Christine Williamson, building scientist and the person behind Building Science Fight Club, joins the show to talk about the different ways to integrate new knowledge into building durable and efficient structures and designs with the help of building science. She also discusses how this is a tool to solve specific problems and what those problems are.
The show starts off with Christine explaining what Building Science is and how it is a little bit more complicated than other sciences. She explains how it specializes in the layers that separate the inside from the outside, and how those layers ought to be arranged to get the best out of any buildings built. She also shares how she got into this and how her father, Joseph Lstiburek, taught and mentored her throughout her career.
Tessa shares how her interest in houses led her into building science as well. She explains how her thought of becoming an architect accidentally fell into becoming a building scientist. She shares how she re-evaluated her decision and how her mind was opened into the fascinating world of science that looks at the systems of buildings and designs so that there will be no failures, to have more energy efficiency, durability, and occupant’s health, safety, and comfort.
Reuben asks Christine about the name “ Building Science Fight Club.” He also introduces Christine as a member and former chair of the ASHRAE Technical Committee on Moisture Management in Buildings, and asks the following questions:
What types of houses would you never buy?
Why would you prefer buying an old house?
Why do we build some of the buildings the way that we do?
Why design a roof that funnels water to the front door? Or up against a wall or a window?
What percentage of houses are actually designed by an architect?
Lastly, Bill explains the role of home inspectors. He says that they are to give the buyers the tools that they need to make an intelligent decision and not to tell them to buy it, He says that these tools will make them decide what’s good for them just like a framework to think through.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Christine Williamson: Building science is a little bit more complicated. People are like, “Well, what is that? Don’t we already know what it is we need to know about buildings? They seem so simple.” And people are sort of surprised to learn that there are people who specialize in the layers that separate the inside from the outside and build them and design them so that they’re durable and efficient.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome, everybody, you’re listening to Structure Talk, a structure tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, as always, thanks for joining. On today’s episode, we are absolutely delighted to have Christine Williamson with us. Christine is a building scientist by trade. Yes?
BO: And we’re gonna dig into your life, your career, how you got to where you are today, and we’re just super, super excited to have you here. So Christine, could you take a minute and just kind of introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you?
CW: You’re correct, I’m a building scientist. When I used to fly places and I was on airplanes and people would ask me what I would do, I would not say building scientists because then people are, “Oh, well, tell me more about that.” So if I did not wanna have a conversation, I would just say that I was in the building industry or I was in architecture broadly, and then they don’t ask any questions. They’re like, “Oh okay, that’s great. I know what that is.” Building science is a little bit more complicated. People are like, “Well, what is that? Don’t we already know what it is we need to know about buildings? They seem so simple.” And people are sort of surprised to learn that there are people who specialize in the layers that separate the inside from the outside, and how those layers ought to be arranged to get the best out of our buildings and build them and design them so that they’re durable and efficient, efficient to operate, but also efficient to actually build. We don’t wanna use too many resources to build buildings, to how can we make the best use of our resources and find our sweet spot for risk and durability and aesthetics and performance, and there are people like me who specialize in exactly that.
CW: And one of those things, I constantly am impressed with this when I hear about somebody else’s job, where I’m like, “Oh, that’s really… Yeah, that makes sense that someone would do that.” But you just don’t think about it, it’s kind of… Now I wish… Now, of course, I can’t think of a single example, but I feel like I’ve had that experience, probably all of us have where we’re like, “Yeah, alright, somebody does need to design such and such, or somebody does need to be thinking about whatever it might be.”
BO: Tessa, I want you to jump in because I’ve often asked you, how does one wake up… As a child, they’re five years old, and it’s like, “I wanna be a building scientist.” When did that light bulb go up for you, Tessa, and Christine, I’d be curious if it was similar. I mean, how do you decide one day just to get into building science?
Tessa Murry: Boy, I didn’t even know what building science was, like Christine said, it’s just most people don’t, and so I just kind of accidentally fell into it. I’ve always been interested in houses and I always thought, “Well, I should be an architect,” and I thought that was the direction I was gonna go in, and then after doing AmeriCorps after high school and working for Habitat for Humanity building houses, then I started to kind of re-evaluate that decision and exploring other options, and that’s when I ran across the Building Science degree at the University of Minnesota with Pat Holman, which I think, Christine, you know, Pat…
CW: Fast Pat.
TM: She was so great… Yeah, yeah, and I thought, “You know what, this is fascinating,” there is this whole other world out there that looks at how buildings, how all the systems fit together, how they work, how one thing impacts another, and we need to be thoughtful in how we design and put these buildings together so we don’t have failures, and it’s about energy efficiency, durability, occupant health and safety, comfort, all of these things and it’s like, “Yeah, it seems like that’s just so basic. Whoever is building our houses, they should already understand that, know that, do that.” But in reality, it doesn’t happen. So yeah, I’m curious, Christine, explain a little bit how you got into this, ’cause I know we haven’t mentioned this yet, but you have a pretty well-known building scientist in your family, right?
CW: I sure do, I sure do, but I think actually people end up discovering this for themselves, like any career path for the most part. So my father is Joe Lstiburek, and he has been a great mentor and teacher throughout my career. It’s a special thing to be able to learn from your father and relate to your father, not just as a dad, but also as a colleague, and I’ve come to appreciate that a lot in my adult life and in my more adult practice of my profession. But really similar to you, Tessa, in that when I think most people approach building science as a tool to solve specific problems, you don’t come to it with this abstract area, like I wanna study this field of science the way that you might… If you were in school and you were like, “Well, I really like biology. I wanna be a Biologist,” or actually, it’s a little bit like Engineering. “I wanna be an engineer.” “Okay, well, there’s a lot of different types of engineers. What kind do you wanna be? What kind of problem do you wanna solve?”
CW: And I think that’s really the case with building science, and for me, I thought I would go into just normal… Normal. [chuckle] Architecture, architectural practice. And when I was in architecture school, I took a job with a fantastic architect in New York City, Chris Benedict, and she built extraordinarily designed, rather extraordinarily energy efficient buildings, and I found working for her that if you want to accomplish anything extraordinary from an energy perspective, you have to understand Building Science. This field of knowledge has a name, and it’s called Building Science, and it’s not just building science, but is also construction, what are the actual methods, the means and methods that we used to physically put things together? There’s a sequencing, there’s a division of labor among different trades. No single person knows how to build a building, which is amazing to me, nobody, no person on Earth knows how to build a building, and yet we build them all the time, and it’s this sort of magically cooperative collaborative process that nobody has full ownership over, everybody owns their little part, and it comes together to create sometimes really extraordinary things, but it also, we have problems in those divisions.
CW: So how do we maximize, how do we take the best stuff out of that collaborative effort, and how do we avoid some of the big pitfalls and the field of study that investigates that is building science. You have to know about thermodynamics, you have to know about construction. If you wanna do anything cool with buildings, you need to know these things, or somebody needs to know these things.
TM: Gosh, I love how you said that, Christine. Really, like the art of building science is understanding all these different systems, how they fit together, so that you can kind of solve these problems without creating new problems really.
CW: Or creating new problems that you know about and you’re prepared to deal with. And I think a lot of times when people approach this profession because maybe they don’t have a language to really speak about it, so the language that we use a lot of the times, it’s just very simplistic. It’s, “Well, what’s the right way to build and what’s the wrong way to build? And I wanna learn the right way and avoid the wrong way.” And unfortunately, that’s too simplistic an approach for much of what we do in construction. The truth of the matter is that we’re really weighing a lot of competing goals that are all legitimate, and we have to decide how to prioritize among competing goals, and building science is a tool, it doesn’t tell you how to build your building, building science doesn’t care, it doesn’t care what you do, it just is, but it is a tool that helps you understand risk better, performance better, and it helps you make decisions so that your building most closely reflects what you value and what resources you have available.
CW: So to give an example, like we value energy efficiency, we also value comfort and aesthetics and budget and cost, we don’t have unlimited resources to build everybody’s houses. If we build everybody’s house like the Palace of Versailles, there’d be a lot of homeless people. It would be an inefficient use of resources to build all houses like castles. It would also be similarly uncomfortable or not good, not efficient in its own way to build all houses like warehouses or like tents. We don’t wanna do either of those things. So how can we understand materials better and performance better to make the best use of the resources that we are prepared to devote to something? And that is a much more complicated question, than well tell me the right way to do it, and I’ll just do it the right way.
CW: Unfortunately, what a lot of people wanna know, a lot of our clients wanna know, right, just… “Well just do it the right way. What do I pay you for? Do it the right way. Design my windows the right way.” “Well, okay. [chuckle] What kind of windows do you want?” When we say, “Your window shouldn’t leak,” what do we really mean by that? It’s a much more valuable discussion to have, “Okay, under what conditions will this window leak and under what conditions should it not leak,” rather than, “Well, just give me a window that doesn’t leak.” Well, it’s gonna leak, we are not building a submarine. And people who do build submarines, they x-ray all of the scenes and their welding stuff together, and we’re not doing that. “Okay, so what’s the next best?” It’s a tool, I guess not a specific instruction manual or a list of rules.
BO: My guess is when either of you two are at a dinner or having drinks with people and you’re in their home, you are the center of conversation because everybody’s coming to you with their problems and be like, “Why is this happening?” Do you find that to be true? You’re always solving somebody’s problem when you’re in their home.
CW: So this is a very… I’m gonna answer this with a very feminine comment here, I don’t know if you are aware of it, but there’s a romantic comedy called 27 Dresses. I forget how many dresses were involved.
TM: Yeah, it is.
CW: And it’s this woman who is always… The story is that she’s always a bridesmaid, never a bride kind of thing, so she’s been a bridesmaid in 27 weddings and had 27 awful dresses. I remember there was a season of my life where everybody I knew was getting married. There were lots of weddings. I feel like the past two or three years, everybody I know is… All of my friends have bought houses. [laughter] “What does this house report mean? Is my house gonna fall down?” So yes, I do get a lot of questions about that kind of stuff. But it’s such a pleasure. I love knowing something useful enough to actually help people that I care about, making big decisions about what for most of us is our largest single investment, that said, it truly is a pleasure, but I couldn’t… Some people, some professions like lawyers or doctors, I mean, it would drive me crazy to get like, “Can you just look at my elbow please? Please.”
Reuben Saltzman: Yeah. On that topic, I gotta push down that road a little bit, ’cause that’s what we do, we’re home inspectors and day in and day out, we’re helping people with those decisions, so I gotta ask you, is there any type of house that you would never buy? I wanna know what you like in houses. Let’s just start with new versus old. I think we actually did a podcast on that topic specifically where we argued about it. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.
CW: Well I’m firmly in the old camp and I’m in the “almost anything is fixable” camp, I’m in the “what do you want out of this” camp, and I think actually that’s why the home inspection stuff is so important on the front end, is that people… And it’s very difficult because homeowners and prospective homeowners are… They’re naturally very emotional about this big purchase, and I don’t think it is particularly helpful to tell people, “Well, just approach it like a business. Don’t be emotional.” They’re gonna be emotional. So that’s okay. I think we have to have to work with that, but I do think it’s helpful to set realistic expectations for the kind of living environment you’re gonna be in and what the maintenance requirements are gonna be for that, and I think some people, especially people buying new houses, assume that maintenance should be zero and that nothing should ever go wrong, and whatever. Older houses, maybe they… You guys can comment on this more, I’m curious to hear what your experience is, but I would imagine that people buying a new home are potentially very unrealistic about what they got to see, and people who live in older homes they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…”
RS: Oh, definitely, some of the most incompetent homeowners I’ve ever seen are the people who buy brand new houses, by far. They just… They know they’re incompetent and then they make this assumption that, “Well, then therefore I should buy a new home ’cause I don’t have to do anything,” but I mean, the one thing though, I gotta know what you say about this. Why old? Is that because they’re more durable, more forgiving? How come?
CW: A personal preference, I guess, I just like the character of it, and I’m attracted to the idea of the house sort of always being a project, always being something that you’re working on, and it’s a way to connect… Maybe this is super cheesy, but I guess it’s a way to connect one generation to another. I love that the house that I’m in had people living in it who I don’t know, and they cared for it and brought it to today, they cared for it sufficiently to bring it to today, it’s a nice example of improving things incrementally and truly incrementally, like this house still has, will never be finished. There’s a poetry to that, a beauty to always contributing to something’s betterment, to never really be in there.
TM: You know what I think is really cool, Christine? Is that, yes, you have this one foot in the very scientific, the engineering world of understanding building science and the thermodynamics of a wall system and all these things. But at the same time, you have an appreciation for the artistic side of houses.
CW: Oh yeah.
TM: And the aesthetics, and the history and all of that too. And does that come from your background? You started out in architecture, right, and then you kind of evolved into Building Science or…
CW: Yeah, I still consider what I do to be architecture, I say building science to accurately describe it day-to-day, but I view Building Science as a part of architecture, and maybe that’s me just flattering myself because I love architecture, so I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m one of you.” [chuckle] But I do think that it’s just a part of architecture and so maybe a little bit, but I think also it’s just from being human, you experience a house in all kinds of different ways, and we all experience, have a connection to our living space. So when I bought this house that I’m in right now, it’s an old craftsman. It was built in 1936, I think. And the first thing I did was renovate the kitchen, [chuckle] and also I didn’t even know how to cook at the time. I do now. Which was sort of a funny prospect, I realized that I could have eaten out every single night of the first year and spent less money than I did on the renovation, but it’s an open floor plan. And I love the kitchen and it’s gorgeous, and I don’t regret having done the kitchen before insulating the attic, but…
TM: What would your Dad have said?
CW: I know right. I didn’t ask his opinion on this, but I think he would have said… He’s a kind of buy the shoes kind of guy. [laughter] I think he probably would have been pretty supportive either way, actually, he probably would have been like just, “Do both, do everything,” which is the danger when you’re in this industry, like my poor husband, I talk about houses being a project… They’re really a project in the Williamson family. [laughter] But no, people are always… They’re making decisions in the context of the rest of their lives, and I think that’s helpful for every profession to know about. We have a tendency to sort of elevate what we’re good at or what we know a lot about, but the reality is we’re all whole people and we have lots of things that we care about, not just one thing, so it leads to some potential irrationalities, I guess, but that’s life. It’s a little bit messy.
BO: So could you tell me a little bit about your journey through your career? So you were in school and you hooked up with this company and you were looking at what types of buildings, and then how has that shifted over time?
CW: So I was in New York City and I was looking at primarily multi-family buildings, and this was… I was working for a straight up architecture firm. Yeah, it was a firm that cared a great deal about energy efficiency, and construction… It’s kind of a unique firm actually, if you’re unfamiliar with the owner of it, Chris Benedict, really neat lady. She’s an architect, went to Cooper Union, New Yorker through and through, and is a very passionate environmentalist. She’s also a pretty passionate libertarian, and believes that if we as a country, as a society, are gonna make any kind of long-term environmental advancements with the way that we build, whatever it is we’re considering should be financially viable in its own right.
CW: So she was very much in favor of finding clever ways of doing things as opposed to just throwing money at something to make it more energy efficient. You can save energy in the long run by spending more money up front, we know this, you can buy solar panels, you can buy more insulation/ Chris’s real passion lay in finding out how to save energy and doing so without additional upfront resources or by being really clever about how you’re using what you’ve already got, how do we work with what we were already doing to maximize performance, and she’s very good at it, so her buildings used at the time, she’s probably even better now, but they would use 85% less energy for heat and hot water than a typical New York apartment building, and she would do it with no extra upfront costs.
TM: Oh my gosh.
CW: Which is incredible, it’s… And she can do this. These are not modeled savings, this wasn’t from an energy model, this was from… She would look at part of working, part of being… Hiring Chris meant that you gave her your utility bills, she would take the utility bills, and she cared immensely. “Did I actually succeed in doing this?” Anyway, so I had a great, great time working for her, she taught me a lot about the practical aspects of building science and design, so this is the stuff that we design in the office, but this actually goes on a building so we have to make sure that these two things agree with each other. If you can’t draw it properly or model it or whatever, someone’s not gonna be able to build it. So she would have us do really hands-on things. I was an intern. There was another intern I worked with who was also great, but Chris would do stuff like, we proposed a ledge on one of our buildings… This doesn’t have to do with building science, but it’s cool. Chris was like, “No, that’s not gonna work. That’s gonna be a spot for pigeons. It’s just gonna be awful.”
CW: Like, “No, no. I don’t know about that. It’s not that big, whatever.” So she had us go out and look at pigeons in the city. She said, “Go outside, spend the day, look at these pigeons,” so we were looking at pigeons. And she had us model a pigeon out of the paper, and the ledge, and see if the pigeon that we had modeled met the sort of fatness of normal New York City pigeons and would fit on this ledge, stuff like that. She also hold in one of those window units off the street, air conditioning systems that you see? Someone had discarded it and she hold it in… This was actually my first day, she had hold it into the office and it was on my desk and she said, “Okay, I want you to learn everything you can about this. I want you to take it apart, put it back together. Find out where its center of gravity is. Draw it, draw every part of it. I want you to be an expert in this window unit.” ‘Cause she wanted the union of building and she wanted to know everything, everything about it. So that was the intern’s job.
CW: So she was… Anyway, very, very practical-minded, very much, figure this stuff on your own, spend time on construction sites, watching the trades work, figuring out where you might be able to find deficiencies in areas where it’s not practical to ask somebody to do something different, that kind of stuff. Anyway, all that’s to say is I loved it. Who wouldn’t love that? It’s my job. Maybe some people wouldn’t, but it’s my job to go look at pigeons for the day, like, “What?” My friends were stuck behind a desk working at Goldman Sachs and here I am, making paper mache pigeons. Anyway, I had the time of my life. It was fantastic and a real neat way to see how the intersection of a bunch of interesting stuff, construction, design and business too, and science, all kinda neat things coming together. Why is it that we build the way we build is a really interesting question.
CW: And then with respect to, I mentioned before that she’s a very passionate environmentalist and also a libertarian. I find this endlessly interesting to this day, identifying things in our industry that are seemingly inefficient that we do all the time. We know how to save energy on… There are a lot of things we know how to do and it doesn’t cost extra, but we’re not doing them. Why aren’t we doing them? These are interesting questions. And it’s not because we don’t want to, it’s not… It’s just fascinating. There’s thousands of things that seem irrational at first, and then you look into why it is we build certain ways or why we do things the way that we do and it’s just neat, cool.
BO: ‘Cause we’ve always done it. Just keep doing it that way.
CW: Yeah. And I think actually, that’s part of it. I think that the term in economics is called, Path Dependency, and I see it a lot in construction, where even if you could come in as an outsider in an industry, say, you’re some sort of financial consultant, and you could go to a big production home builder and say, “You would save x amount of money.” Actually, framing is a good example of this, standard framing and advanced framing. It’s more efficient to use what’s called, advance framing, say you’re spacing your studs further apart, it makes more room for insulation, you use less wood overall. You engineer the building in a particular way to use less wood. It’s not more complicated. What it is, is different. And even though something can be less expensive in terms of materials, not that much more complicated to actually install. Once initially, a framer learns this, it’s not hard, but we have this incredible dependency on how we’ve done it before, because there is this sort of hidden cost in learning something new and risk, there’s a risk in learning something new, so how much money are you really gonna save and how much money is each individual player involved in the decision gonna save to make the change worth it.
CW: Consequently, and we do… There’s tons of buildings that we don’t do advanced framing for. When we could, and it wouldn’t cost us more money, but we don’t because there are sort of hidden risks with it that don’t have to be there but are. It’s crazy. And there’s thousands of examples like that, where because it’s the way we used to do it actually, is sort of weirdly legitimate reason not to change. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s like, “Yeah, okay, figure this out now.” But other times, people are busy, they’ve got a thousand other concerns on their list or a thousand other reasons why they might get a job versus their competitor, and it makes more sense for them to develop more intellectual energy to marketing than to hiring more advanced framers.
RS: Sure, that make sense.
CW: There’s trade-offs involving everything.
TM: I love what you just said, ’cause it really… I think after 2020 and everything we went through in our business, we’ve talked on previous podcasts about a lot of changes we’ve made this past year, and it’s been changing our report writing software, changing our client attendance policy, changing our training process, and it takes a ton of energy and thought and time, and even risk to make these changes, but it was a great opportunity to make those changes ’cause change or die, really, you have to adapt and grow. We saw the long-term benefits of doing these things. You may not see the payback right now, but it’s thinking down the road. And we can do the same thing about buildings.
CW: I think that you’re totally right. I think also this period has revealed a lot of inefficiencies that we kinda took for granted before and provided an opportunity to correct some of them. I hope that stays and that’s a lesson that we can kinda continue with, but it’s complicated.
TM: Yeah, change is constant, right?
TM: Learn to embrace it.
RS: I gotta ask you something, Christine, I wanna ask you about why we build some of the buildings the way that we do and some of the design, ’cause it’s a frustrating topic every time we’re teaching a class, but before we get that, for anybody listening and I wanna back up a little bit, kind of to the very intro of who you are, ’cause I wanna let people know that you are qualified to answer this question.
RS: So first off, how we found you, your name came up… It’s crazy how things happen. Your name was sent to us, three different times in a two-week period, like, “Hey, have you checked out her Instagram page? Look at all this stuff.” And you’ve got a wildly successful Instagram page. What is it? BuildingScienceFightClub?
CW: BuildingScienceFightClub, yep.
RS: Yeah, over 62,000 followers on there, crazy. You’ve got some fantastic illustrations and explanations. If anybody’s interested in that kind of thing, check her out. You’re also… I’ve got here, you’re a member and former chair of the ASHRAE Technical Committee on Moisture Management in Buildings, which, that’s a pretty big deal. If somebody is an authority on moisture management in buildings, I might come to you, I might come to you for these types of questions so let’s just say you’re not some schlub off the street answering this right now. But you know what? Hold on, let me take a left turn here real quick, where’d you get building science fight club? What is that all about?
CW: The name kinda started as a joke, honestly, but now I can’t change it. It’s sort of funny, I guess to this day. Some people take it a little bit too seriously, where they’re like, “She really wants us to do get out here.” No, it started as a bit of a joke. My background is in architecture and a lot of my classmates from for architecture school really had very limited experience on job sites. I mentioned my first job with Chris Benedict in New York City, I was spending a ton of time in the field on job sites, that’s really atypical for most people who graduate with an architecture degree and then go and pursue licensure, working for an architecture for a traditional design firm. The amount of time they spend on job sites, it’s just not… It’s just not a lot of time and it’s difficult ’cause they don’t really have a lot of time to spend on job sites, they’ve got design work to do.
CW: I recognize that I would get a lot of questions from classmates from architecture school who were advancing in their career and they were getting to be… They were getting to have leadership positions in their firms, in their respective firms, and it was sort of a bit of the emperor has no clothes experience for them, where they sort of assumed that they would get this… That this information would come to them somehow when they… As they advance and they realized, “Yeah, I don’t know the answer to these questions so I don’t know if what my contractor is telling me is true. Should I listen to this, should I accept the substitution request, what’s reasonable, what’s not reasonable.” And so I’d get those questions because they trust me, we’re friends, and it’s also easier to ask questions to somebody that you know and likes you when you’re not doing it in front of your client or your boss.
CW: I started the Instagram account. I would take photos on job sites and I would just mark it up, I draw on the photo and be like, “This is the flashing, this is the window return,” really pretty basic stuff, but technical stuff, and it was for people I knew, it was for actual friends and then it just grew from there to their friends, and then now, it’s people I don’t know. But it is sort of funny that being popular, having a popular Instagram account in this stupid time we live in, is it own credential, which is funny to me in that I’ve certainly become a much better teacher from teaching on Instagram because I got to kind of crowdsource some of my teaching technique, really. When I teach something, anytime you teach something, if you’re live, you get better at teaching, and Instagram, going through the discipline of posting something every week has certainly been helpful, it’s made me better at being a teacher.
CW: It’s also made me better as a building scientist because I get more from comments and questions from people who have experiences of their own to share, I get to sort of fine tune my own knowledge based on other people’s experience too, so that’s been good. However, I’m not good at what I do because of Instagram, because I have a popular account, but because I have the popular account, people hear about me. And you mentioned that I chaired an ASHRAE committee, a lot more people know Instagram than know ASHRAE so having 62,000 followers on Instagram means something to more people than well she chaired an ASHRAE committee, which is for better or worse, that’s the world we live in. So it sort of makes me laugh a little bit that I’m still the same building scientist I was a year ago, two years ago.
CW: Instagram hasn’t made me the expert. I knew this stuff independently and Instagram means other people know about it, who may had otherwise know about it, but it’s a really weird world where that’s the case. Anyways, it’s been fun to do, I really do enjoy it. There’s some sort of constraints to the media and that have really made me a good teacher, in that you’re limited to 10 photos at a time or 10 images at a time so how do you communicate something complicated in only 10 images? You have to distill something down to its most important parts and choose what not to communicate, and that’s a challenge, but it’s a good one, it makes me a better teacher. And I think it makes people learn better in the long run, too. It can’t be the only thing. It’s like flash cards for memorizing things back when you were a kid in school, you still have to learn your multiplication tables, but these other exercises can help you to be better.
TM: You know what though, I was just gonna say, Christine, I love how you plan these really complicated building science ideas in this more basic step-by-step approach, you’ve figured out how to translate these complicated concepts and make it easy to understand, I think, and I don’t know of any other building scientists who’s really been able to do that. Usually, you get a question about something challenging and you have to read this long research paper on it, [chuckle] Google all these different opinions on it, and you’re making it so that you can look at a few different pictures and read a few different bullet points and understand the complexities of it.
CW: You don’t understand all of the complexities of it, but I think that’s how it started, the benefit of having had the account start for friends. It’s kind of, I view it like, “Okay, we’re in college, you’ve got an exam the next day, you blew off every lecture because you were totally into some boy and now your roommate is telling you, look, I took the class last semester, we’re gonna stay up all night and you’re gonna pass the stupid exam. What do you need to know to pass the exam?” And I kind of view it like that. Each specific thing I post on has volumes written about it that you could go research if you wanted to, but ultimately you’re gonna have to take an exam, you have to make a decision so you’re gonna wanna need to know a few key things, before you decide to crack open all these other textbooks, that’s what I try to do with this stuff, say…
CW: And actually, I think this is why a lot of other building science education has failed architects in particular, is that the teacher has… Whether they really realize it or not, what they’ve done is they’ve essentially said, “I’m smart and this is my judgment on this issue and you should therefore follow, you should trust me and make the same judgment,” and that’s right in… Most people who teach this stuff are also consultants, and that’s the job of consultants, they consult and they have an area of expertise and they’re asked to provide an opinion and you listen to them because of their authority as consultants, but that’s not really helpful in teaching and in teaching, my goal isn’t to say, Well, you should listen to me because I’m an authority on this, my goal is to say, Okay, you need to make a decision on this issue.
CW: I’m not make… I’m not your consultant, so you need to make this decision and here’s the information that… Here are the types of things you’re gonna wanna know. For you to make this decision and you have to decide, Okay, so I’ll say, So what’s the issue with how to install your windows, what kind of window details should you draw… Okay, I can’t tell you, I don’t know you, I don’t know your building, I don’t know your project, I don’t know your long-term goals, but here are the things that you’re gonna wanna pay attention to, and you can go from there, like you decide how durable this needs to be.
CW: You decide is this a passive house or is this is this sort of an investment property that needs to perform to code and maybe a little better, but we’re pretty good with that, and that’s a different way of teaching rather than just each time kind of being a consultant and saying, Well, in this case, this is what you should do, I think a different approach that’s also explicitly risk-oriented, which I think you guys might be able to relate to very well in your capacity, where you’re providing guidance that has to do with people make decisions related to risk, how much risk are you comfortable with in this and how many and what resources are you willing to devote to this particular issue to reduce that risk. That’s a very different way of teaching somebody because you’re equipping them to make the decision you’re not making the decision, you’re not telling them what to decide for them ’cause you can’t like you don’t… I don’t know for someone else, what you value.
CW: I was talking to someone earlier who has asthma, so he and his wife are gonna make different decisions about indoor air quality or construction related to indoor air quality in their home than someone else, and we talked about old houses and new houses. So for somebody with an asthmatic child or somebody who has asthma in the family already, you’re gonna value different things. And so maybe it does make more sense that you pick a newer house that has had a blower door test and you know what the air tightness value is, and you make decisions to control these variables. Maybe you make different decisions if you’re buying a duplex as an investment property and it’s older and you’ve got a whole bunch of repairs to make, and air tightness is not really on the… At the top of your list. So you make different decisions, but how do you have the information, what you need is the information to know how to intelligently navigate that.
CW: And then again, we live in a really sort of polarized time where it’s, I think difficult for people to appreciate that there can be legitimate, competing interests, and they really… These competing goals can all be legitimate, but that doesn’t ease the responsibility of having to decide what to do with limited resources. So indoor air quality is really important. So is energy efficiency, but so is supporting your family, so is not taking a loan for an investment that you can’t pay back. Gotta weigh these things, and they’re all legitimate, but the person who’s best positioned to do that is the person who’s making the financial decision themselves, how do you equip that person to do the best… To make the best decision, don’t make it for them.
BO: That conversation feels very applicable to our industry, there are so many people who wear the shoes that Reuben and Tessa wear, and they go out and they wanna just project their opinion on to what somebody should do. And I’ve argued kind of endlessly that it’s not up to me to tell them, Should you buy this house or not, I’m just gonna give you the tools you need to make an intelligent decision, and you’re gonna have to decide what’s good for you, and that leaves people standing on a firm foundation, the buyer, the realtor, the homeowner, now we don’t have to accuse or put people on a defensive posture, we can just get together as a group of people and be like that this is really important, and this is why I’m deciding that I’m gonna have to move on, or, this is what I really need you to fix that or whatever it might be, but it’s not adversarial, it’s just… I’m kind of giving you a framework for you to think through, that’s gonna be useful for you.
CW: Exactly, and I think a lot of times when it’s framed in that way, people actually really… They really appreciate it. So this was a potential new construction job, and the family wanted to build a pretty large house, if I’m remembering it was 8 or 10000 square feet, and they were talking about… But this had gone a little further, and they were talking with the architect about the specific systems in the house, and the architect was… Had talked to me and was saying, Well, we can’t really afford to condition the Attic, I wanna have a vented Attic, but the roof line was really kind of complicated, and my answer was like, No, you’re choosing… This is a choice you’re making. You’re choosing to invest in air, to invest the money in the size of the house, and you’re doing so at the expense of the performance in this area, and that’s okay, you might wanna make that choice, but it’s helpful to actually frame it… To use the framework of choice as opposed to sort of these… Viewing these things as unnatural constraints that are being imposed upon us by external forces, you get to choose… So I would encourage that client to have… To pursue a more…
BO: Cause is so good…
CW: And I get this all the time, particularly with the in-between clients, like the clients that are not quite crazy wealthy, but could buy a house that looks like they are… And there’s this tension. It’s like, Well, I can’t afford to do it that way. Well, maybe you’d be better served adjusting your expectations a little bit, we can get the acoustic performance you want out of your house and the energy efficiency and indoor air quality things with… And stay within your budget. If we build a 6000 square foot house instead of an 8000 square foot house, or if we renovate your existing house as opposed to knocking something down and building something brand new, but the framework of choice, I think is really helpful for people, but it’s also things that people run away from too… I’m not sure psychologically why we do that, but maybe… Maybe because the home buying process or the home building process is so intense and there’s just… Just the sheer number of decisions makes people overwhelmed.
TM: It’s overwhelming.
CW: I find that it really is important to think about it in that way, rather than this sort of, I’m being forced into this and by unfair forces.
TM: Christine, are you working more with single-family houses now, and when you left New York, did you kind of leave that building design that you were working with?
CW: Actually, so I was working on mostly multi-family when I was in New York, actually all multi-family when I was in New York, so apartment buildings and they were typically mid-rise, so nothing high-rise, mostly mid-rise construction, and then after that was working almost exclusively in commercial and institutional buildings.
CW: So like hospitals, and big stuff, really big stuff, which was really cool, I saw a different part of the industry than I see now, and now in my practice in private consulting, it’s almost all residential, like single family homes and renovations and that kind of stuff, so it’s… I’ve gotten exposed to a lot… What’s sort of funny, as a consultant on the building science consulting side, there’s kind of a perception… Yeah, this is sort of a general perception that commercial consulting or those commercial projects and institutional are really the height of the profession, and that the real building scientists are working on the tower projects and stuff, but I have to say, I believe residential construction to be much harder, because in commercial construction, there’s more specialization and residential single-family homes, there’s more of a jack of all trades mentality, and you really do understand the house as more of a system, so you can be in…
CW: You can be a consultant like me in commercial construction and never have anything to do with the mechanical system at all, you can know nothing about mechanical systems and have a rich, fulfilling and interesting career in just the building enclosure, the layers that separate the inside from the outside, you do not have that luxury. In residential construction, you have to know… You have to know everything, and actually on the home inspection side, you really have to know everything. So I remember looking at my own home inspection report and there were some comments on the water heater and I was like, I don’t know, or like the electrical panel, that’s sort of funny, I get… And sometimes people ask me questions like that, ’cause they hear building scientists, and I think that means I know everything with buildings, and I’m like, I don’t know why your sprinkler system’s not working, like for a fact. [laughter]
TM: I do gotta learn for you.
CW: I can’t fix your plumbing problem, but in residential stuff, the burden is much greater in that the people that are in the residential industry that make our design decisions and construction decisions have to know a great deal more about adjacent trades than their counterparts and commercial construction do.
RS: Now, around that, you gotta answer me, this is the one I’ve been dying to ask as home inspectors, we don’t get to see all the layers behind the wall, we don’t know how they wrapped everything behind the side-in, and all that… All we get to do is look at the big picture from the street, where does all the water end up, and then that’s where we focus our efforts, that’s when we push, try and pokes use a moisture meter, we really dig in on those areas when water gets concentrated and you go to houses maybe about 30 years old and younger, and they all seem to be designed pretty much the same way, it’s you take all of the water at the front of the house and you make a bunch of funnels with valleys on your roof and you direct it. All right to the front door. Or up against a wall or a window. Why do we do this? Why is this done? Please help you understand.
CW: It’s funny too, I think people just don’t realize how many resources they actually have at their disposal, particularly with water management, I like to teach this way a lot when I talk specifically about leaks and that you actually have to have four conditions, four conditions need to be satisfied, before you have a leak. One, you need a source of water two, You need a pathway for that water to travel from where the water is to where you don’t want it to be three, you need some sort of driving force or pressure or something that pushes water along the pathway, and then four you need something to get damaged as a result, so something needs to be moisture sensitive or somebody needs to get annoyed, something needs to happen as a result of this, and the reason I like to teach about leaks, in that way, cause people are like, Yeah, I know what a leak is, I don’t need your help to let me know more about that, but I find it really helpful to point those four things out because it also lets us know that there are four avenues that we have at our disposal to address issues before they become problems or even after the fact, so we can practice…
CW: For example, one of the ways that we can address leaks is through source control, so make it direct the water to some place that’s safe, like a drain, slope the site away from your build and have good site drainage. Source control is enormously helpful. What we tend to focus on is just pathways, so let’s seal the pathways and stop all of the leaks. Now, sometimes that’s effective. And I’m obviously not gonna say that you don’t need to worry about making sure things are sealed in your building that ought not be sealed if it’s raining out and your window is open and you’re getting water blowing inside close the window. [laughter] Just to start.
CW: But, focusing so much on the pathways, I really think leads us to discount these other resources that are available, for instance, source control and then reducing the pressures or the forces that drive things through our buildings that’s a little bit more of a complicated conversation but that’s a big help, if we have walls that drain properly and systems that drain the way they’re meant to drain, those become… Pathways become less important and then seal everything that you can seal and then when appropriate use materials… Build with things that are not as moisture sensitive. Now, we can’t always do that, right? And again, these are what do you do with limited resources, what combination of those four approaches do you take in any given case? The answer is gonna be different, and this is why. Every building is different.
CW: You’re gonna navigate that slightly differently, suppose you don’t want to. That poor drainage method. Suppose there’s some architectural reason why you’d really wanna collect the water that way, or you think that roofline is really helpful or whatever. Well, now you’re gonna need to make other decisions that will compensate for that decision, so for example, if you want a really modern house with no overhangs and you want the real clean lines and edges. Well, okay, now you will be pretty well served to instead of using OSB for your sheathing material, switching to plywood or instead of using a texture building rap using an actual drainage mat, maybe spending a little bit more money on a fluid-applied membrane or an integral heating plus water control layer in the wall assembly rather than just the typical tar paper or something, maybe you spend more time detailing your windows differently ’cause they’re not in set. They’re this sort of sheer exposed face, and it’s okay to do that, but it’s helpful when you have an awareness of these things so that you know where your risks are and you’re able to make those decisions more intelligently. I think people are most scared of risk that they don’t know about, it’s like, What am I doing right now that’s risky, that I don’t even know is risky.
CW: If you understand the risk, people tend to be much more comfortable with that like, Oh, okay, that seems reasonable to me. I’m gonna… I’m going to drive my car on a sunny day when the roads are clear and it’s not a lot of traffic versus driving your car through a blinding thunder storm or something, that’s a little silly because it’s sort of more obvious… The risk you’re taking is more obvious, but suppose you have to make the decision to go out in your car and you don’t know what the weather is outside, or your pilot doesn’t know what the weather conditions are before taking off, I mean that would be absurd, we wouldn’t do that. Similarly with design, we wanna know where our vulnerable spots are and design accordingly and make trade-offs, trade off, it’s always trade offs.
BO: What percentage of houses are actually designed by an architect as opposed to just grab this plan off the internet, it was 4995, and we wanted to look like that.
CW: Oh gosh, like a tiny percentage, I think the estimate is less than 2%, it’s hard to actually calculate… It’s hard to calculate, and I’m not sure what the numbers are, but a very small percentage of homes are designed with architects. It’s funny, I had… When I was in… I think I might have still been in architecture school, former colleague gave me a book of house plans and was like, This is what you’re gonna be doing or something, and it was… And I looked at it and it was just laughable ’cause it was just… It was just floor plans, and I was like, Yeah, it’s… Okay, that’s a little bit more than this, but that’s… To a lot of people, that’s what they think design is, and I guess… That’s fine. They don’t… They haven’t thought too much about it. I occasionally get those requests too online where someone’s found… They’re like, “Yeah, we already have our plans, but it’s… ” 4999, of the internet PDF plan. It’s like, you still have a lot of decisions to make.
BO: You get what you pay for. We’ll just start with that, right?
CW: Yeah. You do…
BO: You get what you pay for…
CW: Actually, I think a lot of times people are pretty lucky, they get a lot better than they pay for, without realizing it. And then they complain. I think a lot of times, a lot of the problems that I see on the forensic side, so investigating things after they’ve gone wrong is really not so much failures, but the consequences of bad decisions voluntarily made, and I feel bad for people who end up in that situation, obviously, you don’t want anybody to suffer to pay more money to be in a difficult position, but it’s also… I don’t think that it’s really fair to describe this as sort of being the victim of unforeseen events, these aren’t like… Yes, a tornado comes by. Unforeseen event. There you go, but you build a modern house without an architect, and now you’ve got rotting walls and rotten sheathing and curling baseboards because you neglected to hire professionals, I’m sorry that this has happened to your house, but you decided to economizer on intelligence and expertise. This is what happens.
BO: So I have to jump in. We could do this all day. I’m thoroughly entertained right now and it could go on forever, but we don’t have all day and I just, Reub n Tessa, do you always feel like we’re just scratching the surface of every conversation when we have to actually cut in and be like, Okay, we gotta put on a bow. Can we have you back? Can we talk more? ’cause it’s just like, Okay, we just opened up, now we’re starting to get to the good stuff.
CW: This is my jam, I love it, I love talking about it. I love talking with people in the industry, everybody’s got their own stories to share. One thing I guess I get asked a lot is people wanna ask this, but they don’t do it, but they’re like, “Okay, so I understand that you make recommendations on people in terms of you tell them how to build stuff so that they avoid problems with their buildings… Well, how do you know… How did you come to have that information to know what to tell them,” and you get that information by learning the general principles, so you have this framework of general principles, like gravity acts down, and this is how the way construction sequencing works, and you get that general understanding of the industry, and then you populate that framework with tons and tons and tons of conversations like we’ve had right now, and more so you populate that framework with experience, your own experience and the experience of your peers who say… And it’s like a series of, “Well, I did this and then this happened. I did this in this environment, and this is what I think happened,” and you hear that and you just get better and better.
CW: So not only do I like talking about this stuff, but talking about this stuff makes everybody… It helps us calibrate our own sense of where we are on that risk scale of like, Well, this is really, really… I feel really safe recommending this option and less safe with this option, the more conversations we have with people with different experiences and different climates and different building types, the better we get at this is very, very fun.
TM: I love that.
BO: And thank God for the internet, so we can share these experiences, more efficiently… How did this information get distributed back in 1976.
CW: I mean, they had to write books and stuff, it was crazy, but the… [laughter] it’s sort of funny, I think my husband pointed this out to me the other day that this is what they kind of promised back in the day, this is what we thought the internet was gonna do, like, Oh, you can read every book, like you have access to all these books and libraries across, on the other side of the world. Instead, we use the internet for Facebook and cat videos and something like that, go figure. But we also do stuff like this, which is really kinda neat, I think in a lot of ways, we’re reaching a really exciting time in the building industry where we have this unprecedented ability to learn from people in different places, and not just in North America, but across the world, and I hope it really benefits people globally, actually, I think in North America we’re really pretty good at framed construction, and they don’t build that way everywhere yet they build a lot of heavy masonry buildings, and they’re very good at it, a lot of places, not everywhere, but some places, they’re really good at this stuff, but frame buildings are different, and I hope that our experience in North America, not only do I hope, that we get better at it, but that we save a lot of other places, the heartache of the mis-allocation of resources. The consequences of voluntary bad decisions that we see all the time.
TM: The world needs more building scientists bottomline, right?
CW: That’s right, obviously.
BO: So Christine, can you tell everybody where we can find you on the web.
CW: You can find me on Instagram @BuildingScienceFightClub, is the name is the account, but again, not literal… No actual fighting, everybody be polite. Its sort of funny, the account is just gotten big enough that I think some people are a little… They’re just surprised that it’s not personal, like I don’t talk about my personal life in it, but it’s personal in that I’m a real person and I answer things and other real people answer. Anyway, so people can find me there. Feel free to participate in the conversation. I post once a week, and so the best time to get online and participate in the conversation is on Saturdays and there… I hope I continue to do that, and then other than that, don’t find me. That’s it. [laughter] I’m in Dallas, that’s it. You can can come find me in Dallas, but…
BO: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for your time. Like I said, we’re just getting going, and hopefully we can do this again and we can kinda get into the details of the house that I’m going to be building ’cause I have a lot of questions, so… Yeah.
CW: I’d love it, I’d love it. Okay, any time, guys, this was super fun and super easy to set up, so…
BO: Awesome, thank you.
RS: Sweet, thank you.
BO: Well, everybody, that’s a wrap on today’s episode, you’ve been listening to structure talk a structure tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, the three-legged stool that occasionally gets wabbly, thanks for listening, everybody. Talk to you next time.