Building science is a wonderful, wacky world. If you're not interested in it, make sure you have someone on your team who is.

“Building Fundamentals” is one of those black hole topics: no matter how much material and knowledge you have it just gets sucked into the abyss. One of the things I like about studying buildings is that while they are tangible and finite, they are basically infinitely complex. If you don’t believe me, just try to wrap your head around something simple like passive solar heating.

Sunlight comes in through glass filled openings and is stored in a dense material, stone for example. Simple, right? Conceptually, yes, but the physical dynamics are very complex. The goal is to collect more heat than you loose, but glass is very poor insulation so the same material you are using to let in heat also lets it out quickly. Okay, let’s just make the glass have more insulation value. Well, that tends to reduce the amount of heat allowed in. Let’s just say we get the glass figured out, next we have to understand the dense material, the thermal mass we’re using to store the sun’s heat. What material should we use, how much do we need, where should we put it, what color should it be? This is baffling in itself, but when you introduce a constantly modulating heat source, the sun, then it’s really time to make friends with an egghead. (Tip: hang out in Boston with a sign that says “free pen protectors”.) Every minute of the day, the intensity of the sun hitting our thermal mass is changing, both because the sun’s position in the sky changes and because clouds and other obstacles like trees and buildings are complicated the situation.

I’m not trying to scare you here. Mere mortals can design functional passive solar buildings. However, there are a lot of poor passive solar designs out there because people didn’t have enough respect for the necessity to translate a concept into the physical matrix of reality in a very specific situation. Besides, this is just an example. My point is that the fundamentals of how buildings work is a fascinating and infinite area of interest. Our little chapter is a good start, but don’t stop there. We’ll continue to post tidbits on the topic in our blog, but don’t stop there. Once you know the specifics of your situation: climate, micro-climate, insulation strategy, etc. then conduct careful research pertinent to those specifics. Better yet, hire someone who understands building science as a consultant or designer. Believe me, it’s the right thing to do.

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