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Game Changers in Building Science

Thank you to everyone who stopped by our booth last week at Greenbuild 2015 in Washington, D.C.! By all accounts, this year’s event was a great success. In case you missed it, our fearless leader, Steven Winter, spoke at the GAF booth on Wednesday. As an architect who has been practicing building science for the past 50 years, he shared insights about some building science innovations that he thinks have been “game changers” and have intrigued him: they are changing the way we design, build and operate buildings.


Here are the highlights:

Advanced Lighting

We’ve had incandescent lighting forever. Then came fluorescents, sodium and others, which were used as cheaper substitutes. Then, suddenly, we had CFLs, which were more energy efficient, but still contained toxic mercury. Now we have LEDs, which have changed the world of lighting because they:

  • Drastically reduce energy consumption
  • Allow for customizable lighting quality
  • Are very long-lasting
  • Are available in flexible sizes, from tiny pinpoints to street lamps

LEDs have also changed the way we see things in the dark. They have been building-science game changers.

Plugging Leaks and Holes

Leaks and holes—fill them, seal them, just close them! They can be in walls, roofs, ducts, pipes, around windows, chimneys, bathtubs, etc. There are leaks everywhere!

Plugging them can be the best way to save energy, prevent deterioration, stop drafts and get rid of a host of building science headaches.

We used to ignore them, or not even know they exist. At SWA, we’ve done a lot of research into this matter; read more here and here.

Fixing leaks can be more effective than adding insulation or HVAC fan power.

Leaks and holes can cause building science nightmares. Plugging them can change the game.


Here’s another great concept: use natural gas in a machine that pumps out electricity in one direction, and hot water or air in another to combine heat and power production.

In many configurations, it can give us electricity more cheaply than the power company does, but also produces heat. It’s great for buildings that use both all day like hospitals, laundries and restaurants.

It’s also very useful for standby power and heat in case of emergencies and power outages. Now it’s a key resiliency strategy after events like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.

Commissioning, Retro-commissioning and Continuous Commissioning

Commissioning is a recent building science concept that has gone mainstream and is now often required by codes, lenders, managers, etc.

In the old days, ships used to be commissioned; after they were built, they were taken out to sea and put through their paces to make sure everything was operating like it was designed. It’s the same concept with buildings—you make sure everything is working in accordance with the design and specifications: envelope, equipment, safety devices, doorbells, windows, everything. If it doesn’t, you fix it.

In summary, you commission new buildings to ensure everything works as intended, retro-commission existing buildings to bring them back up to snuff, and continuously commission to ensure their operation on an ongoing basis. This is the best building science investment that can be made.

Zero-Energy Buildings

…produce as much energy as they consume via conservation and solar PVs, solar thermal, etc. Typically, they achieve this balance because they have low energy usage and generate some production. But we can go above and beyond this principle and start thinking about zero-water buildings—we can harvest greywater and use it in processes that don’t require potable water, such as for toilet flushing, or landscape irrigation.

Waterless Urinals

Flushing things down the john has been with us for centuries…then suddenly, the building scientists discovered a configuration with no water consumption that was attractive and odorless. Building science changed the way some of us take a pee!

Measurement & Verification, or ‘M&V’

People lie about their products and systems. They promise performance. They predict outcomes. They do computer models to project energy savings. They design details intended to prevent leakage, or save some money, or make something longer lasting,  or do other wonderful things…but the proof is in the pudding. As they say in Missouri: “Show me! Prove it!!”

M&V does just that, and it has become a standard, often a requirement, and an engineering skillset. You measure, you verify and then game over; it’s become one of the best game changers in building science.

Other Items Worth Mentioning

  • Solar Water Heaters: let the sun give us free hot water!
  • Smart Windows: features like multiple glass layers, special coatings, and integrated shading can control heat, cold, glare, etc.
  • Connected Homes: the Nest and other smart thermostats can integrate and control home energy systems.
  • Reconstituted Wood Fibers: 2x4s have given way to I-joists, plywood and particleboard for many applications.

Looking for more coverage? Click here to watch Steven’s complete GAF Spotlight Series segment, and make sure to view the other four speakers from GAF’s Greenbuild 2015 showcase!

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