New River Center for Energy Research and Training

The New River Center for Energy Research and Training (NRCERT) is a division of Community Housing Partners (CHP), a nonprofit development corporation devoted to the housing needs of low-income residents of the Southeast. CHP operates NRCERT’s 12,600-square-foot facility in Christiansburg, Virginia, where students from across the United States and Canada learn how to make homes healthier, safer, and more durable, comfortable, and energy efficient.

Since 1999, NRCERT trainers have used emerging technologies and custom teaching tools to foster a whole-house approach to residential energy efficiency. One of these tools is the House of Pressure, which NRCERT’s lead trainer, Anthony Cox, developed.

The House of Pressure is a miniature single-family home made from Lexan, a clear plastic laminate that an instructor can write on with a dry-erase marker. It includes mechanical air distribution systems that create and control airflow. Visible from all four sides, the House of Pressure shows students how a change in one room of the house can affect the entire home.

“If I air-seal something,” explained Cox, “it’s going to affect the way other things work in the house. We could make things worse. We need to understand not only just that we need to caulk this hole, but what happens if we caulk this hole in the whole scheme of things.”

Students can perform pressure diagnostics as they would in an actual home. In this hands-on learning environment, they develop and use the skills that they will need in the field.

“It really pushes the envelope in teaching trainees how to properly look at and assess the house,” said NRCERT’s vice president, Mark Jackson, who oversees operations in Christiansburg. Before he joined the organization in 2009, NRCERT had been using a 1,500-square-foot facility through a grant from Virginia’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP).

When state funding dried up, NRCERT took its weatherization training on the road, working on actual housing stock, typically with about two or three trainers on staff. Between 2007 and 2008, the program led training across the Southeast and mid-Atlantic with support from the Department of Energy’s Hot Climate Initiative. In 2009, CHP leveraged funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signing a $3.1 million contract to pay for hands-on training labs and staff development for the Christiansburg facility, which opened in January 2010.

According to Jackson, the larger facility gave the organization much-needed space to grow its course offerings. “The program over the last 12 years has trained over 25,000 folks within about 30 different states,” he said. “They came to learn and were very passionate about the industry.”

Recently, NRCERT launched an online learning platform to enhance its existing training and provide new certification courses, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Green Property Management. Jackson hopes that, as his organization continues to roll out federally mandated certification courses, it will keep accessing new revenue streams for its students and raise the bar nationally for training centers.

As WAP funds decrease, Jackson said, other states have looked to NRCERT to leverage their own grant funding. “We see it as a foot in the door to open up the idea to states that training centers can provide these services for them as grantees.”

One such organization is the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which administers Tennessee’s Department of Energy weatherization program. Another is the Department of Labor, which financed a $3.8 million job-creation grant enabling 200 unemployed individuals from around the country to participate in workforce development courses led by NRCERT trainers.

Last year NRCERT became the first weatherization training center to earn accreditation from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, which enables training centers to offer credentials for the clean energy workforce. Now, professionals who complete weatherization and building science training at NRCERT can obtain a variety of certifications and transfer them to other states.

“As energy efficiency codes tighten,” Jackson said, “we continue to diversify.” And in doing so, his organization has caught the attention of the private sector. In 2010 the National Community Action Foundation/ExxonMobil Weatherization Training Partnership awarded NRCERT a grant to teach workers in the rural Appalachian region how to perform weatherization measures. Dominion Due Diligence Group invested in NRCERT for site assessment services at its multifamily properties. Construction companies looking to build more energy-efficient structures have sought the certifications and skills of NRCERT graduates.

“What I like best is exchanging great ideas with each other,” said NRCERT trainee William Barnville. “High-tech stuff is needed right now in weatherization. And of course that’s changing every day. There’s something new that’s out there, and New River has proven that.”