Bill Rose’s Building Science To-Do List

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Bill Rose’s Building Science To-Do List

Rose invites young building scientists to investigate six topics

Posted on Feb 3 2017 by Martin Holladay

William Rose is fun to listen to. The author of a landmark book, Water in Buildings, Rose is a research architect at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a widely respected building scientist.

Rose’s speaking style is discursive, meandering, hesitant, and occasionally poetic. He shares historical anecdotes that sometimes seem only remotely relevant to his topic. Eventually, however, he sews together a patchwork quilt with a unified theme.

Rose gave the keynote address, “A Building Science To-Do List,” at a building envelopeExterior components of a house that provide protection from colder (and warmer) outdoor temperatures and precipitation; includes the house foundation, framed exterior walls, roof or ceiling, and insulation, and air sealing materials. conference I recently attended in Florida (the Thermal Performance of the Exterior Envelopes of Whole Buildings XIII International Conference). Looking ahead to retirement, Rose was ready to bequeath his list to the younger building scientists in the audience.

“I received a warm invitation from André Desjarlais to speak here,” said Rose. “He said something like, ‘Bill Rose, you’re old.’ It was a liberating and inspiring thing to hear. So I've been thinking about the things I wanted to get done in building science. I may not get these things done — I may have to pass these things on to you.”

Studying building corners

The first item on Rose’s list is simple: we need a better understanding of corners. Energy modeling is often one-dimensional — as, for example, when a scientist describes the temperature profile across an insulated wall. Some energy programs are capable of modeling convective loops, and are therefore two-dimensional. But any consideration of building corners requires a three-dimensional approach.

“Corners are some of the most interesting parts of the building,” said Rose. “I did a survey of freeze-thaw damage on brick buildings. Not much damage shows up in the field of the brick except where the brick is wet. Corners get wet because they stick out; they are exposed. And modifying heat loss at corners is difficult to do. The radiant environment is really strong at corners. Pointy things can drink from the air.”

Killing zombie ideas

The second item on Rose’s list: we need to do a better job of engaging the public. To do so, Rose said, building scientists need to “tell really good stories.”

He continued, “Let’s not lose our story-telling ability” — an ability that doesn't come naturally to the people listening to Rose at the Florida conference. “We are scientists. We have to recognize anecdote for what it is.” While an anecdote may not provide data, it can help scientists engage with the public.

Rose noted that building scientists need to come up with a better way to “kill zombie ideas” — that is, falsehoods that refuse to die. According to Rose, these zombie ideas are “one element in the interaction between the public and building science.” Rose gave two examples of zombie ideas: “a building has to breathe” and “that’s going to trap moisture.” In Rose’s view, homeowners are often deathly afraid of moisture. He noted, “There is an ‘on’ button for fear, but there is no ‘off’ button for fear.”

Rose suggested another way of engaging the public: by getting involved with middle-school science fairs. He imagined ideas that might excite students, like “measuring the R-valueMeasure of resistance to heat flow; the higher the R-value, the lower the heat loss. The inverse of U-factor. of corn flakes.”

When it comes to engaging with the public, Rose said, “It’s productive to be a little bit provocative.”

Can engineers and architects get along?

The third item on Rose’s list: healing the historical rift between architects and engineers. “We have a weird way of delivering buildings,” said Rose. “I call it the ‘Don Quixote approach.’ Architects are in search of ideal beauty. They are always making the same mistakes when encountering the reality of the world. The architect is accompanied by a small figure saying, ‘Watch out!’ Building scientists and engineers are all Sancho Panzas.”

Who’s to blame for this state of affairs? Rose blames “the architecture education system.” This education is “something that most architects have to spend a lot of effort to undo.” Responding to a question from the audience about efforts to teach building science in architecture school, Rose said, “We have spectacularly failed.”

Rose noted, “Architects are driven by design. Design is not well-defined.” Sounding deadpan rather than ironic, Rose continued, “They don’t know what they are talking about. We on the technical side do know what we are talking about.”

According to Rose, “the bad blood between architects and technical people” dates back to 1671. Prior to 1671— at least in France — buildings were delivered by the “construction manager system.” But a French politician named Jean-Baptiste Colbert “wanted to break the strength of the guilds that managed construction by removing architects from the guilds and placing them in the Academy of Architects so they could talk about theory.”

Colbert decreed that payments for new building projects would henceforth be channeled through the hands of the architects. According to Rose, the members of the construction guilds responded, “You are going to deliver all of the money through these guys who wear wigs? Really? But you don’t know how to build buildings. And we’re not going to teach you what we know.”

Colbert’s new approach to construction was used on the Pantheon, which according to Rose was “built without the knowledge of the guilds.” What happened? Rose said, “The Pantheon was by far the most troublesome building ever built in Paris.”

Emphasize observation skills

The fourth item on Rose's list: Building scientists need to do a better job of observing existing buildings. In many cases, more can be learned from this type of observation than from a laboratory experiment.

Rose posed the question, “Is building research even possible?” Rose noted, “Buildings are complicated.”

It's impossible to imagine and anticipate all of the different ways that buildings can be built, and researchers find it hard to control all possible variables. As Rose said, “How many ways can you screw up a building? A lot.”

Rose proposed that building science can be broken down into four endeavors:

  • Observations
  • Establishing guidance values
  • Determining measured values
  • Calculating modeled values

Of these four endeavors, “The poor stepchild is actual observations in buildings.” When scientists visit buildings, they often discover surprises. “Is mold showing up where we expect? Is energy use what we expect?”

Challenging the ‘linear no-threshold’ assumption

The fifth item on Rose's list: In light of the emergence of the hygiene hypothesis, building scientists should rethink common assumptions about possible building-related threats to human health. Briefly, the hygiene hypothesis posits that a lack of early childhood exposure to infectious agents, symbiotic microorganisms, and parasites increases susceptibility to allergic diseases by suppressing the natural development of the immune system. As Rose pointed out, letting children come into contact with microbes may be one way to “educate the immune system.”

Many building scientists, consiously or unconsciously, assume that potential toxins injure human health according to the rules of the “linear no-threshold” model. This model assumes that the long-term biological damage caused by a toxin is directly proportional to the dose; that most toxins are always harmful; and that the sum of several very small exposures have the same effect as one larger exposure (a relationship known as “response linearity”).

According to Rose, the linear no-threshold assumption is true for lead, but it may not be true for radonColorless, odorless, short-lived radioactive gas that can seep into homes and result in lung cancer risk. Radon and its decay products emit cancer-causing alpha, beta, and gamma particles.. At least one study has shown a negative correlation between radon and lung cancer density. These findings suggest that scientists “should be very careful about applying the linear no-threshold approach.”

Our actions need an ethical base

The sixth item on Rose's list was a moral challenge: “How do we speak without shame to future generations?”

Rose quoted from a document issued by President Richard Nixon in 1970, the First Annual Report on Environmental Quality. Rose understands, of course, that Nixon was “put up to this by activists,” and that he paid little attention to the warnings contained in the report. It's clear that most political leaders — not just Nixon — have chosen to ignore the warnings of climate scientists, thereby squandering the last four decades.

The 1970 report descibes “man’s inadvertent modification of weather and climate,” noting that “outcomes are largely unknown.” The report stated bluntly, “if we allow carbon dioxide to increase, it will lead to a warmer earth.”

After quoting from the 1970 report, Rose was near the end of his presentation. He displayed a blank slide. “This is where I provide some uplifting final words. But maybe I don't have any.”

He then shared a personal anecdote about a crisis in his family. Rose said, “I’m really moved by you — the community of the people we have — and by the ethical base that underpins our efforts."

Characteristically, Rose ended his presentation on a note that was historical as well as ethical: “We are situated between those of us who we honor and those who we are pledged to protect.”

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “In Search of a DIY Guide to Rooftop PV.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

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Feb 3, 2017 12:10 PM ET

Thank you and More, Please!
by Rachel Wagner

I wish I had been there for Bill Rose's talk. I hope he gives many more such talks. We are listening! Messages like this help me stay focused and committed - committed to those I honor and to those I pledge to protect.

Feb 3, 2017 12:34 PM ET

by stephen sheehy

Great piece, Martin.

Feb 4, 2017 9:28 AM ET

Bill Rose is a lot more than just fun to listen to
by Paul Eldrenkamp

Bill Rose has more wisdom and integrity than anyone else I have met in my professional life, and perhaps more than anyone else I have met, period. I have never had a moment with him that I did not cherish. If you've never had a chance to talk with him one-on-one, I suggest you do your best to figure out a way to travel to Champaign-Urbana and take him out to lunch or dinner. It will be the best time and money you've spent on educating yourself not only about water in buildings (which almost all building science boils down to) but also about professional integrity and a life well lived.

Feb 4, 2017 7:01 PM ET

A Living National Treasure
by Marc Rosenbaum

As usual, Paul Eldrenkamp has expressed what I too feel, but better than I could. But I can add one more of Bill's defining characteristics - generosity. He shares what he knows, and the community of practice we all belong to benefits immensely.
Thank you Bill!

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