Building Science 101

Build Science 101: #6 Achieving Building Science

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

Designing a good house entails more than its exterior appearance or the luxurious interior furnishings we adorn our interiors with. I design my own homes for minimalism, I appreciate open, clutter-free spaces that are simple. I select a few design elements to make my interior look interesting, warm, and inviting, such as distinctive lighting in my communal areas, but I don’t need all the luxurious bells and whistles.

Above all else, what matters to me is my house’s comfort, security, and health for my family and me. To achieve this, we must ensure we design our house by specifying the right building systems and sustainable products to control our interior environments.

We don’t need to go full-on with passive house design here, as there’s an inherent industry added cost associated with untrained and inexperienced designers and builders creating Passive House Certified houses. Instead, I prefer to adopt certain building science principles that allow my environments to be controlled and efficient.

I don’t need a certificate to tell me I have a good house, I can feel it. Please understand that I’m not devaluing passive house certification, I just do feel we should strive for that standard when most can’t even build a standard house well.

Understanding building science doesn’t require a scientific background; all you need is to invest an hour or two to grasp the basics, then ask your prospective designer or builders if they comprehend what they’re building for you.

I don’t need a certificate to tell me I have a good house, I can feel it.

Ian Thompson

In my view, building science is an end-to-end process. You must start with your thermal envelope (insulation) and then progress to air management. Don’t do one without the other, as many building codes around the world are currently doing – most negate air management. What do I mean? Well, don’t build super-insulated and airtight houses that don’t allow the influx of fresh, clean air or the removal of old air.

Building science is about achieving a good balance of various considerations on a budget. These are design rules that are very affordable if implemented correctly at the outset. Do it well, and your house will reward you with genuine comfort and a healthy environment.

Achieving building science is crucial to creating homes that are comfortable, healthy, and energy-efficient. Building science is not difficult, so don’t think you have to break the bank for a better home.

Build Science 101: #6 Achieving Building Science

Video Transcript

Building Sciece 101 Episode Six: Achieving Building Science. This is going to be a good one, Steve. I’m excited for this. It is because, in the whole series, this is kind of where we turn the corner. Up until now, if you’ve been following along (if you haven’t, stop, go, rewind, go back to the intro episode, and follow through, and come back here), but up until now, we’ve been talking about the need for control, we need to control, that’s the key. We need to integrate building science. Well, all that is good, but the question is really like, how do we do that? I’ve always taken the position that to understand the solution, we might want to ask a few questions. Okay, we want to gain control, for example. Well, what are the challenges to gaining control? Like, what are the challenges of our building that I have to alter or control to gain control? So, break it down for us. Then there are some specific things we’re trying to control, right? What are those things? Well, the wind blows. I don’t want it blowing through my building, makes sense, right? So, I have to stop that. I have to provide some type of barrier, some type of, let’s not call it a barrier, let’s call it a management system. We have to apply some type of management system to manage that blowing wind. When it rains, an umbrella, you used that um earlier in one of the sessions. You put the umbrella up. Well, that protects you. What are the protections of our house, in terms of a water management device, right? It’s a water management system. Yes, we use it to manage the water and keep it off our bodies. I go in a house, and I cook, or I have dogs, or the simple act of breathing. We’re putting moisture into the air, yep. What happens to that moisture, especially remember we talked about old buildings, old houses, everything just flowed through the wall. Now with codes, we’re required to build energy-efficient wall systems, and these are going to hold back some of these controls or hold back that vapor. So, that vapor management system. And the reason I call it a management, we’ll get into that in a second. The last one, the whole reason that most people can identify why we build is because I don’t want to be out there, I want to be in here. That means I want to be warm when it’s cold outside, I want to be cool when it’s hot outside. So, temperature control. So, I need temperature control or some type of thermal management system. Thermal control, yeah, thermal control. Basically, to control, I need to develop systems that control those challenges. It just happens in the building science world, we call them control layers.

Okay, let’s back up for a moment, Steve, as you were talking earlier on the control layers. I want to make a quick point and think about we’re talking about modern housing, right? But as we think about the church that was built in the field example that you used earlier, that’s a wood building with a wood stove in that church in the field. It probably was relatively comfortable in that house, and it probably only managed water in that it kept the occupants there on a Sunday service dry. But when the wind blew, the wind got through. When people were breathing, that vapor probably transmitted pretty easily from inside to the out. If you had a wood stove, you could keep it warm, but without a wood stove, it wasn’t very warm. So really, it was managing water. Let’s back up another 500 or 1000 years in building technology, and what do we build with before we built with wood, or before America was even around for that matter? Think about the cathedrals, the churches of England and Europe. They were all masonry buildings, basically rock, right? Some version of rock that was stacked on each other, and maybe they had windows, maybe they didn’t. But rock in those cathedrals did a pretty darn good job of repelling water, but they didn’t necessarily do a very good job of being good at managing or controlling air or vapor. They were just like the really that wood church example in the middle of a field.

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So as we come into more modern buildings with more modern building techniques, we can still make those older buildings, those older styles work, but we have to think a little differently. And as we’ve been talking in this BS 101 series, Steve and I are really thinking more about modern houses using modern codes, and something that, if you’re watching and listening to this right now, you might build in your town. I just wanted to throw that out.

No, those are all very valid points. The thing about control layers is that those are linked to the things we just talked about in the previous episodes, durability, right? All four of these I can attribute to some level of durability. Health and comfort, all of these attribute to health and comfort, comfort, for example, you know how many times if I had a dollar for every time I heard somebody say, “Yeah, I sit on the couch, I can’t even sit in front of that bay window in the winter because it’s just cold air rushing on my neck. I either have to be under a blanket or I can’t sit on the couch there in front, easy.” So, it attributes to it. Energy Efficiency, obviously, thermal plays a role. So, an air tightness, right? You don’t open your windows when you turn the heating system on. You crank up the boiler, you keep the windows closed. You don’t want that air transfer. That’s the easiest way to lose heat inside a structure, y. Or gain heat in the summertime. You don’t open your windows in Austin in July. No, that’s right. Keep those puppies closed and crank up the AC.

Last thing I want to mention, Steve, is they make windows that you can specify as PG 70 rated. Now, we’re not… We don’t have time to get into what the PG stands for and what this testing looks like. But the quick and dirty is they test windows, every manufacturer does with this independent testing service where they put wind and water up against these windows to simulate all kinds of terrible weather. The higher the rating, the more that window is able to withstand the wind and the water from making it through the window. A PG 50 rating is already a very high rating. When you go to Coastal applications, you need to go to that PG 70 rating. Sometimes in the coastal regions, like if you’re building in Florida, you’re adding impact-resistant glass as well. But they can do it without the impact glass, but still the PG 70 rating, which that’s a great optional upgrade that means that that window is really going to seal tight. It’s not going to leak air. It’s not going to have water coming through that window. And that’s good for every region of the country.

I was in a house the other day that was in a dusty area, and because the wind was blowing, dust was coming right through those windows and piling up on the window sills. So now if we talk about a window that’s PG 70 rated, we’re not going to have those problems.

No, I totally agree. Their balance of performance and aesthetics is as good as it gets. For more information, you can check these guys out on the web at Anderson Windows.com. And big thanks to Anderson for sponsoring the Building Science 101 series.”

Next up, we’re going to dive deep into all those control layers. The most important one in this order of importance is water, and that’s our very next episode, Episode 7. Water is critical – it’s the number one killer of buildings. Control layers – this was a great episode, guys. Thanks for hanging in there with us. Steve Building Science 101, good stuff, guys. See you next time on The Build Show

Further Reading

Build Science 101: #5 What is Building Science?

Build Science 101: #2 Why “Building Science”? Durability

Building Science Series on YouTube

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