Build Science 101: #5 What is Building Science?
Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor
There’s no doubt that certain private and public organizations are taking building science more seriously, which is commendable. However, the concept of building science isn’t new. There have always been builders and designers who apply specific design, product, and material criteria in the hope of constructing better homes and buildings, especially the ones they build for themselves! Take the passive house, for example, which has been around for over 30 years, it’s a testament for those who want better.
While some may market building science as a mystical art to sell their products or services, it’s important to note that building science alone does not guarantee a good home. To me, building science is a topic of study that empowers its students to design a building that achieves a certain level of performance, durability, energy-efficiency, and wellbeing. It shouldn’t be a special skill; it should just be the norm for all designers and builders to consider in their projects.
Those who know me well in the industry know that I am pushing for more adoption (and manufacturing capability) of better building systems and practices in New Zealand – and globally. Many of these advanced building systems already address many core concepts of good building science.
Most of the older building methods used today make it difficult to apply good building science into their builds because they do not have the room or choose the right materials. Why is it that in New Zealand we are still using unhealthy products and materials that are banned in nearly every other country? I don’t believe it’s because we want to, it’s because designers, builders, and specifiers simply don’t know that these products are unhealthy.
Building airtight buildings seems to be the hot topic at the moment. However, this alone is not a good strategy to me because we need to understand moisture accumulation, condensation management, dilution of indoor pollutants, cooking vapour and gases, etc. Moisture is all around us, we can’t escape it, we need to let it out when too much of it builds up or we’ll start getting mold and unwanted health issues for our occupants.
In short, I feel our policy makers, designers, and specifiers need a better overall understanding of what constitutes a good build, not just focusing on one aspect like airtightness. There’s simply not enough education and knowledge being shared.
In Steve and Matt’s episode, they tackle one of the most persistent myths in the industry. Picture this: a seasoned builder proudly claims, “We’ve been building for over a decade, and now we’re embracing building science.” Sounds reasonable, right? Well, not quite. As our Steve and Matt explain, building science isn’t an optional add-on; it’s there from the very start, lurking in every nail, board, and wall section.
From the moment you nail two boards together, the rules change. The drying potential shifts, the thermal properties transform, and water management enters the scene. Building science isn’t a mere concept; it’s intrinsic to every action in construction.
But it doesn’t stop there. As we venture deeper into the world of building science, we discover its omnipresence. Even digging a hole for a simple foundation disrupts the natural hydrology of the ground, demonstrating that building science extends to every nook and cranny of the building process.
Over to Steve and Matt to continue the story.
All right, my friends, Building Science 101, we’re back again with Episode Five: Where is Building Science? Steve, can you help us find it? Oh yeah, hold on… Oh, here it is. Wait… Oh yeah, I got it right here. Wait, it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. You know, one of the biggest myths I’m so excited to do this episode because one of the biggest myths I always hear is, ‘Well, you know, Steve, we’ve been a builder. We’ve been building for like 10, 15 years, and we started using building science.’ And it takes a while for that to compute. I was like, ‘Wait, wait a minute. You said you’re a builder for 10 years, yeah, and you’re starting to use building science. Oh yeah, we’re starting to use building science. We’re looking at using, you know, exterior insulation.’ And I said, ‘Okay, did you ever nail two boards together?’ ‘Yeah, of course, we’ve been building for 10 years. All day long.’ The minute those two boards get nailed together, the drying potential changes. The thermal properties of each board change because they have a coinciding face that’s now touching. Water can’t get through there, but it can be held in suspension in there. Water management issues. Building science is in everything we do.
That’s right, in building, that’s right. If we dig a hole in the backyard to put a foundation for a shed, we’re messing with building science because we’re changing the hydrology of the ground. That’s right, 100%. And we hear all the time that, ‘Hey, I’m going to start using building science,’ or as an architect, ‘Yeah, we’re going to start applying some building science principles.’ And it’s like, ‘Have you ever drawn a wall section?’ ‘Of course.’ So, just so happens that two of them here, right? We have a bottom plate on each one. You can see it there. And then this wall here, we have two different types of sheathing in case I don’t like to leave the remodeling crew out. Right? So you have the house that has the board sheathing. Yep. And then you have the one that has a sheet good on here, right? And this is an exterior wall because it’s got a double top plate, but it’s an exterior wall. So it’s load-bearing on the outside. We have that double top plate. Why? But the reality is, even without insulation in there, I’m messing around with building science for sure because when the wind blows here, that board sheathing changes the pressure here from there, and it blocks it. And even if I didn’t put a building paper on, I still just have those little holes now that air can get in there. And likewise, if it was raining while that wind was blowing, then that water can get into that system, and now it’s inside that cavity. If I have heat on the inside that I’m heating, well, that heating energy is now going into that uninsulated wall, and it’s trying to dry that moisture that got inside the wall.
The physics, whether you’re trying to build a passive house or just building a shed, is going to act on that building assembly the same. We alter it; now we might not get the controlled environment we’re seeking. Building a wall this way as a 2×4 uninsulated wall. But nonetheless, building science is present in everything we do. So as a builder, as an architect out there, you really need to start understanding that very basic premise that building science is an integrated approach to everything we do in building.
It’s not something that you apply later on. It is by default part of every decision that we make. It’s not a product. It’s not a technique. It’s an understanding. That’s what the series is all about, giving you the knowledge and the understanding so when you look at a building, you see it with those same eyes that Steve and I do to understand how time, how gravity, how water, how air, how moisture is going to affect and modify that building over time. Yeah, I mean, I was really fortunate. I mean, I had a really small time at a large Architecture Firm after graduation, but I tell people I really, you know, broke my teeth out working at Building Science Corporation. So I only know this. I was never taught bad habits; I was only taught the good habits, and all of those myths were somewhat dispelled. Yeah, you know, Joe would never say, ‘Of course, building science is here.’ I mean, in the minute we nail two boards together, we’re messing around with it. But the interesting thing also about it is that marketing has gotten involved now. I don’t want to be hating on marketers, but it seems like the minute they get involved, kind of myths and ideas seem to get tweaked a little bit. So, I remember years ago working with a builder, and he was showing me a marketing pamphlet from one of his competitors in the area, and it said, and they were building 2×4 walls, and most of the market was building R13, and they had the nerve to say, ‘Enhanced insulation package’ because they went to R15. Granted, I get it, it’s a step up, and they take every marketing advantage. But when you sit back from the building science perspective, you sit there and say, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of an enhancement of nothing.’
Yeah, you can say whatever you want, but the problem I have with labels, and I hate them, and I can sit here and rattle off how many passive houses I’ve done, how many Whata call it Platinum homes I’ve done, I bet you did a lot of houses in the Green Building days. Well, Green Building, energy-efficient homes, all of these Zero Energy homes. But the reality is we want to design and integrate that building science in such a manner that we’re just delivering the best possible product. That’s right. The problem with labels that I have is people say, ‘Well, I want a passive house.’ Well, that’s good to have the conversation, and homeowners might think they know what they’re talking about when they say, ‘I want a passive house.’ And I actually have a good story about not knowing passive house. The very first passive house project that I’ve ever worked on, we’re meeting with the client, and he says, ‘You know, I want to get passive house certification. I mean, passive house was like in the US for about a month or two, and they want CER.’ He’s like, ‘I want a CER certified passive house.’ And he’s like, ‘You know what that is?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And I excused myself, went to the bathroom, and I’m in there Googling, ‘Passive house, what does this mean?’ So, I’m like, ‘What the hell does this mean?’ So, I come out, and I say, ‘Yes, we were talking about passive house.’ Yeah, that’s a series of metrics, energy use, airtightness that came over from Europe, and it’s basically rules to build by to achieve a certain level of performance. And don’t get me wrong, building high performance is good, but I hate it when people say, ‘Well, we build high-performance homes.’ What the hell does that mean? Does it mean it’s an enhanced insulation package, like, you went from R19 to R21, or are you really doing something with that house? I have builders; I was at a conference, and the guy says, ‘Oh, we build really good houses.’ I said, ‘Airtight too.’ ‘Oh yeah, we built some of the tightest houses in the state.’ And I said, ‘What’s a blower door number on a typical house for you?’ ‘Well, what’s a blower door?’ I said, and in my mind, I’m saying, ‘You have no clue. You have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Talking about an airtight house. ‘Oh yeah, maybe air moves through, and my 0.55 goes up to 0.59.’ Oh my God, right? It’s not the end of the world, but the understanding as a designer when you’re sitting across the table from these clients, you’re going to find those solutions to be able to integrate and put your building in a position for success. This episode of Building Science 101 brought to you by our friends at Vew Rail. Vew Rail is America’s first choice for floating stairs and modern railings.
Now, tie this together for me, Steve. We’ve got a company that makes beautiful staircases. How does that fit in with building science? Well, I mean, history will tell us if we build beautiful buildings, people take care of them. That’s right. So if we put a beautiful staircase in a beautiful building, people love it, people take care of it. And I’m being an architect; I certainly care a lot about performance. Obviously, we’re here talking about building science. But it has to look as good as it performs too, right? That’s an equal status that we have to build as builders and architects in there. And you know, Vew Rail, they bring that to the project for sure. You know, Steve, I’ve always said that staircases are the crown jewel of that house. You know, when I build a detailed staircase, I get to show off my craftsmanship as a builder. And what’s really cool about Vew Rail is you may not have a 50-year-old finish carpenter who specializes in stairs in your town as a builder. But you know what? When you partner with Vew Rail, they’re going to build it in their factory with their excellent craftsmanship, with their precision. And then you’re going to assemble it on the job. And I’ll tell you what, as the builder, you’re going to get that feeling of, ‘Wow, this must be an incredibly well-built house. Look at the staircase, the craftsmanship, the precision. It’s all there. It’s really cool. And they’ve got a wide spectrum of choices, right? If you go on their website, I mean, there’s all kinds of different materials, different wood types, different stair styles. So there’s something certainly there to suit your needs. For sure. And the last thing I’ll say about them is they’re a family-owned company, made right in the heart of America. Excellent people to work with, super friendly. They’ve done literally tens of thousands of these. So they’ve encountered every problem you might have out there. And they’re really, really good people to work with. So you can learn more at Vew Rail.com. Big thanks to these guys for sponsoring.