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The Geeky Side of Design

"Architects are often phenomenal at connecting us to the outdoors, but horrible at disconnecting us when it's necessary. And that is the fundamental problem with architecture today," says Building Science Corporation's sometimes irreverent but always straight-talking Joe Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng.

By Wendy Ordemann
June 4, 2012

Got a tricky question about insulating old brick buildings, or stopping moisture infiltration at the building base, or creating pressure-moderated rain screen walls? Turn to the website belonging to Building Science Corporation, a consulting firm and an information resource. The site is full of articles that cover the geeky side of design.


The sometimes irreverent but always straight-talking force behind Building Science Corp. is Joe Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng., a building scientist and an engineer. His fellow principals, especially his frequent speaking partner and engineer, John Straube, play straight man to Lstiburek’s “I really don’t care if you like me” persona.


And you may not like Lstiburek. It’s almost as if he can’t resist saying something abrasive or taking things just a little too far. Yet his message is spot on. The science is inarguable and the delivery is a lot more entertaining than anything the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (that’s ASHRAE), the National Institute of Building Sciences (that’s NIBS), the American Society for Testing and Materials (that’s ASTM), or any of those other august organizations dish out.


Here are some notes from a recent conversation:


Wendy Ordemann: If there is one thing you could impart to the architects you meet, what would it be?


Joe Lstiburek: That buildings are environmental separators. That their purpose is to keep the outside out and the inside in – except when the architect wants to connect them. When this is done well, it is one of the beautiful parts of architecture.


But sometimes the outside is miserable and we need to exclude it. We may want to admire the beauty of the outdoors but we don’t want to feel the wet, cold, hot, or whatever discomforts are lurking out there. Architects are often phenomenal at connecting us to the outdoors, but horrible at disconnecting us when it’s necessary. And that is the fundamental problem with architecture today.


WO: For example?


JL: Most new buildings leak rain and groundwater. Most new buildings leak air. Most new buildings leak vapor. Most new buildings leak heat. With all the materials and the knowledge we have, why is it that we still can’t keep the outside out and the inside in? How pathetic is that?


WO: I think a lot of architects might tell you the problem is not their design, but how it is executed.


JL: That’s nonsense. This is the architect’s problem. They want to make everyone else responsible for it and, better yet, make everyone else solve it for them.


Throughout history there have been problems with the builders, with the carpenters, with the framers, with the masons, with the plumbers, with the electricians, with the guy digging the foundation or driving the backhoe. We’ve never been able to rely on good workmanship and good field practices. Never.


I’m tired of the blame being placed on the trades. Walls leak. So you design them so that they don’t leak. We can do this.


And it has to start with the architects. They are the ones that have to step up and stand for something. Architecture means more than art. It means understanding how things go together. They may be trying to blame everyone but themselves, but ultimately it is the architects who are responsible for good buildings.


WO: Aren’t architects just doing what their clients want? Aren’t they designing thin-skinned, floor-to ceiling glass buildings because this is what the developers or the owners want?


JL: Ultimately, the developer or the owner will reap what he sows. If he wants a cheap building, he’s going to get it and it will be a problem. It will leak and it will be drafty and the tenants will be unhappy. And then they will sue.


The architect needs to realize that if that inexpensive curtain wall fails, he’s responsible too. You can’t hide behind the curtain wall manufacturer. We’ve got some pretty good glazing systems; some of them are pretty energy-efficient, too. They are out there if you look.


A low-cost building doesn’t need to leak. That’s just not tolerable. If the owner wants all glass, well then give it to him, but first tell him that that glass box costs more than almost any other means of construction.


WO: You are coming to New York City on June 5 to present a day-long program at the AIANY’s Center for Architecture on roofs, balconies, parapets, storefronts, curtain walls, and foundations. Frankly, these are not the most compelling topics.


JL: Yes, but that’s where the problems are: at junctions between one major building element and another. We’re not talking sealant joints here. We’re talking major problem areas. My partner, John Straube, is talking the next day, June 6, about high performance buildings and Passive House. Maybe that is more interesting.


WO: They both sound interesting. When you talk about balconies, foundations, and parapets, I think of all of the products out there to make those connections easier and save energy at the same time.


JL: Yes, clearly this is the next big opportunity for structural engineers – to play a role in this connector technology as it evolves. That’s particularly true of the thermal bridges that are inevitable in these building locations. If we are serious about energy, we should look at thermal bridges. They are a huge problem. But I don’t believe we are serious about energy.


WO: Lots of people might disagree with that, starting with the architects who are following new energy codes.


JL: Yes, except no one is measuring. How can you say you have an energy-efficient building when all the evidence you have is a computer model. I can back up any claim I want with an energy model. I can hire a guy to make a model for me that says whatever I want it to say. Then I can tell everyone my building is green.


You have to measure. You have to compare your building to other buildings to see how it’s doing. When you do this, you might find out, “Oh my God! This building is horrible.”


You can’t be serious about energy if you aren’t measuring it. And that’s why residential energy-saving efforts are so far ahead of commercial and office buildings.


We have a very effective energy-saving system in homes. It’s called a meter. And a guy comes around every month and looks at it. Then you have to pay based on what it says. That’s called accountability. We have none of that for commercial buildings. Instead, we have these great big glass boxes that are thermal insults. They are over-ventilated and full of thermal bridges.


WO: That’s a bleak picture.


JL: It doesn’t have to be. There is hope. Every time someone prefaces something with the word “green” my eyes roll. Yet it is that initiative that gives me hope. If we hear it enough maybe we’ll start to do something about it. If somebody tells us a zillion times that thermal bridges are a problem, maybe we’ll start to pay more attention. And then buildings might start to get better.



Wendy Ordemann, LEED AP, is a New York-based writer and public relations consultant (see .


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