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Home Building Is Like Skiing

Skiing Home Building Science

I spent a few days in Colorado this past week. This was a rare trip for me: It wasn’t for business or a conference. My wife, Elaine, and I went there on a belated honeymoon (we got married in 2009), and it was also an early birthday present for her. I’d never skied before in my life (except on the liquid form of dihydrogen oxide), but I took lessons for a day and a half and skied with Elaine the third day. It was terrifying!

I spent a few days in Colorado this past week. This was a rare trip for me: It wasn’t for business or a conference. My wife, Elaine, and I went there on a belated honeymoon (we got married in 2009), and it was also an early birthday present for her. I’d never skied before in my life (except on the liquid form of dihydrogen oxide), but I took lessons for a day and a half and skied with Elaine the third day. It was terrifying!

Well, let me qualify that: It was terrifying the first two days. Why? Because I didn’t have nearly enough control over what gravity was doing to my body as it raced down the slopes.

On the third day, however, my first day of skiing with Elaine, things clicked. I learned how to control my speed by shifting my weight properly, using the edges of the skis, bending my knees, and keeping my body forward. I had many fewer moments of feeling out of control and much less fear when I came to a place where the slope got steeper. Pretty much every 5 year old kid on the mountain was still better than me, but I was happy that I’d gained a modicum of control. (See the Afterword at the bottom for more about my skiing adventure.)

Home building and skiing

Building a home is like skiing. If you disregard the fundamental principles of building science, you’re like a beginning skier who’s not in control.

No matter how long you’ve been building homes, there’s always more building science to learn and incorporate. If you don’t know anything about building science, you’re still down at the bottom of the mountain on the nearly flat terrain. As you start learning and incorporating building science into the homes you build, you move to the green trails.

If you know the difference between an air barrier and a vapor barrier, flash your rough openings properly, and install HVAC systems sized and designed properly for the house, you’re on the blue trails. It’s a tricky business, building a home. When you master all the control layers and become a building enclosure control freak, you’ve graduated to the black trails. Congratulations!

One way that home building is not like skiing is that being out of control when building a home, in the sense I’m talking about here, isn’t terrifying. You don’t see the trees rushing up too quickly. You don’t try to correct by shifting your weight backwards (the wrong thing to do). You just go on about your job and deliver an inferior product. I’ve seen plenty of evidence out there of builders who are rank beginners. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably not one of them. But which trail are you on?


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Afterword: My skiing adventure

At nearly 52 years old, I didn’t think I’d ever learn to ski. I didn’t really have much interest in it, but I got an opportunity to visit one of the most beautiful places on the planet—Aspen, Colorado—and I jumped on it. My wife started skiing at the age of 7 but hadn’t skied in about 15 years, so at first, I thought we’d go out there and she’d ski all day while I did work. As the trip got closer, though, I suddenly began to think that I’d take lessons, which in fact I did.

Everyone had told me that Buttermilk was the mountain for beginners in the Aspen area, so that’s where I headed. (Naturally, I had plenty of friends who told me to go to the black trails with lots of diamonds and use telemark skis…but I didn’t follow their advice.) On my first day, I had a half day lesson in the afternoon. But I had an hour and a half before hand, so I took the beginner’s lift up to Panda’s Peak and skied down my first slope with no lessons. I made it to the bottom in one piece, but it was absolutely terrifying.

skiing buttermilk mountain colorado panda peak

Once the lessons started, we went to a much easier slope for a couple of hours before the instructor thought we were ready to go back to where I did my first run. It was much better this time. Still, I had a lot of moments of being out of control and terror and leaning back and falling on my butt.

The third day was when the switch got flipped. Suddenly I could ski in control, slowing down when I needed to, focusing on all the little details I needed to correct, and it became fun. In the first two days, I had moments of fun but overall, my time on the snow was dominated by fear.

skiing buttermilk mountain colorado pyramid peak

We did a few practice runs on the beginners slope at the bottom of the mountain but then headed up to the top of the mountain. It was fantastic! We skied several hours up there, and when the lifts closed at 3:30, we skied all the way down the mountain, about 2000 vertical feet. Wow! I think I’m going to have to do this again next year.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Congrats on finding time for
    Congrats on finding time for yourself and those important to you. Not always easy to do these days.  
    One other difference between skiing and home building is that a terrifying run down a black diamond is over in a few moments. A poorly built house is someone’s bad day on the moguls for 30 years!

  2. There’s an old skiing adage:
    There’s an old skiing adage: “Ski the mountain; don’t let the mountain ski you”.  
    So to your list of analogies, you might want to include “Build the building; don’t let the building build you.” (Or something like that). 
    [ BTW, the oldest and most highly evolved form of downhill skiing is telemark (there; I said it…let the alpine and AT guys come at me! 🙂 What you really want for energy-smart home builders of the future, IMHO, is the equivalent of an advanced telemark skiier, for whom control is so natural and ingrained, it no longer even merits discussion… 🙂 ] 
    Glad you got out there and had a great time! 
    ~ John

  3. Looks like a wonderful trip,
    Looks like a wonderful trip, and thanks for sharing the fun.  
    With all of the children suffering from Asthma triggers in their homes, I would suggest the word “gas” should be eliminated before the word “range”. All hoods above cooking appliances should be vented outdoors, regardless of fuel type, in order to be more “in control” of indoor air quality.  
    Next up: Snowboarding. It’s terrific.

  4. Been skiing for 45 of my 48
    Been skiing for 45 of my 48 years and am solid double black. My life’s ambition is to be a double black energy maven. Reading your blog is the best thing I do towards that. Thanks for your excellent info and great writing style

  5. Skiing and home building is a
    Skiing and home building is a stretch for me, but I love the inspired blog that comes from being active and engaged with nature. I wish more folks in the building science arena would get out and remember that they are an interconnected part of this amazing world, and not just a stack of btus and kwh to be shuffled between dew points. 
    IF we wanted to talk about skiing and home building.. I would suggest we use the skis and the boots and the user as the metaphor. The skis have to be design and built. The skis have to integrate with a boot that requires fail safe mechanisms. The assembly has to delight and inspire the user, perform under pressure, manage exposure to the elements, built in a sustainable fashion, and processed when their useful life is over.  
    Building science is understanding the physics and performance characteristics of each material in the ski and boot assembly and making intentional decisions about how to construct the ski and boot for the intended use. 
    Some skis have integrated bindings- that could be Design-Build model, where the two industries integrate to create a superior assembly.  
    The ski metaphor would allow for more conversation on the user experience side of things which the BS and Energy community seem to forget.  
    A high performance ski that is ugly will not sell. 
    So much fun to have with this one…. 

  6. Proof positive that you can
    Proof positive that you can teach an old blog(er) new tricks. 

  7. Free your heals and free your
    Free your heals and free your mind!  
    (Just kidding, Tele is what you do when alpine get’s boring. Ski once a year, that’ll be year 3013) 
    Nice post Allison!

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