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Building Science

Energy Efficiency Is Narrowing the Stupid/Hurt Gap

As homes become more energy efficient, the margin for error decreases

A horizontal valley created by two parallel gable roofs. This design will almost certainly cause moisture problems for the occupants at some point in the future.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard

The gap is narrowing. What gap, you ask? Why, the gap between stupid and hurt, of course. So says Dr. Joe Lstiburek. Allow me to explain.

Sometimes when you do something stupid, it hurts immediately. A toddler touches a hot kettle, for example, and instantly starts crying in pain. That’s a learning experience.

If that pain didn’t happen until an hour or a day had passed, however, the child would have a tough time learning not to touch hot kettles. Building or remodeling homes is a lot like that.

An architect, home builder, or remodeler can provide a beautiful house to their client, yet it can still be full of problems: air leakage, atmospheric combustion, the dreaded ductopus… And they get away with it because often the hurt doesn’t happen till years, even a decade, later.

Dr. Lstiburek says the gap between doing those stupid things and the hurt they cause is now narrowing. The reason: energy efficiency. As we make homes more and more efficient, the home has less tolerance for the stupid things. And we are making homes more efficient, largely because of the strengthening and adoption of energy codes.

Put a vapor barrier in the wrong place and the condensation and mold start sooner. Make a home more airtight and getting carbon monoxide in the home because of a backdrafting water heater becomes a bigger danger.

Have you felt the hurt?

Allison Bailes of Decatur, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, energy consultant, RESNET-certified trainer, and the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. Check out his in-depth course, Mastering Building Science at Heatspring Learning Institute, and follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.


  1. fitchplate | | #1

    ... let me count the ways ...
    Oh, let me count the ways.

    I lot of hurt comes from the over confidence (i.e. stupidity) of not checking with someone who knows the technology of the day. Every time I read GBA I open up another regret for not getting advice and design leadership.

    1. Using nominal lumber for joists and rafters instead of wood I's. This mean more structural movement, construction moisture, twists and turns in the framing members, less precision in the building dimensions making for downstream troubles, more fritzing with running wires and pipes, and physically heavier work and materials to get the bays deep enough for high performance R-value insulation..

    2. Retro-building a utility room; making for a lot of time and cost in refitting due to not being realistic about what it (a properly sized and located utility area) must include. This is a retrofit in a new house best done before framing the building another way.

    3. Ordering $15,000 in windows without seeing a sample first. It was Jeld-wen and we judged the product and assumed its quality by the display, the catalogue and the internet.

    4. Spending a whole lot of $ on a hydronic system that locked me into an infrastructure I can't escape. If I had only known about heat-pumps

    5. Letting HVAC local contractors who did not know any better make design and buying decisions for mechanicals based on out of date principles and equipment performance expectations. If only I had known about ECM direct current motors.

    6. Not realizing nor being informed by my HVAC folks that the operating costs (day to day energy input costs) of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning are more important than the capital costs of building it. I spent a lot on what I got and now I have to live as a slave to the corrupt and lying energy market. I could have put the same amount of money into PV's for electricity and wood or coal for hot water and had (relatively) very low, long term operating costs.

    I guess my hurt is caused by my impatience, my over self confidence (i.e. arrogance), and thinking I can do it myself (based on my 30+ years of out of date experience with building methods, tools, materials and equipment knowledge).

    If I had found GBA before the fact there might have been some hope. But maybe not, as I see many over confident and or misinformed (by contractors and friends) come to this place with questions every day.

  2. jinmtvt | | #2

    enlightment ..
    Flitch, you have already proven worthy by admitting your n00bness !
    Which is more than most in the industry will ever do.

  3. AlanB4 | | #3

    Broader implications
    I wonder if there is a technical term for the gap between stupid and hurt
    This is something i have thought about before, people don't do well when the timing between cause and effect is lengthy, it seems to be a human trait that the longer the interval the less likely people will believe the two are related.
    One can easily argue this is why much of the population refuses to believe in climate change, they have to accept that its a complex phenomenon and that it has a serious lag time thats measured in decades and centuries.

    There is one exception, when people want to use it to justify their undefendable and usually unscientific positions, vaccines causing autism, motors (i mean windmills) causing health problems etc.

  4. RZR | | #4

    Design-Build Processing
    "As we make homes more and more efficient, the home has less tolerance for the stupid things. And we are making homes more efficient, largely because of the strengthening and adoption of energy codes."

    "And they get away with it because often the hurt doesn't happen till years, even a decade, later."

    First off I didn't need Joe L to bring this to my attention. Second, accountable is the biggest issue this industry has and it has been that way a long time. If you give Design Advice (and that includes you Joe L) you should be held legally accountable, meaning you should be sued if the design does not perform as you advised it would. If this were the case, some would stop advising in areas they have no experience in or direct knowledge of. When I say that I mean you have designed, built, monitored, for 30 plus years to advice a home will last that don't need to look all over the internet for data it is in your files. This resume or requirement would eliminate the vast majority of ill advice. The lower time lag between bad design advice will be an attorneys dream come true as evidence since it will won't take decades passing liability time statues. Anything less is 'stupid"!

    Chemistry and Materials Process Engineering expertise is becoming VERY significant most do not understand, have little to no experience with. Energy efficiency (insulation, fungi, rot) and structural analysis are a system most do not understand, rarely do you advice on one, and not consider or at least discuss the other, yet it happens on the internet most of the time.....and there is more.... Builder's, GC's, subs, homeowners, have no business designing building's, especially tightly constructed, without the knowledge of how to mate materials many of which are toxic. Code has issues since these manufactures are on the committee that design them....This is "stupid" too Joe L.

    You can find free advice and no one held accountable easy! Having a long history of more structured corporate design-build processing, from my perspective, the entire industry at the home level is a mess! The home level needs a requirement that a Project Engineer designs. The PE does design reviews with other subject matter experts as required (Chemist, Thermodynamics, Fluid Dynamics, etc)....these professional carry the E&O insurance. The "Architect" does more now then space allocation, they need to be better schooled in Material Technology, Fluid Dynamics, Chem, Energy, and have a wide array of structures and systems design education and experience. They are the synergy of the design-build process, enough to know when to seek expert advice and when not to spend the money.

    The industry also needs an indi International tracking and collection agency to monitor, test, and document the performance of homes so that design professionals that can understand the data have design guides backed by empirical evidence or clear, concise, analytic data. There are no more goggle searches for that information, there is a professional gate keeper of it and one place to get it that leads to others as req'd.

    Wufi or some other industrial software needs updating or a monitored internet library with fully disclosed material manufactured data and structural allowables from third party testing that are validated, no more manufactures not providing data to design to. That's part of the 'stupidity"...they get away with it Joe L too.

    If all that were to happen, the "stupid" would be out and robust design would be in. Homes would be safe, "efficient" in MANY ways, last for centuries.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to Terry Lee
    You are far from the first person to notice that there is a lot of bad advice on the Web, that many architects get through architecture school without getting a thorough grounding in building science principles, that builders are burdened by misunderstandings about vapor barriers, and that our building codes aren't always based on building science or best practices.

    Among anyone interested in these issues, including Joe Lstiburek and most of the writers who contribute to GBA, these truisms are well-known, and have been discussed at national conferences (Affordable Comfort, EEBA, and NESEA, for example) for more than two decades. One of the missions of GBA, in fact, is to correct common misunderstandings and to present advice based on up-to-date research and science.

    In other words, Terry, I agree with you, as do most readers and contributors to GBA. There is no reason to assume that Joe Lstiburek is unfamiliar with the issues you raise.

  6. wjrobinson | | #6

    Terry your post makes total
    Terry your post makes total sense and I bet you know why things are the way they are.

    My internet guess as to the cost of setting up your correct system would not be billions, it would be trillions.

    We have your system right now like you said to build hundred million dollar dreamliners.

  7. wjrobinson | | #7

    The last set of plans for a
    The last set of plans for a small home were drawn by myself and an overview by my friend cost $250 for the legal stamp.

    The Camp is 16'x32' with an 8'x32' porch and the cost to construct is $80,000 on a crawlspace built like a basement. The camp is highly insulated floor and ceiling due mostly to Rescheck cert with the fact that the walls are 10" logs.

    The main concern over time will be carpenter ants possibly and where to hang the deer heads in such a small cabin.

    So Terry, how many engineers does it take to screw in the LED light bulbs in this cabin, and we'll leave the light on? Come visit.

  8. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #8

    b.b.b..b. but AJ....
    ...engineers don't "screw", they "make love". (But I doubt even one would fit " the LED light bulbs..." ) ;-)

    BTW: Wi-fi capable LED light bulbs exist, if you wanted to check their dimming levels or turn them on/off from 11,000 miles away via internet using your smart phone. One vendor among many:

  9. jinmtvt | | #9

    AJ and Terry
    Are you trying to consolidate a builder's view with a hard engineer one ?

    Terry will see it his way because it goes on with his life and career.
    I have many many mechanical engineering friends, and they mostly all share this behavior.

    But, most of them except one, have done nothing more than designs and maths in their life.
    The one enginer friend ( close friend ) is a hand on type, and is much more open minded than the others .... he even jokes about the inefficiency of the other "desk" type engineers.

    Terry, you seem to have hand on many many projects as you disucssed with us,
    it surprises me that you have such hard thinking about design.

    The Boeing example is funny ..because it works both ways AJ.
    The bureaucracy engineering made it so it costed that much to develop and get approved,
    but the same engineering also made it possible to build such machine.

    If you work it out, it costed 140times the selling price of the their product to design.
    Not that much different to lower priced products.
    a 20$ robot toy, might have cost 5-10k$ in design.

    Problem with residential buildings is the budget.
    Always been and will always be the budget.

    A house is usually the largest expense for most families,
    and everybody wants the most bang for the $$ .
    So there is not much room for 40-50 000$ engineering costs on a 250 000$ building.

    But is it really required ?
    I doubt so.

    Codes could be more strict.

    There are also other methods as discussed in another thread,
    that are used in some Europa countries , to insure sold efficiency of a building
    to the owner ... by which the builder is responsible for the performance of the building
    and is verified by energy audits etc..

    PGH is not much more expensive than regular houses,
    and performs enough in most cases,
    it should be mandatory minimum.

  10. wjrobinson | | #10

    Jin, you've got me pegged.

    Jin, you've got me pegged.

    I study for days, I design for hours and build for months. I attended engineering college, and then worked with a smart farmer.... And have that as combined experience. Terry is following a similar path even though he is on denial. His straw walls are his thing, there is no team of Dreamliner engineers and I think that's great. But he should be so against this, what's with that? Same as all of us, do as I say not add I do lol.

  11. wjrobinson | | #11

    Dana, engineers do not make
    Dana, engineers do not make love to LEDs, they install LEDs.... After review of their white papers via the journal specific....

  12. jinmtvt | | #12

    not too sure
    about the meaning of " you've got me pegged " ??

    Just wait till we get OLED lighthing surfaces ,
    you'll be able to get a massage on a complete surface made out of it!

  13. RZR | | #13

    Design Build Processing #2
    Commercial Building’s require Engineering for public safety, so should homes. A good PE can save cost, transfer high recurring maintenance cost to lower R&D. The main cost in building or manufacturing is recurring, not R&D, especially in homes. The corporate structure and design-build processes is not only practiced in part by commercial buildings but, corporate America and it has not broken the bank yet.

    The reason the Dreamliner was two-thirds over budget and schedule is the same reason the home level design-build process is broken. They allowed managers or bean counters to manage a product they never designed or built. About ten years ago some stupid corporate managers out of touch with reality thought anyone can manage “as long as you know how to manage your resources”, that and equal employment opportunity hype. I remember sitting in a program meeting with a third level women manager with a background in home interior decorating. We all sat there a laughed as she tried to explain “earned value management” and when points should be given to departments. She had no idea what was right or wrong, but Boeing fulfilled a quota. This is the case in most of the Aircraft Industry. The other reason some stupid managers decided to out-source the design-build all over the world in this so called “global market” BS, thinking if other parts of the world are in the design it would promote sales there. Fugi (FHI) had the empennage, Mitsubishi (MHI) the wing both botched up, the Russian’s the fuselage frames, etc……Boeing the main design and new state of the art graphite technology (plastic fuselage skins vs aluminum) and assembled, put an American name on it and raise the red white and blue. Most of the communication was via internet, broken, language barriers, technology barriers, recessions, etc…….Now Boeing lost control over the entire program and sat back in program turmoil while Europe (Airbus A -350) ate their lunch, losing customers to delays and over budget. The other reason is the dummies decided to design to 3D models, no drawings, and another disaster! Another stupid decision by people that had never designed or built any airplane. How about try it on a small scale fist Boeing, not the entire aircraft. The CAD_CAM design definition was terrible, hard to understand, hard to inspect, hard to build. Now Boeing regrets. 8 years is the longest R&D effort in history, the initial schedule was 2-3 years, normal for most wide bodies. Now the supply chain for new programs is smaller and domestic, you actually have to have some design-build experience at a senior level to get promoted to a “Design-Build Team leader”, go figure! BTW: These teams are not just made up of “Engineers” ….When I design a home, aircraft, auto, etc, my subs or mechanics, my CPA or finance, my attorney or legal dept, my “Design Build Team” gets a design review. If I need expert help I seek a local, or I talk to the Engineer at the manufacture (or supplier) about mating their product to another. That does not cost trillions, it can cost downstream if you don’t know what you are doing, even death if structure collapses due to rot or lack of Engineering.

    Any of this sound familiar? Well some of it should at a lower home scale.

    Europe is coming on strong but we still are the best at building aircraft, not homes.

  14. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Terry Lee
    NOW I understand the problem. It's all because of quotas designed to hire more women. A clear threat to the U.S. economy...

    Trust me, Terry: If that's your attitude, it's going to be hard for you to function as part of a team in any modern corporation -- or for that matter, on most job sites.

  15. RZR | | #15

    Out of context
    Martin, First off don't exacerbate my one example using a woman or take it out of context. What you should have taken away from my comment is that people that have never designed, engineered, built, an aircraft in the example, should not be managing a team.

    Second, I'm retired from corporate. I already proved myself as an Engineer and Design Build Team leader managing millions in budget "efficiently". Our construction company is alive and well too :)

  16. RZR | | #16

    Women Engineers
    Back 20-30 years ago we didn't see many, now we see more due to the fact the Engineering has become more computer driven I guess and salary. I had a women structures lead Engineer on the KC-135 redesign to the new 767 Tanker that knew her stuff inside and out. I forgot to mention Martin, she sat next to us as we laughed at that women home interior design Manager. This Engineering lead should have been the 3rd level manager. The other problem is you start loosing technical talent to bean counting management, so companies have increased the Engineering salaries to equal management.

  17. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #17

    Response to Jin Kazama
    Right. That's why my sister-in-law, Dr. Caryn Navy, has a degree in mathematics from MIT, and a PhD in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

    Maybe she forgot to read a book called, "The Wisdom of Gender Identity" by Jin Kazama.

  18. DanBla55 | | #18

    Well, these comments took an
    Well, these comments took an odd turn.

    High performance anything means it will be complicated to design and manufacture. It is simply beyond the experience and knowledge of most who design and build homes. It gets worse when you split the work up and the participants do not know how to properly do their part or how their part helps/hurts other areas.

    One way to address is this through much greater regulation. Regulate how it can be built, who can build it, who can inspect it, what can't be done, etc. Require years of data and analysis before anything new can be implemented. End results are better, costs go way up, innovation grinds to a halt except for major vendors that finance studies to support their materials.

    I am an engineer in the highly regulated aerospace industry. There are many, many parallels between what I read here and in my work. Our products are very expensive, hard to design, and hard to build. We want both the benefit of latest technology and known history of 20 year old technology. Even with the engineering and cost that goes into new designs, you can never do enough to be sure it works in the field. There is always risk. You do not have the time or money to test under every condition. You do some modeling (knowing the model and inputs are not perfect) and accelerated testing to qualify the design. You never know what you got wrong until it fails in the field. That is why dreamliner batteries that passed qual failed in the field. You can never have enough testing to know if something will be ok in the field for 5 years or 20 years or 100 years. Impossible. That does not mean we stop all progress. That is why there are sites like this that help spread the word about what is good, better, worse, bad, and don't know yet.

  19. wjrobinson | | #19

    Terry Lee, this guy was my college friend, no engineering degree
    Eric, has designed many flying machines, hang glider harnesses and secret program things...

  20. dankolbert | | #20

    Why keep your mouth closed and have others think you a fool
    When you can open it and remove all doubt.

  21. jinmtvt | | #21

    was this directed to me ?

    Martin : what about the Neodenthal comment?


  22. jinmtvt | | #22

    same as lower...

  23. jinmtvt | | #23

    Removed not because i felt i
    Removed not because i felt i was wrong ( maybe badly expressed though )
    But because i know it was not the place and adds nothing to the site,
    which i respect enough to admit i should not post anything that crosses my mind.
    If anyone was ever offended by misunderstanding my post, well please accept
    my sincere apologies.

  24. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #24

    No need to belabor a point, but...
    It seems that a certain segment of our population -- oh, let's be frank and call them "men" -- are comfortable making generalizations about the capabilities of women. Sometimes these generalizations are casual and unconscious; sometimes they are cloaked as sociological observations; and sometimes they are examples of offensive humor that one regular visitor to GBA calls "sarcasm."

    In all cases, these remarks alienate the women who regularly read GBA -- about 40% of our audience. They also offend me. I don't really have to time to educate everybody, or discuss this topic at length, but I want this to be a safe space where everyone feels comfortable. So occasionally I'm going to tell some people -- my shorthand term is "Neanderthals" -- to knock it off.

  25. jinmtvt | | #25

    I do not wish to continue on this ...
    But i wish to make clear that never in my mind ( in my whole life and i swear on my honor )
    that i have thought that women have lower cognitive capability than man, and i would push strongly again't someone affirming so.
    I do though believe that both gender ( hormonal mainly ) and then envrionmental influence ( society/location.. ) modifies everyones behavior and influences development/interests of all individuals.

    But anyhow, at more than 50% drop out high scool rate for man in my parts that are NOT due to poverty ( social security here is way too good ) we are probably going to experience a " mutation "
    toward male gender brain shrinking due to inactivity and lack of excercise! :p

    I promise i will try from now on to refrain from non related posting to GBA topics,
    and will not comment on offensive behavior such as the one Terry pushed in his post.
    ( i was merly trying to set things up afer his comments..but i guess i failed miserably to explain my view )

  26. wjrobinson | | #26

    Happy happy holidays all genders and moderators!
    Martin..... gender.... one poster goofed up and was not really meaning gender, if anyone with any or not degree should be able to read, the person was discussing quotas causing less than qualified persons to be hired and not liking that. Any person should be able to read what the intent was and not jump up and down and cry fowl, that a gender is the problem. It wasn't. It clearly was the lack of experience that was the issue.

    OK, it didn't read well if you were in a hurry and are sensitive, hey like me... super sensitive when OSB is mentioned... I flip. Sorry!

    Not to belabor the situation but some great great people of which I am very good friends with too, are now working as contractor planners at National Grid. Why? Because they lost their desk jobs not because they new what to do in the field. We laugh about it every time we get together. They know they aren't qualified, we help them, the more experienced long time other gender help them and we all do just fine. And they got to finish their career. It was strange at first but what the hey, we actually have no problems with the situation. We need to know what we are doing to start with and just need a smooth plannning and papers filed and power turned on or gas, that's it. Done.

    Anyway.... moderate all you have to Martin, but I doubt any of us have issues with gender or race or what ever... we do have issues with PH, PGH, minis spits, hydronics, engineering, sheathing, spray foam, rigid foam, rot, no rot, possible rot, sarcasm, smiley faces, but not farts, not yet, the smellnet is not out of beta.


  27. jinmtvt | | #27

    I would like to apologize to mr Allison Bailes on behalf of the few of us who "ruined" this Blog.

    Always a pleasure to read your participations on this site, your point of view on the subjects here is always refreshing and brings much to think about.

    In hope that this "incident" will not deter you from publishing Blogs on this website mr Bailes.

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