SystemVision, Advanced Energy’s — and the nation’s only — affordable housing guarantee program, is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021.
Relying on a close relationship with the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency (NCHFA) and a tremendous network of affiliates, builders, raters, tradespeople and invested partners, SystemVision has been able to build and certify nearly 6,000 homes over the last two decades, ensuring they are healthy, safe, comfortable, durable, energy efficient and affordable to buy and live in.
Laying the Foundation
SystemVision can trace its origins as far back as 1989, when Advanced Energy hosted the three-day Residential Energy Forum. Representatives from 21 organizations — encompassing governmental agencies, academic institutions, utilities, trade associations and more — met to define the characteristics of a high-performance home. It was at this event that SystemVision’s mantra (healthy, safe, comfortable, durable, energy efficient and affordable) was first shaped.
A year later, in 1990, Advanced Energy applied the standards established at the Residential Energy Forum to a five-home new-construction pilot and wrote up the guidelines in a field manual for builders. Fast forward a few more years, and the organization partnered with other building science leaders, including Louisiana-Pacific, to help design Engineered for Life, a guarantee program for high-performance, market-rate homes.
Guarantee programs offer assurances for home and occupant measurements, in this case, comfort and heating and cooling energy usage. According to Arnie Katz, an Advanced Energy employee who was instrumental to its residential services and the creation of SystemVision, the guarantee was initially used as a marketing hook. “We came up with the idea of the guarantee as a way to sell our approach, which was both highly successful but also problematic, because so many people didn’t believe it,” he said.
In parallel with Advanced Energy’s work on these programs, it had also been supporting the affordable housing industry. For example, in the early 1990s, team members helped craft energy efficiency guidelines for Habitat for Humanity and manufactured housing. The middle of the decade, though, saw a push for even more involvement.
At around this time, Katz and an Advanced Energy intern, Ava Kuo, were exploring the barriers to making affordable housing energy efficient by identifying and meeting with stakeholders involved in the process. “We understood this was a very different kind of market, but there was pretty good alignment with what we were doing on the production builder side,” said Katz.
The findings from this research and the structure of the Engineered for Life program were used to lay the foundation for an affordable housing guarantee platform. It was 1999’s Hurricane Floyd that really spurred the program into action.
A Start in Relief
Many of the homes devastated by Hurricane Floyd were owned or rented by low-income residents, and Advanced Energy jumped in to support the recovery effort. For almost two years, the organization led the Build Back Better campaign, educating builders and local officials through seminars and trainings on how to dry and safely renovate flooded homes. When a home couldn’t be salvaged, Advanced Energy worked with partners to demonstrate how to build durable, affordable, high-performing, energy-efficient new homes. “We inserted in that work the standards we had developed and the guarantee notion, and we definitely got some interest,” said Katz.
Advanced Energy then connected with the North Carolina Community Development Initiative (CDI). The two groups formed the Star Home program, a precursor to SystemVision that provided a financial incentive to affordable housing developers that incorporated the program’s components — a plan review, contractor training, quality control, performance testing, guarantees and home upgrades. This arrangement encouraged builders to participate and kept home prices down for buyers.
NCHFA learned about the Star Home program during another Residential Energy Forum — in a way, coming full circle from that influential 1989 event. Bob Dunham, NCHFA’s manager of homeownership at the time, was drawn to the idea and contacted Advanced Energy’s Katz about it. “That led to a series of meetings over at NCHFA, and they tweaked the program that we had developed with the CDI to meet their own needs, and we were off,” explained Katz.
Advanced Energy already had a strong relationship with NCHFA, supporting them in a consulting role, so the collaboration was a natural fit. At the same time, with the underpinnings of the program already established, the CDI was happy to hand it off.
Working with NCHFA would expand the initiative thanks to the agency’s network of nonprofit and local government partners. At the time, development of affordable, single-family homes was on the rise to increase and improve housing stock, but more needed to be done in terms of housing design and performance to strengthen the life, resiliency and market appeal of these homes while reducing operating and maintenance expenses for owners. “Helping homebuyers get into homes that remain affordable for years to come is integral to the Agency’s mission of meeting the housing needs of those who have been left out of the market,” said Josh Burton, team leader for home ownership development at NCHFA.
The program run by NCHFA and Advanced Energy needed a name, however. While “SystemVision” is now well known throughout the affordable housing sector, the designation was originally used to represent Advanced Energy’s broader approach to its residential offerings — the idea that buildings are systems with components that are mutually dependent on one another. This branding had been applied to a suite of building science trainings created by Advanced Energy, but it was NCHFA’s Dunham who suggested using it specifically for this new effort. It stuck.
After more than a decade working with builders, manufacturers and utilities across the nation, Advanced Energy had helped to launch a program that brought its knowledge and expertise to a deserving, but often underserved, population at home. SystemVision’s first comfort and energy-use guarantees were administered in 2002, in Grifton, North Carolina, for families who had lost their homes to Hurricane Floyd.
It Takes a Village
SystemVision’s success over the years can be attributed solely to its partnerships. In that sense, the name fits perfectly. Not only does the program rely on whole-home building science–based practices that envision the home as a complete interdependent system — harkening back to the term’s original intent — but it itself operates as a system as well, with numerous invested players contributing simultaneously.
“The exceptional achievements of SystemVision result from leveraging an extensive partner network, including Advanced Energy, the NC Housing Finance Agency, local housing nonprofits, local governments, builders, energy raters and new homebuyers who choose homes with SystemVision to make the best investment for themselves and their families,” said Burton.
Advanced Energy provides program administration, including the necessary training and technical support. It also holds the home guarantees and develops and refines the program’s above–energy code standards. These standards add requirements to typical construction that focus on health, safety, comfort, durability and energy efficiency. Together with the program’s processes — a plan and load calculation review, a pre-construction meeting, field inspections and more — they provide a comprehensive approach that ensures the home will be affordable to operate.
With NCHFA’s support, SystemVision has the financial incentive needed by builders and developers to participate, just as the CDI had provided for the prior Star Home program.
And it is these builders and developers — and there have been many over the years — who are the essential boots on the ground. These groups and their volunteers build the homes to meet the goals of the program and perform field testing to ensure compliance with the standards.
The housing agencies that partake in SystemVision range from large Habitat for Humanity chapters to local governments, community development corporations and a host of smaller nonprofit organizations. They “choose to pursue certification because they value providing a more affordable, comfortable, adaptable and safe living environment for their buyers,” said Burton, and some have been with the program since its start. In fact, 83 percent of Habitat for Humanity homes built in partnership with NCHFA funding have been certified by SystemVision.
With its success in the new-construction industry, SystemVision went on to expand into other affordable housing domains. In 2009, it began contributing to NCHFA’s Supportive Housing Development Program, which focuses on projects that support transitional or permanent housing for individuals who are homeless, have disabilities or have other special needs. In 2015, the Existing Home Retrofit program was added to work on existing homes.
SystemVision adapted once again in 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, showing its resiliency and flexibility. While ensuring the safety and wellness of its partners in the field, the program was able to continue to build and certify homes using a remote approach that blazed the trail for what would eventually become adopted as a nationwide alternative rating process.
The most obvious impact of SystemVision has certainly been the thousands of families — and the tens of thousands of individual North Carolinians — whose lives have been improved through the program. These households are saving money daily and living safer and healthier lives.
As the program evolves, it provides support and room for NCHFA’s partners to build even better homes, which are improving through building processes, not expensive gadgets. Most recently, SystemVision’s standards expanded to include basic universal design features and mitigation strategies against radon, the second leading cause of lung cancer. Both of these additions were relatively small investments that offer huge potential benefits.
The heating and cooling and comfort guarantees are a tremendous boon as well. For example, if an HVAC component is not functioning as intended or if homebuyers need additional education on how to heat and cool their home, the guarantee kicks in to provide the help needed. This translates to well-designed homes performing at a cost-efficient level that keeps them affordable for years to come.
“We are extremely proud to be able to manage the SystemVision program and about the partnerships we’ve formed over the years,” said Brian Coble, senior vice president of Advanced Energy. “It’s humbling to see firsthand the commitment of the nonprofit development community to build homes for those that may otherwise have difficulty affording them. We’re grateful to be able to apply this important program to the work they do, focusing on an underserved market and providing a lasting, positive impact for North Carolina families.”
Another SystemVision impact comes from the program’s effect on the broader industry. Every home that SystemVision builds is touched by dozens of partners who, through trainings and the program’s standards and processes, learn about the intersection between energy efficiency and affordable housing. For a number of years in the mid-2000s, SystemVision received support from AmeriCorps. After an initial training period, these individuals would perform many of the day-to-day duties of the program, and the experience and knowledge they gained could be used and spread as they furthered their careers. Many would remain in the industry, and several went on to work at Advanced Energy.
The achievements of SystemVision extend beyond affordable housing as well, though. In some counties, certified homes have acted as sites to teach market-rate builders how to meet new energy-efficient building codes.
Toward the Next 20 Years
SystemVision’s goal has been to build homes for low-income families that are not only affordable to construct and buy but also to live in. Building a home is difficult, but building one that is energy efficient shouldn’t be any more challenging.
The first 20 years have clearly shown that SystemVision has met that goal. Through the use of practical solutions and the support of NCHFA and many, many collaborators, the program has been highly beneficial — giving almost 6,000 North Carolina families a healthy, safe, comfortable, durable, energy efficient and affordable place to call home.
Looking forward, SystemVision will keep striving to ensure the “affordable” stays in affordable housing. It will continue to improve its processes and maintain and grow the partnerships that are vital to its success.