Design vs Building Science

Beautiful Houses with Terrible Performance… How to AVOID This

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

At the inception of a new house-building project, aesthetics and layout tend to dominate client discussions. Rarely do they delve into the types of materials used or consider the potential health implications of certain products. The unfortunate truth is that the health impact of materials and products is seldom discussed, let alone understood. We need only look back to the time when asbestos was hailed as an excellent building product, only to discover decades later that it was responsible for countless deaths of builders and installers.

There are many products that I deliberately avoid specifying in my projects, though they remain popular elsewhere. For instance, a certain insulation product, touted as high-performing and even luxurious, requires specialized breathing apparatus for those daring enough to venture into their own attics.

The health implications of our building choices are among the least discussed topics in our industry. Yet, many of the products we still use are gradually harming us. Such a narrative isn’t a pleasant one to share, especially not for salespeople. Unfortunately, many designers, specifiers, and building consent departments remain oblivious to the effects of our building materials on our health.

Take New Zealand for example, where we use more treated timber in our builds than any other country. Some of the treatment processes are outlawed in the rest of the world. With over 50% of our homes classified as unhealthy to live in, can we truly consider New Zealand to be clean and green? To me, the answer is alarming.

There are numerous issues in the building industry that many countries are simply not addressing. One specific aspect I question is the objective of complete airtightness in our homes. To me, it’s all well and good to have a tightly sealed house, but only if it’s built properly in the first place. Unfortunately, over 95% of homes are not. We need adequate air changes for occupant health, among other things, so if we’re using the wrong HVAC systems then we have a problem. Plus, building tight houses often overlooks water ingress and escape routes, which are among the biggest threats to buildings today.

To put this in perspective, houses built 100, 200, 300, or more years ago that allowed air and water into their envelopes are still standing today because water could escape and fresh air would dry out damp areas. Meanwhile, many houses built today are falling apart mere months after completion due to trapped water and moisture. Yes, this is a simplified overview, but merely constructing tight houses is not a cure-all solution.

We need to build better, educate ourselves and others, and foster more collaboration. With that, I’ll step down from my soapbox and direct you to Matt’s podcast, which delves into this very subject.

Podcast: Beautiful Houses with Terrible Performance… How to AVOID This

Introduction

The process of designing and constructing buildings involves a delicate balance between aesthetic expressions and the principles of building science. Architects, engineers, builders, and homeowners must collaborate to find solutions that meet both design desires and functional requirements. By fostering trust, effective communication, and a commitment to craftsmanship, professionals can navigate the challenges posed by conflicting priorities and create buildings that excel in performance, occupant comfort, and long-term satisfaction.

Video Transcript:

On the Build Show today, we’re going to be tackling the age-old question: Are houses built too tight? My buddy, Kristoff Irwin, an absolute expert in this topic, is coming into my podcast studio, and we’re playing the whole podcast for you. It was such a good episode, and if you’re not already a subscriber to that podcast, I’d love to have you join us. You can watch all our podcasts over at buildshownetwork.com, or you can subscribe on iTunes or all the usual players. With that being said, are our houses built too tight? Let’s get going.

Alright, my friends, welcome back to another episode of the Build Show podcast. That’s right, my weekly time to get together with you guys and go deep. You know, when we make YouTube videos, of which I just made one with Kristoff, literally like two hours ago out of one of our job sites, there’s only so much time. I’m always like, “Gosh, I’m limited on time. People only have so much attention span on YouTube.” But in the podcast studio, we can go longer, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do now. This is a bit of a companion podcast to the episode we just shot, which I’m not sure when these will get published, but look for the YouTube episode, The Build Show Network episode with Kristoff Irwin, talking about getting upstream on the design to affect the building and its design so that when I get to build the house, when the builder gets to build the house, things are in place already for a well-built, well-constructed house with a good HVAC system, with comfort of the occupants in mind, with efficiency in mind, all those things. And this is kind of precipitated from, my guess is if you’re a builder listening to this, the years of angst for getting a… Sorry, for the craftsmanship, the turd of a set of plans that may look beautiful, but you’re like, “Gosh, where am I going to put the mechanical systems? There’s no room for ducts anywhere. There’s no mechanical rooms. There’s no thought for the comfort of the occupants with these giant walls of glass. How can I possibly cool this down in July? Or how can they be warm enough in this house in December?” And that’s kind of the genesis of that video. And ultimately, this companion podcast, longest intro ever, by the way. With that being said, from the Rockwell Studios in Austin, Texas, let’s get going.

Alright, guys, y’all have met my friend Christoph Irwin probably before. Christoph, you’ve been… Um, we’ve been friends and we’ve been building together since about, oh, ’07, ’08, ’09, something like that, since we were kids. It does feel that way. Uh, for many, many years. And if you don’t know Christoph, Christoph is a PE, he’s an engineer. Um, he literally has a rocket science background. Probably the smartest… I worked in a wind tunnel, let’s just be clear, yeah. Uh, very, very smart guy. But he, um, you’ve probably seen him on The Build Show in the past, uh, specifically talking about HVAC design. You know, for years, he and his company, Positive Energy, have done all the mechanical designs on my houses, uh, not just the manual J, which is like, what size do I need, but duct layout, equipment selection, diffuser selection, and the harder part of all that, which is how do I get all this duct to run through a 3D building with the framing and engineering plans? And that’s, uh, that’s where his company absolutely shines, and he’s head and shoulders above every other mechanical HVAC designer that I’ve ever seen.

Details

But what we’re talking about today, Christoph, is a little bit of a companion piece to our YouTube video. I think it’s kind of funny because when we started talking about this, you prefaced our conversation with, “Matt, do you still say on the videos, ‘dedicated to building science and fine craftsmanship’?” Yeah, which I haven’t used that terminology in a while, but if there are any OG YouTube subscribers, you know when I started this YouTube channel in ’08, somehow there… I’ve accumulated a few phrases, and “let’s get going” and “on The Build Show” and my falsetto voice have stuck, but I kind of have ditched, for whatever reason, “dedicated to building science and fine craftsmanship,” although I would say that I still am.

Now, I was gonna ask that too. Um, so with that in mind, Christoph, lead me to this point of how do we get upstream? How do we affect these buildings before you, as a mechanical designer, get a set of plans that you’re like, “Gosh, this is going to be a really hard building to design for, to heat and cool, to keep these occupants comfortable,” and by the way, the occupants, the homeowners, are the ones paying you usually, and how do I as a builder get upstream on that? That’s good.

So, there’s actually a lot to unpack, and so just to give you, like, a sense of it, you just mentioned there’s no room for ducts, right? So, you know, building science is the laws of science applied to a home, and the laws of science include thermodynamics and fluid dynamics. You know, the architect might not have left room, but the laws of physics say there needs to be room. And so here’s the thing, and here’s what I really want to unpack with you. We just had a great discussion in your truck. Yeah, we did. It was great. Which we should have recorded. That would have been nice. I wish we’d recorded that too. So, I hope we can touch on a lot of those same themes.

But what I’m getting at is building science is considered to be the physical sciences applied to home. Well, the physical sciences create an impasse where the architect says, “Here’s my architectural expression,” and the laws of physics say, “I need a duct that won’t fit into that expression.” So what happens is suddenly now, it’s a social science or a psychological science that needs to come to the fore. And what unlocks it is, how do you set up the relationship with the architect based on trust and mutual respect so that when you say, “I need room,” you can get more room? Or how do you ask for more room? How do you lead them to see for themselves you need more room?

Isn’t that fascinating, where it’s like we think of buildings like… There’s actually something in the human brain. There’s an endorphin associated, a pleasure chemical. It’s… This is so wild. It’s associated with the anticipation of the cessation of a problem or the cessation of craving. So it isn’t associated with, “I no longer want… I no longer crave this. I no longer have this problem.” You feel happy as soon as you know that a solution exists. That is wild. That’s interesting. Yeah, so it’s this anticipation of the cessation of craving.

And the point is, building science as a field and, I and this we should go to your next, it is saying, “Here’s how you build a good building.” And so what happens in the industry is, “Oh, we know how to build a good building. Ah, that feels so good. We’ve solved the problem.” False. We don’t need to know how to build a good building. We need to, you and I need to know how to cause a good building to exist, yes, for sure. Yeah, so because we have knowledge of how to build a good building, but we don’t always get to affect the design or the desires of the homeowner or whatever, and so often you and I, as, you know, let’s say the mechanical designer or me as the builder, have to take what we’re given and make the best of it, right? And sometimes making the best of it will satisfy their desires, other times it’ll satisfy them short term, but not long term. And we were actually having that discussion a minute ago, you know, some clients were satisfied short term with whatever the aesthetics, the budget, the whatever, but then long term, we’re dissatisfied, yeah. And that’s where this building science and, frankly, craftsmanship, I think, comes into play as well.

For instance, we’ll leave out the names, but we were talking about a project that we knew of that you knew right from the get-go once you kind of figured out who was building it and the contractors involved, that it probably wasn’t going to satisfy the homeowner long term. And you said, “Look, you should spend more to get a better-qualified contractor with better equipment, with better manpower, better everything involved.” And the client said, “No, I just don’t have the budget for that.” And you said, “Okay, I mean, you do what you need to do, but I think you’re going to be disappointed.” And sure enough, when it was all said and done, things did not turn out the way the client had hoped. You absolutely called it, and yet they didn’t listen to you as the expert. That they shouldn’t have, yeah.

And, you know, I… It would be nice if you could just point blame and single people out and say, “Oh, we have people saying, you know, inappropriately managing their practices or something.” But the reality is that you and I are professionals involved in the construction industry, right? So I’m an engineer consultant, you’re a builder, you’re also more than that. We can talk about that, your information flow network is what you are. But yeah, so architects, engineers, and construction, right? The AEC industry is what we’re playing with. That’s architecture, engineering, and construction. And that industry, particularly the construction side of it, it’s populated by people that know, they know their industry, right? The reality is, they know the past of their industry, they know the way things are done conventionally or normally. And so it takes a lot of humility and a lot of soul-searching to go, “Could it be that there’s a better way to do things? Could it be that for many years, maybe even decades of my life, I’ve actually been engaging in practices that can be rethought?” And the answer, the good news is… You know, it’s… The good news is it’s complicated. That’s not… It’s the good news is that, yes, there are people that do that.

And so what’s happened is, as a company, Positive Energy… Well, just very briefly, so we are a building science company. We’re dedicated to building science, right? And yet, no one looks, you know, on the internet to find a building science company generally to help you with enclosure design or mechanical design or indoor air quality or resilient energy systems. So, we became a mechanical designer. And then we’ve experienced that’s quantifiable, right? Like, “Oh, I need someone to design my HVAC, right? I need that in my commercial building. I should have that in my residential building.” And that became the… Like, the toe-hold in the industry. We did mechanical designs. Meanwhile, we’re doing mechanical designs for two reasons. One is, it’s a toe-holding industry. People recognize that. Two is, generally speaking, in residential HVAC, there isn’t very much design. It’s mainly a build. It’s, you know, design build, but lowercase “d,” uppercase “b” or whatever. And there’s a lot of really highly skilled, you know, disciplined installing contractors, very smart, hardworking. And even in that context, those people often love to work with us and refer us into their projects, yeah. Because we can go upstream. I’m actually losing my own train of thought, so we got into that mechanical design because there was a compelling need in the industry. As building science consultants, what we mainly did was we went to homes where kids were developing asthma, where elderly people knew whenever they traveled, they slept better. And why don’t they sleep well at home? Where there were hardwood floors that were cupping, where there were moisture issues, i.e., mold and mildew in the home, right? So we got to see those over and over and over. Guess what was the problem? Right? It was that energy code had changed, the building physics had changed, but the HVAC installers hadn’t changed their practices, right? And, you know, it’s mainly moisture control problems and the builders that hired them, yeah. And, you know, they… So keep in mind, let’s make sure the listeners know, we’re not vilifying people. No. This was the situation on the ground, and… Um, you know, what you could say is, there have been… I can say that I have had literal cuss words aimed at me from the podium giving a talk, like, to the HBA and installing contractors and their GCS, saying, “There’s no problem. You’re full of it. If there was a problem, I’d know about it.” Meanwhile, like, some of those same homes, I am knowing about it because their clients are calling me. The clients don’t think about calling their builder, certainly not three to five years later. And that was maybe a little more than I… I need to go to toward, like, blaming. But the point being that the industry culture is like an inertia of position, and it doesn’t want to change because people are protecting their… They’re protecting status quo, the status quo relationships.

I mean, industry culture is one reason why polyurethane spray foam has made its way through the industry so rapidly because you just call a different person, they install a different product. I didn’t really have to fundamentally rethink my building. That’s right. Which, if I want a high-quality air control layer and I don’t do spray foam, now what do I have to do? Fundamentally rethink my building. Yeah, I gotta go to a perfect wall, yeah, exactly. And, and, you know, or Monopoly framing, as I called it on my house. But same thing. Yeah, that’s a good way to say it. There’s, yeah.

And I don’t want to dominate this conversation, please. No, this is good. Go back. I have a place I want to leave. How do we go upstream, though? Yeah, because that’s where we… That’s where I want to go with this. That’s where we spend time on the video. Like, what could we do if we got involved, you in particular, maybe even me, got involved when there was just a concept of a house, just a what the architects call a schematic design, which is basically a floor plan and maybe an elevation, and that’s it. Yeah, what if we hired you to give us the full meal building science look at the house, to go, “Alright, how would this house perform if we take this house in this rough concept and take it down through an actual construction drawing?” Yeah, and are there some changes, tweaks, window sizes, orientation, shading, whatever, that we could do at that stage? So take it.

Absolutely, yeah. So, yeah, you set me up perfectly. So, Positive Energy, a building science company, we’ve now split into offering two sets of services.

One is engineering, so we’re in a really solid engineering company. We offer mechanical, electrical, plumbing, electrical master plans, solar design, battery design, resilient water systems, right? So that’s on the engineering side.

But very excitingly, about three and a half years ago, we started doing what we call Performance Consulting. And Performance Consulting is exactly what you said. We start out with the passive systems, the enclosure systems. So there are two kind of moments in the passive systems, which is the visual comfort, the visual qualities of the space, daylighting glare, um, illuminance. And then the same with windows. We’ve talked about that windows are expensive in the beginning, they’re expensive in the middle, they’re expensive in the end. Um, and so we think, “Okay, where are the windows located? What are those impacts on thermal comfort and visual comfort?” Then we can look at the non-glass sections of the wall, and actually we can look at window specs too. But like classic enclosure consulting is, what are your layers? What are your materials? What is your rain, air, vapor, thermal control layers? You know, and now it’s in what chemical exposures will my owners get from these products and how it’s going to impact the microbiome and indoor air quality. But that is all passive stuff in the sense that you build it once and then it does its job. It doesn’t need a high-quality energy source like natural gas, propane, or electricity. So that’s the first thing we do, passive systems analysis. And we can dig deeper into it, but fundamentally, it’s comfort and health and durability. I love it. And then carbon is in there too, carbon body, carbon content.

Then we do active systems consulting, and this is huge. Active systems consulting is fantastic because it’s not necessarily so much what it is, which is pretty cool, but when it is happening. When the project is at concept or SD, and ideally before the architect has shown the plans to the clients and the clients have swooned, and at that moment, the plot, the plans are no longer flexible or fluid. And let me just expand upon that because what you’re doing at this point, and we just did this on our project together that we shot the video on, is you’re kind of giving a pre-mechanical layout to go, “We’re going to need this size furnace, we’re going to need this rough or heat pump, sorry, this, I just call furnace generically, but yes, this heat pump, this rough duct size. How do we put that in the space?” Yeah, so for instance, the project we just came from, it was a Bensonwood shell, and you, at the schematic design, were like, “We’re going to need a trunk line that’s in 18, I don’t know what it was, let’s call it an 18.” We gave you three choices. If it’s ten inches wide, it needs to be 12 inches tall. If it’s 12 inches wide, you know, so we gave choices. And then the architect, in this case, Lake|Flato, then went back to their design, and Bensonwood said, “Alright, could we put that inside the envelope? Could we still have this flat ceiling we’re looking for but have all that ductwork below the insulation, below the air control layer?” And they were able to do it. And so what I’m thinking about is how cool would it be in other projects, whether it’s traditional or modern or anything in between, for you to get to… get this, “I need this 24 by 5-foot-tall box,” which happens to be a, I’m calling it a furnace, an air handler, heat pump. “How are we going to not only service that but change filters, put a new one in, and install it five years from now to begin with? You know, peanut butter all the seams,” which is duck mastic, sorry, I always call it peanut butter, “and get an installer in there.” That’s when we’re able to then go, “You know, we need more than just a mechanical closet. That’s like a dust broom closet. We need, like, some space to work on this.” There’s no magic genie that’ll cause the system to appear in that closet. Exactly. So let’s design that to begin with, rather than hiding it behind all these access panels, which are a huge pain in the butt to get to later or whatever. Yeah, actually put a room in this house. And then, where the schematic design people aren’t so locked into the floor plan, what if we took this space, which was your hall closet, instead made that a mechanical room or whatever? Yeah, it was huge. We’ve been really lucky in the sense that we can find architects that recognize, and there are a lot of them out there, that recognize that the architectural design process itself can lead to good outcomes if they invest early on in this kind of thinking. You’re exactly right.

So what I want to do, taking this back to the very beginning of the podcast, “dedicated to building science and fine craftsmanship.” So building science, what you would think of classically is how do the walls go together, how what in what sequence do you install, and where does the flashing go, in where’s the vapor barrier, where’s the vapor retarder, and now expanded building science says, “Yeah, that’s interesting, and that’s necessary to cause a good building to exist. It’s not sufficient to cause a good building to exist.” What we’re involved in is like a next level of building science, which is how does the architect and the engineering consultants, how do they fit together?

What information flows to who and when? Who said what to who and so what happened? Nothing happened on that Benson Woodhouse, which I think we should put a pin in this and say because it was a Benson Woodhouse prefab construction designed our site, everyone agreed, yeah, we got to get this right. Yeah, we have to do it. That exigency shouldn’t only apply to prefab. We should get it right on all homes. We shouldn’t say, you know what, you know, we’re in the mechanical system. We’re going to put the structure up and then we’re going to come in and figure it out, and then I have no idea where the ducts are going to go, but we’ll figure out a snake it through there, right? And then, you know, if flex duct is infinitely forgiving supposedly and you can do whatever origami you can you need to do with it.

So yeah, building science is simply systems theory applied to homes. And what’s really exciting about the teams that we work with at Positive Energy is the system that we are all consciously working on is the system of how we work together. Yeah, right? That’s profound. That’s a big deal. And it’s not just a big deal in that sense, but like, so we did passive systems, active systems, and we didn’t talk about the last one, which is resilient energy and water systems.

So we live in an era where many people recognize that you can’t just say, “Oh, I’m connecting to the grid and that’s good.” The pricing, the quality, the availability of energy and water are less reliable than they used to be. As a nation, we’re trillions of dollars of investment behind in maintaining those systems. So the point is passive, active, resilience systems consulting happens early on while the design is still fluid. And what else is happening there? Well, the enclosure impacts the quality of the enclosure from a thermal and air perspective, impacts the sizing of the heating and cooling systems, which impacts the needs of the resilience systems. Right?

So what is happening is Positive Energy can take all of that and basically solve simultaneous equations. Like, we can kind of solve it all together and do permutations on the enclosure and look at the mechanical system impact. So cool. And just a quick thing on the mechanical systems. We, you and I, have just done this. It is common in our industry, and it is unfortunate, I think. I would love mechanical systems to stop being about heating and cooling, which is, you know, heat pumps heat and cool. They source heat from outside in the winter and bring it to the home, and they source heat from inside and send it out of the home, which is cooling, which is important. It’s also like, “Oh, you want to yawn a little and go, ‘Of course, I’m in a heat and cool the house. How am I going to ventilate the air? How am I going to filter the air? How am I going to dry the air or bring more moisture in if needed?'” Which is rarely needed in our climate.

Infiltration is a case in point where filtration is like, “I don’t know if you know this, but the number one pollutant exposure in our society is the air we breathe. We breathe in 30 pounds of it a day, more than we eat or drink, 12 to 16 times a minute. The business end of air is oxygen. Air goes into my blood and from my blood into every tissue and cell. So fundamentally, we’re never more intimate with anything that we build in a home except for the air. And yet, who’s responsible for the quality of the air? Right? Is it the architect? Is it the builder? Is it the mechanical star? Which I think it is a mechanical installer.

And we’ve just had, and this is another like where you take the societal overlay and COVID has been a terrible crisis for our community, our world, and yet it has woken people up to say invisible threats to my health can be real. Yeah, many people are still people that don’t believe it, and I’m going to take care seriously. Yeah, just swimming. I love your fish example. You know, if your fish is swimming in polluted water, you feel bad for the fish, yeah. And yet, we’re swimming in polluted water all day long in this fluid that we call air. Better living through chemistry, yeah. And so, we just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not affecting you. Once again, that’s beautiful points again.

That gets me back again. So there’s another thing. So as an engineer, as a problem solver, as someone who really feels like society should ask for more from their homes, right? Of course, you want visual spatial economic outcomes, fit and finish, technology. Why not ask for your bedroom to be a sleep system? Why not ask for resilient energy and water systems? Why ask for durability? Why not ask your home to actually support the environmental ecosystems upon which we all depend? Right?

But there’s this interesting thing where as a mammal, psychologically, we are resistant. This is pretty profound. It’s funny you said before, you said, “As a human, we are resistant to the idea that we can’t perceive threats to our health and well-being.” So I’ll say it again. We resist the idea that there are things that can hurt us that we can’t see, a wolf on the edge of the forest, which you can see, which you can see. It’s other things that we can’t see. Visible as much as a threat. Invisible viruses, yeah, exactly.

And so that’s one of the reasons I mean, in mold, we could go down the path of why mold is bad for us, but let’s just say indoor mold exposures cause harm. They cause negative health outcomes in most people for known reasons, known causations, which is profound. It is also true that you can smell mold and you can see mold, bringing it to the top of the list of things that we believe are threats. Many indoor air quality scientists today say, “Yeah, mold is a health impact as part of the entire expanse of indoor microecology, of which mold is one player among bacteria, viruses, protozoa, archaea, many things that are causing negative health outcomes.” But most of them, we’re like, “They don’t matter because I can’t perceive them with my native senses.” Right? Yeah, that’s wild.

Yeah, and so, you know, bringing it back, building science is systems thinking applied to homes, and it’s been physical systems, chemistry, biology, physics, and where you are in a space. And we are right now in a space where information flow systems are impacting the ability to take that information that’s in building science and cause it to have a greater impact in our society. That’s profound. Like, you could imagine each person listening to this, you know, you’re like a synapse in the brain, and they’re the adjacent synapse, and the neural signal has gone from one to another. So you’re helping create thoughts in the societal mind. And I know that’s kind of out there, but that’s really what building science has the potential to do, because building science, when you say “dedicated to building science,” you’re thinking rain, air vapor, thermal. But really, what you’re saying is seeing the home as a system. And all I’m saying is what positive energy has done is see the design and construction of the home as a system that can be optimized to give the outcomes we know we want, right?

And all that, I think, falls under the umbrella of craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is not just making tight miters, things looking visually good, which ultimately I think everyone has some version of understanding, right? We can go into a house and go, “Man, this house looks really good. I like it.” And you may not know what it is. It actually might be a really good paint job or beautiful countertops or the space. What they can’t see that’s behind the walls and behind the scenes makes more of a difference to their health outcome, to the durability of the house. All those systems are hidden from our clients, and most of the time, they don’t know what’s happening there.

But more and more people are listening to podcasts like ours, or like yours, by the way. These guys have an amazing building science podcast called the Building Science Podcast. People are watching my YouTube videos. In fact, my YouTube video I’m publishing today, Kristoff, is one where I went out to a builder job site in Houston when I was down there speaking at the HBA. Funny enough, the guard in the guard shack at the gated neighborhood recognized me as Matt Reisinger, the Builder on YouTube, and couldn’t believe I was coming in. That was so cool. And then when I get there, both the homeowner and the builder were fans of the show, and I could tell by looking at the house under construction they had watched like every video. So much so that some of the mistakes I made on my house, they had corrected them on this house under construction and gone one step beyond me in several places. Like, I made a mistake where my cabinet guy put a screw in the back of my plastic in-wall toilet tank, and this builder had taken the step of getting a 16-gauge piece of metal inset into the wall behind his tank so that when his finished carpenter, drywaller, or whatever came, there’s no way they could pop a screw in the back of the tank. I was blown away, and it was that “aha” moment that made me really smile and think, you know, I’ve been making a lot of videos over the years, and now I’ve made a lot of podcasts, and yes, I get paid, we have sponsors, but what I really care about is changing the conversation about well-built houses. And incidentally, we’re seeing that happen, and that is craftsmanship.

I agree completely. You just said craftsmanship is more than the miter, which is, mean, how did something come together? How does the whole house come together? And that, fundamentally, isn’t just, and we would love it to just be a material solution, like, oh, you picked the right materials and assembled them in the right… it’s not. It’s more like you pick the right materials and you make sure the right information got to the right person at the right time. Yeah. And so what we’ve done with the Performance Consulting Department, and by the way, just, we have tremendously talented, hard-working, intelligent, motivated people, which you can’t underestimate the power of human caring and human exertion, right? So, what we’ve said is that how do things come together? We’ve moved it upstream, and we have a lot of architects that say, “I love this. We need… I’m glad you’re showing me that I’m creating glare with that window.” Even architects that say, “Oh, I know daylighting,” and then we show them, and they’re like, “Oh, I thought I knew daylight.” Similarly with thermal comfort, right?

And so, use a slight tangent, but I think it’s worth talking about. You said this on the job site just a little bit ago, that I can’t remember, made the video, but we were talking about windows and window-to-wall ratios, and whether blinds inside or outside made a difference. And at the house that we just visited, there was a fair amount of glass in the master bedroom, and there’s a fair amount of glass in the living room, main space that has a killer view. The rest of the house has pretty modest glass. I think you mentioned it was like a 20% wall-to-window ratio. So, 20% glass, 80% wall. It’s the window-to-wall ratio. Window-to-wall ratio, there you go. The windows would be 20% of the walls in a room, there you go.

And in the master, which had a higher, like, 40% let’s say, there was a fair amount of load through the glass, meaning there would be sun that would hit the glass. And even with a high or a low, whatever, the solar heat gain coefficient has a 0.2 solar heat gain coefficient. We still have 80, or pardon me, 20% of the energy making it through that glass. And so one thing early on you said was, “Hey, we should consider exterior shading in this location.” So that if we wanted to cut down on that heat load, we could do it with an outside shade. Yeah. And I think 99.99% of America thinks of shades on the inside as cutting that down, down. But you said, “No, you know, if you think about it, maybe you’re going to cut down the glare for your eyes, but every BTU that goes through that glass and hits that interior shade is still heating the house. They made it into the house and made it into it, made it past that glass.” And so by doing exterior shades, we’re preventing that from hitting the glass to begin with and from coming into the house.

And what struck me, I’m going on a huge tangent here, but a couple of years ago, I went to Europe for the very first time, and I saw in Switzerland and then in Germany, all those houses were built with exterior shades. Part of the reason was, I assumed they had interior tilt-turn windows that were kind of like a casement that came into the building. And so a shade would get knocked out of the way if it was an inside shade. But a big part of that was they wanted to cut down on the light transmission even hitting the glass to begin with. And they had these thick exterior building shells that allowed them to do exterior shades. And it was like a given, like, “Of course we’re going to do exterior shades. Where else would we put them, you dumb American?”

And when I went to the Battle Show, which is their version of the International Builder Show, the real International Builder Show, there was manufacturer after manufacturer that had solutions for these exterior shades, which in America, as in louvers, they have everything in America is really just a box that you bolt onto the outside of the wall that’s ugly and drops down. But in Europe, they’re all hidden. They’re all thought of. The architect, the builder, they’ve all designed it, and it happens, and it’s kind of automagically happening on those buildings. Automagically, that’s good. Yeah.

I need to correct something else I said just in case there’s like a hawkish, close listener out there. Please, I said window-to-wall ratio, like a 20% win of the wall rate should be that the windows were 20% of the area of the walls of the room. No, no, it’s from the outside, right? So it’s 20% of the exterior walls, because it doesn’t matter if the wall between your room and the closet, that’s a good… That’s a good, just to get that. But yeah, so 20% to 40% is a good window-to-wall ratio. And go to downtown Austin today, right? Look at the newer buildings, except for where maybe you need some structural canyons of glass, steel, and concrete at a time when we know that the materials that we need to wean ourselves off of are what? Glass, steel, and concrete.

Yeah, so dumb, I don’t get it. And frankly, this is getting out of our… This is maybe more of a tangent. And this is a hard place to go, but what is it that’s causing that, right? Because other’s developer-driven, developers follow societal appetites.

Yeah, so fundamentally, it’s people that live there are saying, you know, the relational signaling, “I get to live in this or work in this building.” Keep in mind, we’re mammals again. We fundamentally seek safety through relational belonging, and we use our homes, buildings, cars, solar panels, clothing to signal relational belonging to a certain social group.

So you go live in those buildings, what are you signaling? Like, “I’m in a glass building, I made it. I am now free of the vicissitudes of nature.” Right? “I can use high-quality fuels and be hot in the winter and cold in the summer.” Yeah, I’ve gone away enough for a tangent. I’ll reel myself back in a little bit, but I don’t know how to solve virtue signaling, frankly. Yeah, yeah, I did some relational signaling just then. It’s a whole another podcast, probably. Um, but I’ve heard Joe Steve Rick talk on this, and he, of course, in his much more vulgar way, talks about how we have these super glass buildings today that are LEED Gold certified, and yet, if you look at the buildings that were built in the ’50s or ’60s, let’s say, that had a more normal 40% window-to-wall ratio, they’re much more energy-efficient, even though they’re 60 or 70 years old. They’re frankly better to look at too.

Yeah, and I like the architecture of some of those old buildings, and some of these big glass buildings look like a MeToo building that anyone could have designed. Like, “I could have designed that, just make a glass building. Okay, great, a square high-rise tower. It looks the same as the last square high-rise tower. That’s all glass.” Yeah, “Live in the Apple Store.” And even if you make it triple-glazed, you’re still only going to get maybe what, R6 or R7? Some people get higher, now okay, 12 or something. R10 glass, whereas that wall right there with just some cheap rock wool insulation and some studs might be an R10, average R-value with some two-by-fours and some rock wool that cost how many dollars per square foot compared to this really expensive high-tech glass?

And you know, and frankly, this is like sounds a little blasphemous, but the concept of energy efficiency can lead us astray because I can have a coefficient of performance on a heat pump of three and a half, which means it’s 350% efficient, which means it takes one unit of electrical energy to create three units of heat energy, right? Or move three units of energy out to cool it. Point is, that’s very energy efficient. If I put that in an all-glassy home, and I can, I call the home energy efficient, you know what you kind of want to say is, “What was your energy use? How much energy did you use?” So we’ve entered a place, you know, it’s kind of like, what was it, rare rabbit or something? Don’t throw me in the briar patch. It’s kind of like industry for a long time has been championing energy efficiency because, yeah, you know why? I’m constantly upgrade and sell new products and get a better product, all the while forgetting, like, “Well, yes, if I’m comparing two buildings, one both that have 25% window-to-wall ratios, then it makes sense to go with the more energy efficient cooling system, right? But if I’m comparing two…” But I mean, it still makes more sense to go with energy efficient cooling system. But what I’m saying is the words “energy efficient” to say you have an energy efficient home, don’t that’s not sufficiently mean it’s good, it’s appropriate to have built that to begin with, right? Exactly. And it doesn’t also mean that your clients are going to be comfortable or like living there ultimately.

Yeah, and that’s a big one. I mean, so, you know, a lot of what we do on the visual and thermal comfort consulting at the very early end is talk about shading, talk about external shading, talk about moving clear stories, talk about reducing skylights or shading skylights, making them clear stories and stuff like that. And in that role, I mean, architects fortunately have not said this to us, but I feel like, gosh, how can we pull back from sounding like we’re anti-glass or we’re the glass police? Because what we’re really saying is, what do buildings do? Like, let’s say, what, what is the function of a home? The function of a home, it’s an environmental shelter. It’s an environment, separate. It’s also shelter. It’s also a place where a family goes to be together as a family, and they want to, they want to be together. They don’t want to be distracted by being hot or cold or having glare. So, in that sense, what we’re really saying is, what do homes do? Homes serve people to live their lives. And you don’t want glare and thermal comfort issues. And so, be careful with the glass.

So, I kind of sprawled that out, but yeah, we do sound like the glass police. But yeah, I don’t want to sound like that one last glass police comment, which I thought was fun. Daniel Glausser, who we hung out with today, one of my project managers said, “You know what bugs me about some of these downtown buildings?” And he was actually talking about his own house. He’s doing a big remodel on his ’60s house, and the architect had specified some floor-to-ceiling glass in one section. He’s like, “I don’t want that. There’s no good view there. I don’t need that. It’s more expensive. Why don’t you just cut it down so it’s from the waist to just above my eyeballs so I can get a vignette when I come by here, rather than floor to ceiling?” And I thought, you know, there’s a lot of truth in that, that we sometimes… Yeah, absolutely. We build these buildings on a computer and look at them on a SketchUp model, and we forget the environment the building’s going into. Yeah, and that we just need light to come through there most of the time. And a lot of buildings that we build have no views of anything that you want to see out the window. And yeah, as a result, that sun tunnel that you spoke… We talked about this earlier. A sun tunnel, which is a, you know, eight-inch… Yeah, or solar tube, which maybe is an eight-inch opening, would give us plenty of lumens, natural lumens, changing light, depending on how the day goes. You could get it into the deep recesses of the house that would probably give you every bit or more than some big piece of glass that’s really expensive.

Yeah, we seem to forget that we’re putting very sensitive human mammalian bodies into these homes. So I’m coated with tens of thousands of thermoreceptors. I have two very sensitive eyes. But you know what? They’re only on my head. They’re not on my ankles, right? And so we seem to forget that when we’re designing it, that now this is actually a place where we’re going to put people and to really do what’s human factor design.

And just one thing I always like to stress, just to remind people… Um, I guess two, one and a half things. One is homes need to be beautiful, and glass helps with that, right? We would love to have a connection to nature, for sure. And so, key view moments, having a trophy room, having a big area of the home that completely makes you feel intimately connected with outside. I am totally not against that. Yeah, it’s doing it everywhere, right?

But yeah, one thing that I like to remind people is that, okay, so there’s your kind of your story of who you are, your ego, you know, “Oh, this house is great because I have glass everywhere. That’s the connection to nature that I want.” Coming back to your native biology, what your body wants as far as a connection to nature is fresh, filtered, but fresh outdoor air. Yeah, that’s right, right? So this is interesting. Like, it’s that actually that mass of air that’s outside that you want inside. And of course, you want to temper the humidity and the heat out before you bring it in or heat it up a little. Having built a really good house recently with your help, incredible, and lived in a not very good ’70s house prior, it is a world of different acoustic differences, too. Acoustic, thermal, fresh air, sleep quality. I’m a hundred percent on board that a really well-built building can change your quality of life inside the building. And I have young kids. We love spending time at home. Even some details, like I mentioned this on a podcast earlier this week, I have wood ceilings in a bunch of places in my house. And my wife was like, “Why don’t we sit over there more often?” in this place that’s like a big white box of painted drywall. And I was like, “I don’t know.” You know, this is less comfortable. The seating is less good here. And later, I thought, you know, I wonder if it’s because I just love that space. I have a wood ceiling. I have a great view to the outside. And this one little spot, I have a 10-foot wide lift-and-slide door that’s triple glazed. I get to view from the outside. So even though the seating in my dining room is not very good, it just feels really good in that spot in my house. Isn’t that cool? And kind of everything happened right there, whereas my living room’s fine, but the big white sheetrock walls don’t feel that great. They feel a little too tall for me. My little cozy, you know, nine-foot ceiling or like it’s actually eight foot nine or whatever in my dining room just feels really comfortable and good, especially with that wood ceiling. We’re such complicated mammals, aren’t we? We are.

And, um, yeah, I think that when you’re… One thing you’re expressing is that we’re complicated. And so when you’re seeing a wood ceiling, especially if you can see the wood grain or the wood texture like we can on this table, these are actually like kind of chaotic, random patterns, whereas, like, just a white surface, if this was just a white surface, it’s very different. And this is called a high-fractal image versus a low-fractal image. So people that are like in downtown all the time, they’re more so that’s… That’s a low-fractal environment versus a high-fractal looking at trees or water or wood grain. It’s associated with depression. It’s associated with anxiety. So there’s something… And I’m just getting back, I’m responding to your point about we are mysterious, sensitive, and, um, yeah, a lot of the buildings… I know we’re trying to wrap up here. So, a lot of the practices that we’ve inherited from the construction industry, we need to keep in mind. 

They started in the post-World War building boom, and it’s just a moment in time in the thousands of years of us constructing. And fundamentally, in the post-war building boom, what started was, we need a lot of homes fast, cheap. So fast and affordable, right? And so we have inherited these practices. It’s kind of like trickle-up. But are they the best practice? Right? Like, you know, people talk about trickle-down economics, right? Like, like, cell phones made their way into society because the first early adopters were affluent. You know, airbags and cars and things like that. What happens in homes? And I mean, even multi-million dollar homes, you get the same mechanical system components that you had in a… I won’t name a name, in a production builder home. Yeah, you get the same surface finishes, you know, painted joists, poor flex ducts. Exactly, even though it’s a multi-million dollar house. So we’ve had trickle-up practices, and we’ve optimized for speed, efficiency, low first cost, you know, and not for humans necessarily. Yes, Kristoff, really appreciate your time, brother. 

One last plug for you. Oh, Positive Energy, based in Austin, Texas. How many people are on your team now? 19 people, nine engineers, four PE’s. We’ve grown a lot. They’re a very large and very smart team. Um, they’re not for every house, for every build, but this service that we’re talking about, uh, that we talked about on the video and with this, which is kind of a schematic design, building science look at the house, which is, uh, probably not how you’re marketing yourselves, but I’m going to market it as that. Um, is building science. Yeah, it is building. We call it performance consulting, performance consulting. It’s about 10K as a minimum. Yeah, it’s around three, four dollars per square foot, three dollars a square footfor the service. So it’s, you know, less than one percent of your building costs. And you don’t have to use them for mechanical design either. You’d actually get quite a bit of mechanical design, at least from the reactive systems for with that. This is really good. And what’s cool too is we mentioned this earlier, some of the architects you’re working with who have used you nine, ten, twelve times on houses for the service are starting to get it. They get daylighting now, and they’re changing the way they design houses. Absolutely. And so that’s what gets me excited about talking about this, is changing the way we design houses. Not hire me to build, I can’t build every house. Not hiring you to design the building science and the mechanicals, you can’t do that to every house in America. But one house, one person at a time, we can extol these principles and we can change the way houses are being built in America. 

And I can tell you, Kristoff, just anecdotally, the dozen or so years we’ve been friends, we’ve changed a lot of how Austin builds houses, you and I and others like us and our colleagues and friends out there in the industry, architects and builders. Dehumidifiers, VRF, HEPA filters, ERVs, all probably all kind of standard in the way we do things, and didn’t used to be. And for my builder friends out there, almost no builders are bidding projects in Austin anymore. We’re always getting hired on professional services agreements, and we’re saying, “Here’s how we build a house.” You know, we build with metal trunk lines, we put dehumidifiers in as standard. Now we maybe didn’t. We maybe didn’t do that 10 years ago. We do it now. Yeah, we’ve really upped the building game in Austin, and we should. We have high-quality devices all around us. Why is not our home one of them? Why is our home not as engineered as our cell phone? Yeah, Kristoff, I appreciate all you do for the industry, brother. You’re an amazing man, and I meant it when I said you’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my whole life. It’s a privilege to be your friend. Kristoff, back at you, my friend. 

The Building Science Podcast is their podcast. YouGiveEnergy.pro is their website. On Instagram, they’re also publishing. It’s at building science ATX, is that right? On Instagram, Miguel over on Kristoff’s team also publishes on those platforms, and they tag team with some great guests on the podcast. I highly recommend if you’re listening to this podcast, go right now to iTunes and subscribe to them as well. Guys, if you’re not currently a subscriber, hit that subscribe button below. And remember, if you want to watch this podcast, we’re mainly listened to, but you can see Kristoff and I’s beautiful, slightly unshaved, dirty faces on buildshownetwork.com, where we’re publishing the video version. That being said, follow me on Twitter, Instagram. Otherwise, we’ll see you next time on the Build Show.

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