What do home performance and energy efficiency in 2011 have to do with Cold War geopolitics in 1973?

Hint: the birth and development of the field of building science hold the answer.

In a buildingscience.com article entitled “We Need To Do It Different This Time”, author Joseph Lstiburek describes the technical mistakes the building industry made in its efforts to make homes more energy efficient in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis – mistakes that led to a rash of catastrophic building failures throughout North America.

Soaring oil prices had made energy conservation the talk of the day, and for the first time we really tried to make homes energy efficient.  But our industry’s understanding of how buildings function was dangerously rudimentary.  In Lstiburek’s words:

“We began to insulate every roof in the country and replace oil furnaces with gas furnaces like there was no tomorrow. The hangover from all this activity hit in the early 80’s. Rot and mold joined bad music as the signature symbols for that decade.

“What happened? … When you change one thing it changes something else. And when you change that something else the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head. We discovered that buildings, houses in particular, are interrelated systems.”

That discovery became the core of building science: that buildings are a network of systems that impact one another and that must be understood, through physics, chemistry, even biology.  Equipped with this knowledge, builders can retrofit existing homes to be more energy-efficient, or build the most high-performing of structures, like Passive House.  But without it they risk rot and ruin.

When I tell people that Hammer & Hand is a company of craftspeople and building scientists, I sometimes get puzzled, even skeptical looks.  “Scientists … really?”  Or,  “‘building science’?  Never heard of it.”

That’s fair enough.  I mean the craft part of our work is easy to understand and appreciate.  Precision carpentry draws on centuries of tradition – of master teaching apprentice, becoming master, teaching apprentice, and so on.  And the result of a craftsperson’s artisanship is right there in front of you, something to be seen and touched, tangible and concrete.

In some respects, the field of building science couldn’t be more different.  Compared to the venerable tradition of carpentry, building science is brand new and unknown by most of us.  Plus, the fruits of the building scientist’s labor are mostly invisible to the naked eye: better home energy efficiency, building performance and safety.  These features can be felt in the form of fresh interior air, thermal comfort and eliminated drafts.  But compared to beautiful cabinetry or a stunning new wood floor, the products of building science aren’t as tangible or concrete.

In one important respect though, building science and precision carpentry couldn’t be more similar.  They’re both absolutely vital to high performance construction and remodeling, to making our buildings both delightful and sustainable to occupy.  It’s for this reason that Hammer & Hand has worked so diligently to become the market leader in both craftsmanship and building science expertise and application.

If you’d like to delve deeper into the world of building science, Lstiburek’s article is a nice entrée.  In it he describes why those early attempts at improving home energy efficiency led to mold and rot, and how building science now enables us to avoid similar problems today and into the future.

“Built tight, ventilate right.”

– Zack

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