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ASHRAE Journal Podcast Episode 4

ASHRAE Journal Podcast Season 1 Episode 4 Guests

'There’s No Such Thing as a Free Thermodynamic Lunch.'

“We need to be able to be more honest about what doesn’t work and share those failures so that our next projects can be better,” says John Straube, Ph.D., P.Eng., Associate Member ASHRAE. Listen to Straube and Joseph Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng., Fellow ASHRAE, discuss why human judgment is critical to a better built environment.

Guests John Straube, left, and Joseph Lstiburek, right

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  • Show Notes

    The building industry needs to share its failures so future projects can be better, says John Straube, Ph.D., P.Eng., Associate Member ASHRAE. In this episode, John and Joseph Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng., Fellow ASHRAE, discuss why human judgment is critical to a better built environment.

    John and Joe start the episode by talking about how “there’s no such thing as a free thermodynamic lunch” (1:57) and the unintended consequences of striving for increased energy efficiency, sustainability and carbon neutrality (2:12).

    Then, they discuss why it is important for the building industry to openly talk about failures so that professionals may build on the lessons from the past (4:27). John and Joe also talk about the importance of understanding building science to help diagnose problems and prevent future failures, and later, dive into lessons learned from building materials and enclosures as well as challenges from COVID-19 mitigation recommendations, such as ventilation and humidity (17:47).

  • Guest Bios

    Joseph Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng., Fellow ASHRAE, is the founding principal of Building Science Corporation and an ASHRAE Fellow. He is a building scientist who investigates building failures. Jospeph received an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Toronto, a master’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Toronto and a doctorate in Building Science Engineering from the University of Toronto. The Wall Street Journal referred to him as “the dean of North American building science.” Fast Company magazine called him “the Sherlock Holmes of construction”. He is a recipient of the Carl Cash Award from ASTM, a “Becky” from the Ontario Building Envelope Committee (OBEC) and the EEBA Legacy Award all for lifetime contributions to building science. Joseph is an acclaimed educator who has taught thousands of professionals over the past four decades and has written countless papers. He has a joy for telling tall tales to his proteges and audiences.

    John Straube, Ph.D., P.Eng., Associate Member ASHRAE, is an associate professor in the faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo, where he is cross appointed between the School of Architecture and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is the author or co-author of over 100 published technical papers, author of the book High Performance Enclosures and co-author, with Eric Burnett, of Building Science for Building Enclosures. John's leadership as a building scientist and an educator has been recognized with multiple awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in Building Science Education from the National Consortium of Housing Research Centers (NCHRC).  As a Principal at RDH Building Science and RDH Building Science Labs, he conducts forensic investigations, assists the design of new high performance buildings and leads research projects in the areas of low-energy building design, building enclosure performance, hygrothermal analysis and field performance monitoring. He has been involved in the development of dozens of new building products and sat on several product standards committees.

  • Episode Transcript

    ASHRAE Journal presents.

    John Straube:

    We need to be able to be more honest about what doesn't work and share those failures so that our next projects can be better. And I think as an industry, as a whole, we need to do a lot more sharing, not of just our successes, but of our failures. We need to understand the failures, because I learned so much from Bill.

    ASHRAE Journal:

    Episode 4.

    John Straube and Joseph Lstiburek talk about why the building industry should talk about its mistakes, how there’s no such thing as a free thermodynamic lunch, and how human judgment is critical to creating a better built environment.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    My name is Joseph Lstiburek, I'm an engineer. I deal with building science and mostly problems. I never get a call saying, "Joe, things are going great. Let's have a beer." I get the call “The vampires are here and they're taking everything and you got to help.” So I point out that failure has made me the man that I am today.

    John Straube:

    So my name's John Straube. I am a professor of building science at the University of Waterloo, where I teach students in architecture and engineering. And in my spare time I act as a consultant for RDH building science, where I do lab work and crawl around rotting and leaking buildings that smell bad.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    One of the things that I like to point out to folks is that there's no such thing as a free thermodynamic lunch. And let me put that into context, we are insanely focused on energy efficiency and sustainability and carbon neutral. And it all sounds fabulous, but it's not easy and you can't get something for nothing. As an engineer, I'm born with a genetic defect, it's the efficiency gene. I can't help it. That's part of the deal, but I'm old and I realize that as my projects become more and more energy efficient, less energy moves from the inside to the outside and the outside to the inside.

    And presumably that's good. And the answer is, yes it is. It saves energy, but it prevents things from drying because drying is an energy exchange process. And as I improve the energy efficiency, I lower the drying potential of the building, which means if they get wet, they stay wet longer and that's a problem.

    John Straube:

    I would say that it's worth noting this is not a new phenomenon that's happened in the last 10 years since LEED or something like this. We started learning about this, I'd say, post-1973 in the first oil shock. And in fact, many of these lessons were learned by at least my forefathers or Joe's compatriots, when we started insulating and improving efficiency of furnaces and upgrading hot water heaters. That's when we started noticing failures that resulted and looking at it from thermodynamics perspective and there's no free lunch is really the summary of a hundred examples that we are just seeing happening more and more as we accelerate the change to more energy efficiency and more concern about materials and systems.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    I remember back in the day we rotted lots of attics and we caulked and sealed and weatherized buildings and created indoor air quality problems. We began to spill and backdraft gas furnaces and oil furnaces and water heaters and people got sick and some of them actually died. It wasn't easy. And so one of the things that we learned, and I'm afraid that I think we've forgotten, is that we don't want to rot people's buildings and we don't want to make people sick and we certainly don't want to kill them.

    It's bad to kill people. It's bad to kill the building. So the question is, is how do we go at doing this? And I just want to remind everybody that we should build on the lessons of the past, not forget them. And as we do really wonderful things in the future, we should remind ourselves of the lessons of the past.

    John Straube:

    And I would say also that we've always had to learn from failures. I mean, engineering of all types, bridges collapsed, steam boilers exploded and we developed regulations. We developed techniques to predict that failure and then avoid it. And the same thing needs to be applied to the building enclosure, our choice of materials and systems is that to be able to move forward and make systems that work safely and healthily like, Joe's describing it does behoove us to pay close attention to what doesn't work.

    And the building industry likes to cover up our failures. It doesn't like to popularize them and we need to be able to be more honest about what doesn't work and share those failures so that our next projects can be better. And that's something where Joe's column in the ASHRAE Journal, talks a lot about these are the things that failed, here's your response. And I think as an industry, as a whole, we need to do a lot more sharing, not of our, just our successes, but of our failures and do it in a way that covers our legal butts and is face-saving, but we need to understand the failures because I learn so much from failure.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Let me respond to your comment. It's a perfect setup. It's kind of funny. The medical profession used to be able to share the failures. You'd have a postmortem. The doctors would all get together after somebody got sick or died and talk about things. And it was open. Everybody shared information freely because it was important to learn what went wrong and to talk about it. We don't have that in construction anymore. We rarely had it because whenever you talk about failure, you basically invite litigation. I'm bemused over the last several decades I've been doing this that you talk to senior management and "Ah, everything's going great. We don't have any problems." Then you go out into the field and you talk to the folks that are actually doing stuff. And I actually am more interested in the warranty people and the people that have to basically fix the problems and that information isn't shared.

    And of course they're giving it to me and I have to be very careful about how I deal with it. When people say, "Well, how do you know that half of the new home builders, new homes constructed in South Texas are suffering from part load humidity problems. We don't have any reports of that." Well it's because people are afraid to say that they're having part load humidity problems, but I get a call all the time "Ah, what's happening!?"

    And it's not just our industry. We don't share freely information about failures simply because of the liability and the litigation. And that's a problem we have to overcome that. I know that the aircraft industry—you have a failure, you have a crash, people have learned as part of the tradition to speak openly and freely without fear of retribution. But even that is now changing. And so there's so much stuff that I know about because people tell me, but I'm terrified to share it with what the sources are because of this. And that's a real problem for our industry.

    John Straube:

    And I would say that just to think through that, you mentioned it happens in other industries. It absolutely does, but here's the difference: We might have 15 automotive manufacturers that make up 90% of the passenger car market on the planet. And therefore any one of them can learn a fair bit, but when we're talking about the building industry, it is so massively disaggregated that we have tens of thousands of what we would call large builders of buildings. And so the failures just don't get disseminated as much informally. And that means that we just see, like Joe would see a failure of a, you mentioned part load humidity. And it's like, we look at this, you get the phone call and you completely know what's going on. It's like, well, of course I know all of those symptoms from your description. I completely know what's going on.

    But to them it's a mystery. And it's because they don't get to talk to about failed buildings almost every day of the week. For me, it's almost every day of the week, I'm talking about a failure of a building for leakage, humidity or whatever. And that means that after a while, some of them get pretty boring. And yet that same mechanism of that seems boring to me is something that has never before experienced by a home builder of 17 houses a year.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    John, you hammer on the nail again. There's so much information that is out there that we have, that isn't getting to the people that need to get that information. And you think with Twitter and Facebook and dot com and all of this stuff, and all the social media with the 50,000, 40,000 influencers, we can't seem to be able to explain, well, here's why I've got mold in my closet and why there's a big black spot under my window and it smells bad.

    John Straube:

    Yeah, somehow there's some failures in there and this discussion about we're not good at identifying and disseminating failures so that we can avoid them, runs headlong into the other trend, meaning that there are no free lunches in the energy world and overlaps with the fact that we constantly change our buildings, and by changing our buildings I mean, we change the materials. We change the assemblies of materials. We change the trades who might be assembling those buildings.

    And then we change the use of the building once we've built it and all those factors are changing. And so even when we start noticing failures, the trends are hard to understand because everything's changing the same time, which is why I think, and I'm biased, why you need the building science underpinnings. You need to understand the commonalities so that suddenly these very disparate factors all crystallized because they all fit within the building science explanation.

    And so you can handle these changes and not be surprised by failure and ideally plan against failure. That's what we call success. I think planning against failure, but depending on you're an optimist or a pessimist.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Is the glass half full? Is the glass half empty? To this old engineer it just means your glass was too big.

    John Straube:

    Twice as big as it needed to be. Yeah.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    People are stunned when I explain to them that OSB is very different than plywood. That asphalt impregnated felt paper and type D coded paper is very different than the synthetic plastic house wraps. And all of that is completely different than the fluid-applied coatings than the integral ones, and that everything is different. Well, let's just replace one for the other. Oh man, no, you can't. Well, the old stuff was better. Well actually sometimes yes. And a lot of times, no. A lot of the new stuff is different. It's not worse. It's just that we have to know how to use it slightly differently.

    John Straube:

    Well, and also there's the adage that no good deed will go unpunished. And so as we see people saying, "I'm going to upgrade from felt paper to house wrap, and I'm going to follow the manufacturers' instructions and tape the joints," you make the building suddenly very airtight. And now the mechanical system doesn't work anymore because you have assumed in your original design a leaky building. And so back to when we switched materials and systems, people then would say, "Oh, that's the problem with those fancy polymeric house wraps." Whereas it's no, it's your problem of not understanding the system and which things you've changed in that system so that you could have been prepared for that.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Well, another factor and I'm sure I'm going to end up with nasty products in my bed one morning, but here goes, manufacturers of products are interested in their product, not in the assembly that their product is a part of. And so sometimes the recommendations from a manufacturer referring to how other products should be used, often damages the performance of the assembly, or they are ignorant of it, or they don't want to talk about it. So give you an example. White membrane roofs last a lot longer than black membrane roofs, because they're an awful lot colder, but because they're colder, the drying potential of the roof is reduced. When we shifted from black membranes to white membranes, we had to add air barriers and vapor barriers underneath them.

    And so, "Hey, our stuff lasts longer." Yeah. But you have to add this other stuff to make it work. Okay. But we don't tell you that part, the assembly is more important than the material, but the manufacturers are into the material optimization as opposed to the assembly optimization. And we have issues. And I have problems with the code and say, "Follow the manufacturer's installation instructions." But what happens when they're wrong.

    John Straube:

    Then you have someone else to sue.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Yeah. My observation is, is that the legal profession has been the most effective technology transport building science educational group in the industry, nothing like litigation to inform people.

    John Straube:

    And it's sadly true because one of the things, and I was thinking about this earlier, one of the things about litigation is that if it actually gets to court it is by definition public. Now 90 plus percent of the projects we would work on, never get to court, they're legal, but they settle. And that then means they never are heard about. But I quite often am using publicly available legal cases as an educational tool. Because at least there's a clear process and no one's making up stories. It's all written down. And that includes the responsibilities of various parties.

    The fact that they get results of did you know that 37% or pick a number of windows leak when inserted in houses? If I tell that number to a builder or a window manufacturer, they'll both call BS on me and say that can't possibly be true. But when I pull out the California class action lawsuit where it was actually quoted, then they're going, "Holy cow, it's that bad." Yes. It's that bad. And that's why I'm giving you this recommendation.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Well, on the other side, I've done more than my share of litigation, John, and the discovery is wonderful and they settled and I'm not allowed to say what I know. So I say, "Well, look, you shouldn't do this, but I can't tell you why you shouldn't do this." Totally, totally.

    John Straube:

    In fact, the other thing you get is you get the insight Joe, you get the insight of how the different partners or parties in a construction project work because you get to see every email that was written, including the ones in anger and ones before they knew they had a problem. And it just shows you how dysfunctional organizations work or rather don't work. Right. So you get to see all of it.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Funny story. Well, funny to me anyway. I was involved in a synthetic wood manufacturing failure class action that got settled, but I had access to virtually all of the information over the previous 30, 40 years. Had it all. I read it all. And I'm working on my doctorate and I'm going through the oral comprehensives  and one of the professors was from the wood faculty and asked me these questions. And I started answering these incredible detail, information. I actually knew more about that particular subject than he did. And he wanted to know, how do you know all this stuff? I can't tell you, sir.

    I got through the oral comprehensive, but you asked me privately afterwards, this is what, I said, "Well, this is the litigation." "You were part of that. Oh my God, what can you tell on me? Let's go to dinner."

    John Straube:

    Yes. I think you end up with a lot of again, those are the side stories where people learn from each other and learn what to watch out for and what has failed and so on. And I guess the question then would be, we should be starting to talk about, well, given that we know some of these things go wrong, what are the rules for doing them right. And I'm going to say, rule number zero is do your homework about what does and can fail. Don't presume that because someone has a good brochure or it sounds like a good idea that it will work. I think you just need to be sufficiently cynical, but not so cynical as to stop improving.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    My Spidey sense is tingling with the next change in terms of efficiency, net zero, and I'm real nervous about the COVID stuff and the COVID recommendations. So we're going to want to increase ventilation rates, increase interior humidities, increase thermal insulation. And then I'm saying, "Oh my Gosh, you can't do all of that without changing all of that."

    And we have people running around making all of these recommendations that don't have an understanding of the consequences of those recommendations. Do you realize that you can't run my most buildings in the winter in cold climates at 45 or 50% relative humidity, even though it helps the occupants from a COVID perspective, except that, you know, it's going to destroy the building. And I've been sort of saying that, "Well, maybe we should figure out what's possible with what building and what climate zone."

    So we screwed up in the 80s. We shouldn't screw up in the 2020s. We're smarter than that. I'm hoping that we're smarter than that. And so there are things that we can't do despite what certain health professionals recommend. You don't want the people to get sick, but you don't want the building to get sick as well. And we might end up having to spend eight months or seven months of the time saving the people. Then we might have to spend two or three months of the time saving the building, preventing the building from getting sick because the sick building is going to make sick people later on. And we're not connecting right now. We're not communicating.

    John Straube:

    I would push back a little bit harder on these recommendations because I've heard for decades and I'm not even that old, Joe, I've heard for decades that when people complain, I got scratchy eyes or I have a hard time breathing in the winter my doctor tells me to run a humidifier. Well, my response would be to say, "Well, I think you should take medicine, about five CCs a day. Of course, I don't respond that way because I'm not a health professional.

    But on the other hand, apparently said health professional knows enough about buildings to know that the humidity level was the problem causing the scratchy throat and the itchy eyes and that adding a humidifier is the right prescription. And that exact prescription is commonly destroys the building in the indoor air quality. And I've had exactly this situation on more than one occasion.

    That person comes to me to say, "I had these issues. Doctors prescribed a humidifier." When we investigate the building, one case it was a house in other cases apartments, you discover, well, the reason you had scratchy eyes is that you had mold all over the building and the humidifier just made it worse. So I think Joe and I know enough not to wade too deep into providing healthcare advice. And I actually think we had have to be quite aware that the healthcare professionals need to be careful not to wade too far into the building science.

    And I do know that back in the day when people had like TB and so on, the doctor's advice was, well, you send them to Arizona, a really dry climate where the RH is always in the single digits, but now they'll say, "Oh no, now we need a humidifier." So I'm a bit skeptical at the track record of changing humidification in buildings as a solution to indoor air quality problems. Because, almost all the work that I do is that the humidity is too high. It's causing obvious mold problems. I've never seen one where it's caused by being too low.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Professor Straube, I totally agree with you. And I get this all the time. You're not a doctor. You can't provide medical advice. And I said, "Well, yeah, you're right. I'm not a medical doctor. So I know math and physics, don't provide building advice." You're you have no idea about what you don't know. And I get into these arguments. I mean, you watch This Old House one episode, and now you're an expert. I can't tell you how many buildings have been destroyed by the medical profession providing recommendations to humidify buildings. And I guess I need therapy, Professor Straube.

    John Straube:

    Well, you and me both it just seems that well, we probably need more research. It's easy as a researcher to say that, but it's clearly not definitive that upping RH is going to solve X, Y or Z problems. But it is definitive that our buildings, as you said, the way we design and build them are not able to tolerate high relative humidities in cold climates, that number varies depending how cold and what kind of building. And it is also for sure, that if you try and run buildings in the south at 70 plus percent RH, you are almost certain to get mold growing in some hidden spots. That I think we can be certain of. So we can't go in those directions and or we know we will get into trouble.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Well right now the big push is increased ventilation rates, an increased humidity. In the south when we increase ventilation rates, we're going to have to invest in dehumidifiers. In the north when we increase ventilation rates, we're going to have to invest in humidifiers and everywhere we're going to have to invest in heat recovery ventilators. Have you all thought this through? Now, I believe that filtration is going to win the day. What do I know about these things, but four or five air changes per hour in a room with filtered air, highly recirculated filtered air, I think is where we want to be. I want to say build tight over filtered, right.

    John Straube:

    Doesn't quite have the same ring to it, Joe. But I also think that we haven't thought through the implications. Hospitals are incredibly expensive to build and to operate because the solution to pollution has been dilution for a hundred years. And what we can't do is apply that level of resources to your standard multifamily walk-up suburban building. And so that's why I think we're going to be investigating ventilation, avoiding bringing pollution into the building, dealing with things like germicidal treatments, maybe UV light type stuff, because the consequences of increasing duct work, fans, etc., in both in capital and in operating, it just boggles the mind. If we had to build every public school at the same cost as a hospital, I guess we just wouldn't have a lot of schools.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Well, I got into a lot of trouble, no surprise there, when I said that dilution is not the solution to end our pollution. You can imagine how happy the 62 committee was when they heard that. But I think source control is a big deal and believe it or not, I think we have some technology that could help us out. We should maybe not take an arbitrary and capricious ventilation rate based on an incredibly inaccurate assumption on occupancy and what's in the space.

    We actually have the ability to measure stuff in the space, and maybe we could ventilate according to what we're measuring as opposed to what we're guessing. And if we're really smart, maybe we shouldn't build the building out of stupid stuff, and we should educate people not to fill the building with stupid stuff. And maybe we should get the people not to do stupid stuff, but if they want to do stupid, stupid, stupid, we have the ability to measure it and help them out.

    John Straube:

    I mean, obviously the way technology has moved forward on the sensor front in both cost and reliability, because I think reliability has long been an issue that we want to make sure these sensors work, is pretty profound. I mean, CO2 sensors are now widely available. I still think we can do a better job of reliability, but they offer so much to being able to get the right amount of ventilation into the right place.

    And while we can talk about the future of that technology, I still see buildings being built brand new today where the ventilation strategy is overtly on paper unable to reliably ventilate spaces based on their occupancy.

    We see so many VAV systems being put into commercial buildings that they're only operating is on temperature. And so again, this is me driven by forensics about seeing failures a lot, but even when we look at new construction, it's like, yeah, but how do you know that you're going to be delivering 200 CFM into that space when there are 24 people in that room? And how do you differentiate that from the time when there's two people in the room? So the normal answer is, well, we just cut it down the middle. Meaning half the time people get not enough ventilation. And the other half of the time we waste energy. What a fantastic solution.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    We do even better residential. Well, let's just suck. Let's just put in a fan, suck air out of the building, out of the house, not know where the makeup air is coming from. It could come from the crawl space under the slab. And in Michigan, if you have an attached garage, we call that the Kevorkian option, right? We have no idea where that air is coming from. Why can't we be smart enough to say let's have balanced ventilation, provide mixing and distribution and ventilate according to need. We have the technology to be able to measure stuff. John, not only CO2, we're able to measure volatile organic compounds, VOCs in particulates come on baby, if I can have 14,000 songs on my iPhone, why can't I measure VOCs in particulates, baby.

    John Straube:

    I can't believe you're being the technological optimist here, Joe, but we are still seeing the majority of high-rise, multifamily buildings blowing their fresh air into the corridor and hoping that the right amount of air is going to leak under the crack in the front door to provide fresh air, it's mind boggling.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    John, that's called faith-based ventilation.

    John Straube:

    I agree. And this is actually, people are still discussing it as a serious option. At the same time, we have committees talking about how to increase ventilation rates and filtration. I just think there's a complete massive disconnect between what people are hoping to achieve and what's actually happening out there.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Well, I think what we need is a cable TV show: Engineers in New Jersey.

    John Straube:

    Yeah, they're going to have to be better looking than us if we're going to get an audience. We should think about the materials a bit more because we're talking about the future of low carbon and low energy. And it's not just that we're using say more insulation or better air tightness, we're also swapping out to make materials that are more sustainable.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    I'm constantly surprised, bemused, disappointed at the accounting with respect to carbon and embodied energy. And my comment is, if we did our real accounting and our taxes that way the IRS would put us into jail, into prison. I think we are missing this. I realize the issues with concrete and realize the issues with steel and people seem to think that replacing concrete and steel is a trivial issue. It's not going to be easy, it's going to be difficult. And none of the information that I've been getting I have any confidence in.

    John Straube:

    Well, here's as an example of people who are aiming to replace concrete and steel. But classic now in the last five to seven years has been using mass timber and both you and I, Joe, have spent an awful lot of time thinking about wood and kind of amazed at its natural properties. But then we start getting people who are used to building out of concrete, just saying, well, we'll replace those eight inch concrete slabs with nine inches of solid wood. And they haven't realized that they've fundamentally changed almost everything. The moisture sensitivity, the fire sensitivity, the response of the wood to the humidity that you run the building in now.

    We have to now set real achievable targets for humidity variation so that the structure doesn't expand and contract too much. We have to have whole new approaches to construction sequencing to stop mass timber from getting wet. And this we're just at the beginning, these are innovations and we're only starting to learn about the many challenges. And I would argue that switching concrete slabs for mass timber slabs is one of the easier things we can do, but we're going to be faced with a whole bunch of those.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    That's funny. I point out, I think I stole this line from you. People don't realize that we actually build outside.

    John Straube:

    Yeah.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Yeah. I know it's amazing we build outside and I've been telling people that I think the mass timber buildings are going to be more fire safe because they're going to be too wet to burn.

    John Straube:

    It definitely could happen, but you know what? Joe, one of the responses to, but it gets wet if you build outside, they're saying, don't worry, we're going to build all of our future buildings and buildings. We're going to have pre-fabulous robots that assemble everything and then we'll just drop it on the job site. It's exactly those systems that are the most sensitive to construction moisture, because people actually have designed a complete building with drywall and carpet and paper face ceiling tiles, and then they try and install it on the job site and one in seven days it's raining. And so you end up with actually quite problematic buildings that were designed to avoid being built outside, but they're still assembled outside because the site is still outside.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    I've been hearing about prefabrication of components and walls and modules, well, since my Toronto Maple Leafs were winning the Stanley Cup in the 1960s and it ain't working. Oh man, you're just old fashioned. Well, I wasn’t old fashioned in my 20s. I guess I'm not old fashioned now and I'm telling you that every time I hear this, I deal with the problems. I don't get that call, John, that, Hey, this prefabricated building is working great. Well that module, we put all those cubes together in downtown Manhattan. No.

    John Straube:

    They just click together like Lego.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Yeah absolutely.

    John Straube:

    But I think we're going to see it. There's no doubt

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Reminds me of a Winston Churchill, and he said this about America. I'm going to say this about construction. Winston Churchill said, "Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing after all the alternatives have been exhausted." The construction industry can be counted upon to do the right thing after all of the alternatives have been exhausted. We haven't exhausted all the alternatives yet, John.

    John Straube:

    So I mean the successful, and there are many modular paneled mass timber type construction projects though, by and large are the ones that have either been through the wars, meaning they've seen their failures and modified their approaches, or have really paid close attention to the failures of others. Now, I always thought that I heard once from somebody who told me the really smart people are the ones who learn from their mistakes and the smartest people of all are the ones who learn from the mistakes of others. And that's kind of back to the earlier part of our conversation. You need to learn about what mistakes are made by others so that you can avoid them. And that's good engineering, that's how you make better progress going forward. Don't repeat the same mistakes, you want to have your own creative, innovative mistakes.

     

    [Musical Interlude]

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    With all of the negativity I've commented on or at it earlier, I'm actually have a very positive outlook. I really think that we're on the verge of actually fixing all of this that despite being negative, I'm actually very, very positive. Yes, we have new materials that are more moisture sensitive, but we know more about these materials than we did in the past. We know more about how the buildings and the systems work. I really think that we can have extremely highly insulated buildings that have high energy efficiency and excellent indoor air quality. That doesn't worry me. The problem is going to be, how do we retrofit and rehabilitate the existing building stock? And that is what keeps me awake late at night. The new stuff is going to be easy, professor, the existing stuff, oh boy! That's where we're going to have to really earn our chops.

    John Straube:

    I agree and I actually stand on something more now. You said you're very positive and so am I, that's why you repel me so much! But that is actually what I'm railing against. Is not that we don't know enough is that the things that we see that don't work, whether they be not comfortable, not healthy, not cost effective, or just downright fail because they rot and leak. Most of them, I look and say, we could have avoided this. It's about paying attention to the important factors, managing moisture and temperature, being aware of that thermodynamic free lunch deal that you talked about at the beginning. And so I actually am positive that we can do better. I think our buildings are getting better, but I would also to deal with your second point, the real challenge is in retrofitting the 99% of buildings that already exist. And the reason that's more of a challenge is that there's such diversity. We have to deal with different decades worth of materials and systems and as well as the aging effect and so on.

    And so I think you just really, as you say, you got to show our chops. You really need to be on your game and understand what's going on in more than just like a checklist standard set of approaches because you have to be much more flexible in this retrofit world. And I think we're very close to 50% of design effort on North America is being spent on existing buildings and I think that it's going to only go up. It has to go up, more and more effort is going to have to be focused, understanding and responding to existing buildings.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Totally agree. And I want to give one of my closing thoughts. I keep hearing about all the robots that are going to do the retrofits. I hear about all the prefabricated panels that we're going to just slap on and bolt onto the outside of these buildings and it's going to be, we're going to get all of this done in 24 hours and I just, oh boy! You folks who are talking about this have no idea, you're going to want judgment, Luke, turn off the guidance system, go with the force, turn off the computer and robot, use some judgment. Come on. You can't replace the human factor with a computer simulation and a robot, an adult is going to have to look at the building, look at the home, look at the problem and give us a solution and boy, people keep forgetting that.

    John Straube:

    That's one of the challenges that again, differentiate the building industry from many others is that it is inherently local. Buildings are built on sites and or installed on sites, if you will. And that local environment is unique. And so it is a unique mix of labor availability, material availability, expectations of the occupants, and that changes over time. And so, I mean, that's one of the reasons I love the building industry because buildings are interesting and unique, but it's also a challenge for our solutions that it's difficult just to say, there's one solution that works for 70% of buildings or something like that.

    They're almost always, you're going to have to come up with ways of making a good assessment and analysis of the building to say which out of my kit of parts, my kit of techniques can I apply and maybe computers can help I'm sure, but you can't do it without judgment. And to choose Joe's point is that we do need people to be trained and educated in this and we need to share our experiences more widely so that we can learn more effectively.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    I've got another closing thought, maybe several closing thoughts, but here's one. You can't outsource this to some other country. This is all got to be done locally by local people. Canadians and Americans are going to have to fix their own buildings. They're not going to be able to off source this to some place in some other country and import a box or a kit of parts. It's going to be local and that's wonderful. And I also think construction is a repair and rehabilitation of existing buildings is a noble undertaking. And I think not everybody should be a computer programmer or a geek in Wall Street. Let's fix our infrastructure, that's got to be done by people, not computer programs.

    John Straube:

    And I can tell you from the freshman crop, if you will, of students in the last few years, is that students do care about doing something meaningful about climate changes as a crisis they really see, I mean, there's several of them, but that's one of them that intersects directly with this podcast is how are we going to deal with the challenge of climate change and carbon emissions? And so this is an industry where major impacts can be had, but it does require a lot of people.

    They have to be locally deployed and it's going to be about thinking people, people who can take the facts that are in front of them and make good judgments. It's not going to be something that you can just do with standard industrial assembly line thinking, it has to be more understanding and sharing of experience to develop that understanding.

    Joseph Lstiburek:

    Two thumbs up for that, professor.

    ASHRAE Journal:

    ASHRAE Journal Podcast team is managing editor, Mary Kate McGowan, producer and associate editor Chadd Jones, assistant managing editor, Jeri Alger, and associate editors Tani Palefski and Rebecca Matyasovski. Copyright ASHRAE.

    Views expressed in this podcast are those of individuals only, and not of ASHRAE's sponsors or advertisers, please refer to ashrae.org/podcast for the full disclaimer.

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