Building Science Summer Camp 2013: The 5th Annual Uncensored Twitterview with Joe Lstiburek

Basement scene at Building Science Summer Camp 2013

The Westford Symposium on Building Science, aka Summer Camp, is one of the coolest events of the year for me, and I'm sure for a lot of other folks in the industry. If you have been fortunate enough to attend one of the annual events, which take place at the Massachusetts residence of building science guru Joe Lstiburek and his wife Betsy Pettit, you know what I mean.

Each year, a bunch of folks gather in Joe's basement and listen to him respond to questions asked either in person or via Twitter (hence "Twitterview"). The primary interviewers this year were Stephen Davis, Michael Anschel, Allison Bailes, Mike Rogers and me. Wine is poured, laughs are had, and the marvel of Joe as a provocative and succinct communicator ensues.

Here are some of the highlights from this year's Building Science Camp Twitterview (full video interview is embedded below):

Q: Define sustainability.

Joe: Why? It’s pointless, and irrelevant.

Q: Elaborate.

Joe: Sustainability is a catchphrase for those who haven’t taken the time to learn what they need to know to do their jobs.

Q: How many thousands must die in order for you to lower ventilation rates?

Joe: I would like somebody to show me where the bodies are.

Q: … That was good. That was hauntingly good.

Joe: It’s the medication.

Q: If people can’t detect pollutants, how will they know that they’re dying?

Joe: Typical bulls#!t for people who believe that other people are stupid.

Q: Are people stupid?

Joe: No.

Q: In the field, we’re not gonna get air sealing. So what is the realistic solution? Is it the new formula that says less insulation, drying potential... is it something else?

Joe: Look, your entire premise is flawed. You seem to feel that builders and contractors are idiots. They’re not. It’s very easy to build a tight residential building or commercial building repeatedly and consistently. That’s one of the errors in your argument. Number two, I don’t see any reason for these (energy) models in the first place.

Q: Are blower door tests necessary?

Joe: Never. You always ask the question: What is the purpose of the test? If the outcome of the test is not gonna change what your course of action is, then it’s unnecessary to do the test in the first place... It’s incredibly stupid, in the world of automobile manufacturing, to build cars and then test every one at the conclusion. So the point is, you use a tool like the blower door to develop the right process, and then execute the process. The blower door is useful to develop the process and to train those who will execute the process, but it’s a waste of time once the process is established.

Q: But a blower door can always find holes in the building that a person can’t find.

Joe: It depends on the skill of the person. I challenge you to challenge me to a duel.... the point is, you’ve drunk the kool-aid of the blower door industry. The blower door doesn’t tell you the type of hole, it doesn’t tell you the distribution of holes, it doesn’t tell you the location of the holes. There’s no need to do a blower door test if you know how the building is built.... The blower door’s primary purpose is to sell the services. It’s a phenomenal marketing tool, and that’s what it’s being used as. And that’s not bad, just don’t confuse marketing with physics.

Q: There’s a really old guy over here who wants to ask a question.

Q (Another speaker): Yeah Joe says I fart dust. (Laughter). If you don’t do modeling, how the hell do you know what’s going on so you can establish standards?

Joe: You don’t need to do modeling to establish standards. That’s the fault of the modeling people who believe that the real world doesn’t exist and only the modeling world exists. How can we have possibly survived before there were computers and models?

Q: If the blower door is a fabulous training tool, how do we know when to take off the training wheels?

Joe: When you can snatch the blower door from my hands, grasshopper.

Q: What are the diminishing returns in the construction process?

Joe: That depends entirely on your context.

Q: It’s a house. With windows, doors, walls and a roof.

Joe: You gotta model it. (Laughter).... House purchases are emotional purchases. And that’s the case with all the houses that I’ve ever been in. And the emotions of the owners determine those returns.

Q: Last year I think your advice for builders was “build tight, ventilate right, don’t eat your sweater.” There was massive confusion about what you meant by “don’t eat your sweater.”

Joe: In Canada, where I grew up, young children learn when it’s very cold to pull the sweater to the outside of them rather than pull it into their ribs. You should have continuous insulation rather than cavity insulation. You should be a sweater wearer, not a sweater eater.

Q: How about your biggest green building annoyance of 2013? So far...

Joe: Codifying or legislating LEED in Congress on federal buildings and building code standards.

Q: Why?

Joe: Because it interferes with the judgement of the architect, the engineer and the designer. Are we really that stupid as professionals to have a checklist substitute for our designs? As a professional engineer I am insulted that because of some nameless committee somewhere I have to check my experience and my brain at the door to follow an arbitrary, capricious, political set of recommendations. I’m offended that the architectural profession, for all of its innovation and creativity, is hoisting such standardization and lack of imagination and judgement. Of all of the people, all the organizations, that should challenge innovation and creatitivy, to endorse something as limiting, as arbitrary and capricious as LEED is beyond baffling to me... and this is why I drink. All of the best things that I’ve ever done have come from other people. But they certainly haven’t come from a checklist.

Q: If USGBC, EarthCraft, or GreenStar or any of the green building programs are seeking to create a standard or a definition of what is green building.... they’re seeking to create a baseline of what is green building, which they feel is important.

Joe: You don’t understand what it’s all about. All of that is self serving. It's about the ability to control money and the flow of money.

Q: You don’t think green building is about saving the humans?

Joe: No, it’s about saving the consultants.

Q: You don’t think they’re true believers?

Joe: I think some of them are true believers, but the process has been highjacked by the people who control the money.... If you want to spend $150 for a certification, you should have the constitutional right to be an idiot. But don’t tell me that I have to spend $150 to be a part of your club... I love Passive House. I think they’re the most innovative group I’ve seen in 25 years. But I don’t think that that standard should be a national standard... that’s crazy. But those people are doing things that are amazing.

Q: Is Passive House legitimate, or a distraction?

Joe: It’s not a distraction. It’s the place where real innovation is happening. And why? Because I think they’ve embraced all the people that everyone else has tried to pigeonhole.

Q: Is energy the most important metric?

Joe: No, I think love is. (Laughter)... You asked a stupid question, I gave a serious answer.

Q: Thermal barrier... why not say insulation? Thermal bypass... this is confusing.

Joe: I don’t prefer those terms in any event. But if we can’t properly name things, how can we possibly explain what they’re supposed to do?

Q: Handprinting... is there a use for it?

Joe: If carbon is important to your metric. Handprinting is another Harvard MBA bulls#!t thing.

Q: When will we move from selling energy efficiency to selling comfort?

Joe: Soon... the reason is that comfort sells easier than efficiency, so that’s what we’re seeing in the marketplace.

Q: When will you get a ductless minisplit in your crawlspace?

Joe: After I get new tires for the Porsche.

Q: Why aren’t we meeting in the big part of the crawlspace?

Joe: Because the wine is on this side of the crawlspace.

Q: In every other year we’ve done this, this is the 5th, the housing market has been in the tank. This year there’s optimism. What does this mean for us?

Joe: It’s not just optimism; the numbers are quite striking. I’m not sure everyone in this room is aware of the fact that many of the production builders are operating at 90 or 90% capacity. They’re actually limited by the inability to get skilled people. They’re responsible for this, because they got rid of the skilled people that knew how to put the buildings together. So we’re going to go through a phase of loss of control and bad buildings being constructed. But that becomes a big opportunity. People in this crawlspace are survivors. Big problems are going to need to be fixed, and you people are better at fixing those problems than anyone else I know.

Q: Why is building science important for people who build houses?

Joe: Because when you get it wrong, the consequences can be catastrophic. You can die. You can get sick. You can get very uncomfortable. They can come and take your house away and sell your children. What drives a good part of the industry is risk mitigation, failure... if you get it wrong, there are consequences for it. We have two things we do in this group: we try to do good things, but even more important is preventing the bad things. And in preventing the bad things, we do the good things.

Q: Fiberglass or cellulose?

Joe: I like fiberglass and I like cellulose, just like I like both of my children. (Laughter). All other things being equal, I like cellulose.

Q: How does a young person or an old person, someone who is interested in getting into the building science world, get started?

Joe: The same way a lot of us did. Find a mentor. That’s how it’s done.

Q: Joe, thank you.

Joe: You’re welcome.

The whole video is worth a watch:

Video streaming by Ustream

Be sure to check out these other interviews about building science with Joe Lstiburek from past Building Science Summer Camps.

And yet... it never gets old. All thoughts welcome in the comments and we'll be looking forward to next year!


Re defining Sustainability. A rather brusque, but brilliant, friend of mine was asked to define sustainability. His answer struck a chord because I couldn't really disagree with it. He said -- Sustainability is "Using up our natural resources and services as slowly as possible."

That may seem callous, but I'm pretty sure that each of us uses up a little bit of a non-renewable resource every day. As for services, if we deplete the planet's ability to repair itself, that is a very dangerous downward spiral.

I think it is also important to remember that as the species Homo sapiens, we don't photosynthesize and we can't eat rocks. That means that absolutely everything we need to survive has to be dug up, cut down, trapped or killed. So, it's not really a question of IF we extract, it is a question of where, when, how well and how MUCH we extract. Even air is trapped in our lungs for a few seconds to extract oxygen. Does anyone have an exception?

The exhaustion of natural resources is perhaps inevitable but the time frame can be attenuated to the point where we'll destroy ourselves or be destroyed some other way first (like asteroids, war, pestilence, etc.) and there are exceptions to the idea that everything we need must involve extraction and destruction of the natural world. For instance eggs, milk, fruit, nuts and wool do not involve killing the host organism. It also matters greatly how we design our products and systems so that resources can be easily and efficiently reused perhaps countless times. Consider metals, plastics, and water.

Peter Troast's picture

@Peter M.

Thanks for chiming in. Not a bad definition IMO. Certainly frames how badly we're managing things at the moment. 

Joe, particularly in the environment of Summer Camp and the crawl space interview, tends towards the provocative, but I do think he has a point about how many terms in our field have such broad and, therefore, so little actual meaning. I was recently with a group trying to define home performance and it was much the same.  

George Hawirko
George Hawirko
Product Designer, Director of Product Development

EPS Composite structures are so tight that they can double as fish farm tanks. Blower doors not required. The problem with Blower Door is LEED requirements. Why was Joe not "miked" when contractors were called blowhards or was it the grapes talking or the PU fumes? EPS Composites offer all of Joes Layer's thus creating the world first #1 Building Envelope and at the worlds lowest cost.

Joe admits that his experience in building was using Lincoln Logs and we are basically all building shit today. And Joe Cellulose was the wrong answer because it absorbs moisture in far to many situations Rock wool would be a better choice but EPS would be BEST. Joe needs to get with the times and let the world move ahead.

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