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Building Science

Ten Years of Building Science Summer Camp

Highlights from my experience with the Westford Symposium on Building Science

Building Science Summer Camp

Ten years ago last Tuesday, I published one of the most significant (for me) articles I’ve written. It was titled I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Building Science Summer Camp!, and this article got me invited to that invitation-only event where so many good things happen. At the time, I knew a couple of people who were there (Carl Seville and Abe Kruger) and had started to interact with others here at Green Building Advisor, and on Twitter, and LinkedIn. But this article was a turning point for me. I published the article on the last day of the 2010 Summer Camp, and then Carl Seville and Michael Anschel showed it to Joe Lstiburek. I’ve been told his response upon reading the article was, “We should invite her.” After getting straightened out on my gender, he posted this comment:

Ok. You’re invited. You are exactly the kind of guy we want here. But, you have to come sit in with the band.

The next year I showed up at the Westford Symposium on Building Science (the formal name) and have attended every year since…until this year. Sadly, the most amazing building science event of the year was canceled this year because the coronavirus is still spreading like crazy here in the United States. To offer some consolation to anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms—whether you attended in person or followed the action on Twitter (#bscamp)—here are some of my thoughts, recollections, and photos from the past decade.

Joe and Betsy’s backyard

Everyone who goes to Summer Camp has their favorite place. Mine is the backyard at the home of Joe Lstiburek and Betsy Pettit. The presentations at Summer Camp go from Monday morning to Wednesday afternoon, but the event starts on the Friday before and goes through Wednesday night,with many attendees spending more time at Joe and Betsy’s house than at the Westford Regency. (And that’s true even for some of the people who have rooms at the Regency.)

The backyard at Building Science Summer Camp
The backyard at Building Science Summer Camp

The backyard right behind their house is filled with tables and chairs and covered by tents. A lot of eating, drinking, talking, and yes, even sketching on napkins happens there (photo below). You can sit there and have deep conversations about the effect of atmospheric pressure on dew point or using modified box plots to display energy use data. (The former I had with Gary Nelson of The Energy Conservatory, the latter with Michael Blasnik, now with Google/Nest.)

Sketching on napkins late at night in the backyard at Summer Camp
Sketching on napkins late at night in the backyard at Summer Camp

And if you get there on Saturday, you can enjoy steak and lobster that evening.

Kat Klingenberg, co-founder of PHIUS, eating lobster in the backyard at Summer Camp
Kat Klingenberg, co-founder of PHIUS, eating lobster in the backyard at Summer Camp

The crawl space

My second favorite part of Summer Camp is hanging out with Joe and as many other people who are willing to pack themselves into the cramped, hot, humid crawl space beneath the house. In my first few years, this happened on Tuesday evening and became known as the crawl space Twitterview, a time when we’d all sit around and ask questions and Joe would be his wittiest—and sometimes most offensive—self. And because it was old Twitter, each question and answer was supposed to be 140 characters or fewer. If you look far enough back in the #bscamp hashtag on Twitter, you probably can find them. I don’t recall when the last formal Twitterview was, but the past few years have been a lot less formal and the crawl space hangout happens on both Monday and Tuesday evenings.

The crawl space wine drinking and Twitterview
The crawl space wine drinking and Twitterview

But the evening in the crawl space isn’t for everyone. It’s crowded. Sitting on that concrete gets very uncomfortable. And all those bodies in that tight little space without air conditioning gets you hot and sweaty. The excellent wine and the compelling conversation make it worth it to me.

By the way, the photo here is from 2012, and that’s the late Mike Rogers on the far right getting his glass filled.

The bar and the band

You could be forgiven for thinking the bar shown here is an actual commercial bar. It’s certainly stocked well enough to function as one. And for a week in early August most years, it does function as one. If you like to drink, Joe’s got you covered. And the bartenders know their trade. In the backyard, you’ll also find coolers of beer and soda and taps for draft beer. Sometimes people bring their homebrews.

The bar in Joe and Betsy's barn during my first Summer Camp in 2011
The bar in Joe and Betsy’s barn during my first Summer Camp in 2011

On the other side of the room from the bar is the Building Science Boogie Band. Steve Sauer, Eric Werling, and Michael Lubliner are probably the three main members, but there are so many musicians who come to Summer Camp a lot of people rotate through those spots. I know there are at least four drummers and three bass players, not too mention Kimberly Llewelyn singing and every once in a while, Gary Nelson on the trombone.

The Building Science Boogie Band, 2015
The Building Science Boogie Band, 2015

Between the bar and the band is where the dancing happens. Back in 2015, I danced so much after midnight I woke up with 8,000 steps on my Fitbit. I think I left around 3 am (well past the last shuttle), but Tuesday night is blowout night. (To you Wednesday morning presenters, I apologize for not being at your talks. I’m talking especially to you, Robert Bean and Andy Ask.)

The presentations

Building Science Summer Camp isn’t just about the fun and socializing, though. During the day on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we’re treated to some topnotch presentations…and, every once in a while, a dud. Thinking back over the nine Summer Camps I’ve attended, these are the talks I found most thought-provoking.

The Basics of Air by David Hill, 2011. Hill went through a lot of really important principles of moving air through ducts, including the pair-of-pants tee (like the ones I installed in my house).

Henry Gifford’s presentation in 2012. I don’t recall the title of his talk, but he led all 450 of us in the cheer you see in the photo of his slide below. He also got a rare standing ovation. (Rare for Summer Camp, that is.)

Henry Gifford's HVAC cheer
Henry Gifford’s HVAC cheer

Lies, Damned Lies, and Modeling by Michael Blasnik, 2013. Great presentation with lots of data analyzed in both valid and invalid ways. The slide below shows how the infiltration rate of homes varies by the religion of the occupants, for example. (Yes, that’s an invalid way.)

The infiltration rate of homes as a function of the religion of the occupants
The infiltration rate of homes as a function of the religion of the occupants

How the Sausage Really Gets Made by Marty Houston, 2015. Really stimulating talk on quality assurance during the construction process. Lots of great photos and a phrase that I’ve never forgotten: “the hairy hand of quality.”

Forensic Carpentry by Bart Laemmel, 2016. Like a TED Talk for a room full of building science geeks. Bart grabbed and held our attention the whole time with a perfectly delivered presentation about the kind of problems he works on with houses in Colorado.

A Tale About a King, a Queen, and the Couyons by Claudette Reichel, 2017. I have to admit I saw only part of her talk because I was a nervous wreck at the time. But she danced, she threw Mardi Gras beads to the audience, and she used Cajun words I hadn’t heard in a long time. (I grew up way down the bayou, in Chauvin, Louisiana.)

Claudette Reichel dancing during her talk at Summer Camp, 2017
Claudette Reichel dancing during her talk at Summer Camp, 2017

Moisture Physics by Professor John Straube, 2018. Prof. Straube is one of those rare geniuses who can be immensely entertaining, energetic, and educational. Don’t ever miss a chance to hear him speak if you want to understand buildings. I wrote an article about his talk.

The Indoor Environment by Dr. Brett Singer, 2018. This was such a great talk I wrote three articles about it:

Plenty of other presentations over the past decade helped me understand building science a little better or pick up some tips to use in the real world.

Oh, and I had a turn as a presenter in 2017. I presented with Chris Van Rite on flex duct, a topic I love because I like good air distribution. To find out what I mean by that, you can check out the article I wrote about it, which includes a video of my opening monologue. I was up right after Claudette, which is why I was a nervous wreck during her talk. In fact, I even went around that day asking other people if they would take my place.

A smorgasbord of excess!

Building Science Summer Camp is such a complete event that the only thing missing is carnival rides. I’ve talked about the backyard conversations, eating, and drinking, the music and dancing, the crawl space fun, the incredible learning from the top building science experts, but there’s more. There’s the pancake breakfast and basketball on Sunday morning. (I played a couple of times and went right through that net as I drove to the hoop one time.) Different groups hold meetings in the room above the commercial kitchen. (That’s the BS education group in the lead photo of this article.)

Colin and Randy playing their annual one-on-one basketball match in 2013
Colin and Randy playing their annual one-on-one basketball match in 2013

There’s horseshoes and bagpipes and special cakes made to look just like Joe and Betsy’s house.

Bagpipes at the 2013 BS Summer Camp
Bagpipes at the 2013 BS Summer Camp

And let’s not forget Joe Medosch’s building enclosure card game, The Perfect Wall, where the Joekur card lets you break all the rules.

Joe Medosch's building enclosure card game
Joe Medosch’s building enclosure card game

But most of all, it’s just a big group of people who want to learn and share and tell stories and celebrate the world of building science in a big way. For that, we owe huge thanks to Joe Lstiburek and Betsy Pettit for having the temerity to pull this off year after year. Thank you, Joe & Betsy!

If you’ve been to Summer Camp or followed it online, what’s your favorite part of it?

Afterword

If you want more—and who doesn’t!—have a listen to Kristof Irwin’s podcast interview with Joe & Betsy about Summer Camp in this era of the coronavirus. And if you want to download slides from past Summer Camp’s, you can find them on the Building science Corporation page of past events.

All My Summer Camp Articles

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Building Science Summer Camp! (2010)

16 Random Thoughts on the First Day of Building Science Summer Camp (2011)

The Sixteenth Annual Building Science Summer Camp Has Begun! (2012)

I DO Need Some Stinkin’ Building Science Summer Camp! (2012)

Photo Highlights from the 2013 Building Science Summer Camp (2013)

Matt Risinger’s Building Science Summer Camp Interviews (2014)

The 2017 Building Science Summer Camp Wrapup (2017)

The Joy of Flex (2017) — about the presentation I gave with Chris Van Rite

The 2018 Building Science Summer Camp in Photos (2018)


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. Photos courtesy of the author.

One Comment

  1. User avater
    Joshua Salinger | | #1

    Allison, great article and although it's not a substitute for the real thing it brings back great memories! I had attended for my first time in 2019 and couldn't wait for this years summer camp. I was understandably bummed by the fact that it sadly had to be cancelled. I mean, Joe has a commercial kitchen and multiple tow behind smokers just for this week! (as far as I can tell...)

    One never knows who you may be standing next to at this event. It's likely the person who invented the blower door (who actually invented that by the way? I've heard multiple stories) so one has to make sure they do more listening than talking, but with all the drink and music one ends up blabbering enthusiastically about hydrostatic pressure or hygric buoyancy while taking a break from dancing. Not many places where this happens...

    Fingers crossed for next year!

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