The Story Of Building Science & Why It’s Long Been Neglected
How More Thoughtful Buildings Can Change Our World
A brief introduction — I am the marketing director for a small building science firm in Austin, TX called Positive Energy. Our company operates as a consulting resource to achieve high performance home systems using science based principles. We work with architects, builders, interior designers, homeowners, and HVAC contractors consulting on building envelope and enclosure practices, building forensics, and moisture on a daily basis. The backbone of our company though is our design team. This team works diligently to design high performance mechanical systems for residential projects. This consists of high performance HVAC design (VRF, Dehumidification, etc.), equipment selection, and duct design. At first glance these services, while relatively unfamiliar to most, seem like they’re pretty obvious solutions to building homes well. What’s less obvious is how often these pieces are overlooked in what we call process-based building practices.
Let’s Start From The Beginning
This will likely be insulting to anyone who has studied architectural history, but here’s the übercondensed version. When human beings started constructing homes in more permanent settlements, the primary goal was survivability. They needed to be sheltered from a pretty ruthless environment and when we comb through the archaeological record, we see tons of variation in building style with one core principle — use whatever abundant resources around to keep the elements out.
Enter the agricultural revolution, the concept of surplus, more stratified societies popping up all over the place, and a lot of history that we don’t have time to dive into and we find our species at a wonderful new luxury of being able to design buildings. Functionality was still important, but the dynamics certainly changed from our notion of just needing to survive. Through time, there emerged market places and these markets helped dictate the processes by which humans built things. When we think about our most recent history, we’ve seen a huge amount of complexity simplified by developing processes to handle building a home, right down to the codes by which we are legally allowed to build.
So where does that leave the whole design thing?
Architects have long (seemingly forever) had the great debate of form vs function. Which should be the primary driver in the way a home is built? Which will leave a more lasting mark on the world for both the architect themself and the historical context in which the design occured. We know that there is an intrinsic and unbreakable bond between the two forces of form and function, but because the debate has been formulating at such a high level in the architectural world and construction has responded to evolving building technologies in largely retroactive ways (market dynamics and such), we find ourselves today left in a construction industry that seems to move with gears powered by process.
He builds a home this way because his father did so before him and because his daughter is now learning the trade from him, she too will pass down her knowledge, ad infinitum. Of course there are other considerations like market bubbles and crashes, but if we really think of the way that we value houses — it’s almost as though they are a disposable commodity that you either have or don’t have. This mentality often dictates the home building process. “Get me my house cheap so I can live in it and feel fulfilled.” This is the process that has kept us from re-imagining the home’s functionality and how we interact with it.It is process that fetters us from true progress. We’ll talk about what that progress actually means in just a bit.
Let’s Talk About Green
We’re going to talk about this because it seems like the obvious question for a building science firm to answer. Are you one of those green companies? When we really get down to the marrow of the issue, the generally and liberally applied term “Green” is more or less the bulding industry’s process-based response that tries to solve the problem of human impact on the world.
It sounds pretty logical when you break it down. Humans consume a lot and create more waste in more forms than any other creature on the planet. It makes sense that because we are so highly cognizant that we can do a better job of stewardship for ourselves and our environment. We should consume in smart ways and that includes the ways in which we build homes and use energy.
But then we add politics to the recipe and then we add the inefficiency of markets to the equation and we find ourselves at a point where there are a ton of “solutions” being sold to us everyday, telling us that buying this thing will make the world a better place and save you money on your energy bill. Not to dismiss all the products out there, but just because someone tells you it’s green does not make it so.
Since homes and buildings are undoubtedly where we consume a huge amount of energy as human beings, how then do we affect change? How dow we know if there are products that can actually help us make better financial decisions for our home that also benefit the environment? There is a commonly misquoted bit by Albert Einstein that in some variation reads as such:
“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
The actual quote came from a telegram that Einstein wrote to a few hundred prominent socialites to open a dialogue about the potential harm of the newly unleashed power of atomic energy, but the essence of what Einstein was imploring is still so pertinent to the world in which we find ourselves living today.
“…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”
If we are to move past this point of process based building with its many band-aid solutions and end the debate of form vs function, we must find a new type of thinking. That’s where we at Positive Energy are trying to affect change.
Human Factored Design
As I have applied more thought to the narrative of the building industry, I have come to the conclusion that what we’re taking on — the notion of industry transformation- is a tall order and an intimidating one at that. The first challenge we faced was finding the focal point that would tie everything together and would allow us to build a business that could pivot the marketplace out of the tired, old process-based thinking. We tried a lot of consulting services in the building industry here in Austin before we finally realized that what we were doing is helping homes achieve better performance because there were people living in them.
These are the same creatures that were focused on survivability in the beginning, then moved to high level intention for buildings, then got caught up in the fast pace of modern capitalism. Humans were our focal point. And once we realized this, everything changed. We realized that using science to achieve human factored design in homes helps keep the occupants more comfortable, healthier, happier, more in tune with their own physical experiences of living. And we also started to unravel the notion that human factored design implicitly reduces the need for homes to consume so much energy.
If you’ve got a thorough and scientific understanding of how a home is to be built, the delivered product is something that truly has to be experienced to be understood. We realize how challenging that is to communicate to people. Sure you can see an iPhone and understand the artifact at a high level without ever using it, but the experience of an iPhone is much more subtle. We all know what a home is at a high level, but often the complexities of the home as a system are overlooked or unknown. It is an artifact that is lived in and experienced gradually and constantly.
What we know now is that the better we get at communicating that and the smarter we become as a business, we’re confident that the building industry will change. We’re already at the precipice. The technologies already exist. All we need now is a better understanding of how the home can serve as a hub for these technologies to perform seamlessly for your comfort, health, and benefit of the world around you. We’re working hard and thinking deeply to do exactly that.