From Construction to Collaborative Training—Q&A with Chris Dorsi

What do you call a former construction worker that knows how to dance the tango? Chris Dorsi. Okay, so maybe it’s not the best punch line, but it is certainly interesting. And that’s not the only thing we learned about Dorsi in the following interview.

Currently gearing up for regional conferences to be hosted by his newly founded company Habitat X in Portland and San Francisco, Dorsi is focused on combining professional training with good old-fashioned fun. Read on to learn more about how Dorsi got involved in home performance (38 years ago) and what he’s up to now.

Home Energy: How did you get into home performance?

Chris Dorsi: I entered the home performance industry accidentally in 1974. I had founded a construction company that designed and built custom homes in the foothills of California, and one of our early clients was an engineer who was interested in energy conservation. Building an efficient house sounded like a funny idea to us at the time—this was before the Arab oil embargoes—but since he was willing to fund our head-scratching and template-building, we forged on ahead to design, build, and commission a reasonably efficient 3,000 ft2 home. It was the first of many high-performance homes that our firm was involved with.

Twenty-five years later, working then as a construction consultant, I was called in to tune-up this very same house. It was in pretty good shape, except for—you guessed it—some moisture problems in the crawl space, and 25 recessed light fixtures that poked up into the attic. We installed a proper cross-linked ground moisture barrier on the bare soil in the crawl space and eliminated those ridiculous recessed fixtures.

I later moved on to write some books, do some training, develop curriculum, and build knowledge management systems as a principal of Saturn Resource Management. It was at this stage that I captured and recorded a lot of what my colleagues and I had learned in the construction business. And to this day I've intentionally maintained that direct connection to industry, because I've seen that the real work of home performance does not begin until properly trained men and women pull up in front of a house, with a truck full of tools, and are ready to go to work.

HE: You recently started a new business venture, Habitat X. Tell me a bit more what does the company does and why were you inspired to start it?

CD: I founded Habitat X in 2012 to develop a meeting platform for learning and collaboration among professionals in the housing industry. Our core service is the Habitat X Conferences, which include both regional events that are held in conjunction with local sponsors, and an annual national conference that's held in our hometown of Helena, Montana.

I founded Habitat X to bridge the gap between raw knowledge, which we all seem have in plentiful supply, and actual useful learning, which I've seen is sometimes rare. Most people in this day and age have access to plenty of information by way of the Internet and other sources, yet many of us find it increasingly difficult to sort through this flood of information, and to place it in a meaningful professional or personal context. One of our core missions at Habitat X is to provide a place where forward-looking professionals can sort, consider, and capture that information as a group.

I recently attended a session at a respected conference where a knowledgeable presenter spent 90 minutes telling a group of 50 hopeful people what he had learned about a specific technical procedure. Two attendees were at laptops in the back of the room fact-checking everything he said, and relaying the results of their flash research in Post-It notes and whispered tones to a small group of people who had gathered around them. They were doing a fabulous research project in real-time, and were offering a valuable community service in doing so. The presenter had his facts correct about 90% of the time, not bad for a technical topic, but what was of real interest to me was the lively discussion among the back-of-the-room group. During the session, they took the presenter's topic to a more industry-relevant discussion than did the presenter himself. When the presenter was ready for the sanctioned questions at the end of the session, few people chimed in, including those in the back who had already integrated his research and moved on. The back-of-the-room group later moved their discussion out to the hallway where it took on a life of its own.

At the Habitat X Conferences, we try to integrate all these types of discussions in a productive and inclusive way—no one is left out if they have something important to contribute. As facilitators, we have an important role in maintaining control over the discussion, but since we know that some of the best expertise is often embedded among the attendees, we work hard to tap into and leverage that knowledge to the benefit of everyone. Attending a Habitat X Conference is not a spectator sport. People come to learn, both from the presenters and other attendees, and to build permanent collaborative relationships with anyone in the room they choose.

HE: What does Habitat X specifically do differently than other conferences or training organizations?

CD: Much of the educational magic we create at the Habitat X Conferences is a function of scale. At our events, every single person can choose to meet and learn about anyone else. Everyone gets to participate in fine-tuning the agenda. And anyone who wants to stand and speak to the assembly of attendees can do so. This creates a powerful collaboration and connection among attendees that is hard to duplicate at either traditional conferences or at standard technical training sessions.

We also take ample advantage of technology at our events, focusing on digital tools that act as real accelerators of learning or workplace production. But we pick and choose our tools carefully, since we've noticed that technology is often used just for the sake of showmanship. Then we integrate these tools throughout the conference, rather than present them as isolated doo-dads in a single session, so attendees get to see and touch all the techno-toys. This show-and-tell works best in small groups.

But we also recognize the great value of well-run large conferences. When you have a few thousand people in attendance at a conference, there is depth of expertise and a level of energy that is hard to replicate at a small event. I will be forever indebted, for example, to the Affordable Comfort (ACI) conference for facilitating the growth of the entire home performance industry, and for giving a voice to stakeholders who would not have otherwise been a part of the industry dialogue. And in the future? I won't ever miss an ACI conference.

HE: What do you think is the most important move for the home performance industry going forward?

CD: The home performance industry is already deep into a period of transition that I suspect will take an entire generation to shake out. We've learned a lot about construction, energy-efficiency, and even physics in the last 20 years, and we now have the methods and materials to build and maintain safe, efficient, comfortable, and long-lived homes. Whether we can overcome the barriers of markets, politics, and personal habits to do so is yet to be seen. We now need a shift in attitude among ourselves, our customers, and our policy-makers, if we want to truly get to work and improve our housing stock.

In the home performance industry this shift will require a recognition that no one outside the industry really cares about the technologies that we in the industry have invented and love. You can be assured that when electricians swept across North America selling the benefits of home electrical wiring during the 1920s and 30s that they didn't lecture homeowners on the beauty of Ohm's Law and other principles of home electrical wiring! Yet that is what many sales people in the home performance industry do when they elaborate to homeowners on the value of, for example, pressure diagnostics. The truth is that most people will only buy a few things in this life: comfort, security, and social status among them. If you bundle these personal values into home performance, and market the whole package to people who can afford it, you'll have a home performance industry.

HE: What would our readers be surprised to know about you?

CD: Readers of Home Energy may be surprised to learn that I've guided myself down most of the major rivers in the West, spending as many days as possible each summer at either the helm of an oar-powered raft, or in the seat of a solo canoe. I've climbed Chimborazo in Ecuador, which at more than 20,000 feet in elevation is the tallest mountain on Earth (if you measure the height of mountains as their radius from the center of the planet). And I'm an accomplished dancer of Argentine tango.

- Macie Melendez

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