Building Better with Science

August 25, 2015Architecture

I was first introduced to Joe Lstiburek several years ago. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing him speak a couple of times and it is always interesting, especially considering the ease with which he makes the rest of us in the room feel really, really stupid. Joe is the founding principal of the Building Science Corporation, a consultancy based in Westford, Massachusetts. They are a group of builders, engineers, architects, and scientists whose research and reports identify methods for building better with science. The funny thing about the building industry (especially the residential part of it), is that many of its members have some formal training, but a lot of the building expertise is passed down from generation to generation. Much of the rest of the “expertise” is found on the job through apprenticeships and through trial and error and, often times, there is little empirical data to back up building practices other than a “it worked,” or “it didn’t work, let’s not do that again” vetting system. There is value in this method, but I’ve also seen that sometimes it duplicates building techniques, not because they are the best way to do something, but because they are known entities. That’s where the Building Science Corporation (BSC), comes in. They perform testing both in labs and on site to test different construction methods, analyze the results, and make recommendations about best building practices. They also analyze systems that have been used (and typically failed) in the past, determining where things might have gone awry, either in their planning or execution. Moisture Control Handbook - Building Better with Science The results are typically published on their website, with an array of delivery methods: whether it be through a debate and analysis about different building methods, a discussion about “enclosures that work” for various building types and locations, or their “Builder’s Guide To…” book series (a must have for any builder or architect). These publications really get into the nuts and bolts about building enclosures, details, materials, and best practices, using experimentation and thorough analysis to decode what is really happening behind our walls once the drywall goes up. Builder's Guide to Cold Climates - Building Better with ScienceHigh Performance Enclosures - Building Better with Science The idea of applying the scientific method to buildings is one that is long overdue in the residential building industry, with much of it being led by product developers who have a financial interest in seeing its tests confirmed. In addition, the University systems make a push for building science advancement – with an occasional breakthrough. Unfortunately, too often their efforts go for naught due to a detachment from the actual building industry or unrealistic budget implications from their findings. The Residential Building Code and the Residential Energy Code are slowly starting to catch up to the findings of the BSC, but for the foreseeable future, a home built “to code” will still be a dwelling that meets a minimum standard rather than an exceptional one. For those of us who see good design and building practices as a responsibility we have to our clients and to the public at large – I’ll advocate that we catch another speech by Joe Lstiburek, and try to outdistance ourselves from the pack even more.

By Brian Burkett

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