Our Heroes: Matthew Damon of Penobscot Home Performance

photo from Matt Damon

Matthew Damon has a habit of crawling around the cramped, dirty and hidden spaces in strangers' homes, all in the pursuit of energy efficiency.  Plugging air leaks may not seem like glamorous work, but it’s turned into a successful business strategy up in the cold climes of Bangor, Maine.  Co-owner of Penobscot Home Performance, Matthew is leading a small start-up into a thriving – and hiring – green business, and doing it all in the middle of an economic recession.  That’s no small feat.

Oh and if you happen to stop by his office, make sure to ask to see the extensive collection of insulation packaging hanging on the wall behind his desk.  Now that is dedication to craft.

So tell me about your business, Penobscot Home Performance, and how it came about.

Both my partner (Paul Shepherd) and I started working in the low-income sector for the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, doing energy audits and weatherization for low-income families.  We decided to move out on our own, and now Penobscot Home Performance has been in business for about two-and-a-half years. We've grown from me and Paul to eight employees.  We consider ourselves a one-stop shop, doing energy audits, retrofits, new construction and consulting.  We also do a lot of diagnostic work – figuring out why people have mold, why they have ice dams, why one particular room is cold.

Our main focus is on upgrading Maine’s existing housing stock, which is some of the oldest in the country, and among the most poorly insulated.  There was a lot of lumber up here – Bangor was where you got lumber through the 1800’s – so there are a lot of houses that are big and grand and beautiful, but don’t have a stitch of insulation in them.

What tend to be the biggest energy inefficiency culprits?

Typically things in the attic.  Picture yourself in a home up in an attic and looking down onto the second floor.  There are a lot of holes and spaces around the chimney, recessed lights, plumbing stacks – anything sticking up from that second floor into the attic is a source of air leakage, and all of those things are hidden.  When you add them up, it can be like having a window open all year round.  We want to plug all those holes, and those are easy fixes with a great payback.

Most people think windows and doors are the worst because you see them.  You can stand next to a window and of course you're going to be cold.  Or people see gaps around their doors.  That stuff doesn’t mean squat.  It’s about the hidden things that are secretly sucking heat out of your house.  We do a lot of crawling around rotten spaces, a lot of investigating.  It’s detail-oriented work to find these sources of hidden air leakage.

Do people come to you to save money or to be green, or maybe both?

It’s a bit of both.  In some communities people are concerned about their carbon footprint.  And then we get into other communities where people live in wonderfully grand old houses and realize, “I'm paying $5,000 a year on oil, if I pay you $10,000 you can cut my bill in half.  Hey, no brainer.”  The payback will be in just a few years.  For other people it’s just comfort – “I'm sick of being cold.”  It’s interesting because now people are realizing that there’s this new business of home performance, and it can make your old house perform as well as a new house, and more often than not, better.  I can take an empty house and make it an Energy Star house cheaper than I can build somebody a house, while still retaining the aesthetic qualities of a nice old house.

What’s the piece of gear that you get to use that makes you say, “I love what I do”?

(Laughs.) The blower door is nice because it’s very powerful.  It simulates a 25 miles-per-hour wind on all sides of the house.  So if you have a really leaky basement, and you shut the basement door an inch while the blower’s going, it’s going to feel like a hurricane.  That’s a powerful tool.  I like doing everything, though, because I like playing with expensive toys at work. But tools that are able to show people what’s going on in their house in a scientific, objective way are really powerful.

If you combine the blower with and infared camera, then that’s really powerful because you can actually see leakage coming in from lots of different areas of the house.  You know, “Wow, look at all that air coming out of my bedroom!” Everyone loves the infared camera.

How did you get into the energy efficiency world?

I have a zoology degree and I've been a science-minded person, and in the back of my mind I wanted to get into social services, too.  And I like working with my hands.  I worked as a biological observer on fishing vessels in the Pacific Northwest for a couple of years, and I built a sailboat that I sailed for a long time, and when I moved to Maine I ended up doing carpentry.  Then this fell into my lap, and it’s a perfect combination of science, social services – because you're making a difference on a lot of different levels – and using my hands.  We now have a crew that does the installations, but for a long time it was me and my partner doing them, crawling around attics and ceiling holes and getting into the rotten places in people’s houses that it takes to do this kind of work.  And now I'm able to make a living out of it, which is nice.

So I saw that you were making the rounds in Augusta (the capitol of Maine) recently.  What’s going on in state government?

The federal stimulus money is running out, so we're looking for alternatives to keep the momentum going.  The stimulus funding program has been wildly successful, so we're just trying to educate people about this new line of business and the new opportunities it presents.  And to explain that if you invest in energy efficiency it’s always going to pay itself back, and it’s going to keep paying in the future.  You invest in a granite countertop for your house, well then you have a granite countertop.  Super.  But if you invest in insulation, air sealing, making your house more comfortable and energy efficient, then you're going to save people money.  And studies have shown that the money people save, they don’t keep in their pockets – they spend it in the local economy.

If you could make one change to help the energy efficiency industry to boom, what would it be?

Obama gave a speech where he said “We need to make insulation sexy.”  It’s true!  You put in windows – which don’t make much of a difference – they're sexy.  Solar panels and wind turbines?  Sexy.  Blowing in insulation and spraying foam and plugging holes in your house?  I think it’s sexy because I'm kind of twisted.  But to the average person?  No.

We're focused on PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) legislation.  Listen, anything that’s new is difficult.  This is a new idea and people are having trouble getting their heads around the fact that it works.  I haven’t conducted an audit and presented someone with a proposal and had them say “Even if I had all the money in the world I wouldn’t do this.”  Everybody wants to do this.  Weatherization works, home performance works.  But the upfront cost is substantial and not everyone has the income, especially today.

So PACE legislation is like a magic bullet because you don’t have to put money up front, instead you get a loan that is tied into your mortgage.  So if you leave the house, the next owner takes the payment on – it stays with the house.  It makes the most sense: the interest rates are really low, the qualifications are pretty easy, and if there’s enough start-up money, it could be a revolving door of funding for the industry.

Education is important, too.  I spend probably 40 percent of my time with clients explaining the benefits of home performance.  I'm not trying to sell them something, just explaining why they should be doing this in an objective way.  That’s why the tools are so important.  When you turn on a blower door and say “Hey, your house is very leaky” it resonates with people because it’s not smoke and mirrors.  It’s concrete science.

You're running a business, you have a family, you compete in triathlons…is your life insanely busy?

There was a time – most of September – when I was putting in 100, 110 hours a week.  It was busy.  But we started hiring people and delegating which is the hardest thing as a business owner: to relinquish some control.

But it’s a lot of balancing.  With my family it’s “Hey I'm going cross country skiing, you watch the kids.  When I get back, hand them off and you get to go out.”  And knowing when to stay late one day so I can go take my daughter to a play the next day.  Everyone struggles with that, though.  I'm no hero!

I did do a half-Ironman triathlon this fall, though, if that raises my hero status. (Laughs.)  I was poorly trained but I finished.  But after I do a full Ironman (in 2012 ) I'm just going to let myself go.

I see on your website that you're hiring.  So business is good?

Yeah, we're looking for the right people!  It’s nice, and I think it’s like that across our industry.  I don’t think we're getting the same level of subsidies that solar and wind companies are, but on a smaller scale we're doing our part.

And keep in mind that residential houses and structures are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gasses – more than cars, more than the industrial sector, more than anything else.  It’s important, yet it’s hard to get legislation passed to support it.

It seems like home energy efficiency doesn’t get people too excited, unfortunately.

You know what it is?  It’s not sexy.  Obama gave a speech where he said “We need to make insulation sexy.”  It’s true!  You put in windows – which don’t make much of a difference – they're sexy.  Solar panels and wind turbines?  Sexy.  Blowing in insulation and spraying foam and plugging holes in your house?  I think it’s sexy because I'm kind of twisted.  But to the average person?  No.

But we're trying to make home performance sexy, which is why our company uniform is speedos. (Laughs.)