Building Science 101

Build Science 101: #1 Why Do We Build?

Build Science 101: #1 Why Do We Build?

Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor

Welcome to the first episode in this comprehensive building science fundamentals series by Matt Risinger and Steve Baczek. As someone passionate about creating high-performance homes, I know that nailing the core design principles is critical. In this foundational video, Matt and Steve explore the basic yet profound question of why we should care about what we build because when we look around our new housing estates it’s easy to see why so many new homes are missing the vital ingredients to make a house a comfortable and energy-efficient home.

If we ask our new build clients what they want from their new house they usually look at puzzled and confused why we are asking that question – it’s obvious right? Well, is it? We need to think about houses being more than just a shelter, a place to eat, watch TV, sleep, or a place where we store our numerous acquired items. More than ever we need to start thinking about the materials we use in our builds – are they sustainable and healthy for our family to live in.

Our habits are changing, we spend more time than ever indoors, we now work from home, we now need to look at the cost of running our house, the energy and water consumption. More people mean more demands on our utility infrastructure which means more required upgrades that we the users have to pay for. We also need to look at security and durability of our homes. Are they robust enough to endure the extreme weather conditions that we are experiencing now? There are literally homes being made in the USA that use cardboard as wall linings, it’s hard to believe I know, but as builders/developers look at ways to cut costs their material and product choices get compromised.

Matt and Steve break down the primary driver of human shelter in their understandable terms. I appreciate how they translate the science behind our innate desire for indoor environmental control into clear guidance that architects, builders and homeowners can grasp. For anyone new to building science or struggling to convey its value to clients, this is good viewing.

Matt and Steve reinforce that control is the central tenet of building science. We build to create a conditioned space that provides thermal, atmospheric and hydronic control. This allows us to separate from challenging exterior conditions and gain predictable interior comfort. They remind us that advanced equipment is now elevating occupant expectations. If you’re committed to high-performance building, don’t miss this foundational discussion. Let’s dive into the first steps of building science.

Video Transcript

All right, my friends, Building Science 101, let’s get going! Episode one: Why do we build? Yeah, what a question, huh? That’s a loaded question. You know when I set out to set up this series with you and talk about what we’re going to talk about, what should that first episode be, how do we open it? I thought it was probably most important that we go right to square one. Yeah, we can’t talk effectively about building unless we talk about why. That’s right. What are we providing the solution to? Why do we build?

Now, if I had 100 builders and homeowners in the crowd, and I asked them, “Why do we build?” Oh, I want a house. I need to be in a house. I like it because it’s warm in there. I want to get out of the rain. I need a place to store all my stuff. Like, we’d get 100 answers, but I doubt we’d get the real answer. So what is the real answer?

The real answer, right, when we think about building, what are we really trying to do? And I always explain it as we simply don’t want to be out there; we want to be in here. So what does that mean? Well, in some places, it means different things than in other places. For example, in Austin this afternoon at 2 o’clock, we don’t want to be out there. No, it’s 100 degrees because it’ll be 100 degrees. We want to be in here because it’s 70°. And chances are there’s probably higher than comfortable humidity out there. Yep, and we don’t want to be out there because of that; we want to be in here where it’s cooler, and the humidity is a little lower.

Now, if I was in International Falls, Minnesota, in December or January, I don’t want to be out there because it’s freezing. I might actually die. And I picked International Falls because it is like one of the coldest places in the US. Yeah, so you want to be inside. But again, what does that mean? You can’t just say, “Well, I want to be inside.” Okay, I want to be inside, but what that really means is I want to come into a conditioned space. I want to come into a space that can be predicted, right. So the minute you say, “Well, I want to be able to predict something,” well, now you’re invoking science, yeah. Right, and because this is tied to building efforts, hence the name Building Science. Building Science, that’s right. Right. So we build to basically put an environment inside the larger environment that we live in.

For sure. You know, my friend Kristoff Irwin uses an example where he says our houses are a little like fishbowls, where the goldfish is swimming around in the fishbowl, and the glass separates the goldfish from, you know, a lack of water, which would be death for that fish. But ultimately, it’s an enclosure, and the fish swims around in that enclosure. What do you think about that analogy?

Yeah, I mean, it’s perfect. You know, it’s an environment inside a larger environment that provides a solution for its inhabitant. In that case, it’s a fish. But you know, I have this sketch here that it’s funny you bring up that story because in this sketch, it’s a small section of a real simple structure, but it could very easily be a fishbowl. That’s right, right. And if I draw myself in here, and yeah, even though I have big red, this is the iPad version of big red. But when we draw a person in there, we’re basically suggesting that I want to be somewhere inside this Building Science polygon, yeah, right. When it’s 90 out here, I want it to be 70 in here. When it’s zero out here, I want it to be 70 in here, yep. I want that humidity. When it’s pouring rain, I don’t want to be wet, yeah, right. And the minute we invoke that idea of Building Science, well, we can’t just simply draw a simple red line; we basically have to develop assemblies that can solve that problem for us, yeah. You’re basically developing conditioned space, right. And I’m stealing this from you, but I’ve heard you say we’re looking for control of our environment, right. Yeah, the whole thing. So if we went back to your original question, “Hey, Steve, why do we build?” I would say because we want to gain control, right. And when gaining control just doesn’t mean, “Hey, it’s warm in here,” we want to be able to say, “Build machinery and equipment that can solve and make sure that it’s 70° and 50% or 45% RH in there every day, every minute of the day.” And oh, guess what, if I take a walk up the stairs and I go to my kid’s bedroom, I don’t want it to be 80° up there. That’s right, right, because otherwise, we could live in a tent and be dry.

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Let’s say, but we wouldn’t be able to actually gain control of the rest of the environment around us. So we’re using science to help us gain control of everything around us, not just that rain, not just that basic shelter or safety from animals or robbers. We’ve got everything under control in our environment, but I mean all of that certainly plays a role in it. We certainly want some structural integrity. We want, we like the security and safety features, which are also side effects or anecdotal notions of why we build, but ultimately it’s because we want control.

I have a funny story. When I was younger, we used to go to my aunt’s house, and she had this cape; it was definitely not insulated. Every night in the summertime, my dad would say, “Hey, let’s go to bed,” and I would give him a hard time about it. I’d say, “I want to go upstairs; it’s hot up there, it’s like an oven.” He’d smack me and say, “It’s summertime, kid, it’s supposed to be hot.” But the reality is that even though air conditioning has been around since the late 1920s, we really haven’t put it into effect until the post-World War II era. Air conditioning went into the more expensive houses. But now, I don’t care where you build in the United States, you’re probably putting air conditioning, even in International Falls, Minnesota. That’s crazy, putting air conditioning up there and heating.

Well, I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. When I grew up in the ’80s, my house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, didn’t have any central air conditioning. We just had central heat. Even though I was in a milder climate potentially, or a slightly more southern exposure than you up in Boston growing up, we had no AC. My parents had a window rattler in their master bedroom, but the rest of the house was whatever it was with the windows open at night. Now, one benefit of the North in some areas is that we have cooler nighttime temperatures, whereas in Texas, you know, there are months where it’s never below 70 even at night, so we can’t just throw our windows open in July in Texas and cool the house down like we could some nights growing up in Pennsylvania.

But when I was in high school, probably in the late ’80s, ’89, ’90, my parents got central air conditioning at our house in Pennsylvania. It’s funny; ever since then, we’ve all seen our cars go from having one slide dial from heat to cold, and that’s all you had to condition your car, to these days, even my Chevy pickup truck has my side at 68° and my wife’s side at 74°. Do you really think it’s that much difference between the two? But it’s that perception of, “Oh, I can really dial in the control for my environment.” That’s what the car people are selling, right? They’re not selling what you can do; they’re selling why you want to do it. When I jump in that passenger seat, I want to, at least, get in my mind that I am turning this up to 72; my side’s cooler than your side because I just want it a little cooler. But it’s that perception, and the same thing with houses is that you go in, and you want, obviously, the real; it’s not quite a perception because you walk in there at 70. But when you take places like Phoenix or Austin in July or August, you really can’t survive outside during the day. People do; there are guys out there roofing and stuff, which is just baffling to me, but they do it because they have to do work. It’s never really a choice, like, “Hey, let me just go sit out in the sun and bake.” It’s, “Let me go inside and put on the TV in my nice controlled environment.”

That’s so fascinating that you mentioned that 60 to 70 years really of being able to condition our spaces because if you think about the population in North America, mainly population bases were in the northern states where it was a little more mild in the summertime, certainly cold in the winter, and we’ve had more ability to heat than air condition. Let’s say 100 years ago, we had fireplaces and fires. But if you look at the population growth in the south, in particular, you know, Phoenix is super booming, I’d say Phoenix is on fire, both literally and figuratively. It’s super hot in Phoenix, and yet the population there has grown greatly because you’re right; we’ve only had really this ability to space condition, to air condition in the last 50, 60 years. The same with Texas; it’s a hugely growing state, and a big reason for that is that we can air condition our offices and our houses so that even in extreme heat, we can be in the 70° range, which is very comfortable for us.

Historically, when you look at how the country developed, where people lived, how equipment developed, AC was after heating systems. We had stoves and stuff that my parents grew up with in their houses. So when people talk about control or conditioning, a lot of times the perspective is such that it’s tied to heating environments, right? And comfort is tied to heating environments, yep. But like you just said, probably the highest populated areas in the last decade are Florida, Texas, and Arizona, undoubtedly, massive change in population. So the perspective is slightly changing, and when we talk about control, it’s not, “Hey, how do I make this house nice and warm and energy-efficient?” It’s, “How do I make this house nice and cool?” But the understanding is, in both cases, I’m purchasing raw energy somewhere, and I have to convert that energy and either make cooling or make heating to condition that environment, but both of them are tied to this idea of control and predicted control, yep.

And what I find really interesting in my short time of 30 years in the industry, if you were to graph the start of our ability to create good equipment and assemblies, it’s on a nice path upward. We can build better walls now than we could build in the ’50s; we have better insulation techniques; we also have better equipment, yep. But with that comes a much higher expectation, that’s for sure; expectations have definitely risen from my childhood of, “Oh, it’ll be between 60° and 90° in my bedroom when I go to bed at night, and depending on that, I’ll either go to bed in my underwear on top of my sheets or I’ll put a huge blanket on.” Whereas today, we have those dials on the car. I mean, ultimately, Steve, if we could summarize this episode one, you’ve heard Steve and I use the word a bunch, control. That’s ultimately what we’re looking for, and in this series, as we step out the other nine episodes, this Building Science 101 series is kind of like a ladder; it’s a stair-step. Step one is control. Stephen and I have nine more episodes for you. Stay tuned, guys. Is there any other summary that I missed? No, I mean, it’s we’re going to be on a really interesting journey here because we talk about, you highlight the word control. Is there a choice that we make about building or is an architect that doesn’t fall back to the baseline of control, and it’s probably not everything that we put into our houses, everything that we choose to operate inside our houses, everything we bring in after we build the building has some level of tie back to the word control. That’s right.

This episode of Building Science 101 is brought to you by our friends at Anderson Windows. This is a longstanding partnership; they’ve been around for many decades. The A-Series window they’re making now is currently the most efficient, highest-performing window that Anderson has ever offered. Thirty years in the industry, Anderson. I remember my very first project I ever did had Anderson, right. So it’s nice that we have a company here that is now developing their performance even further. It’s great to have a domestic manufacturer that is developing their line of triple-glazed windows and offering that option. Even if the window is certified, meaning they’ve got really high standards for airtightness and water holdout. This is really a top-performing window, and you still get that beauty and elegance of a really nice aesthetic. Windows are everything in our control layer; they’re about water management, air management, thermal comfort, everything is wrapped up in there. Window manufacturers are really tasked with probably the hardest job in building.

You’re punching a hole in that perfect envelope that you made that’s insulated and structurally sound, and now we’ve got to pop a hole in it and make sure that that window can control all that. This is a tough task, and these guys do it exceptionally well because not only do they solve the building science part, but they make it look great, for sure. The last thing I want to mention, Steve, is they make windows that you can specify as PG70 rated. We’re not going 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 this with an 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 PG50 rating is already a very high rating. When you go to coastal applications, you need to go to that PG70 rating, and 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 PG70 rating, which means 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. That’s good for every region in 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. Now, if we talk about a window that’s PG70 rated, we’re not going to have those problems. No, I totally agree; I mean their balance of performance and aesthetics is as good as it gets. For more information, you can go check these guys out on the web at Big thanks to Anderson for sponsoring the Building Science 101 series. Let’s wrap it up, guys. Thank you for joining us, Episode One: Why Do We Build? Stay tuned for Episode Two; otherwise, we’ll see you next time on Building Science 101.