From Ad Man to Climate Advocate, Part 1
A climate activist turns his house into a net zero-emission home.
By Bill Hensley
WEI-TAI KWOK WAS THE CONSUMMATE AD MAN, growing up in the industry at San Francisco’s leading full-service Asian American advertising agency. He pitched, won and serviced A-list clients including Miller Brewing Company, Wells Fargo, Apple, HP, Charles Schwab, AIG, Southwest Airlines, Disney and others. The company created a strong position focused on the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino consumer segments in California back in the days of print, radio and television. As the Internet took off in the 90s, he led the agency into the digital world and created the first Chinese language website for Apple (this was still the pre-iPhone Apple). Several mergers later and this ad man was making his mark, managing large teams for world-wide clients. He and I met when I was with Sanrio (Hello Kitty) and his company was on the short list for redesigning the Sanrio e-commerce site.
Life-changing and career-changing events happen in a variety of ways and in Wei-Tai’s case it was a 2006 trip to the Orinda Movie Theater east of San Francisco to watch a documentary his wife wanted to see by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore called An Inconvenient Truth. He came away thinking “if what Vice President Gore said was true, then we don’t have more than 30 to 40 years to solve this. We can’t leave it for our kids; it needs to be the adults who act now.” Being a man of action himself, Wei-Tai began reading up on climate change, its human causes, and what political leaders were doing — which he found to be not much of anything. He said, “I got so angry, I thought ‘if even an ad guy can figure it out and yet our leaders cannot take action then something is wrong.’ Every day, I would think ‘What did I do today to combat climate change?’ My excuses were clients, kids, deadlines … and it depressed me to realize that not only was I not part of the solution, I was actually part of the problem – I knew climate change was happening and yet day-to-day I was doing nothing.”
The final straw was when he was in Los Angeles with a bank client on a website redesign project, stuck in a meeting where 30 minutes were spent deciding on round or square corners for the buttons. That was it, time to find more meaningful work. “I quit!”
Being a marketer, he looked for business solutions to the climate problem. China-based Suntech Power was seeking a bilingual marketing leader for its new office in the San Francisco area, a logical fit for Wei-Tai. As Vice President of Global Marketing, he helped Suntech grow to become one of the world's leading solar photovoltaic energy companies.
"... it depressed me to realize that not only was I not part of the solution, I was actually part of the problem – I knew climate change was happening and yet day-to-day I was doing nothing."WEI-TAI KWOK
CO-FOUNDER OF THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA CHAPTER OF THE CLIMATE REALITY PROJECT.
By 2013, even after four years of success in the solar power industry, Wei-Tai was still angry and frustrated about the lack of progress being made against global warming. He traveled to Chicago to get trained by The Climate Reality Project, Al Gore’s non-profit organization “devoted to solving the climate crisis.” Along with 1,200 volunteers from 50 states and 60 countries, he learned how to deliver Mr. Gore’s signature presentation, and returned home with a USB drive loaded with the PowerPoint. He was ready to “go forth and give presentations” which he’s now done 140 times and counting. (At the climaterealityproject.org website a 10-slide “Truth in Ten” deck is available to download in 12 languages.)
It is difficult to mention a politician (or former office holder) in this ‘climate’ of persistently deepening partisan divide in American politics. While the former Vice President is a high-profile champion of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — perhaps a lightning rod for some — peer-reviewed scientific literature shows a greater than 99 percent consensus on human caused climate change. (Source: Environmental Research Letters, Volume 16, Number 11 published October 19, 2021, Authors: Mark Lynas, Benjamin Houlton, and Simon Perry.)
As Wei-Tai said, “the number one thing that is free to use is my voice. I’m going to stand on the rooftop and raise it.” And he doesn’t just talk the talk. A few years ago, Wei-Tai decided to turn his house into a net zero-emission home. We spoke with him recently to learn more:
BILL: This sounds like a project that would scare most people.
WEI-TAI: Including myself! However, it’s our minds that limit what we can do. This has been proven over and over in all sorts of endeavors. As technologies advance and industries mature, costs come down and outcomes become more achievable. Solar is a great example; the cost of solar has dropped 60 percent in the last ten years.
BILL: Where did you begin?
WEI-TAI: At first, I thought it would be impossible to take out all the gas, but I started with the premise of ‘how hard would it be?’ One of the early challenges was identifying the right contractors. I was sure that I wanted to replace my traditional HVAC with ductless, heat pump mini-split-systems, but half of the contractors I reached out to wanted to talk me out of it. Basically, they weren’t electricians, so it wasn’t going to be a profitable job for them.
The contractor I eventually selected said I first needed to do a full energy audit of the home to check efficiency. This was a $550 investment, but the blower test identified leakage and the audit also showed that I needed better attic insulation. We replaced the pink fiberglass with 18 inches of blown-in cellulose — shredded newspaper treated with boric acid for fire and termite resistance — to achieve a level of R-50.
The contractor that proposed — and did — the energy audit was Eco Performance Builders, based in Concord, California. The company refers to this as a Home Performance Assessment, a multi-step analysis that shows how the “home’s synergistic elements are functioning as a system.”
Specific areas of focus are energy efficiency, indoor air quality, health and safety issues, comfort issues and durability. The test results along with the homeowner survey inform the remediation plan.
I recently spoke with Kyle Bosworth, Senior Building Scientist (a pretty cool title!) at Eco Performance Builders to learn more.
BILL: It sounds like Wei-Tai had in mind what his goals were, but you helped him find a more logical starting point.
KYLE: That’s right. Wei-Tai envisioned his house becoming extremely efficient and no longer dependent on natural gas, so I introduced him to the Home Performance Assessment. These Assessments help quantify and figure out solutions for issues pertaining to efficiency, comfort, air quality, moisture control and environmental impact. These are the factors that affect the holistic performance of a home, hence the term Home Performance. Also, a big emphasis is placed on a vital aspect of home performance that homeowners, contractors and builders often overlook, the performance of the home’s envelope — how much energy is being lost due to insufficient or improper sealing and insulation.
"Wei-Tai’s 2004 home was not old, and it had a good amount of insulation, but it was not done very well. So, we did the full energy audit to start with..."KYLE BOSWORTH
SENIOR BUILDING SCIENTIST AT CONCORD, CA BASED
ECO PERFORMANCE BUILDERS
BILL: The energy audit identified this as an issue?
KYLE: His house was a good example of what we frequently see. Wei-Tai’s 2004 home was not old, and it had a good amount of insulation, but it was not done very well. So, we did the full energy audit to start with – think of it as the gold standard of what should be done initially to figure out the needs of the house and the plan to solve the issues. It’s preferred but not always practical; sometime a quick visual inspection can at least identify the main culprits of energy loss.
BILL: He mentioned you removed the old fiberglass batts.
KYLE: Yes, we did. In part because we needed to get in to “air seal” the floor of the attic. This is a part of the house that is often responsible for a lot of the leakage in a home. Much of the sealing work in a typical 2 x 4 constructed home is done on the floor of the attic above the exterior walls and interior walls around the top plates — that 2 x 4 laying on its side that caps the wall framing. It’s an easy spot for air to move up the wall and into the attic, and often pulls in air from the house and crawlspace to replace this air that leaks out here.
Another reason to remove the fiberglass is that while fiberglass batts are easy to install poorly, they are difficult to install well. Plus, they only go in-between the ceiling joists thus leaving a great deal of a batt insulated attic effectively un-insulated. And the insulation ends up being a great deal less efficient than advertised. For attics, we always recommend stabilized cellulose insulation. It is sprayed into the attic along with a fine mist of water that activates the formula and causes it to be more effective. This also minimizes the dust and makes it easier to get into all of the voids and corners better. We used Mountain Fiber loose fill cellulose for Wei-Tai’s house. It’s SCS certified, 85 percent recycled content, takes less energy to produce than other insulation materials, and provides exceptional mold control. It contains borate, which is a benign fire retardant and non-hazardous to human health.
Part Two of the interview will be featured in the Winter 2023 issue of the magazine.