Building Science gives me a headache.

Building Science gives me a headache. I read the usual sites:, building, plus a few others, I attend seminars, I get all the proper magazines, I belong to the correct organizations such as the USGBC. I'm a good little architect. But I am confused. The more I dive into building science the more questions I have – and therefore the less authoritative I sound in front of clients and I don't think clients want their architect to sound wishy-washy. Let me start by explaining building science. Building science is largely based on large amounts of cumulative experience (databases) probability and statistics. As I recall the story, Joe Lstiburek and his pals started after going into thousands of houses near airports to upgrade insulation levels to provide better sound proofing. They saw lots of bad things (rot). This provided them with the beginnings of a large database of how houses are built in terms of what works and what doesn't – what details and systems result in greater failure rates as well as what works. A much larger database than Joe builder down the road who has built a few dozen houses in the past thirty years. Smart Joe-the-builders (notice I'm not saying Bob the builder...there's a reason for that...I'm tired of Bob jokes okay?) anyway, smart Joe-the-builders recognize that Joe-the-building-scientist has collected way more information and experience all in one place and is offering it out for free – or just about. Smart Joe-the-builders know that construction is a high liability proposition and anything they can do to limit that liability will help them sleep at night. You can probably replace Joe-the-builder with Bob-the-architect in the previous sentences and it would work fairly well. These Joe-the-building-scientist types are also very often engineers (which means they look at numbers a lot and when they build houses for themselves they cannot justify having windows because it blows their heat loss calculations right out...well...the window) Being numbery-engineery sorts they are able to take their observations from the databases of thousands of houses and figure out more specifically what is happening to cause the problems. Thus we have much more information now about, for instance, the importance of air sealing, controlled ventilation and gapping the siding away from the sheathing than we did ten years ago.

As an architect, fabulous new products come across my desk every day and the magazines are filled with advertisements. How to sort through all this? We architects look to building science to help us separate the wheat from the chaff. Who has done a study on this new and great sounding product? Was the study valid enough to take seriously? What is the builder input and reaction to this new product? What are the warranties? What is the science that the amazing claims are based upon. As an architect I realize that there is always someone with way more expertise and experience than myself and part of my job is to seek them out.

My thoughts along these lines started as an ongoing conversation with an equally confused builder friend of mine. This builder is a rare one who drags his crew to building science talks and seminars and is buddies with Alex Wilson et. al. over at Building Green. We have been trying to figure out what is the perfect enclosure for our local climate in terms of: Ease of construction – what can the carpenters understand and get behind? Budget constraints – most clients around here are have very limited budgets and just want more room; green building and lower heat bills through super-insulation are secondary. Simplicity – this cannot be understated as it affects all other issues. Use of commonly available and understood building materials and systems. Performance – why put tons of insulation in a wall if there is inadequate air sealing which renders the insulation nearly useless? So far, it has been our local experience that proprietary systems cost, at least marginally, more. There are some very good systems out there it should be noted, all with their share of positives and negatives What has a proven track record of performance with building science to back it up. Does a less than perfect installation negate any advantages or potentially cause more issues than a business as usual system of construction? How much of a difference is it really going to make – This may need some explaining and I will use the example of my own house. I burn about 4 cord of wood per year to stay cozy and warm. My house is very poorly insulated but fairly tight, mostly due to its simplicity. If I were to invest a large amount of time and money in air sealing, an HRV system, and more insulation, perhaps I might only burn 3 cords of wood per year. Big deal. But if I were heating with oil or gas it would be. In the locale where I live and work, this is the type of metric that must be addressed in any project. The builder, his crew and myself marched over to the offices of Building Green and sat ourselves down in the company of Peter Yost, a building scientist sort whom many of you would be familiar with from Peter proceeded to confuse us all the more as he waved lots of numbers around. But we came out of the meeting with a reinforced sense of the importance of and methods of achieving a proper air seal (assume the wall will get wet – now how and when does it dry?) and the importance of dealing with gross water first and foremost (gross water is what comes out of the sky and dumps all over our buildings and splashes around a lot). We also came out with the increased sense that we need to look at enclosures as “systems” where one part of a system can only work optimally if used in a certain conjunction with other parts of the system. Phew. Did I mention that I have a building science headache? We also came out with more questions than we went in with. Sigh...

In an upcoming post I shall include parts of an online conversation between myself and other architect friends along these lines. Then I shall conclude with my inconclusive findings and recommendations.