The State of Our Union

We are dense-packed, double-walled, foam-wrapped, solarized, subsidized, over-engineered, data-driven — and somewhat divided


Elizabeth DiSalvo is an architect. She founded Trillium Architects in Ridgefield, Connecticut

I started to write this as a commentary regarding Martin Holladay’s review of Jacob Rascusin’s new book, Essential Building Science. But in doing so I realized that the direction of Martin’s critique opens the door to issues that I think our community really needs to discuss. So, I worked a little harder at putting my thoughts into some sort of logical and comprehensive order. Of course these are only my opinion.

The bottom line of this realization is that, as a group, we may want to consider two goals:

  1. 1. What are we doing? Should we have a mission statement? Something that guides all of our work and something that we can all use as a litmus test to check in on ourselves and our industry as a whole. Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Maybe ours could have a similar intention, but perhaps we could define it more thoroughly.
  2. 2. What message are we sending? This would include both the message we send out to the world and the messages we send to each other. This would entail having a basic awareness of our public face and this would involve monitoring the way in which we speak to each other — within our industry — as parts of the whole.

But why does any of it matter? I believe it matters because we are at crossroads. Because I was just at the U.N. Convention on Climate Change at which most of the world was trying desperately to enact the Paris 2015 accord. And because we have a new president who is most likely going to significantly change our lives and try to dismantle the way we do what we do and how we do it. This is important. We need to step up our game now. What we do and the message we send are vitally important right now.

What message are we sending?

What we do is perhaps obvious but I would say “undiscussed.” I am going to address that later in this piece. For now I want to talk about the message we are sending. In order to send a clear message to the world, we have to understand each other and speak clearly among ourselves. Reading Martin’s review of Jacobs’s book drove this point home for me. If we cannot speak clearly and respectfully to each other within our own industry, then we will not be able to send a clear message out.

Basically (a bit of background), in the review of the book Martin points to a number of errors that he finds with Jacob’s book. However if one looks closely, most of the errors — as written by Martin — could, themselves, be considered misleading or perhaps erroneous. I find that they detract from the point of the book and completely diminish the overall message and intention of the book.

Martin could have written a review that said something along the lines of “Wow, we have a new comprehensive and introductory book on building science and it really covers the wide range of applications available in our industry. Yes, there may be a few minor errors that might have been caught by a better editor, but overall, it does a great job covering a ton of ground in a clear and accessible manner.”

But he did not. He chose another route. Fine. It’s just one review. However, it is the very way that Martin chose to review the book that got me thinking. Could I say Martin was wrong? No.

But actually — yes, yes, I could. It turns out that it all depends on your point of view and the type of person you are. I spoke to colleagues and friends about it, and I started to see a very familiar pattern. Sides started to emerge. Teams, if you will. I’m just going to go ahead and say it: “Team Martin” and “Team Jacob.”

An elephant in the room

What this led me to realize is that we have always had a version of Team Martin and Team Jacob, though as a group we do not discuss it. I cannot call it a battle; there aren’t really sides. But there is a “there” there. Many of us feel it in subtle ways. This sort of undiscussed rift in our very small and congenial sustainable building world. An elephant in the room, so to speak.

What is this “indefinable something” of which I speak? Well, it is Big Picture, and it has everything to do with what we are doing and what message we are sending. It can be described as the difference between focusing on energy use and data in building versus focusing on a much more broad approach to sustainability in building. One can observe it in our industry’s obsession with Passive House.

One can see it when we go to conferences such as NESEA and the sessions that are numbers- and data-based are given a great deal of cred, while sessions that are design- and theory-based are treated as non-rigorous calendar fillers. And one can see it when we read a book critique that is given strongly from the viewpoint of the highly specific lens of data and energy, and not at all from an overall understanding of sustainable building theories and practicalities.

Hard data types vs. big vision types

One could say that Team Martins are the more absolute, hard data, fact-driven, number-crunching, “precision-in-thought-and-speech” types, and that Team Jacobs are the more theoretical, comprehensive, observational, big vision, “what-if and sort-of” types. Both are great. Both are equally valued and both are necessary. Both make the world go round. In fact, most of us are not only one or the other, but rather we fall somewhere along that verdant spectrum. And just because we may lean heavily toward Team Jacob it does not mean we do not like Team Martin, or vice versa. To the contrary, many of our very best friends and most valued work colleagues are on the other team.

Let’s go back to the book. Below I am going to cite examples and explain my OK-I-admit-it-Team-Jacob self. I am not doing this to “fight back” against Martin. I am doing it to explain Team Jacob’s point of view — to translate, if you will. Here we go:

  • When Martin calls Jacob out for saying foam and PVC are toxic, he is disregarding the fact that Jacob is considering the entirety of foam and PVC — from cradle to grave, from the people who live near the factories that make it, to the guys who have to install it, to the homeowners who live in it. Martin is considering what we know about foam and PVC now, but he is not considering what we will know about it in the future as our scientific knowledge evolves. Jacob is.
  • When Martin scolds Jacob for not mentioning lead and asbestos, he is ignoring the fact that Jacob respects his readers’ intelligence and knows that everyone knows about lead and asbestos. Everyone. It is starting point. And perhaps Jacob could have put a great sentence in about how PVC and foam may one day prove to be our generation’s asbestos and lead.
  • When Martin suggests that Jacob is trying to redefine what R-value means when he makes the statement that “R-value is dynamic ... in response to different conditions,” he misses the point that everyone reading understands what the writer means, and that no one — no one — assumes that Jacob is saying that the absolute value of R is up for discussion. It’s as if Jacob wrote a dietary book and said that the calories that you need are variable based on how much you exercise. No one would think that Jacob meant that the definition of what a calorie is was being discussed.
  • When Jacob writes about optimizing U-value for windows, anyone who has ever had a client gets what he means. You have to weigh the pros and cons of many factors and not just go for the best U-value every time. Yes, you are always trying to get the best U-value that you can, but you have to consider a lot of variables: overall costs, SHGC (change that and you change the U-value), operational needs (fixed, casement or double hung? Each has implications on what U-value you can achieve), and obviously size (frame-to-glass ratio changes everything.) There are a hell of a lot of decisions that go into optimization of window U-values on a job.

We speak different languages

Is Martin doing this to be evil? No of course not. Is he correct? Yes, he is correct if you read the comments in only one light. He is a self-professed Energy Nerd. However, if you read the comments from the Team Jacob perspective, Martin is wrong on most counts. Or at least completely misunderstood by all of Team Jacob. Fascinating. We speak different languages.

It reminds me of the time that I was waiting on a job site with my mechanical engineer. It was a frigid cold day and we were outside waiting for an owner to appear. In a state of pure frozen hell, I turned to my friend the engineer and said “Wow, my feet! I can feel that cold seeping right into my bones.” He looked at me quizzically for a moment and then he said (without an ounce of humor) “You mean you can feel the heat leaving your body through your feet?” Sigh. Yes. Yes, that is precisely what I mean, my bad.

When I say, “I feel the cold seeping into my bones,” everybody instantly and thoroughly understands what I am saying. When my friend the engineer says, “I can feel the heat leaving my body through my feet,” nobody has a visceral understanding of what he is talking about. After a moment's thought the listener might acknowledge that the engineer is correct. But, in hearing the sentence, the listener does not feel that feeling of frostbitten feet, nor do the listener’s toes become numb in empathy. The listener does not care.

This is perhaps the oldest shout-out to scientists and engineers throughout history, but: “Speak English.” Just because Team Martin folk try to outdo each other in how precise they can be in language, it does not mean that they are getting the message across any better. In fact, a lot of the time this is the very reason their message is ignored. And does it mean that Team Jacob is weak-minded, because we speak a more ubiquitously understood language? No. In fact (news flash!) we think it makes us smarter — on a higher plane — because we are also nerds but we have the ability to translate our understanding for others to then understand. Yes, this is deep semantics, but it is actually important. Is it really productive to dismantle and disregard an entire well-thought-out, valuable, and very accessible book because the reviewer only accepts one language pattern.

We need to act as a team

Our community is full of a wide variety of people. Builders, designers, architects, engineers, inspectors, raters, vendors, policymakers, homeowners, and building operators, etc. Each of us has a different background and a different point of view. As we step forward into our unknown future, we need to act as a team. Support each other. Value each other’s skill set and incorporate all into a cohesive mission.

When considering the future, I usually revert to Star Trek. In Star Trek Next Generation, for example, all members of the team are equally respected and included in decision making — including Counselor Troi, the touchy-feely psychologist type. After the team has gathered for a mission, the effects of any proposed actions are thoroughly considered by the whole team — with equal merit — before the landing party is allowed to set foot on a new planet and interact with its civilizations. We need our energy guys, we need our engineers and builders, but we need the rest of the team as well in order to ensure the most effective and well thought out approach and outcome. We need to be careful and respectful in how we talk to each other.

We need a mission statement

Which leads me to Part II. What are we doing? What is our mission?

Buildings themselves are extremely complex and involve a lot of different parts and features. Within the sustainable building industry there are so many aspects upon which one might focus: Energy use, sustainability, design, materials, embodied energy, square footage, longevity, maintenance, air quality, occupant health, resiliency, carbon footprint, and the ever present bottom line. There are also issues of energy production, manufacturing, shipping, and the health and wellness of everyone along that chain. And there are the ever-enigmatic and ephemeral issues of happiness, beauty, and appropriateness.

Which is the most important? Obviously, this is a rhetorical question.

Like the blind men who encounter an elephant, many of us seem to focus on one specific aspect of the sustainable building “elephant.” In our world, the elephant's trunk would be “energy.” It is the most obvious and intriguing part of the elephant, and it is so hard to resist. It is always nosing into exciting things like the bottom line, policy, and big industry. It is trumpeted by the stock market and by the media. Everyone is willing to talk about energy. For engineers and data wonks, it is the mother lode. It is a lifetime of calculations, challenges, and experiments. It is the opportunity to pin point accurate results and make firm statements with precise numerical evidence. It is the chance to understand what we are doing. Fantastic. But the result is that so often we have buildings that are pure elephant trunk. What about the rest of the elephant?

Many of us want the whole damn elephant. Many of us see the whole picture and find all parts valid. Many equally valid. Yes, of course, we have LEED, the Living Building Challenge, the 475 team, and the bubbling “Pretty Good House” movement, among others. And these approaches are (sometimes) respected in our industry, but if you think about it — they usually get thrown in the back seat. All too often, these other approaches are ignored or discounted as fluffiness or “Yeah, I guess we can include that too.”’

The limitations of the Passive House approach

Meanwhile Passive House seems like the prize bull. Yes, Passive House is a dream come true. It is quantifiable, provable, accountable, and the basis for some fantastically competitive good fun for building geeks everywhere. It is also a flag we can wave to the rest of the world — a world that has always misunderstood and doubted what we do. A world that has always asked, “Yes, yes, but where is the data?”

We can now show the world — with clean, hard evidence — that we can make houses that need almost no energy to heat and cool. The data is so impressive that any naysayer cannot disagree. But, Passive House obsesses over one thing: energy. It disregards everything else: occupant health, sustainability of materials, the embodied energy of products and systems, user experience, nature, texture, maintenance, resiliency and life cycle.

We can't just address the elephant's trunk. We need to integrate energy use with the big picture and not let energy use hose down the sustainability of the planet with its powerful schnozzola.

We shouldn't focus on energy alone

This is where the writer’s book shines (back to the book and the book review). Essential Building Science is trying to talk about the whole elephant. The writer is a person who cares, who assumes he is talking to people who care and addressing the wide range of things in our industry that one can — and should — care about. He is trying to ensure that we don’t miss the point and that we don’t focus only on energy use to the detriment of almost everything else in the end.

In looking for introductory yet comprehensive books on how to approach sustainable building, there are not a lot. As some of my colleagues have noted, “What else have we got?” There are others, for sure, and if one looks through Martin’s previous reviews, one can see that he generally dismisses natural building and most references to toxins. I get it, most builders do not build “natural houses,” and the issues of toxicity are not yet fully determined. However, can we just ignore these things?

Homes with vinyl siding and foam insulation

If we simply look at the best-known building tutorials in our small world, we have Joe Lstiburek’s Builder’s Guides. If you look at these books, the examples shown are of vinyl-sided homes with fiberglass or foam insulation. (And I know, these books have evolved in the last years — I am probably out-of-date on my critique.) I know why the Builder’s Guides have these examples; they are the results of Building Science Corporation being hired to test mass production housing and its building systems. And God knows what we would do without Joe’s guidance.

I get it. But do we really want to send the message that building vinyl-sided boxes of foam is the best way to go? Or even that it is in the top ten best ways to go? Yes, of course, for affordability‘s sake this may be a valid direction, but there are so many other ways to skin the cat! This is a clear example of Team Martin getting the loudest microphone because of data, data, data!

But shouldn’t the public be getting the full array of the information in all of its broad-side-of-the-elephant inclusiveness? And shouldn’t we be learning the full menu of options with which to build?

Can you imagine that post-apocalyptic future that we all have anxiety attacks about in the middle of the night? Can you see yourself – a survivor! Yet you are unable to teach your children how to build anything of significance with what nature gave you, because no one ever wrote a book about anything but Foam and PVC. And fast-forward to your grandchildren wandering the devastated yet resilient earth 200 years in the future. All is nature except the endless dust storms of blowing open- and closed-cell foam that will never break down.

We need to be all-inclusive and we need to respect nature, design, life cycles, the health, welfare and happiness of humans, along with that of the whole planet. We need to think it all through. Big picture.

Yes, we vitally need the data. And, yes, we vitally need to be accurate and to speak accurately. But we need these to be a part of the whole. Just like “optimizing the U-value of windows,” we have to weigh a lot of factors before just saying that the most efficient option is the only way to go.

A holistic approach

Basically I am describing the word “holistic,” but I feel I can’t use this Team-Jacob word because I believe that as soon as many of my readers see it on the page they will stop reading and discount this as a bunch of cow (or rather, elephant) poop. But we do need to think holistically about what we are doing. Can we really just keep plowing ahead — following the elephant’s trunk — to score the big energy goal!? Meanwhile we may be trampling the beautiful planet that we are trying to save.

So, what are we doing? What is our big message? Our elevator speech? Our guiding light? How will the world know us? Since we ourselves are so variable, I would guess that our message will have many aspects and may not fit into one sentence. However, I, for one, would hope that our message is something along the lines of:

We, the sustainable building industry, strive to study the way buildings are built, continually evolve our technologies, materials, and methods of building, teach and lead the same, as to ever advance our industry toward the ultimate goal of having the least harmful effect on the planet and perhaps one day of actually creating a symbiotic relationship between buildings and the earth that in turn will heal, nurture, and energize the planet. We will do this through relentless testing, analysis, and growth in all aspects of our work including:

  • Building energy and its influence on the earth and our economy.
  • The choice of energy we use and its impact on environment and civilizations.
  • The assessment of and adherence to health and safety regulations.
  • The impacts of our building standards on human well-being.
  • The study of the embodied energy of all products and methods.
  • The longevity and life cycles of our buildings.
  • Opportunities to recycle and regenerate materials and energy.
  • Opportunities to allow people and buildings to be maximally resilient.
  • Occupant happiness and appropriateness of buildings for occupants.
  • The ability for our buildings to calm, inspire, and guide.
  • The relationship of our buildings to the earth and the cycles of nature.
  • The relationship of humans to the earth through their interaction with built space.

If we are going to move forward as an industry and lead, then we cannot be pulled around by the elephant’s trunk. We need to think it through first. We have to look at things up close and from dizzying heights. While we each may focus on our individual specialties, we still have to check ourselves against a higher set of standards and make sure we are not doing more harm than good.

We have to present findings to the public that live up to our broader intentional goals. Let us state a mission that we can all stand behind, and let us all stand together with mutual respect and appreciation while working to uphold that mission.

Elizabeth DiSalvo founded Trillium Architects in Norwalk, Connecticut. DiSalvo is a graduate of Columbia University with a masters of Advanced Architectural Design and of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a five year Bachelor of Architecture and Building Science (1989). Elizabeth has been a registered architect since 1993. She is a member of the AIA, NESEA and the USCGB and has been on the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Green Building Council. In April 2011, GBA published a review of her blog.