There are some serious flaws in the way a lot of buildings are built today and Joe Lstiburek is a man on a mission to change that.
As an engineer and "building scientist," Lstiburek casts a jaundiced eye across the building landscape. Builders often fail to take proper consideration of the specific climate they build in. Building codes often impose requirements that cause problems rather than solve them. Energy conservation do-gooders in their fervor introduced politics into a debate that should be based on science, he says.
In a nutshell, builders often violate the fundamental laws of physics. Mother nature doesn't like that. The resulting structures -- plagued by moisture, mold, and indoor air quality problems -- have compromised long-term durability. The builders and owners then suffer the consequences.
Lstiburek -- more properly Dr. Lstiburek -- has earned a right to hold strong opinions on the matter with his record of experience and training. He received an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, a master's degree in civil engineering, and a doctorate in building science, all from the University of Toronto, and has been a licensed professional engineer since 1982. He is also a principal in Building Science Corp., in Westford, Mass., a building technology consulting firm with expertise in moisture dynamics, indoor air quality, and forensic building investigations.
Building science is defined as "the study of the interaction between the various material, products, and systems used in building construction, the occupants of these buildings, and the environments in which they are located," according to material on the BSC Web site (www.buildingscience.com).
When all these factors come together, a building works in accordance with the laws of physics, says Lstiburek. Above all, it holds at bay the great enemy: moisture. It keeps water out while allowing indoor water, water vapor, and moisture to escape.
Lack of Understanding
Prophets tend to go without honor in their own countries, but some production builders are listening to Lstiburek. He's worked with Pulte Homes, Centex, Ryland Group, Town and Country Homes, and Hovnanian Enterprises. He numbers among his commercial clients GTE (world headquarters), MCI (computer operations center), and several hotel chains and government buildings in various states.
Despite more understanding of building science among these companies, a big problem is a general dearth of such understanding in the industry, Lstiburek says. Production builders don't know enough building science and neither do most building officials, he says.
"If you think the situation in residential building is bad, you should see the commercial stuff. There isn't a hotel built in the last 10 years in the U.S. that doesn't have a mold problem," he says.
"Large production home builders know land development and financing, they are brilliant project managers, and they are incredibly acute businessmen, but they have no understanding of the technology of construction. And quite frankly, they didn't need to until now," he adds.
Why now? Because much has changed in the past two decades or so, says Lstiburek. Materials and products and systems have all changed, in some cases dramatically. The technology of construction has gotten much more complex. Specialists have focused exclusively each on his own area, so that the interrelationships of all these building elements can have unanticipated consequences. Some, like mold and indoor air quality problems, have made headlines in recent years.
The emphasis on energy conservation that's developed in the past 30 years has further aggravated the situation. Well-meaning "do-good" activists pushing for better energy practices have helped turn building codes into political documents for social change, he says. Lstiburek says he is in favor of intelligent energy use, but he emphasized that the key word is intelligent.
"The problem is these activists didn't learn math and biology and physics, yet they run around and change things without understanding these basics. The physics of this is 200 years old. It isn't like we don't know the Second Law of Thermodynamics and we haven't heard of gravity," he says. (For rusty physics students, that Second Law of Thermodynamics describes the flow of energy from a hotter body or space to a colder one.) "I guess if you can't do physics or math you go into biology and if you can't do biology you go into activism and energy conservation," he decrees with a distinctive brand of hyperbole that engenders critics as well as fans.
Cracking the Code
The building codes that have resulted, in part, from this misguided activism are a pet peeve to Lstiburek. In too many cases, they prescribe the wrong approach to problems of ventilation and moisture control, for example, and proscribe an effective approach, he contends.
"What we find is that in many cases the actual wording of the code prevents us from using the best techniques or technologies and approaches to deal with water, condensation, mold, decay, rot, and corrosion," he says. "There's no such thing as a free thermodynamic lunch. We are reaping what we sowed with our desire to do good things in the '80s and '90s," he adds.
Historically, building codes have done a good job dealing with the problems they originally targeted -- sanitation, fire safety, and structural safety. But with the changes of the past 20 years, the codes are now broken in some important ways. Fixing them won't be easy.
"The problem," Lstiburek contends, "is that we are asking the people who screwed it up to fix it. First, they are in denial that they caused the problem. Second, they don't understand the problem. And third, they have an inherent desire to not admit they are wrong. So they are more of a hindrance than a help."
Naturally, the administrators of the building code-making process in organizations such as the International Code Council (ICC) disagree. They point out that the code-making process is typically open to all interested parties. The one used by the ICC, for example, has been endorsed as being well-designed to ensure public and technical expert participation and an unbiased result.
And the International Residential Code (IRC) focuses on performance, not how to achieve it, according to Michael J. Pfeiffer, vice president of codes and standards development for the ICC in its Chicago regional office. "The code requires that the building envelope provide a barrier to weather. The code attacks the problem from a performance perspective, with provisions that require exterior walls to be sound and weatherproof, and the same holds true for roofs. The code requires that the building envelope be maintained, but it doesn't tell you how to do it," he says.
Finding Middle Ground
In typical he-said, she-said fashion, each side can point to specific areas in the IRC to support its view. Either way, builders find themselves in the middle when it comes to headlines and litigation about mold and indoor air quality problems. The question is, what can builders do about it?
Legal action is one recourse, Lstiburek says. "Things will get worse and then various builders and groups will succeed in suing local building departments and municipalities for enforcing provisions that violate the laws of physics and good sense," he says. "When that starts and the municipalities have to defend themselves, then we are going to see fundamental change and it won't happen until then," he adds.
In the meantime, builders need to invest time and resources in helping to educate building officials (and their own people) about building science. Lstiburek points out that builders and municipal building departments have a common problem: finding and keeping good people.
"The production builder has enough trouble finding somebody who knows how to flash windows and wall openings. The building departments have exactly the same problem. They have a commonality of interest and therefore an opportunity to help one another. Educated field staffs from both the builder and the building department are a good thing," he says.
"An informed and knowledgeable building official is more valuable than a skilled surgeon. Builders need to find these people and cultivate and help them," he adds.
Joe Lstiburek's "Top 10 Dumb Things to do in the North."
1. Fresh air intakes located next to loading docks, parking garages, dumpsters, and cooling towers.
2. Roof drains located on the highest part of roof with air handler roof top units located on the lowest part of roof.
3. Exterior insulation and finish systems (EIFS, synthetic stucco) without drainage planes.
4. Gas water heaters with draft hoods located inside the pressure boundary of the building envelope.
5. Vented crawl spaces.
6. Outside air supplied to dropped ceiling return plenums.
7. Dropped ceiling return plenums.
8. Humidified and pressurized hospitals, museums, and computer (data processing) centers.
9. Parking garages under high-rise buildings.
10. Unvented gas fireplaces.
For Joe's "Top 10 Dumb Things to Do in the South," visit www.buildingscience.com.