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The State of Our Union

We are dense-packed, double-walled, foam-wrapped, solarized, subsidized, over-engineered, data-driven — and somewhat divided

Image 1 of 2
Elizabeth DiSalvo is an architect. She founded Trillium Architects in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Image Credit: Trillium Architects
Elizabeth DiSalvo is an architect. She founded Trillium Architects in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Image Credit: Trillium Architects
This net-zero-energy house was designed by Trillium Architects of Norwalk, Connecticut. Trillium Architects was founded by Elizabeth DiSalvo.
Image Credit: Trillium Architects

I started to write this as a commentary regarding Martin Holladay’s review of Jacob Rascusin’s new book, Essential Building Science. But in doing so I realized that the direction of Martin’s critique opens the door to issues that I think our community really needs to discuss. So, I worked a little harder at putting my thoughts into some sort of logical and comprehensive order. Of course these are only my opinion.

The bottom line of this realization is that, as a group, we may want to consider two goals:

  1. 1. What are we doing? Should we have a mission statement? Something that guides all of our work and something that we can all use as a litmus test to check in on ourselves and our industry as a whole. Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Maybe ours could have a similar intention, but perhaps we could define it more thoroughly.
  2. 2. What message are we sending? This would include both the message we send out to the world and the messages we send to each other. This would entail having a basic awareness of our public face and this would involve monitoring the way in which we speak to each other — within our industry — as parts of the whole.

But why does any of it matter? I believe it matters because we are at crossroads. Because I was just at the U.N. Convention on Climate Change at which most of the world was trying desperately to enact the Paris 2015 accord. And because we have a new president who is most likely going to significantly change our lives and try to dismantle the way we do what we do and how we do it. This is important. We need to step up our game now. What we do and the message we send are vitally important right now.

What message are we sending?

What we do is perhaps obvious but I would say “undiscussed.” I am going to address that later in this piece. For now I want to talk about the message we are sending. In order to send a clear message to the world, we have to understand each other and speak clearly among ourselves. Reading Martin’s review of Jacobs’s book drove this point home for me. If we cannot speak clearly and respectfully to each other within our own industry, then we will not be able to send a clear message out.

Basically (a bit of background), in the review of the book Martin points to a number of errors that he finds with Jacob’s book. However if one looks closely, most of the errors — as written by Martin — could, themselves, be considered misleading or perhaps erroneous. I find that they detract from the point of the book and completely diminish the overall message and intention of the book.

Martin could have written a review that said something along the lines of “Wow, we have a new comprehensive and introductory book on building science and it really covers the wide range of applications available in our industry. Yes, there may be a few minor errors that might have been caught by a better editor, but overall, it does a great job covering a ton of ground in a clear and accessible manner.”

But he did not. He chose another route. Fine. It’s just one review. However, it is the very way that Martin chose to review the book that got me thinking. Could I say Martin was wrong? No.

But actually — yes, yes, I could. It turns out that it all depends on your point of view and the type of person you are. I spoke to colleagues and friends about it, and I started to see a very familiar pattern. Sides started to emerge. Teams, if you will. I’m just going to go ahead and say it: “Team Martin” and “Team Jacob.”

An elephant in the room

What this led me to realize is that we have always had a version of Team Martin and Team Jacob, though as a group we do not discuss it. I cannot call it a battle; there aren’t really sides. But there is a “there” there. Many of us feel it in subtle ways. This sort of undiscussed rift in our very small and congenial sustainable building world. An elephant in the room, so to speak.

What is this “indefinable something” of which I speak? Well, it is Big Picture, and it has everything to do with what we are doing and what message we are sending. It can be described as the difference between focusing on energy use and data in building versus focusing on a much more broad approach to sustainability in building. One can observe it in our industry’s obsession with Passive House.

One can see it when we go to conferences such as NESEA and the sessions that are numbers- and data-based are given a great deal of cred, while sessions that are design- and theory-based are treated as non-rigorous calendar fillers. And one can see it when we read a book critique that is given strongly from the viewpoint of the highly specific lens of data and energy, and not at all from an overall understanding of sustainable building theories and practicalities.

Hard data types vs. big vision types

One could say that Team Martins are the more absolute, hard data, fact-driven, number-crunching, “precision-in-thought-and-speech” types, and that Team Jacobs are the more theoretical, comprehensive, observational, big vision, “what-if and sort-of” types. Both are great. Both are equally valued and both are necessary. Both make the world go round. In fact, most of us are not only one or the other, but rather we fall somewhere along that verdant spectrum. And just because we may lean heavily toward Team Jacob it does not mean we do not like Team Martin, or vice versa. To the contrary, many of our very best friends and most valued work colleagues are on the other team.

Let’s go back to the book. Below I am going to cite examples and explain my OK-I-admit-it-Team-Jacob self. I am not doing this to “fight back” against Martin. I am doing it to explain Team Jacob’s point of view — to translate, if you will. Here we go:

  • When Martin calls Jacob out for saying foam and PVC are toxic, he is disregarding the fact that Jacob is considering the entirety of foam and PVC — from cradle to grave, from the people who live near the factories that make it, to the guys who have to install it, to the homeowners who live in it. Martin is considering what we know about foam and PVC now, but he is not considering what we will know about it in the future as our scientific knowledge evolves. Jacob is.
  • When Martin scolds Jacob for not mentioning lead and asbestos, he is ignoring the fact that Jacob respects his readers’ intelligence and knows that everyone knows about lead and asbestos. Everyone. It is starting point. And perhaps Jacob could have put a great sentence in about how PVC and foam may one day prove to be our generation’s asbestos and lead.
  • When Martin suggests that Jacob is trying to redefine what R-value means when he makes the statement that “R-value is dynamic … in response to different conditions,” he misses the point that everyone reading understands what the writer means, and that no one — no one — assumes that Jacob is saying that the absolute value of R is up for discussion. It’s as if Jacob wrote a dietary book and said that the calories that you need are variable based on how much you exercise. No one would think that Jacob meant that the definition of what a calorie is was being discussed.
  • When Jacob writes about optimizing U-value for windows, anyone who has ever had a client gets what he means. You have to weigh the pros and cons of many factors and not just go for the best U-value every time. Yes, you are always trying to get the best U-value that you can, but you have to consider a lot of variables: overall costs, SHGC (change that and you change the U-value), operational needs (fixed, casement or double hung? Each has implications on what U-value you can achieve), and obviously size (frame-to-glass ratio changes everything.) There are a hell of a lot of decisions that go into optimization of window U-values on a job.

We speak different languages

Is Martin doing this to be evil? No of course not. Is he correct? Yes, he is correct if you read the comments in only one light. He is a self-professed Energy Nerd. However, if you read the comments from the Team Jacob perspective, Martin is wrong on most counts. Or at least completely misunderstood by all of Team Jacob. Fascinating. We speak different languages.

It reminds me of the time that I was waiting on a job site with my mechanical engineer. It was a frigid cold day and we were outside waiting for an owner to appear. In a state of pure frozen hell, I turned to my friend the engineer and said “Wow, my feet! I can feel that cold seeping right into my bones.” He looked at me quizzically for a moment and then he said (without an ounce of humor) “You mean you can feel the heat leaving your body through your feet?” Sigh. Yes. Yes, that is precisely what I mean, my bad.

When I say, “I feel the cold seeping into my bones,” everybody instantly and thoroughly understands what I am saying. When my friend the engineer says, “I can feel the heat leaving my body through my feet,” nobody has a visceral understanding of what he is talking about. After a moment’s thought the listener might acknowledge that the engineer is correct. But, in hearing the sentence, the listener does not feel that feeling of frostbitten feet, nor do the listener’s toes become numb in empathy. The listener does not care.

This is perhaps the oldest shout-out to scientists and engineers throughout history, but: “Speak English.” Just because Team Martin folk try to outdo each other in how precise they can be in language, it does not mean that they are getting the message across any better. In fact, a lot of the time this is the very reason their message is ignored. And does it mean that Team Jacob is weak-minded, because we speak a more ubiquitously understood language? No. In fact (news flash!) we think it makes us smarter — on a higher plane — because we are also nerds but we have the ability to translate our understanding for others to then understand. Yes, this is deep semantics, but it is actually important. Is it really productive to dismantle and disregard an entire well-thought-out, valuable, and very accessible book because the reviewer only accepts one language pattern.

We need to act as a team

Our community is full of a wide variety of people. Builders, designers, architects, engineers, inspectors, raters, vendors, policymakers, homeowners, and building operators, etc. Each of us has a different background and a different point of view. As we step forward into our unknown future, we need to act as a team. Support each other. Value each other’s skill set and incorporate all into a cohesive mission.

When considering the future, I usually revert to Star Trek. In Star Trek Next Generation, for example, all members of the team are equally respected and included in decision making — including Counselor Troi, the touchy-feely psychologist type. After the team has gathered for a mission, the effects of any proposed actions are thoroughly considered by the whole team — with equal merit — before the landing party is allowed to set foot on a new planet and interact with its civilizations. We need our energy guys, we need our engineers and builders, but we need the rest of the team as well in order to ensure the most effective and well thought out approach and outcome. We need to be careful and respectful in how we talk to each other.

We need a mission statement

Which leads me to Part II. What are we doing? What is our mission?

Buildings themselves are extremely complex and involve a lot of different parts and features. Within the sustainable building industry there are so many aspects upon which one might focus: Energy use, sustainability, design, materials, embodied energy, square footage, longevity, maintenance, air quality, occupant health, resiliency, carbon footprint, and the ever present bottom line. There are also issues of energy production, manufacturing, shipping, and the health and wellness of everyone along that chain. And there are the ever-enigmatic and ephemeral issues of happiness, beauty, and appropriateness.

Which is the most important? Obviously, this is a rhetorical question.

Like the blind men who encounter an elephant, many of us seem to focus on one specific aspect of the sustainable building “elephant.” In our world, the elephant’s trunk would be “energy.” It is the most obvious and intriguing part of the elephant, and it is so hard to resist. It is always nosing into exciting things like the bottom line, policy, and big industry. It is trumpeted by the stock market and by the media. Everyone is willing to talk about energy. For engineers and data wonks, it is the mother lode. It is a lifetime of calculations, challenges, and experiments. It is the opportunity to pin point accurate results and make firm statements with precise numerical evidence. It is the chance to understand what we are doing. Fantastic. But the result is that so often we have buildings that are pure elephant trunk. What about the rest of the elephant?

Many of us want the whole damn elephant. Many of us see the whole picture and find all parts valid. Many equally valid. Yes, of course, we have LEED, the Living Building Challenge, the 475 team, and the bubbling “Pretty Good House” movement, among others. And these approaches are (sometimes) respected in our industry, but if you think about it — they usually get thrown in the back seat. All too often, these other approaches are ignored or discounted as fluffiness or “Yeah, I guess we can include that too.”’

The limitations of the Passive House approach

Meanwhile Passive House seems like the prize bull. Yes, Passive House is a dream come true. It is quantifiable, provable, accountable, and the basis for some fantastically competitive good fun for building geeks everywhere. It is also a flag we can wave to the rest of the world — a world that has always misunderstood and doubted what we do. A world that has always asked, “Yes, yes, but where is the data?”

We can now show the world — with clean, hard evidence — that we can make houses that need almost no energy to heat and cool. The data is so impressive that any naysayer cannot disagree. But, Passive House obsesses over one thing: energy. It disregards everything else: occupant health, sustainability of materials, the embodied energy of products and systems, user experience, nature, texture, maintenance, resiliency and life cycle.

We can’t just address the elephant’s trunk. We need to integrate energy use with the big picture and not let energy use hose down the sustainability of the planet with its powerful schnozzola.

We shouldn’t focus on energy alone

This is where the writer’s book shines (back to the book and the book review). Essential Building Science is trying to talk about the whole elephant. The writer is a person who cares, who assumes he is talking to people who care and addressing the wide range of things in our industry that one can — and should — care about. He is trying to ensure that we don’t miss the point and that we don’t focus only on energy use to the detriment of almost everything else in the end.

In looking for introductory yet comprehensive books on how to approach sustainable building, there are not a lot. As some of my colleagues have noted, “What else have we got?” There are others, for sure, and if one looks through Martin’s previous reviews, one can see that he generally dismisses natural building and most references to toxins. I get it, most builders do not build “natural houses,” and the issues of toxicity are not yet fully determined. However, can we just ignore these things?

Homes with vinyl siding and foam insulation

If we simply look at the best-known building tutorials in our small world, we have Joe Lstiburek’s Builder’s Guides. If you look at these books, the examples shown are of vinyl-sided homes with fiberglass or foam insulation. (And I know, these books have evolved in the last years — I am probably out-of-date on my critique.) I know why the Builder’s Guides have these examples; they are the results of Building Science Corporation being hired to test mass production housing and its building systems. And God knows what we would do without Joe’s guidance.

I get it. But do we really want to send the message that building vinyl-sided boxes of foam is the best way to go? Or even that it is in the top ten best ways to go? Yes, of course, for affordability‘s sake this may be a valid direction, but there are so many other ways to skin the cat! This is a clear example of Team Martin getting the loudest microphone because of data, data, data!

But shouldn’t the public be getting the full array of the information in all of its broad-side-of-the-elephant inclusiveness? And shouldn’t we be learning the full menu of options with which to build?

Can you imagine that post-apocalyptic future that we all have anxiety attacks about in the middle of the night? Can you see yourself – a survivor! Yet you are unable to teach your children how to build anything of significance with what nature gave you, because no one ever wrote a book about anything but Foam and PVC. And fast-forward to your grandchildren wandering the devastated yet resilient earth 200 years in the future. All is nature except the endless dust storms of blowing open- and closed-cell foam that will never break down.

We need to be all-inclusive and we need to respect nature, design, life cycles, the health, welfare and happiness of humans, along with that of the whole planet. We need to think it all through. Big picture.

Yes, we vitally need the data. And, yes, we vitally need to be accurate and to speak accurately. But we need these to be a part of the whole. Just like “optimizing the U-value of windows,” we have to weigh a lot of factors before just saying that the most efficient option is the only way to go.

A holistic approach

Basically I am describing the word “holistic,” but I feel I can’t use this Team-Jacob word because I believe that as soon as many of my readers see it on the page they will stop reading and discount this as a bunch of cow (or rather, elephant) poop. But we do need to think holistically about what we are doing. Can we really just keep plowing ahead — following the elephant’s trunk — to score the big energy goal!? Meanwhile we may be trampling the beautiful planet that we are trying to save.

So, what are we doing? What is our big message? Our elevator speech? Our guiding light? How will the world know us? Since we ourselves are so variable, I would guess that our message will have many aspects and may not fit into one sentence. However, I, for one, would hope that our message is something along the lines of:

We, the sustainable building industry, strive to study the way buildings are built, continually evolve our technologies, materials, and methods of building, teach and lead the same, as to ever advance our industry toward the ultimate goal of having the least harmful effect on the planet and perhaps one day of actually creating a symbiotic relationship between buildings and the earth that in turn will heal, nurture, and energize the planet. We will do this through relentless testing, analysis, and growth in all aspects of our work including:

  • Building energy and its influence on the earth and our economy.
  • The choice of energy we use and its impact on environment and civilizations.
  • The assessment of and adherence to health and safety regulations.
  • The impacts of our building standards on human well-being.
  • The study of the embodied energy of all products and methods.
  • The longevity and life cycles of our buildings.
  • Opportunities to recycle and regenerate materials and energy.
  • Opportunities to allow people and buildings to be maximally resilient.
  • Occupant happiness and appropriateness of buildings for occupants.
  • The ability for our buildings to calm, inspire, and guide.
  • The relationship of our buildings to the earth and the cycles of nature.
  • The relationship of humans to the earth through their interaction with built space.

If we are going to move forward as an industry and lead, then we cannot be pulled around by the elephant’s trunk. We need to think it through first. We have to look at things up close and from dizzying heights. While we each may focus on our individual specialties, we still have to check ourselves against a higher set of standards and make sure we are not doing more harm than good.

We have to present findings to the public that live up to our broader intentional goals. Let us state a mission that we can all stand behind, and let us all stand together with mutual respect and appreciation while working to uphold that mission.

Elizabeth DiSalvo founded Trillium Architects in Norwalk, Connecticut. DiSalvo is a graduate of Columbia University with a masters of Advanced Architectural Design and of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a five year Bachelor of Architecture and Building Science (1989). Elizabeth has been a registered architect since 1993. She is a member of the AIA, NESEA and the USCGB and has been on the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Green Building Council. In April 2011, GBA published a review of her early blog articles on green building.


  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    How do we respond to our diversity?
    Thank you for sharing your analysis. We probably agree more than we disagree. We certainly agree on the urgency of the climate change crisis, as well as the need to take a holistic view of green building — one that pays attention to design issues, occupant health, sustainability, embodied energy, resiliency, and life-cycle analyses. I’ve written articles on all of these topics. If my advocacy of this holistic approach has been unclear to readers, due to my failure (as you put it) to “speak English,” I regret my lack of clarity. Like most writers, I strive for clear communication, even when I fail.

    I also agree with you that green builders are diverse; I’ve written a blog on that topic, too (“Low-Road Buildings Are Homeowner-Friendly”).

    You seem ambivalent about this diversity. You begin by dividing green builders into two camps: “Team Jacob” and “Team Martin.” It could be argued that your identification of two teams is itself divisive (although personally, I’m not worried about that aspect of your analysis). After dividing our community into two groups, you advise us to pull together, noting that “We need to act as a team.”

    I disagree with your prescription for addressing our diversity. I doubt, for example, that we will ever be able to get green builders to agree on a mission statement. If I had to choose between sitting on a committee trying to achieve consensus on a mission statement, and adopting the motto, “Celebrate diversity,” I would eagerly choose the latter path.

    You write that Team Jacob consists of people who focus on a broad approach to sustainability; who focus on design and theory; who take a comprehensive, holistic, “big vision” approach; who are observational; and who are “what if and sort of” types.

    I think I’d like to join Team Jacob (with a small quibble — I’m not really a “sort of” type of person).

    You write that Team Martin consists of people who focus on energy use, data, and numbers; who are fact-driven, number-crunching, and absolute; who value precision in thought and speech; and who embrace the Passive House approach.

    I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to join Team Martin. (I think that my well-known criticisms of the Passive House approach would make me unwelcome there.)

    You have proposed a review of Jacob Deva Racusin’s book. Your review is different from mine. That’s fine. Reviewers can differ.

    One of the central disagreements that you highlight concerns differing views on vinyl windows and rigid foam insulation, and whether it’s appropriate to label these materials “toxic.” As I’m sure you know, radon, asbestos, and wood smoke are potentially injurious to human health. They are all “natural,” but they can still be toxic. On the other hand, vinyl windows and polyisocyanurate, properly installed, don’t pose a health threat to building occupants. These materials haven’t been shown to be toxic.

    Here’s your analysis: “Martin is considering what we know about foam and PVC now, but he is not considering what we will know about it in the future as our scientific knowledge evolves. Jacob is.” I find these sentences baffling. Perhaps you or Jacob can explain how it is possible for you to predict future scientific findings so accurately.

    As many GBA readers know, my own sympathies are more in tune with the natural building community than the Passive House community. I live in a simple house made of stones and logs that I gathered myself. I don’t know how to respond to your post-apocalyptic vision — one in which “you are unable to teach your children how to build anything of significance with what nature gave you” — except to report that (a) I don’t anticipate such an apocalypse, and (b) I feel well prepared to teach my children what they need to know if such an apocalypse ever comes. In fact, I’ve devoted a significant portion of my life — far too large a portion, as it turns out — to apocalypse rehearsal. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the best type of apocalypse preparation consists of being kind to one’s neighbors.

    My house doesn’t include vinyl windows (although it does incorporate EPS). There are lots of valid reasons to build homes that don’t require rigid foam or vinyl windows. GBA celebrates such homes, and we regularly invite our readers to submit guest blogs about natural building.

    It’s possible to avoid the use of PVC without calling vinyl windows “toxic.” As building scientist Bill Rose explained in a recent speech, “There is an ‘on’ button for fear, but there is no ‘off’ button for fear.” Casual misuse of the word “toxic” has consequences; here at GBA, we really do receive questions from homeowners worried about whether their windows or insulation are poisoning their children. Describing Icynene insulation as “formaldehyde foam” with “high toxicity,” as Jacob Racusin inaccurately did, is fear-mongering. Such statements spread unnecessary anxiety and are a disservice to the Icynene Corporation.

    I plead guilty to an abiding interest in data and accurate reporting. My criticisms of Jacob Racusin’s book have nothing to do with the question of whether Jacob is a good builder. You have described Team Jacob members as people who take a “what if and sort of” approach. I think I know what you mean. While I don’t think it’s fair to ascribe a “what if and sort of” attitude to Jacob Racusin, it’s fair to say that someone who takes a “what if and sort of” approach probably shouldn’t try to write a book about building science.

    Finally, I want to emphasize that it’s OK if our community takes a variety of approaches to green building. Diversity and debate are not problems; they are signs of our community’s health.

    -- Martin Holladay

  2. user-4739854 | | #2

    Separating the Green from the Chaff

    Your letter is prescient in that the times call for co-operation and unity. I agree that division amongst professionals in the high performance building “community” is bad for business, but there’s a lot of green spin out there and I know that I’ve come to rely on Martin’s steady hand at the tiller for reliable information.

    Like Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book, but with less comedic effect, I see the division in the North American Passive House movement – all triggered by one tosser – for what? Now there are two camps producing almost identical buildings splitting a handful of kWh hairs and a lot of professionals. In these uneasy political times, we do need to come off as “singing from the same hymnal” with allowances for harmonies and some stylistic flourishes but not at the cost of ignoring industry experience and scientific evidence as a backbone.

    As the old saying goes “You go where you’re fed” and though I’ve come to rely on GBA’s reasoned and measured analysis, there were times in the past where I was blindingly angry with Martin’s words. One can get the same headlines from Democracy Now or USA Today, but there’s a reason the former might attract a more discerning reader that simply requires substantially more detail and analysis.

    Remember, I love you all this Valentine ’s Day – now let’s get to work!

  3. wolfworks | | #3

    Lots of Bagpipes
    I was just listening to an interview with the legendary Boston band the Dropkick Murphys on the podcast Song Exploder in which they described the trouble with recording bagpipes. Bagpipes are notoriously difficult to play, and even more so to play "in tune." They found that including one bagpipe sounds off, two a bit better but still sort of grating, but when you play a bunch of them together all the little discrepancies combine to create a "third sound" that feels right and rocks the house.

    As individuals we can each get a little cranky about this, that or the other. We can even sound a little "off key" to one another. But when our voices come together like those irksome bagpipes those little differences blend to rock our house - be it "pretty good" or "passive."

    Thanks for sharing this conversation with us. We are a community and our diversity should be our strength.

  4. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #4

    My 5¢
    Building science is the most reliable way to understand building practices and is always a moving target. Being open-minded, willing to alter one's beliefs with new evidence, and not believing what you wish to be true, would be a sure way to transform the methods we build great buildings.

  5. AlanB4 | | #5

    I may be a lightweight around
    I may be a lightweight around here but i don't see a team Martin and team Jacob, i see people sharing ideas, sometimes disagreeing and people mentioning a lot about lifecycle and environmental impact of the different materials (high GWP of closed cell foam or carbon ROI on diminishing returns for examples) and people trying to come up with the best solutions, whether they are Passivhaus or PGH (and even chimney vent furnace vs unvented vs dual pipe high efficiency after airsealing and insulation upgrades and manual J). My point being instead of saying i am team red and i'm team blue we are and should be more about perfecting the science, not taking sides and disagreeing about physics.

    Martin's observations are usually rational and well explained, if he has made factual errors then i suspect he is willing to fix them, he seems like a reasonable guy.

    If you want an elaborately derived mission statement then go nuts, but its a waste of time IMO, it makes you feel like your doing something constructive but your just making a nice statement that gives you a sense of accomplishment while not adding new knowledge to the building science toolkit.

    I can agree with a bit more organization of knowledge and even someone who reads the articles and makes up a list of common retrofit questions and articles and even 475's free book linked all in one place for anyone coming to the site for the first time to learn about the cutting edge in building science, in a sense Martin's how to do everything covers a fair amount of it already, though i end up using the search function or asking a question about a specific topic every now and then looking for article or concept i read a while back and can't find

    BTW the Enterprise works on a command structure, Captain Picard would approve any away mission or course of action and was extremely wise in his decision making, while Gene Roddenberry believed the Federation had no military the observation was made many times that Starfleet was at least as militaristic as the coast guard.
    I love star trek references BTW.

  6. dankolbert | | #6

    Why can't we be friends?
    As someone who is close with the 3 main actors here (Martin, Jacob, Elizabeth), I am glad for this opportunity to move the conversation to a more useful place.

  7. anderslewendal | | #7

    The State of Our Union
    Elizabeth: Thank you. I enjoyed your article and agree. However, your (our) mission statement could be a lot shorter. How about:

    "How do we build less shitty homes?"

    I have built LEED, PGH and full PH homes. The question is always: How can we build a better house and stay within our budget. Not everyone can afford a PH.

    You could run for President in 2020. Call it "Team America".

  8. Robert Opaluch | | #8

    Building SCIENCE, data, and sustainable building messages
    1. It is inappropriate to use the term “science” while asserting factually incorrect or unsupported beliefs. The title of this book is “Essential Building SCIENCE.” Maybe it was misnamed, and should have been “Natural Building”, “Thoughtful Building with Time-Tested Natural Materials” or “A Wholistic Vision of Sustainable Building”. You can’t excuse factual errors by claiming the author is taking a wholistic approach, but title the book “… Science”. Establishing facts is central to science, and any critique of factual errors cannot be brushed aside if you call it “science.”

    I CAN understand why an architect, who designs a home with a transcending concept, doesn’t believe that a couple building science mistakes in the home invalidates the architectural concept. The architect or designer can brush aside some mistakes, no home is perfect. The overall architectural concept survives and can be appreciated for its vision. Maybe Rascusin wanted to write a book on a sustainable architecture vision, but he titled the book “… Science”.

    You CAN’T justify errors or assert unsubstantiated beliefs as part of a wholistic vision, or misunderstood language, then call it “SCIENCE”. Facts invalidate theories in science, not the other way around. As someone with a PhD and MA in psychological science (not clinical), and a philosophy degree concentrating in philosophy of science and logic, I am appalled at the misunderstandings and opposition to science we see recently. One cannot misrepresent fact-based science as just another person’s opinion. Religious extremists, political hacks, and greedy businesses oppose science-based education, funding and policy. They also think they are superior, and have the right “big picture”, and reject the use of data. Big picture beliefs or personal motivations trump scientific facts and data in their minds. But not in a book labeled “…Science”.

    2. I applaud your stated intention of building consensus among various factions that share some common values about sustainable building and our wonderful planet. Your list of a common message is a good start to making some of our values and priorities explicit. Personally I would have preferred your article have focused on that nice list. Maybe you could write another article to follow up. But your message list only is briefly mentioned, while spending most of your paragraphs criticizing various factions. Well if you believe your anti-data wholistic vision is the only vision worth anything, good luck getting the rest of us to join you.

    Criticizing others is usually not a successful tactic to build consensus, yet most of your article is criticism of Martin’s book review, Passivhaus/PHIUS, NESEA conference sessions, Joe Lstiburek’s Builder’s Guides, “toxic” foam, etc. Racusin values straw bale and offbeat “natural” insulation alternatives. Most of us prefer some version of foam (among other things) for good reasons. We are not poisoning the planet, creating a dystopia of abandoned foam and ignorant children. Most of the sustainable building professionals can’t be pushed out of the tent if you are trying to build consensus among factions. Seems to be a conflict between wanting to build a larger community of consensus, and rejecting most factions at the same time. Seems to be a conflict between your desire for consensus and your view that your specific wholistic view is the only one that’s right, and any data contradicting could be ignored as a linguistic misunderstanding.

    3. Any theory that says there are two types of people in the world is simplistic. There’s right-brain and left-brain people? Your “Hard Data” types and “Big Vision” types? “Team Martin” and “Team Jacob?”

    Where did you get the idea that you and the book author are the only ones with an overall vision of sustainable building? Those who gather and review data are “… not at all from an overall understanding of sustainable building theories and practicalities.” Not at all? Martin has no vision at all? Building scientists at NESEA have no vision at all, except at a few design and theory-based sessions? Usually leaders both have a vision and information or data to back it up, and are not above listening to constructive feedback. Rejecting data or criticism doesn’t make you superior to the rest of us myopic sustainable builders who are interested in data (among other things). Some of us big picture types might happen to value science, mathematics, data and engineering also. Have you heard of Hegel’s dialectic thesis, antithesis, synthesis? Can you envision being both data-driven and having a wholistic view? What about Einstein and other famous scientists, who clearly are both wholistic and data-driven?

    And I can’t believe an architect is chastising builders about understanding sustainable building “practicalities”. You know the jokes about architects.

    4. The word “team” typically denotes a group of people working together on some project, game or business effort. A larger universe of people doing different things with something in common might be called a movement, a group, or something more than a team. There is less necessity of agreement in a movement than in a team. The latter must make specific decisions and reach some agreements to complete a project. A movement may have very different decisions yet still have some higher-level common goals, such as preserving our planet. Native Americans, climate scientists, building scientists, high performance home builders, progressive politicians, and the young who inherit this planet may all have some common goals, but they are not a team working on a specific project or business. They may build very different homes for themselves, and that’s okay. Diversity is okay, and criticizing specific building practices or materials is okay too. Hopefully building science and not unsubstantiated beliefs guide homebuilding practices over time.

    5. Your statements about Passivhaus and PHIUS being “all about energy analysis” are incorrect and unfair. They emphasize human thermal comfort when justifying those expensive windows. You can't trade off window U-value for better insulation elsewhere, to provide occupant comfort. They champion Heat Recovery Ventilators to bring in fresh air (for people’s well-being, not for the building). They analyze humidity for health as well as impact on building materials. Recent PHIUS updates include local cost considerations, not just energy data. They focus on embodied energy. Just because they do extensive data-based energy engineering doesn’t mean Passive House “disregards everything else: Occupant health, sustainability of materials, the embodied energy of products and systems, …”.

    7. In the author’s brief history of building science in North America, the Anasazi’s Cliff Dwellings could be mentioned. They exploited passive solar principles for wintertime heating and protection from summer heat gain, 800 years before us passive solar pioneers of the last century. A big picture view would include them IMHO.

    8. If you don’t like the critical tone of this response, all I can say is...Sorry, its a reflection of your critical tone. We respect our esteemed colleagues, Passivhaus, and NESEA sessions, and can get offended or defensive, just like you.

  9. PAUL KUENN | | #9

    All right and All wrong
    I applaud anyone for writing their feelings about our subject. Unfortunately, so little is being done. We all feel so good when we read here about a pretty good or Passive house going up. Guess what? We're preaching and singing to the choir. I look at hundreds of homes going up every month around WI and NONE of them are "pretty good" and certainly not Passive in anyway. That means we're losing ground just as fast as ever. We need to sell big time and anyway to get these ideas out is good (as long as they are factual). That will take a huge team effort and much better selling books and magazines...Talking a huge sales pitch. We have to think Vanity Fair. Be there at every dentist and doctors office in the rag bin. My retro fit lectures have audiences of 20-40. I need 1000s like when I gave talks about my climbing career. We need to fill auditoriums and take over the Web. Keep up the fight!

  10. christopherw | | #10

    Who's divided and who's united?
    While there is a point to arguing for unity and putting aside inconsequential differences, I would also note that the specifics do make a difference in terms of who you'll be pulling into the "Union".

    Hard numbers and data, carefully weighted analysis and caveats, and a willingness to shift your understanding based upon data are critical to driving improved understanding and making a difference in how things are done.

    I myself have a strong instinct to run the other way when I see things like "foam and PVC are toxic". It's much too touchy-feely for me to take seriously and it undermines any credibility in the message behind it. It might appeal to some of those already in the "union", but you're more likely to drive away those who aren't. From your perspective, they may appear to be one in the same with the same overall theme, but from others, they can look very different.

    I'm very happy to see material from a lot of different viewpoints here, but Martin's careful analysis, including filtering out the wheat from the chaff, is a significant part of what makes this particular community valuable. The discussion on "Pretty Good House" and measured criticism of "Passive House" are a practical and positive thing.

    I suspect there are a lot of those who pay attention to this site, not because it is "all things green", but instead because it is a incredibly valuable resource for improved and sustainable building, with things evolving along with new data. Reviews like those of Jacob's book only serve to make it more valuable. I'm all for a broad and fractious community rather than a narrow unified one.

    I'm not entirely sure that my thoughts here actual provide any positive contribution, but I hope that they might. Thanks for taking time share your thoughts with such care and consideration.

  11. JC72 | | #11

    Response to Robert Opaluch (@opiehere): +1,000
    I couldn't have said it better.

  12. JC72 | | #12

    Response to Paul Kuenn (A.K.A. @pksolar)
    I'd gather that it's complicated. Land costs, the skill set of the existing trades, local climates, home design, and lastly customer preferences all have a role.

    From an economics perspective it's extremely difficult for a typical middle-class family to build a small energy efficient home that's also within a short distance to work, schools etcetera. When it comes to residential construction the cost of the lot needs to be approx. 20 percent of the market value of the home but in major metro areas this ratio is inverted. Take the city of LA for example. As a general rule the individual lot accounts for 60-80% of the total value of the market value of the property. Imagine a middle class family trying to acquire one of the thousands of 1920's bungalows for $500k and then drop another $200k in a DER or go forbid demo and rebuild.

    The only logical solution, if climate change is a strong concern, is to influence consumer preference towards "green" multi-family dwellings and leave the single family houses to people who are generally considered very wealthy or live in very rural areas. Of course there's going to be a backlash. The audacity of a politically connected independently wealthy individual who flies around the country in their private jet, spewing tons of CO2 in the process, telling the "common folk" that they shouldn't have a house and yard to raise their families because they generate too much carbon commuting 100 miles/day into work.

  13. RussMill | | #13

    Why do you allow politics to come into these articles? It would be like reading a NY Times article in the center fold of Fine Home Building! That wouldn't make me a subscriber for long.
    This website is FULL of good, solid information, why bring or all any statements regarding political ideas and/or feelings

  14. RZR | | #14

    Response to Robert Opaluch (@opiehere)
    It's rare I post here but this one I can't seem to resist.

    You appear to be a good critic/writer using big words like "Science" "Data vs Opinon" blah, blah, blah, and as I read your post I held tight to my seat waiting for you to produce any?

    Perhaps GBA will let you write a factual foam data base blog of your own since it's been a long time coming.

    Lets start with this statement,

    "Most of us prefer some version of foam (among other things) for good reasons."

    Where is the data to support your findings or is this your opinion? What are those "good reasons" ?

    Next please produce an international database of tested field performance of various common foam products (poliso, eps, xps) often recommend here on GBA under slabs to include verified mechanical and hygrothermal properties say over a 30 year life cycle or 50 would be a better minimum?

  15. Robert Opaluch | | #15

    Response to Terry Lee
    Foam is one of many reasonable choices for insulation

    The article author DiSalvo opposes foam and writes about a “post-apocalyptic future that we all have anxiety attacks about in the middle of the night…unable to teach your children how to build anything of significance with what nature gave you, because no one ever wrote a book about anything but Foam and PVC…grandchildren wandering the devastated yet resilient earth…except the endless dust storms of blowing open- and closed-cell foam that will never break down.” That’s what this article says, re-read the article. That is not science, its imaginative opposition to the use of foam in building construction.

    Those who write articles for GBA, and submit questions to GBA Q&A Forum, use foam of various types. You can count the articles if you want data on foam preferences. You believe I should “produce an international database of tested field performance of various common foam products (poliso, eps, xps) often recommend here on GBA under slabs to include verified mechanical and hygrothermal properties say over a 30 year life cycle or 50 would be a better minimum?” Why don’t YOU do all that work if someone wants to show that foam unexpectedly fails at 50 years. GBA articles and contributors have already noted mechanical and hygrothermal properties of EPS, XPS and polyiso board, spray foams, etc., and recommended or not recommended them for specific applications. These GBA articles cite scientific data from Building Science Corporation, vendors, field trials, and elsewhere. I’ve read enough of Martin and other’s GBA articles to be confident that a few types of foam board will suit me just fine for certain applications.

    I designed and built a home 35 years ago, that describes the use of foam and fiberglass insulation, summarized here:
    I used polyiso foam board for outboard continuous insulation, over the load-bearing stud walls filled with fiberglass. I used XPS foam board for insulating the foundation wall and slab floor. The home is still standing, performing, after 35 years. It has not become a dust storm of foam. I know of zero buildings that fit the description of contributing to a dust storm of foam. Does anyone? Why no articles showing these failures or dust storms?

    It seems that the only foam insulation will work cost-effectively to insulate below a slab, floating slab foundation, or monolithic slab foundation. In some cases you could use Roxul ComfortBoard or mineral wool board. Martin Holladay wrote that up in one of his articles:

    So its foam, rigid mineral wool board, expensive foamglas, or no insulation below slabs, if you have a slab floor or basement floor. Other types of insulation lack the compressive strength or are vulnerable to below grade moisture. Wool, cotton, straw, fiberglass, blown-in insulation types would not work below grade. Foam is one of many valid choices for walls or roof assemblies too, but there’s lots of alternatives.

    I personally prefer mineral wool, fiberglass, and specific types of foam board (polyiso, EPS/GPS). Each has its place in the building envelope, depending upon various constraints. I’ve used XPS but wouldn’t use it again due to environmental negatives making it inferior IMHO. But I don’t write scare stories or put down those who want to try wool, cotton, straw, spray-applied polyurethane, or others I would not use myself, and would not recommend myself. You, DiSalvo and Rascusin can build foam-free. Diversity of opinions is okay. Different types of homes are okay. Hopefully building science guides us to create better buildings using various materials in appropriate ways. I said that in my earlier reply.

    My son and others DO NOT face any scientifically based threat of “dust storms of … foam”. They DO face global warming from fossil fuels being used to heat homes and hot water, among other uses. That global warming threat can be reduced using certain types of foam and other insulation, instead of using fossil fuels to heat buildings. GBA and others provide guidelines for selecting the best types of foam and other types of insulation for our buildings and environment.

    I’ll write on topics related to solar heating, cost-effective high levels of insulation, lower-cost construction, those are my area of interest. I hope to see DeSalvo write more on our mission as high performance building professionals. And I look forward to many more great articles and replies to questions by Holladay and other GBA contributors.

  16. user-198087 | | #16

    Looking for opininons
    I visit this site on occasion to find and read opinions about various building matters that come up in my work as an architect. I almost always find useful views to consider, and I would be surprised to find all in agreement about anything other than an overarching, poorly described goal...the lowest common denominator of almost any organization. As an architect with 40+ of experience who took the CPHC training just 2 years ago, I can appreciate the various arguments about principles (past, present, immediate and remote in distance and time) to be considered when selecting products and materials for a particular situation in a particular project. It ain't easy to make selections that satisfy the competing demands (including but not limited to budget) that are inherent in most projects. I welcome the idea that we can make decisions "holistically" and that we won't go straight to Hell for using, for example, a window with a good but not quite Passive House U value for reasons to do with fit and finish and budget. Yes, I would like it to be perfect in every respect based on our highest and best values, but I have to work within the multiple constraints of the project. I can usually push that "envelope" a little, but I can't ignore it and get the project built. For a given project, the best overall building is likely the best combination of components and systems, and that usually includes some amount of compromise between building components and building systems and between competing values. (I hope I haven't misspelled any words in this comment.)

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