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Review of an Introductory Green Building Textbook

 

Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction by Abe Kruger and Carl Seville, a review Ah, textbooks, those compendia of facts and figures that we lug around when we're in school. We do multitudinous homework assignments out of them and spend countless hours trying to make sense of the great collections of information within them. I spent 24 years in school as a student and another 9 years teaching high school and college physics. That's a lot of time with my head in textbooks.

Green building has mostly avoided being transcribed to textbooks, but that is changing. It's become so popular in the past decade that our education system has taken notice. Charles Kibert, whom I remember from my time at the University of Florida, wrote one of the first, Sustainable Construction: Green Building Design and Delivery, which is now in its third edition. I'll review it another time, but today I'm going to give you a brief review of a book by two friends of mine here in the Atlanta area: Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction by Abe Kruger and Carl Seville.

What is a textbook for?

 
"Education is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians. It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects, teach them to think straight, if possible."
~ Robert Maynard Hutchins

I take a more radical view of education than many, finding myself in tune with the ideas of people like Robert Maynard Hutchins, quoted above, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, and A.S. Neill. Education is something that happens in spite of teachers, classes, and textbooks, not because of them. Good teachers, classes, and textbooks can certainly help, but it's not necessary.

Textbooks are, by definition, distillations of knowledge handed down by those who collect and collate a seemingly endless bounty of information. They are meant to convey, especially at the introductory level, the general structure of a subject and to be a starting point...or an ending point for those who go no further. Outside of their use in classrooms, they can become reference works for those who don't use the information often enough to recall it.

Writing a textbook is no easy task. Carl and Abe invested a significant chunk of their lives in this work. The result is 608 pages of facts, figures, charts, images, tables, and equations, a kind of expanded version of the information you get in a drinking-from-the-firehose 5-day Home Energy Rater class.

What's in the book?

The book opens with the typical prefatory material, explaining how to use the book, what supplements are available, and what audience it's intended for ("students seeking careers in the residential construction industry as well as industry professionals"). They then launch into the heart of green building, laying out what they see as the 8 principles that compose green building, each with its own symbol that's used throughout the book to indicate which principle(s) a particular section relates to. They are:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Resource efficiency
  • Durability
  • Water efficiency
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Reduced community impact
  • Homeowner education and maintenance
  • Sustainable site development

The big picture looks good. They didn't miss covering much that I could think of. I would've liked to see something about climate change and peak oil, but their motivation section doesn't touch those topics. Too controversial?

In addition to the information to support each of those principles, they discuss the main green building and energy efficiency programs around the US. They seem to have missed a couple (Living Building Challenge and Environments for Living), but it's a fairly comprehensive list.

The 16 chapters are organized into 5 sections:

  • What is green building and why does it make sense?
  • Structural systems
  • Exterior finishes
  • Interior finishes
  • Mechanical systems

Each section has multiple chapters, and the authors go into a fair amount of detail in each one. As I said, Carl and Abe invested a lot of time in this book. The chapters have plenty of illustrations, charts, tables, and sidebars, as is common in this era of  attention-challenged students. The drawings are, on the whole, very well done. Some of the insulation drawings make blown products look like foam for example, but that's not a big drawback.

Since this is a textbook meant to be used in schools, each chapter ends with a summary, review questions, critical thinking questions, key terms, and additional resources. Also, new terms are (usually) highlighted upon first use and defined at the bottom of the same page.

It's not perfect...

To be effective, textbooks do not have to be great works of literature. Still, I kept wishing the writing were a bit more lively and interesting. A good book, of any sort, pulls you in and makes you want to learn more. Take this first sentence, for example:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

That's not from Carl and Abe's book; it's the first line from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I know, I know. I just said that textbooks can't compete with great literature. But the beginning sets the tone, and here's how Green Building starts off:

We define green building as a set of design, construction, and maintenance techniques and practices that minimize a building's total environmental impact.

What that sentence says to me is that the authors have the answers. It neglects the motivations for green building (climate change, comfort...) and the points of controversy (e.g., the USGBC being out of touch, building enclosure vs. building envelope...). For a more apropos contrast, here's a line from a textbook I used in grad school, David Goodstein's book, States of Matter:

Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying Statistical Mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study Statistical Mechanics. Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.

Kinda grabs your attention, doesn't it? Textbooks don't have to be dry, and there's plenty of attention-grabbing openings awaiting should they choose to go that route in the second edition.

I'd also like to see more big picture and historical perspective. One of the great things about Joe Lstiburek's presentations and writing is that he makes it real. He goes back and shows how wattle and daub and ye olde thatched-roof buildings compare to what we're doing now. At the Passive House conference this year, he talked about igloos as the first Passive Houses.

Other parts of the book are less than satisfactory as well. Here are a few:

  • They don't distinguish between permeability and permeance, and use the former where they should have used the latter.
  • They use the word 'enthalpy' without ever defining it or giving the reader any hints about whether it's important or not. My guess is they did that because they used psychrometric charts showing that quantity when getting a simplified chart would have been better.
  • The discussion of design temperatures isn't quite correct either.
  • Some of the review questions are ambiguous or incorrect.
  • The book has a few typos.

It's a first edition, though, so you expect it to be a bit rough around the edges.

But it's a good start

Overall, Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction is a good first attempt at putting together a comprehensive textbook on green building. I may have a few complaints about the style and the handling of some of the topics, but it's a major effort to put something like this together. I applaud Carl and Abe for having the discipline to get it done and help to advance the field. I'm sure this first edition will serve as a springboard for many students just entering the field of green building. This is an emerging field, and Carl and Abe have made a valuable contribution to it with this textbook.

A final word on education

"You can read all the textbooks and listen to all the records, but you have to play with musicians that are better than you."
~ Stan Getz

Now get out there and play some music!

 

Other Reviews

Carl and Abe Write a Textbook by Martin Holladay, Green Building Advisor

Green Building: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction (Book Review) by Lloyd alter, TreeHugger

Comments

I used this book to teach my Green Building and Remodeling course last spring at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. Like you,I found some errors and things I would like to have seen expressed more accurately or clearly. However, on the whole my students liked the book very much as did I.  
However, our 36 class hours did not allow enough time to go through the book with the thoroughness it deserves. Unless the college expands the hours I will have to fall back on a simpler text next spring. I am also seriously considering having my students go on-line and read a number of assigned documents from the Information section of buildingscience.com. instead of using a text. GREAT information.
Posted @ Friday, November 02, 2012 12:25 PM by John Ring
Allison- Thanks for taking the time to review our book (About damn time, man!). I suppose I can't complain about the "damning with faint praise" tone you have taken, as that is my general policy with most things I develop an opinion on. But it is hard to believe that even Martin seems to like it more than you do. 
 
The one thing that readers might consider is that it can serve as a reference book for construction professionals, and even some energy geeks who need good drawings and information to show their clients. I use the drawings from the book to show people proper insulation and air sealing details fairly frequently and they find them useful. Readers who follow the link to the textbook early in the post can download several chapters for free and decide for themselves.
Posted @ Friday, November 02, 2012 3:32 PM by Green Curmudgeon
I am actually more inclined to read the book because of the comprehensive and obviously objective review, than if Allison had said "Here's a great book by my friends."
Posted @ Friday, November 02, 2012 4:01 PM by Nancy
John R.: As I was reading and thinking about the book, I realized that a lot of my criticisms would require greater length. It's difficult to write an introductory textbook and cover topics sufficiently without going into much detail. I hadn't considered a condensed version of a book like this, but I think it's a great idea. It would take a lot of work, though. Recall what Blaise Pascal said: 
 
I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter. 
 
Carl S.: Indeed it can be a good reference book, and the figures are really good, as I mentioned above. 
 
Nancy: I'm glad you found it helpful.
Posted @ Monday, November 05, 2012 8:13 AM by Allison Bailes
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