (the principal) pay the energy bills, the landlords/home-owners (the agents) are not incentivised to bear the cost of the upgrade. At the same time, the tenants do not typically have the autonomy to make decisions on home retrofits independently although it could greatly improve their quality of life and save on costs. In this sense, the BetterBuildings Michigan programme primarily targeted owner-occupiers. When the initiative included renters, the engagement proved more costly as any upgrade required landlord approval and sustained engagement, and in most cases did not end with an upgrade. Therefore as a group, renters were somewhat excluded, as were mixed tenure (social and private) housing developments. However, to address this would require a broader discussion around property law, housing policy, and regulation that are needed to better align the incentives and interests of landlords and renters, and the need to create more equal systems of power-sharing around building governance.

Embracing Complexity

The heterogeneity of the existing building stock, the evolving energy technology landscape and energy markets, and the varying ecosystem of actors and their associated incentives make designing home energy retrofit programmes highly challenging. In addition, engaging with home-owners and occupants on the benefits of energy efficiency upgrades, conducting energy assessments, economic analyses, and aligning individual incentives against environmental objectives and social considerations, makes intervening in the space all the more complex. 

The BetterBuildings Michigan programme navigated significant challenges for communities around accessing trusted information, negotiating energy assessment processes, and managing implementation complexities through the door-to-door sweep. Each household was provided with relevant information, a personalised assessment of different energy retrofit measures and their suitability, and were able to discuss in-depth the variables that govern suitability, affordability and sustainability. The fact that these processes were facilitated by legitimate and trusted local organisations, with the retrofits being implemented by local contractors, actively countered the uncertainty and mistrust that typically prevents people from taking up energy efficiency upgrades. 

However, in terms of areas needing further research, as outlined in the previous section, issues of ownership, building governance, and shared decision-making need to be addressed in order to achieve successful uptake of energy efficiency programmes and create large-scale public impact.


Engaging the Public on Climate Change

Our Case Study Compendium provides practitioners with a framework to unpack different approaches, outlining how public engagement can better embrace the complexity of climate issues.

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