For a number of years there was big hype about the green-building movement and everything green. Many remodelers viewed green remodeling as a passing fad. Fast-forward a few years and building science, which is really the base of green buildings, was incorporated into the building codes and is being mandated by states and local building authorities. Why, one may ask?

We have all heard that things are not built the same as they used to be. Well, this is twofold. While some aspects of the old-style construction were built better in some ways, we have to understand building technology always evolves over time. Just think of the medieval stone and rock architecture; they were solid and last forever.

Next came solid wood-framed homes, which worked, but the cost to build with solid wood is far too expensive today. Now, the prominent home-construction method is platform stick construction. Technology is affecting how buildings are built and designed, and rightfully so. With technological advancement, a lot of testing has taken place to assist us in understanding how it will all be incorporated into the building.

Energy efficiency certainly has been a driving factor in the adoption of building science principles. Other than that, it is cost and time that are the major factors—not to mention a comfortable and healthy environment. Finding the balance between a quickly built, energy-efficient and healthy home for your clients makes using building-science principles somewhat of a challenge.

What Is Building Science Anyway?

Building science, as the name suggests, is a scientific, technical understanding of buildings. It includes the indoor environment, the thermal envelope and air quality, building materials, mechanical systems, electrical, lighting, etc. The whole point is to optimize how the building performs, how sustainable it is long term and, most important, how it affects its inhabitants.

Another way of looking at building science is viewing the building and all its systems as an integral unit. The science aspect involves understanding how each component interacts with the others and the environment the house exists in.

Take, for example, a home built in Texas as opposed to Colorado. Understanding the different variables each climate offers will aid an overall better-built environment.

Texas is a hot climate that requires good air sealing to keep the conditioned air in, windows with low thermal gain, a high SEER air conditioner and, finally, a well-sealed home and energy recovery ventilator (ERV). Whereas Colorado will be a cold dry climate. Air sealing will still be required, but attic and wall insulation will be very important. With a well-sealed and insulated home, you will need some sort of heating. This may be hydronic or force air. Additionally, you will need some air exchange for a well-sealed home; a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) may be appropriate.

Preparing the plans and designs early on to be integrated into the building process pays off. Walls framed using 2 inch by 6 inch lumber, instead of 2 inch by 4 inch walls, that create a complete and continuous thermal break that encapsulates the building is critical.

There are different methods to achieve the thermal break. Probably the most common is the rigid foam layer before the sheeting. Eliminating the thermal bridging, along with higher R-value continuous insulation and airtight building, will allow for a much more efficient, and also a more comfortable, building. This process alone will allow the use of a much smaller HVAC system.

One challenge to be addressed with an airtight building is making sure you have fresh air. This is achieved by different types of fresh air makeup and energy recovery ventilators. This is very climate specific.

In a milder and more humid climate, you need to deal with moisture management. Whereas in a cooler and drier climate, passive ventilation can be used more effectively without the need for an air conditioner. Colder climates have their own challenges related to moisture. A few of these challenges are proper management of ice buildup, taking into consideration the drainage plane and condensation buildup in interior walls.

Why Should I Care About It?

Sounds expensive and complicated, right? It doesn’t have to be. In most cases, a green built project may cost a little more, but the cost of ongoing operation will be much less. We all need to understand building science before taking on a remodel, addition or new build.

Just as we have architects and structural engineers involved in the process, it is also important to have a building science professional do the necessary calculations, as it can affect the design and overall outcome of the project. It goes back to proper planning and complete understanding of how the different elements will work together.

Many clients are interested in an alternative energy source for their home. Some states are even mandating the installation of renewable energy systems in new homes and major remodels.

There are different types of renewable energy source available such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. Solar and wind can be installed as part of your remodel project. However, regardless of the source of energy being used, ultimately it goes back to how efficient the building is. It is critical to reduce the energy required to heat and cool the home to effectively use site-installed renewables.

Your clients may not know or care about having a green home, but their pocketbook will thank you once they occupy the home. With building science, we can aim to build functional, beautiful, high-performance spaces that are both environmentally and homeowner healthy. QR

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