Christine Cronin has worked for Boston-based Building Science Corp. (BSC) for the past four years.
“It’s very much a family business,” she explains, as founding principal and nationally known building science expert Joe Lstiburek is her father. From her base in Dallas, she deals with many of the firm’s clients in the middle of the country, plus California.
As a consultant for BSC, Cronin has three primary lines of inquiry: forensic investigation of building failures (usually moisture, but also comfort and odor issues), risk mitigation with new construction clients, and education and research. “You never get a call in the middle of the night saying, ‘Help me, my building is leaking air,’ or ‘My building is leaking energy,’” Cronin says. “It’s ‘Help me, my building is leaking water.’”
Cronin’s relationship to building codes isn’t very different from many building professionals: “Most of the time, I have to look it up,” she says. “You can’t just only know the codes. It’s a baseline, and it doesn’t know your project. You have to know the physics first.” For example, where codes require drainage and may specifically call for two layers of building paper—that’s totally inadequate in some climates. “If you go with the code minimum, you can run into an enormous failure,” Cronin says.
Cronin, 36, studied sociology and French as an undergraduate at Princeton, eventually trying corporate marketing in San Antonio before moving to Boston to study at Boston Architectural College. She transferred to NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego where she earned her master of architecture in 2011. Beyond her familial connection to building science, while studying architecture she worked for New York–based Chris Benedict R.A. (CBRA), which led to a career focus on sustainable design. “Chris is a terrific architect,” Cronin says. “She taught me about codes and put me in the field, where I was doing blower door tests.”
Given her early interest in sustainable design, it’s ironic when Cronin explains that very little of her practice today looks directly at energy efficiency. “Ninety percent of my clients aren’t interested in energy, or environmental responsibility,” she says. “But the great thing about buildings that use solid building science is they tend to be very environmentally responsible.”
There’s also quite a division between residential clients and institutional or commercial clients. The commercial market is primarily interested in risk mitigation. “We get some crazy irrationalities there,” she says, citing a project that featured a $2 million solar array but had cut costs by skipping $2,000 worth of window caulking. But the residential market has different priorities. “They’re very interested in comfort,” Cronin explains. “The priority is how the interior space looks and feels to a client.”
A lot of low-performing structures are related to consumers' lack of understanding as to what’s available, she adds. “People have no idea how uncomfortable they are in their homes,” she says. “They take for granted that their upstairs bedrooms are going to be hot in summer and their floors are going to be cold in winter.”
Cronin thinks consumers will be willing to pay a little more if they have a taste of higher-performing homes—and this is the direction she sees the market going.
Cronin emphasizes the importance of her early experience with Benedict: “She put me in the field, which is where the magic is.” Cronin notes that good design is a start, but “if you don’t understand how something goes together in the field, if you don’t understand sequencing, it’s going to be difficult to achieve any energy-related goals.” CBRA’s sustainable designs required efficient, tight buildings to support their light-handed mechanical systems. “That combination of design and building and construction is necessary if you want to accomplish anything extraordinary in energy efficiency or be environmentally responsible,” Cronin states.
Perhaps Cronin’s most interesting work today is actually a personal sideline; she maintains an Instagram account, @buildingsciencefightclub, where she regularly posts an informative series of annotated field conditions, with evaluation and suggested solutions. She considers it a “hobby” since it’s not advancing the cause of any particular business, but it’s a place to really see her infectious enthusiasm for the industry on display. “I take a photo, mark it up, and discuss the technical principles in play,” she explains. Meant to be both fun and productive, she bases the methodology on her own education—walking jobsites and learning one thing at a time. “People are embarrassed by what they don’t know, so they don’t ask questions," Cronin says. “This is a vehicle for learning that’s not intimidating.”
And with just over 1,500 followers, it’s an endeavor that is already making an impact.