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Building Science

Love Is More Important Than Building Science

A Thanksgiving story

The Bailes family in Houston, Texas, 1965

Perspective. It’s a nice word. Fenestration may sound more sophisticated, but understanding the meaning of proper perspective will take you much further in life than all the building science in the world. With Thanksgiving upon us again, I thought I’d change the pace today and share a bit of the more personal side of my life, some of the stuff that informs my perspective.

My parents split up in 1970 when I was nine years old. My dad seemed to be frequently away from home before the split, running a business and flying all over the world in the Air Force Reserves, so at first I didn’t notice a whole lot of difference. I kinda liked the latchkey lifestyle I lived briefly, watching Gilligan’s Island after school and getting in trouble with Bubba from next door. (The worst thing we did was to experiment with fire, burning a little bit of paper in my mom’s clothes dryer one day and then setting ablaze the grassy field at the end of the street the next.)

Impermanence

Then everything changed—quickly. My mom got transferred with her company from Houston, Texas to Gray, Louisiana, deep in the heart of Cajun country. My dad stayed in Houston, an eight-hour drive away, which turned to ten hours or more during the sugarcane harvest each autumn. I was a kid and didn’t understand all the personal and family dynamics at play.

I also had no idea of the sacrifices my dad made to be with us after the move, and the tremendous love that he demonstrated and the loss he must have felt so keenly. For years, he made that monthly eight-plus-hour drive on a Friday from Houston to Chauvin. He got up early in Houston, drove all day, and picked up my two sisters and me after school.

Then we’d drive to my grandparents’ house in Leesville, Louisiana, another six-hour drive. We’d arrive late on Friday night, spend the weekend there, and then leave for south Louisiana again in the early afternoon on Sunday. After dropping us off at my mom’s house, he’d make the long, lonely drive back to Houston.

Love is more important than building science (photo of Banksy art in San Francisco, by Energy Vanguard)
Love is more important than building science [photo of Banksy art in San Francisco, by Energy Vanguard]
There was a lot of change going on. Moving to another state. Experiencing culture shock. Seeing the family structure I’d known for nearly a decade completely dissolve, to be replaced by something that alternated between exciting and horrifying.

Loss

Those Sunday afternoon drives from Leesville back to south Louisiana were some of the saddest days of my life. I loved my mom and wanted to be with her. I also loved my dad and wanted to be with him for more than one superluminal weekend a month.

For years, my dad made that trek during the school year to visit us for one weekend a month. He also came to get us for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In summer, we’d spend two months with him and my grandparents. The trips back to Chauvin were always hard, especially in winter. My fifth-grade year and the summer afterward was one of the darkest times of my life.

Back in 2012, I experienced an unexpected loss and, for the first time, I suddenly realized that it must have been excruciating for my dad, too. He went from waking up in a house with three kids playing, laughing, falling down, and asking too many questions to living in a house all by himself. Then we moved a state—and a world—away and he got to see us only once a month. I chose not to have children myself and never really had kids very close in my life, so I can hardly imagine the suffering he must have endured.

Perspective and gratitude

This is a blog mainly about building science, a mighty important topic. Why then, you’re probably wondering, am I writing about my childhood? Perspective, my friends. As much as I love to get together and duke it out in Building Science Fight Club, I also understand that love is more important than building science. Family and relationships and children matter more than whether we call something a building enclosure or building envelope. That’s perspective.

Are you grateful? [Photo by Energy Vanguard]
Are you grateful? [Photo by Energy Vanguard]
Thanksgiving is a time to feel gratitude. We have an abundance of material wealth, of knowledge, of infrastructure, and even a few good buildings in this world. We also have people around us who matter more than mean radiant temperature, Grade I insulation, or ducts with no losses.

I’m grateful to my dad for all those monthly sojourns to see us, year after year. He loved us and demonstrated that love by his actions. I loved having the two extra days at Thanksgiving and relished those meals around the big round table with the nearly-as-big lazy susan that Pap-paw built. We ate. We laughed. We watched and played football. We loved one another.

I’m grateful to my mom for her love, for her intelligence, and for her courage. She handled difficult situations with great skill, and I learned more lessons from her than I was aware of. When I look back at what she did, sometimes taking care of as many as nine children in one house while living with a husband (her second, not my dad) who alternated between charming and abusive, I’m in awe of her strength.

This former child is also grateful to those people who helped me through the difficult times after my parents’ divorce and the move and the second marriages of my parents. They helped me try to put it all into proper perspective. Of course, I was too young to really see the whole picture, but their love and caring helped immensely.

Perspective. It grows with age. It shows up in unexpected places. As with building science, you ignore it at your peril.

Epilogue

My dad died in January 2002, of lung cancer. My mom died in January 2007, also of lung cancer. If you haven’t lost a parent yet, I can assure you, it’s not easy. The pain and emptiness were sometimes nearly unbearable.

That's me as a toddler, getting fed by my dad
That’s me as a toddler, getting fed by my dad

When I was fresh out of college, I met someone who had a big impact on me. Once, she told me that when she was facing a scary place in a dream, she’d go right in because it was just a dream. So, rather than try to stifle those feelings of pain and emptiness, I took her advice to heart and went deep into those feelings and experienced them fully.

The other side is so much nicer. I don’t feel that pain and emptiness anymore, at least not the same way. I can’t undo the loss, but I can look within, accept it, and learn from it. I feel grateful now—grateful for having known my parents as long as I did, grateful for all the loving people in my life, and grateful for having gained a bit of perspective over the years.

There’s more to this Thanksgiving story than I’m telling you. That unexpected loss I experienced in 2012 surprised me in a number of ways. I grieved for the loss, but more important, I was grateful for the experience and grateful for the new insight about what my father must have felt four decades ago.

I’ll still rant and rave in my articles, as I’m wont to do. I’m sure I’ll go over the top with some articles, get some things wrong, and let some comments get under my skin. But please know that I care about people more than I do about houses.

Love is more important than building science.

I hope you have a wonderful, happy, loving Thanksgiving. If you’re not in the U.S., have a wonderful, happy, loving Thursday. I’m grateful to have so many of you here reading my words—the silly, the angry, the informative, the scary, and the poignant.

Afterword

In 1998, I graduated from the University of Florida with my PhD in physics. Both my mom and dad attended. They hadn’t seen each other since 1983, when I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree. In 1998, neither was married, and they had a good time reconnecting at my graduation.

My mom and dad, around the time they got together, circa 1960
My mom and dad, around the time they got together, circa 1960

In fact, it was so good that my dad went back to Florida later to visit my mom, and she traveled to Houston to visit him. No, they didn’t get back together. Time had only accentuated some of the differences that drove them apart, but it was wonderful to see them enjoying each other’s company.

A 2020 update

The writing above is from 2012. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, a whole lot of people are feeling a whole lot of loss. I’ve known several people who have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and now I can say that someone I know has lost someone to this illness. A dear colleague and friend just lost his father last week. There will be many empty seats at Thanksgiving tables this week, for more than one reason. The sadness and loss will be around for a while for far too many people, and I think my 2012 article is worth bringing out again. Please do what you can to help us get through this winter and minimize the loss until the vaccines widely available.

_________________________________________________________________________

-Allison Bailes of Atlanta, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and founder of Energy Vanguard. He is also the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.

5 Comments

  1. Paul Eldrenkamp | | #1

    Thanks, Allison. Your essay brought to mind this classic Robert Hayden poem:

    Those Winter Sundays
    BY ROBERT HAYDEN

    Sundays too my father got up early
    and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
    then with cracked hands that ached
    from labor in the weekday weather made
    banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

    I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
    When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
    and slowly I would rise and dress,
    fearing the chronic angers of that house,

    Speaking indifferently to him,
    who had driven out the cold
    and polished my good shoes as well.
    What did I know, what did I know
    of love’s austere and lonely offices?

    1. GBA Editor
      Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #2

      That's a nice poem, Paul! It reminds me of my grandfather, Allison Sr., who got up at 5 am on weekdays to go to work and slept in till 6 on weekends.

  2. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #3

    Allison and Paul,

    Thank you. I'm indebted to you both for this.

  3. masincalgary | | #4

    Thank you. I think you are both speaking for many of us. We spend a lifetime of feeling a chasm between us and those closest to us, living with it in some way and not knowing how to make or find a bridge.

  4. GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #5

    You're welcome, Malcolm and masincalgary. The holidays are always a hard time for a lot of people, and with COVID-19 this year, it's even worse. I'm glad this article strikes a chord with readers.

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