Sometimes the little things in our homes aren’t designed at all. I have the opportunity on occasion to share my experiences with students from all levels – Kindergarten to Graduate Students. Recently, I was invited to the Department of Energy to talk building science with graduate student interns spending their summer at the DOE. The room was full of determined and intelligent future leaders. Only one of them had a background in architecture / building science / sustainability. So how do I offer a presentation that is relevant to a group with no knowledge of my industry? I honestly was not sure. I started looking at how the industry has changed in the 20 years I have been in it. In January of 1999 there was almost no home technology being used outside of surround sound in a home theater. Now Google Assistant can call to make you a hair appointment and the salon does not know they are not talking to a human.
Alexa can adjust my thermostat, turn off lights, and turn on white noise in the background when I am going to bed.
These are huge jumps in technology and impact how we want our homes to operate. More important in an energy-efficiency discussion – we keep adding electric demand in our homes that we need to be able to supply. So in this technology driven age what does it mean to be sustainable? In a technology age where clients have access to touch screens to see their home performance, how do you provide solutions that meet their HGTV expectations? What is the balance between energy-efficient, indoor air quality, durability, and affordability? How do you define sustainability – green rating certification or energy usage or healthy?
I used specific projects that I have designed to talk about this idea of “green.” Is a home designed to be carbon neutral “green?”
It has green elements certainly, lots of them, but is it affordable? Does it need to be affordable to be sustainable?
What about a Dairy Queen that is more energy-efficient than other fast food restaurants?
It has solar PV on the roof, reduces water usage, includes day-lighting strategies, and has 100% LED lighting. It checks many of the boxes for a “green” building. Reducing operating costs adds to profit and success. So is it “green.”
Rotted wood wall
We then moved the conversation to things I find in building that are common issues in building science. For instance, a garage inside the envelope of your living space – meaning not detached has a huge impact on indoor air quality. A vapor barrier in a wall system in our mixed humid climate can destroy a building in under 30 years.
It is interesting to present to a young group that grew up with all this technology around them. They are not impressed with the newness of it all – they just want to know how it works and how to use it to future benefit. If you can now 3D print your Christmas toys for the kids, will Target survive? If you can use virtual reality to tour a historic home – will you still see it in person? If you want to live in a luxury home, can that be 3D printed by a robot and you use virtual reality to transform your home into the style you want at any given moment? Maybe that is jumping too far ahead, but the options exist. We are now today seeing homes printed. We are seeing robots replace jobs that people used to perform in construction with higher levels of accuracy. The world is changing quickly, with little things and big steps every day. However, building science remains a constant. We have to understand how all this technology being used in homes will impact our energy demand, our building operations, and quality of life. Building science is so often left out of residential design. We allow our homes to waste energy that we have to pay for monthly. We are ok with poor indoor air quality because we have medicine to make us well again. We don’t mind using too much water because we have plenty. This is not sustainable. There are little things that make your home better – please do them. I hope that message resonated with the students and with my readers.
Here are some little things to make your home better:
The profession of architecture is often looked at through the lens of television or magazines – how to make buildings beautiful. However, that is not the true work that is done by architects. Beauty is a minor part of the equation. It is the part of the design process that can be replaced by purchasing a plan online and giving it to a builder with “a few changes.” Building science is what makes a beautiful building last for years.
A good architect will talk to you first about function over form. What are your needs? How do you want to use the building? What are the rules that need to be followed, building code, zoning? What are the rules that can be broken? Where will you put your Christmas tree? Do you like to host Super Bowl parties? Do the kids have a dedicated place they can do their homework? How loud is the television downstairs when you are trying to sleep upstairs? Where will you store your stuff? What kind of light will be in that room?
Even better questions might follow a line of building science guided decisions. How efficient will the house be once you move into it? Will you feel comfortable in all the rooms year-round? How much money will you spend heating and cooling your home? Building science questions are the only questions that have answers that result in money saved. Building science questions are almost always things that cannot easily be changed once the home is built. Building science questions are almost always the most important decisions that are needed to be made before a builder gives a price to construct the home. Most builders will not be focused on thinking through building science decisions when they are given a set of house plans. Their goal is to build the home in the most efficient way possible according to the plans you gave them. So if they don’t set the building science goals, who does?
Air gaps in ceiling corners
If you purchase a plan online, the designer does not know what site you are building on or the climate you are building in. If you hire an architect that does not discuss building science solutions (insulation types, wall systems, HVAC efficiency, water conservation, ventilation, lighting….) then who will set the standards for your home? Typically the fall back for these solutions are building code.Building code is the worst possible solution allowed by law.Building sciences require a holistic approach. It is not simply adding more insulation in the walls or attic. Insulation decisions have to be made along with heating and cooling efficiency, ventilation, and window selection in mind. These questions and more important these answers have to be done holistically or you will create more problems than you solve. Using the wrong insulation in the attic can lead to huge moisture problems. Locating the HVAC ducts in the wrong space will lead to condensation and higher energy bills. Buildings are complicated, probably the most complicated machine you will ever own. Make building science as important as the countertop selection you are making for your kitchen. Don’t leave out building science during design.
Air Infiltration – The uncontrolled inward air leakage through cracks and holes in the building envelope and around windows and doors of a building. Its typically caused by the pressure effects of wind and/or the effect of differences in the indoor and outdoor air density. This can be a garage door opening or even a light breeze against a garage door, a forced air heating and cooling system, or unbalanced pressures room to room in a home.
This time of year, comfort issues in your home are highlighted while we all try to stay warm. A breeze running down a wall, under a door, or from an attic access makes it really hard to be comfortable. This comfort issue is a big signal that you have energy-efficiency issues in your home. Finding the leaks and plugging the leaks will not only make your home more comfortable, it will reduce your monthly electric bills. The best way to find the leaks is doing a blower door test and using thermal imaging technology. However, a smoke stick or even a candle can identify the big leaks.
Installing a bigger badder Air Conditioner is not the best way to get your house comfortable in the summer. Although many HVAC “pros” will try to sell you one.
I have heard all the solutions that have been pitched to you by salesmen with the best of intentions. There is the attic fans, more insulation, dehumidifiers in vented crawl spaces, larger HVAC system, new duct work, and ceiling fans. These solutions do not address a holistic approach to the comfort issue in your home.
Our homes for years were built to “breath.” Then we started adding insulation and heating and cooling systems. At that point we should have stopped making houses leaky, but we did not change. We instead started installing larger heating and cooling systems that are so oversized they only function properly 4-5 days a year. Sure they get your house cold in the summer, but you are spending a fortune to get it there and doing nothing to address humidity. Throwing money at the problem without understanding building science is not the right solution. While a ceiling fan is nice when you are in the room, it is doing nothing to make your home more comfortable when you are not there, turn it off. An attic fan is making your attic cooler, but it is achieving that by sucking conditioned air from your living space causing you to have higher electric bills and poor indoor air quality. New duct work may be needed and you may need a new HVAC system. However, if you don’t have a tight thermal envelope, prepare to spend more money after bad building science. Before you invest in your home get to know the building science behind the problem.
“A rotary phone is to codes compliant building as a smart phone is to a high performance building…” When you are thinking of your next project, hire an architect. Buildings are complicated, perhaps the most complicated and expensive machines you will ever control because there are many details that need to be considered beyond aesthetic considerations. The knowledge of building science principles has evolved over the last ten years, as have the evolution of building materials. One cannot rely on past solutions to continue to cooperate with the materials and systems used today.
If you have the opportunity to make decisions about how a building will perform before it is built, take care to do it right and hire an architect. There are many paths to get a building built; you can rely on “because that is the way we always do it” as your source of decisions, or you can base your decisions on the latest understanding of building science.
Look for an architect that has a proven record of successful high performance building solutions. A basic check of third-party certified “green” projects (LEED, EarthCraft, and Energy Star) for example. Take a look at our portfolio to better understand the impact of design.