The art of building science
There’s an art to designing and constructing a building. Regardless of whether it’s a multifamily highrise or commercial facility, the pieces and systems that go into structures are all connected, working together as a single unit.
Because that interconnectivity determines building performance, building science is playing a key role in countless projects these days to help all of those involved – designers, builders, operators/managers and prospective occupants – understand how to get the most of a particular project.
Steven Baczek is considered a leading expert in the field of building science, with nearly a quarter of a century of experience. His projects focus on energy performance, comfort and durability, and have included a number of the nation's top energy-conscious residential structures.
Baczek says his intent isn’t on a “green” or “sustainable” structure, but rather on proving good, sound design. His commitment: Equating aesthetics and durability with performance.
The lessons and techniques in building science that Baczek has learned are relevant to commercial and multifamily construction.
Baczek, who is based in Reading, Mass., recently spoke to Proud Green Building about the field of building science and the impact such knowledge can make on the performance of a structure. Here’s what he had to say:
PGB: When it comes to building science, are the principles essentially the same for both multifamily residential and commercial building?
SB: Yes. At one of my talks at a conference, one of the things the sponsor was talking about was how can we bring in commercial to building science. I said, “When it rains, do you think Mother Nature discriminates between a house, a hospital and a library?”
No. Building science principles are building science principles. If it's good to have a rainscreen on a house, then it's good to have a rainscreen on a hospital, a highrise or a library.
Mother Nature doesn't discriminate. Air tightness is good. It doesn't matter what kind of building it is. If I pay to convert energy and I dump it inside a container, I want to contain it as long as possible. That's the bottom line. It's that simple.
PGB: Participation among exhibitors and attendance in general seems to be increasing at a lot of industry tradeshows. Is that the result of a lot of people showing interest in sustainable building, or are they actually practicing sustainable building?
SB: Interest is certainly gaining. The commercial side is probably gaining faster than residential because the requirements are more stringent and the construction is a helluva lot worse than residential, even as bad as the code-built 2x6 house with vinyl siding, with OSB, with some kind of building paper, with no air tightness.
Commercial buildings five to 10 years ago were absolutely horrible. They had steel studs through the building; it's a thermo-dynamic nightmare. You might as well just open the windows. But now they're using insulated sheathing and focusing on air tightness, so commercial is certainly coming around.
PGB: What do you think of the idea that all homes, including multifamily homes, should be Passive Houses?
SB: There are a lot people who want comfort, durability, health and energy efficiency but don't necessarily want a plaque on the wall. I can get them to 75 or 80 percent of Passive House for little to no extra dollars. A full Passive House doesn't have to cost all that much more, either.
We did the first Passive House in Rhode Island for about $1.88 a square foot. We were able to deliver that house at market terms, the builder made money, and that one did receive passive House certification.
As far as the residential industry, one of the greatest things about Passive House was that it struck up conversation. I liken Passive House to when I walk in to a gym. I need to get in a little better shape, and they throw me a workout and nutrition regimen that makes me a bodybuilder. I don't need that. I just need to get in a little better shape. I don't need to be competition-ready for Mr. Olympia.
The same with our houses. What Passive House did, it shows you how to become that bodybuilder. But you know what? All along the way, you can stop and just be better than you were. The same with exercise. You can do a little better, you can workout more. You might never be ready for competition, but you'll be far better off than you were.
PGB: What do you say when a builder, could be commercial or multifamily residential, says a high-performance project is going to be too costly? Are they just not keeping up with the times?
SB: I don't think they're keeping up with the times. When you're looking at costs of what you're building vs. performance, there a couple things there.
One, you could certainly put more money into it and make it a better project, which would hopefully yield better performance. I would say, let's go from the footing to the roof and scrutinize every decision. Let's go through that exercise and ask ourselves, why are we putting it in, what's the benefit and how much does that piece cost?
If I take that project and put it up as a giant abacus and look at it on the wall, maybe I take the windows and knock off those a little further to the right. There's a direct relationship between that and my mechanical systems. So the mechanical systems can go off to the left.
How about air tightness? Air tightness is pennies on the dollar when you're in construction. And take that all the way to the right. Concentrate on getting thermal bridging out of the building and making things air tight. That has a direct relationship to a whole bunch of things.
It has a direct relationship to the mechanical systems, the health and the comfort of the space. So I do that.
If I take a couple of those things to the right, I could take some of that money I save and pay for better stuff, without changing the square-foot cost or the overall price of the project.
PGB: Are we at a point now in the green building industry where there are so many definitive studies that show there should be no other way to build than building with an eye on sustainability and efficiency?
SB: I don't think we're there yet. I think we're getting close. If you pull all the building permits across the country for new construction, I would venture to guess that 50 percent of them barely make Energy Star certification.
The message isn't out there. The message is not that you should build a green home, and it's only going to cost 10 or 20 percent more. The message is to everybody in the building industry – that they should tell homeowners – “These are the questions you should be asking, these are your concerns, this is what's important.”
It's not that we don't have the answers. We're still not asking the right questions.
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