Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Durability-the not so pretty side of design

The introduction of new technologies and materials is one of the hardest areas for designers to stay current.  Occupations in building science have exploded in the last ten years because of the growing problem of building failures.  When we started to tighten up homes in the 1980's because of the energy crisis, we learned that keeping warm air inside the house also kept the moisture inside that house.  The whole realm of moisture problems bloomed when our homes were no longer "naturally" ventilated.  We saw and felt the immediate result of more insulation and caulk-our gas bills went down and our toes were warmer.  It took a while before we identified the source for an increase of asthma and mold allergies, a side effect we neither anticipated or wanted, but that only time would tell.

So, we introduced the use of rain screens or drainage planes, vapor barriers, gaskets, sealants and many other products to make the building system work better.  Building scientists introduced the methods for determining the location of the dew point within wall systems, thus dictating the best type and location for specific insulations.  They got us thinking about air movement, which equates to moisture movement and the need to control moisture movement caused by wicking or thermodynamics.

Building codes were dictating that we build more energy efficient homes, but neglected to ask building scientists the best ways to do that, so many homes were built following codes, but ignoring the science that would also make then durable.  Building codes are now addressing durability, but there is a whole decade of homes out there that are now suffering the consequences of forgetting that the whole house needs to work as a system.  As energy prices continue to rise, more pressure is on code agencies to raise the insulating standards again and some building scientists are taking a harder look at the ramifications to durability.  There will always be a tug of war between a more energy efficient and a more healthy home.

Minnesota has some of the best energy codes in the country and right now they seem to be working fine, with a good balance between saving energy and maintaining durability, but as national codes push harder for more energy efficiency, the balance will be in jeopardy.  Politicians and material suppliers need to back off and let the building scientist do their research before pushing the housing industry into requirements that may or may not achieve the desired result of healthy, durable homes that save energy.  The current housing slump is the perfect time to do research and document results, it is about time for building science to get ahead in the race.  Energy codes should also be region specific, because what we do in Minnesota to save energy is vastly different than what they do in Arizona to save energy.  Controlling moisture movement is as important as air movement and depending on where you live, the methods for controlling them could be vastly different.  Regional energy codes make much more sense than dictating that the whole country has to follow the same rules.

I will get off my soap box now, but I want to remind people who are planning to build a new house, that as much energy should go into designing it to be durable and energy efficient as goes into making it look great.

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