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Eccentric Lives, Peculiar Notions, & Building Science Absurdities

Eccentric Lives, Peculiar Notions, & Building Science Absurdities

building science peculiar notions geoffrey pyke screw propelled weasleSome people, even in modern times, have believed the Earth is flat. Others believe that drilling a hole in their head will make them eternally happy. 

Some people, even in modern times, have believed the Earth is flat. Others believe that drilling a hole in their head will make them eternally happy. 

An English bloke, Geoffrey Pyke, was a great and wild thinker, full of crazy ideas. One of them, hatched during World War II, was to build battleships out of ice. Actually, it was a mixture of ice and wood pulp that he called pykecrete, and indeed, it was strong. He described his idea to Mountbatten, who told Churchill, who relayed it to Roosevelt. They even built a prototype that lasted a whole summer in Canada. (Joe Lstiburek would be proud!)

Pyke’s other ideas included a pipeline to unload soldiers and gear from ships to shore, screw-propelled troop transporters (photo above), and spraying supercooled water on enemy soldiers to encase them in ice. He made – and lost – a fortune in the commodities market and eventually committed suicide at the age of 54.

Another of my favorites is from the people who, even now, believe the Earth is round but that we live on the inside of the sphere, not the outside. It’s true. I met a guy once who really believed this. He was from south Florida, near where Dr. Cyrus Teed did his experiments to prove it.

Their explanation is that you can determine the curvature of the Earth with a series of poles, shooting a level across them and measuring the height above ground as you go further away. Really! They did the experiments in south Florida in the last century, and they found that the further you went from your starting point, the closer your level line got to the ground. Clearly, the Earth curves upward as you go off into the distance. Right? You believe it, don’t you?

The above stories all come from one of my favorite books, Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions by John Michell. I haven’t found any building science stories yet that come close to rivaling the best ‘peculiar notions’ in that book, but I’ve reported on some bad ideas here over the past year and a half.

Some think that a house needs to breathe. Others think that foil-faced bubble wrap is good insulation. A medical doctor believed his HVAC contractor, who told him that his nasty, moldy air conditioner was OK because it was ‘normal.’ Recently, a fellow I know in Minnesota has been espousing the idea that, because some people do it wrong and cause problems, maybe we just shouldn’t insulate houses. I’m really not kidding!

Today, though, I found a story that takes the building science cake. Martin Holladay, the famous Energy Nerd who muses publicly, wrote about Alton King of Longmeadow, Massachusetts. He’s a former distributor of ‘insulating’ paint, which he hyped as being a replacement for regular insulation. You have to admire his dedication, though. He believed so strongly in his product that he built a 7300 square foot house and sprayed the inside of the walls and attic with it – using no real insulation at all. Although some coatings can help with air-sealing (if they’re thick enough) and radiant heat transfer (if their emissivity is low enough), many companies that make these products promise way more than their products can deliver.

You really need to go read the story. Go on. I’ll wait. And when you get back, we can tell some more stories about crazy people and wild ideas, and maybe, just maybe, we can come up with some ideas that could put building science on the same level as Geoffrey Pyke and Dr. Cyrus Teed.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. LOL, oh way to funny – thanks
    LOL, oh way to funny – thanks for making my Friday & possibly my next RIP article

  2. Sean: Glad
    Sean: Glad you liked it! Be sure to re-read the last paragraph because I just changed it.

  3. Great Article, Allison!&amp
    Great Article, Allison! 
    I find it particularly interesting since I once had a client try to convice me to use “ceramic paint” in leiu of insualtion for his net zero home. After a substantial amount of research, I refused. He wound up building it anyway, although I do not know if the paint was actually used. 
    This just proves that actual fact-based building and energy science NEEDS BETTER MARKETING!!!

  4. Nice piece, and I’m thankful
    Nice piece, and I’m thankful that you didn’t group me with that nut job in Minnesota who doesn’t think we should insulate buildings. Who would ever say anything like that?

  5. Mark:
    Mark: Thanks. If you get any future clients like that, just send them to Martin’s article. 
    Carl (aka Green Curmudgeon): Oh, yeah, I forgot you were the first one to suggest that crazy idea on the internets, weren’t you? It sounds better saying that someone in Minnesota wants to stop insulating, though.

  6. Allison, in all fairness,
    Allison, in all fairness, your friend in Minnesota wasn’t exactly suggesting that we shouldn’t insulate our homes because some people can’t do it right. He was suggesting more along the lines that deep retrofits might not actually be the universal panacea/golden bullet solution for older homes that they are being actively promoted as. 
    As an energy efficiency advocate with a vested interest in historic preservation, I don’t necessarily disagree with him. 
    Here’s an historic home up here in Waltham, MA, the Lyman Estate, built in the very late 1700’s. Owned by Historic New England, a large non-profit that holds and maintains historic properties, this home is currently undergoing an extensive and carefully planned energy retrofit that includes preservation of original windows, reversible installation of sealing and insulating materials, proper sizing and upgrading of HVAC systems, etc. Their objective is at least a 50% reduction in the home’s energy use, as compared to the 70% or greater reduction of a deep retrofit, but without all the extensive destruction of original material that deep retrofits seem to require de rigueur.  
    HNE is determined to make this house a showcase for best practices on how to properly retrofit much older homes with far less impact and less cost than a deep retrofit, but nearly comparable performance results. 
    The preservation community often takes a lot of heat from deep energy retrofit advocates, like we were a bunch of sentimental Luddites or flat-earthers. But take a look at the external details of the Lyman house. Would any one committed to the preservation of historic buildings seriously consider stripping away all the original windows, cladding, pilasters, Georgian decorations, roofing, etc., down to the sheathing, then encase this home in 4+ inches of XPS, and attempt to duplicate the original facade (only now very much out of scale) using synthetics, and argue about whether the new high performance fiberglass windows should be built-out or built-in, and then refer to this as a noble act of historic preservation? Of course not. It violates how preservationists define preservation. It also violates how the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has defined preservation for many decades now. It’s not going to happen to this home, and it’s not going to happen to any of my own, even though I am committed to making every one of my historic homes energy efficient. 
    Finally, Michael is a very bright guy and thought-leader in the modern building science and energy communities, both in theory and application. His opinions might be sometimes controversial, but it’s not fair to lump him in with the likes of flat-earthers and guys who believe that paint insulates. ~ John

  7. John – Appreciate the
    John – Appreciate the thoughts on historic preservation and I agree that deep energy retrofits have limited application in historic, and even some non historic buildings. I would caution you against suggesting that Michael is very bright – I don’t think he needs any more encouragement, it might make his head explode.

  8. John P.:
    John P.: Yes, deep energy retrofits of historic homes are a completely different animal. Michael wasn’t talking about historic preservation, though, and he certainly was implying that maybe we shouldn’t insulate when he threw in the quote, “Get rid of the insulation and you eliminate the problems.” He also manipulated statistics and dredged up a bad report on global warming potential of foam insulation. 
    As a contrarian myself, I can appreciate someone asking good questions, and his article did raise some. Overall, though, his logic wasn’t sound, and his point could easily be taken the wrong way. 
    Thanks for raising the issue of historic preservation, John. It’s an important one, and I certainly don’t think of you as a Luddite or flat-earther. And I’m not going to say a word about squirrels either.

  9. Carl: I
    Carl: I certainly had no intention of making anyone’s head explode! I hope Michael’s head is still intact and he’s OK. 
    Allison: Please don’t knock my squirrels. Where do you think I get my best ideas from? You see, they have this way of channeling to me telepathically, and… 

  10. John, 

    Thanks for the intelligent words. Looks like Carl is trying to stir the pot today. 
    Silos of thought… are dangerous. It doesn’t matter what camp you sit in, it is easy to be reassured that you are right, by the like minded. 
    Lets talk issues: 
    1. The quote comes from a highly respected senior researcher from one of the most respected testing labs in the world. He was not joking when he said it. He wasn’t suggesting we stop insulating, but rather that insulation creates problems. FACT.  
    2. I take issue with my manipulation of statistics. The global report on emissions attributes a tiny percentage to homes and well over half of that is unrelated to heating. (yes I have a Northern climate bias, but well over half the country falls into the cold climate zone.) 
    3. The report is not bad. I have never seen a retraction from Alex, and last August he and I reviewed the methodology in some detail. There is absolutely no question that the blowing agents used by the leading manufacturers of XPS and high density foam products is a catalyst that when released in our atmosphere has a significant and long lasting impact. This was confirmed by one of the chemists from DOW chemicals who covered the very same information in his presentation.  
    John’s point doesn’t pertain to just historical preservation, it pertains to any of our rich and beautiful pre-war housing stock. The idea of tearing off the stucco, the old growth fir/cedar/pine siding, dental, frieze… for the sake of a few BTU’s? Ridiculous. 
    Walls impact 18% of the energy use in virtually every building model I have run. 18%?!?! You can pick up 15-20% from insulating the rim joist alone. 
    So, I am not just raising the question, I don’t believe that a rush to over-insulate our homes is an intelligent move and the haphazard way in which we are blindly rushing to subsidized DER’s with an incompetent workforce is dangerous, irresponsible, and asinine.  
    The remodeling industry struggles to install windows properly. They have no business monkeying with the performance of homes.

  11. John P.: I
    John P.: I wasn’t knocking them. In fact, I said I wasn’t going to say a word about them, right? 
    Going back to your first comment, though, you said I shouldn’t lump Michael with the flat-earthers and people who believe insulated paint works. Don’t forget that I also included the trepanners and Geoffrey Pyke. Although I’d never do it myself, I do find the former’s reasoning intriguing, and Pyke may well have been a genius. Maybe Michael will have a breakthrough and come up with his own version of the frozen battleship.

  12. I can’t resist…  
    I can’t resist…  
    There are a number of impressive coatings on the market that do improve the ability for certain materials to resist radiant energy transfer. Often described as ‘paint’ these coatings, often using ceramics, are commonly used in a wide range of industrial applications including: shipping containers, marine craft, space craft, storage tanks, pipes, and metal roofs. 
    The problem lies in folks using this in lieu of insulation and air sealing, interior surfaces, an in conditions where extreme temperatures are not a concern. (like the walls of your home) 
    In short: Paint can insulate, but the application is not residential.

  13. Michael:
    Michael: Dang! I didn’t want to have to give your crazy article so much attention here, but I guess I should have known better when I included it in this post. So, yes, let’s talk issues. 
    1. The problem isn’t insulation. The problem is conditioning. When we try to maintain big differences in temperature, humidity, and pressure, we can get in trouble. I don’t know what else the Fraunhofer Institute guy said, but he must have put that statement in a broader context than you used it. 
    2. You minimized the amount of electricity used by focusing on heating only. Quite a bit of electricity-powered air conditioning is used in this country, too. 
    3. Just because the report wasn’t retracted doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have been. I think I pretty thoroughly debunked it here last year, and another PhD who knows the details far better than I told me that report was garbage. He said, “Alex is wrong about most of this. You are more right than you seem to think.” 
    Yes, contractors do things wrong. That’s not a reason to suggest that we stop pushing to get it right.

  14. Michael:
    Michael: We have something to agree about! Yes, some products sold as insulating paint can help control radiant heat flow. Absolutely. The problem, and Martin’s post today captured it perfectly, is that it’s often oversold as a complete insulating material that allows you to forgo regular insulation.

  15. Allison. We can’t even blame
    Allison. We can’t even blame Carl for that one! 
    1. Since we have no plans to stop conditioning anytime soon, I guess insulation remains a serious problem, eh? 
    2. Quite a bit? There is no question homes use ‘quite a bit’ of electricity, but the majority of it is not attributable to AC. Funny thing, with the exception of a few extreme’s AC in homes is really un-necessary. But behavior change and personal responsibility is a conversation for another day. 
    3. Given that the manufacturers of the product talked openly about the problem with the blowing agent and the need to find an alternative, I’m going to respectfully disagree. 
    I support pushing to get it right. And when we get it right, we can go out and implement. Enough of the “panic, fire, aim…oops!” culture.

  16. Michael:
    Michael: One last comment here: You seem to assume that global warming/climate change is the only problem we have to worry about, and that’s far from the truth, especially when we’re talking about electricity. Let’s see, there’s: 
    *Growing demand on the grid because of the electrification of transportation 
    *Mountain-top removal and all its associated problems 
    *Respiratory diseases caused by pollution from coal power plants 
    *Mercury pollution from coal power plant emissions 
    *Acid rain 
    I’m not sure climate change will even be in the top 2 or 3 issues.

  17. Allison, 

    I fully agree with you about the need to move away from the world’s most dangerous fuel source; coal. 
    Reducing our electricity usage, which I advocate for, starts with behavior and ends with insulating (in the south). New builds have huge opportunity to design differently, but they are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent.  
    Since behavior is not going to change anytime soon, we need to find a way to change fuel source (long time soapbox of mine), but GWP does come back into the discussion when we look at fuel source. Climate shift is a very real national security concern, and PV panels don’t necessarily have the positive impact we might think. 
    ok. I need to do some work today! 
    See you at camp! 

  18. Well, you all are quite
    Well, you all are quite passionate on this topic. I enjoyed the post, especially the first half. I understand history far more than I understand insulation!

  19. Alexandra:
    Alexandra: Glad you liked the article. You should get a copy of that book if you like the short bits about people in it that I wrote about it here.

  20. I am a distributor of ceramic
    I am a distributor of ceramic paint. I believe the author has misconstrued how ceramic paint is marketed. Ceramic paint is not, nor has it ever claimed to “replace” traditional insulation or in fact even insulate. Ceramic paint leads to an “insulation like” property which does not absorb heat, but rather reflects it. It is scientifically proven that the proper thickness application of ceramic paint has an “R equivalent” value of about 7. In otherwords, its effect on heat transfer from the outside surface to the inside surface is roughly the same as a piece of R7 glass pack insulation. This is because ceramic material is extremely insulating (its used on the leading edges of the space shuttle to prevent it from melting during reentry to the earths atmoshphere, would you question that science?). 
    Please research more about your subject before writing negatively about a product. There is a lot of science behind why ceramic paint substantially reduces heat transfer between surfaces.  
    Millions of square feet of industrial facilities roofs are painted with ceramic coatings including those of most Fortune 50 companies. Ceramic coatings are used by huge companies like Procter and Gamble, Nissan, Microsoft and others.  
    I don’t argue that its a “silly” notion to not use insulation on your house because of a ceramic paint application, but that does not mean that ceramic paint does not provide significant insulating properties, which my friend, is a hard scientific fact.

  21. Phillip K.
    Phillip K.: I think I know a thing or two about science and heat transfer. Getting a PhD in physics will do that to a person. 
    I also know that your claim about how ‘insulating’ paints are marketed is both true – if I take your statement literally – and false, if you really meant what you seem to have been trying to say. Here’s what you said: 
    “Ceramic paint is not, nor has it ever claimed to “replace” traditional insulation or in fact even insulate.” 
    Of course not. The paint doesn’t do the marketing. The people in the paint companies and distributors do that. And if you clicked through and read Martin Holladay’s excellent article on the ‘insulating’ paint distributor’s case, you’d know that he, unlike the paint itself, actually did market it as a replacement for conventional insulation. 
    Also, if you read all the comments above, you’d have seen that I do understand that ‘insulating’ paints can reduce heat transfer somewhat. They often don’t qualify as true radiant barriers, however, because their emissivities are too high. 
    Speaking of emissivity, you wrote: 
    “Ceramic paint leads to an ‘insulation like’ property which does not absorb heat, but rather reflects it.” 
    Actually, it does absorb heat when installed on the inner surface of a wall or roof. With a reduced emissivity, it just doesn’t radiate all the heat that it absorbs. A true radiant barrier, however, will do a better job.

  22. The before mentioned offender
    The before mentioned offender s-therm makes life rough for all in the business of unique coatings with their outlandish claims and frankly gives even legitimate companies like ours that founded the concept almost 30 years ago a tough trail to navigate. Nevertheless it is unfair of you or any other poster to lump us into the same bag of trash as I/we body slam them every chance we get as well. There are basically no similarities in our product offering and what they have ‘developed’. 
    You will never find us claiming ALL you need in a building is ‘paint’ with No insulation. Our product ThermaCote does however allow insulation to perform closer to its lab rated values through Sealing and Thermal Barrier actions that are rated 0 flame spread by UL and pass Ca dhs 01350 for CAQ, and in some study cases we are currently involved in we are finding fiber-glass batt insulated houses that now perform on par or better than foam only insulated houses and even in a cold northern climate. 
    I follow the chatter from you and others routinely but must speak up now that we are not ALL the same! Your postings and ‘musings’ are ussually informative and mostly on point. 
    Best Regards, 
    Tommy Sharp / President/ ThermaCote, Inc.

  23. Tommy: Yes
    Tommy: Yes, some coatings can help with air-sealing and radiant heat transfer, and I added that to the article above. In general, though, I think the benefits are oversold by a lot of companies in this market, as demonstrated by Mr. King. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses, which, I believe, are mostly in the commercial world, where they can be quite cost-effective.

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