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).
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 see 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 some-thing 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.
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.)
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. The contractor that proposed — and did — the energy audit was Kyle Bosworth, Senior Building Scientist (a pretty cool title!) at 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. Here is part two of my conversation with Wei-Tai and Kyle:
BILL: Let’s start by discussing new construction. Are builders doing enough to maximize the benefits from sealing and insulating?
KYLE: Some, yes, but for the most part, no. And the codes are not as assertive as they could be. Take California’s Title 24, (the collection of California building energy standards with the goal of promoting energy efficiency in new homes and commercial constructions). We often refer to it as “the worst you can legally do”. One can have a home that passes Title 24 standards, but still is not wonderful in terms of efficiency, air quality, sustainability, etc. In new construction, the builder is driven by the schedule, sometime at the expense of the details — particularly details you can’t see like the sealing work that creates a tight envelope, and the ventilation work necessary to make homes healthier.
But it’s not just the builders, but the way the different industries have developed. The players in the HVAC industry are separate from players in the Insulation industry. This does not make sense given that they are two sides of the same topic, and one often affects the other.
BILL: What is being lost by not sealing more?
KYLE: Without air sealing a surface before insulating it, you reduce the benefits of insulation as air will pass right through the insulation. So, the better the home is sealed the more efficient the insulation can be, thus lowering the heating and cooling bills, reducing drafts, increasing air quality, and increasing comfort. Air follows the stack effect, as hot air rises in the home it pulls air from wherever it can, often from below. Thus, it’s also important to seal between the floor and crawlspace. Proper sealing and insulation in a new home can make a dramatic difference. For example, a well-built 3,500 square foot home with tall ceilings can actually be outfitted with the smallest HVAC system that one can obtain — ideally a small heat pump system — if it’s well sealed and well insulated.
BILL: Describe a heat pump please.
KYLE: Standard air conditioners use the properties of refrigerant to move heat from inside of the house and dissipate it outside the house, thus cooling the air inside a home. A heat pump reverses this when in heating mode, collecting heat from the outside and moving it inside using the same, reversed, refrigerant cycle. When set to cooling mode, a heat pump will reverse this flow again to make it act in the same way as an air conditioner.
These days we get a lot of calls from people who say, “I want a heat pump”. This is great and, as opposed to 10 years ago, the heat pump concept is finally catching on. However, the danger here is to focus just on the heat pump appliance itself when the home’s efficiency, insulation, sealing, duct distribution system, ventilation, etc. should be considered at the same time. Doing so, in turn, affects the size and design of the heat pump system. When this holistic approach is taken, everything starts to work optimally as it can be designed to work together. So, it’s important to confirm the objective, and this is where starting with the Performance Assessment makes the difference. I come to a lot of houses where they have tried to do the right thing. For example, they thought they needed better insulation, so they called the insulation contractor who added more insulation. They didn’t seal first so the insulation efficiency cannot be maximized. Or they installed just a heat pump equipment set that had to be oversized when the right approach would have been to reduce the needs of the house first by sealing, insulating and designing a duct system carefully to match the needs of each room, and the house as a whole.
BILL: In other words, start with the audit.
KYLE: Exactly, start with the audit. Or if a homeowner starts with a simple walkthrough, at least follow it up with a form of the audit before actually proceeding with work. This is essential in order to do HVAC work correctly, heat pump or not.
And what did Kyle’s client, Wei-Tai, say about the audit?
WEI-TAI: It guided us in adding energy efficiency measures, like the updated insulation, to the project. This enabled using smaller equipment for heating and cooling, resulting in lower up-front and lower ongoing costs as well.
BILL: Did you have a budget going in?
WEI-TAI: Not at the start, but it ended up being about a $50,000 project. The biggest surprise was that we converted to a zero-emission home in just 45 days. The work is already paying back and will continue to pay back over time, as well as adding value should we ever sell the house.
BILL: What’s the take-away for builders, architects, designers and homeowners?
WEI-TAI: For new home construction, go all-electric from the start, don’t spend money to install gas. This is the healthiest and best return on investment. Good for the planet, too. For retrofitting an existing home like I did, plan ahead and retire your gas appliances as they are reaching their end of life and replace with the new high-efficiency electric heat pump versions, since electricity is increasingly being powered from non-polluting, renewable sources like solar and wind power. I have solar on my roof and any excess electricity goes into the grid and my meter ‘spins backwards’ during the day, earning credits we can use when the sun sets. I don’t have a battery yet, but more and more people are getting them for resiliency purposes.
BILL: What motivates you to take climate action?
WEI-TAI: My kids and their friends and their futures. As an American citizen, I’m concerned that the United States and China together annually emit 45 percent of all the world’s carbon dioxide pollution. That’s a problem, but also an opportunity, because it means that Americans and Chinese are actually the key to life on planet Earth. What the peoples of these two countries do is quite consequential and important, so I try to remember that every day and lead by example. I’m glad more and more people are connecting the dots between the climate crisis and increasing fire, floods and hurricanes. It’s important to keep talking about it, and to unleash humankind’s creativity. What we need is not just a technology change but a change in our attitudes and priorities. Over the past few years, I have also converted to eating a more plant-based diet as that also makes a difference.
BILL: Speaking of diet, how was the change to cooking on an induction stove top?
WEI-TAI: As you know, high heat is important to Chinese cooking. We were thrilled to see that the magnetic induction electric stove can cook really hot; it didn’t take long to get used to it. We all have to try something new. We can do this!