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How to Talk Like a Building Scientist


Everyone these days wants to be a building scientist.  It’s the second most popular branch of the sciences, after all (the most popular being physics, naturally).  So today let’s discuss how you can enhance your future in building science by learning how to talk like a building scientist.

When I’m out in public, people are always coming up to me and asking, “Dr. Bailes, I love what you do!  Can you teach me how to talk like a building scientist?”  And I say, “Why, yes.  I certainly can.”  And then I teach them on the spot exactly what to do to impress people with their new building scientist persona.

First, you need to order yourself a Mr. Microphone from Ronco.  Oh, wait…Sorry about that.  That’s a different persona.

This isn’t just some joke article like you might get from a crazy grad student in the 1940s writing about a mythical turbo encabulator.  I’m going to tell you the truth here.  If you do what I say, you’ll talk like a building scientist…and with authority!  But you have to read everything I say below.  If you don’t read all the way to the end, you may well end up like Selena Gomez in the movie The Big Short.

When you watch the movie, she sounds like she really understands what synthetic CDOs are as she and Nobel Prize winning economist Dr. Richard Thaler use a game of blackjack to explain how they work.  But she’s actually just a really good actor who seems to know what she’s talking about.  And it’s even worse than it appears.  Not only does she not know anything about those financial instruments that kicked off the financial crisis of 2008, but she also didn’t know a thing about blackjack.  Thaler had to teach her that she should cheer when dealt two cards that added up to 21.

Anyway, you’re here to learn how to talk like a building scientist and I couldn’t afford to hire Selena Gomez to help.  So here are the five steps you should follow.

1.  Answer questions with, “It depends”

Whether someone asks you about buckling hardwood floors, peeling paint, or condensation on a sponge, the best first answer is, “It depends.”  Because, you know, there’s a lot of complexity in buildings.

2.  Ask what climate zone they’re talking about

You can’t just stop after giving your questioner a waffly non-answer.  It’s time to turn the tables on them, and the first thing to ask about is the climate zone.  That’s really important because ice dams are an easier problem to solve in Florida than in Colorado.

3.  HAM it up

Just as there are three kinds of people (those who can do math and those who can’t), there are three categories of flows you need to understand to talk like a building scientist:  heat, air, and moisture (HAM).  When you can look at mold on the back of drywall in a Houston home and say, “Ma’am, the origin of this problem is air leaking into the wall cavity, but it’s bringing in all that moisture from the humid, outdoor air, and when that moisture hits the drywall, which is cooled below the dew point because your air conditioner is removing heat from the indoor air, that surface gets wet.”

4.  Spice up your language with good BS words

As with any field of study, building science has a special vocabulary.  When you use certain terms, you’re signaling to others that you know the lingo.  Here’s a short list of some of the best BS words:

  • Assembly  –  Don’t just call it a wall;  it’s a wall assembly.
  • Interstitial  –  Because most structures are framed with wood or steel, there are a lot of interstitial spaces in there where some interesting building science happens.
  • Adsorb  –  Yes, that’s spelled with a d and it’s what happens when water vapor gets into porous materials.
  • Condensing surface  –  Where condensation happens
  • Hygrothermal  –  Two parts of your HAM:  Hygro- relates to moisture, thermal to heat.
  • Psychrometrics  –  Related to a different two parts of HAM, this is the study of the properties of moist air.
  • Control layers  –  The things that control the flows of HAM, heat, air, and moisture in a building enclosure.
  • Manual J  –  The heating and cooling load calculation protocol
  • Sensible load  –  The cooling load associated with temperature change
  • Latent load  –  The cooling load associated with dehumidification

That’ll get you started.  I suggest you don’t jump into the deep end right away.  Just throw one of those terms out every once in a while and look for the reactions of the people you’re talking to.  What you’re going for is just the right mix of befuddlement and admiration.  Then try using the terms in combinations.  Before long you’ll be saying things like:

Well, it depends, of course, but based on the climate zone you’re in, I’d say the hygrothermal properties of your wall assembly, especially with all the interconnected interstitial spaces, are allowing for the penetration of moisture all the way to a condensing surface, thus indicating a failure of control layers and an increase in your latent load beyond the capacity of your mechanical system.

And when you can talk like that, you should be able to double or triple your consulting fees.  Or maybe even add a zero!

5.  Know your stuff

Seriously, though, if you want to talk like a building scientist, you’ve got to know your stuff.  It’s not about waffling in your answer or throwing out fancy words.  It’s about understanding building science.  That means observing and reading and watching videos.  It’s going to conferences and asking questions.  It’s about not being afraid to show your ignorance.

Jazz saxophonist Stan Getz has great advice for how to get there:

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

Translated to our field, we could say it this way:  To talk like a building scientist, you have to talk to building scientists.  There are no shortcuts.


Related Articles

12 Resources for Learning & Teaching Building Science

Building Science Word of the Day:  Interstitial

Psychrometrics – Impenetrable Chart or Path to Understanding?


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This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Fantastic article. You hit
    Fantastic article. You hit the nail on the head in your closing sentence. I am a fan of your blog and your profession. (We are a design build GC with in house architecture and other companies including glazing. My group does whole building commissioning (enclosure and MEP-FP).

    1. Thanks, David!  Glad to have

      Thanks, David!  Glad to have you as a reader.

  2. One of my new favorite
    One of my new favorite stories is how one can “total” (i.e. damage beyond economic repair) a home merely by misusing a thermostat. An example of such misuse I had the opportunity to inspect is cooling to 64*F at night while dew points are in mid 70s.

    I guess one could say that house died of severe HAM inhalation…

    1. HAM inhalation, eh?  I

      HAM inhalation, eh?  I believe that’s how Mama Cass of The Mamas & The Papas died, too.

      Canadian building scientist Gus Handegord said it best:  “The three biggest problems in buildings are water, water, and water.”

  3. Allison, I fully appreciate
    Allison, I fully appreciate your sharing of your knowledge along with your “dry” (no moisture) sense of humor.

    Since working in the energy efficient building industry since 1978, I would like to note that I have noted that the terminology has continually changed and evolved (ie: more recently vapor barriers are now vapor retarders and building envelopes became building enclosures). New terms and principles are continually evolving and improving our growing understanding. My simple advice is to keep up with the evolving terminology and principles and to be open to new ideas as they are shared. Science is not a bunch of stagnant terms & principles but an evolving process of understanding – – especially in the relatively new field of building science.

    1. Good point, Thomas!  As

      Good point, Thomas!  As Heraclitus said, “Nothing endures but change.”

    2. Sorry, would that be Dr.
      Sorry, would that be Dr. Bailes sensible humour?

  4. Need to talk “dew point” The
    Need to talk “dew point” The atmospheric Temperature below which water droplets begin to condense and dew can form.

  5. And while you’re at it, don’t
    And while you’re at it, don’t ever say “kilowatts” when you mean “kilowatt-hours”. It’s a secret handshake, like the ability to pronounce the word Squirrel. Extra credit for capitalizing the W in kWh in accordance with the International System of Units.

  6. So if you are a true Building
    So if you are a true Building Scientist, is it OK to ask someone what the cfms, or the rpms, or the Btus, or the amps are for common system and equipment measurements? Or should you call it airflow rate, shaft speed, energy, or current?

    1. Oh, that’s in the advanced

      Oh, that’s in the advanced lessons, Roy.  ;~)

  7. Well done Allison. We all
    Well done Allison. We all enjoyed your humor and well placed information and advice. Thanks for the great article. Look forward to more.

  8. I’ve been trying to
    I’ve been trying to popularize the term hygrothermics, as in the study of heat and moisture. We use hygrothermal frequently, but few have taken the step (e.g. adding an ‘-ics’ suffix) to turn it into a ‘field of study’, which, to be honest, is the majority of our issues in building science.

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