Human Psychology and the Built Environment with Kristof Irwin

When all is said and done, buildings are intended for people. So, why do some buildings lack the components critical to human health and happiness? This podcast explores the human-centered approach to designing buildings, focusing on the value preference systems that guide our everyday decisions.

To help us better understand this often neglected topic, we invited a special guest from the Building Science Podcast, Kristof Irwin. From his experience as an engineer, research scientist, and physicist, Kristof describes the human psychology behind decision making and the physiological impacts associated with the built environment.

Episode Guest: Kristof Irwin, PE, M. Eng.

Kristof head shot Kristof Irwin, P.E., M Eng., is the visionary principal of Positive Energy. Kristof’s background includes 12 years of experience as a custom builder (including deep energy retrofits and zero-net energy projects) and 11 years as a building science consultant. He worked for 14 years as an engineer, research scientist, and physicist for government and university research labs. He is active in the local and national high-performance building community including his role as the Chair of AIA Austin’s Building Enclosure Committee, several ASHRAE committees – ASHRAE TC-2.1 (Physiology & Human Environment), ASHRAE SSPC-55 (Thermal comfort), ASHRAE SSPC-62.2 (Ventilation/IAQ), and the RESNET ANSI Standards Development Committee (SDC).

Be sure to check out Kristof and The Building Science Podcast!

Episode Information & Resources:

The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function (COGfx Study)

Positive Energy Website

The Building Science Podcast

Right Use of Power Book

Upcoming Events and Conferences

2019 NEEP Summit: Electrification Northeast Symposium | August 27-29

Join co-hosts NEEP and NESCAUM at EPRI’s 2019 U.S. Symposium Series for a deep dive into regional issues and opportunities around electrification. “Pathways to Decarbonization in the Northeast” will be held August 27–29 at the Marriott Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn, New York. The event will convene leaders from government, industry, community, and advocacy to address opportunities, trends, and challenges of minimizing the carbon footprint of homes, buildings, and transportation in the Northeast U.S.

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About Buildings and Beyond

Buildings and Beyond is a production of Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building, and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment. For more information, visit


Robb Aldrich | Kelly Westby

Production Team

Heather Breslin | Alex Mirabile | Dylan Martello


Song: Slotcar | Artist: Podington Bear



Episode Transcript

Kelly:                                  00:06                   Welcome to buildings and beyond.

Robb:                                00:09                   the podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment.

Kelly:                                  00:13                   by focusing on efficiency, accessibility and health.

Robb:                                00:18                   I’m Robb Aldrich.

Kelly:                                  00:19                   and I’m Kelly Westby. Kristoff is the principle of positive energy in Austin. Their mission is to transform the way conditioned space is delivered to society. They offer residential outcome focused design engineering services for robust mechanical systems as well as off-grid power and water systems. Kristoff was also the chair of AIA Austin’s building enclosure committee. He has been involved in several ASHRAE committees including physiology and human environment, thermal comfort, ventilation and IAQ as well as RESNET standards development committee. I first learned about Kristoff through the building science podcast which he hosts. We wanted to bring him on our show because of his focus on human centered design. We discussed two main topics in the episode, human psychology related to decision making and the impact of damp indoor environments on human physiology. If you are considering skipping this, because I’m” an engineer and I’m not interested in psychology, I know everything I need to know about mold,” Stop right there. This episode is particularly for you. But first a quick aside, my cohost Rob wants you all to join him at the 2019 us symposium series for a deep dive into issues and opportunities around electrification in the Northeast. The symposium is brought to you by the Northeast energy efficiency partnerships, the Northeast States for coordinated air use management and the electric power research Institute. Pathways to de-carbonization in the Northeast will be held August 27th to 29th at the Marriott Brooklyn bridge in Brooklyn, New York. The event will convene leaders from government, industry, community and advocacy to address opportunities, trends, and challenges of minimizing the carbon footprint for homes, buildings, and transportation in the Northeast. U S check out the link in our show notes for more details. Now let’s get back to hot and humid buildings and humans in Austin, Texas.

Kelly:                                  02:15                   So welcome Kristoff to the buildings and beyond podcast.

Kristoff:                             02:19                   Thank you.

Kelly:                                  02:19                   And thanks for agreeing to meet me here in this WeWork in beautiful Barton Springs in Austin.

Kristoff:                             02:26                   My pleasure.

Kelly:                                  02:27                   And today we wanted to talk a little bit, I’ll give a little, give a little background about you in the intro, but we’re going to kind of dive into the, I think what people call the softer sides of engineering and building science, which is the psychology and physiology kind of parts of humans. I know you talk a lot about this. So maybe just give us a little background. How did you start to become interested in human physiology and how it relates to building science and where do you see the industry needs to maybe make a pivot around, around that?

Kristoff:                             03:06                   Great. So I’m a problem solver as we all are. I think in the back, at least the back of our minds. And I recognize that we’re putting a lot of energy and resources into buildings. And coming out of a background at several national labs, I was a research scientist where we put a lot of inputs in to get the output that we want, right? So I started to think about, well, what’s the output of a home or an apartment? And it’s actually you and it’s actually me. It’s a healthy, productive member of society. That’s what these inputs we put in- electricity and freshwater and data today and gas and the other inputs and then the outputs are the black water and gray water, things like that. But really the fundamental output is you, the content of your mind and the key in the fact that you’re in a healthy body. And so that’s how I got into it.

Kelly:                                  04:06                   Yeah. Reframing basically, we’re not building buildings for the sake of the building, but for housing our individuals. That’s really interesting. I was just at a house warming the other day, which was the opening of a multifamily building. And someone said something along the lines of, if we’re not focusing on the humans that are interacting with the building and living in the building, then what are we doing?

Kristoff:                             04:35                   Yeah. It’s all sort of ego trips otherwise.

Kelly:                                  04:38                   Yeah. Right. Can I make the biggest or the smartest or whatever building. Yeah.

Kristoff:                             04:44                   Really, did you build the building to take pictures of it and get it on house? Is that really what it was?

Kelly:                                  04:51                   Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And so talk to me a little bit about, we sort of chatted a little bit in the beginning, but about the invisible and how we as a society, but also in our industry aren’t paying attention to the invisible and what we, what we can’t see can hurt us I guess is sort of your messaging although I’m paraphrased a little bit there, but what do you see as some of the key things like top key things that you wish people knew about or thought about that are invisible?

Kristoff:                             05:27                   So three come to mind and two are maybe what most people think of when you talk about invisible. And the third is maybe a little more subtle. the first two would be invisible in the sense that what we call vision are these eyeball things that we have on our head. And that picks up a narrow range of frequencies and a certain range of sizes, right? So if it’s out of that size and frequency range, we call it invisible. So things like thermal bridges are actually invisible. But we’ve learned as an industry through something I jokingly call the head Gemini of enclosure realism. And I, I know you’re sort of on the enclosure side, but we over the last, let’s say 10 years in our industry have really upped our game and understanding enclosures. Meanwhile, indoor air quality is invisible. Thermal comfort is invisible, right? And then, so those were the two, by the way, two of the three. I wasn’t going to talk about thermal bridging, but first of all, we talk about what our eyes can pick up and not just that, but it’s, it’s what our eyes pick up and that data gets fed into a subjective neural network that then responds with opinions about what our eyes picked up. And that is really where the focus of our industry is. So I’m already doing a little sprawl, so I’m gonna just make it clear. The three things I think are invisible are human psychology and that is the absolutely primary input in the building world that is not being paid attention to. And that is the dominant impact. But then the other two are, we are living in the chemical age, we are immersed in chemicals all day long. I mean this little room we’re in is easily a hundred pounds of air, which is compressible fluid. But we are like fish in a little fishbowl and you know, depending on what I put on me this morning and what’s coming off of the kombucha, I have here, and the vinyl table, and the flame retardant in the cushion in the chair. Right. So we are soaked in, immersed in indoor chemicals all day. And by the way, you could wear a scuba tank with me right now and they can go transdermal up to take is real. You can get these chemicals in your blood without breathing.

Kelly:                                  07:32                   Right. Okay. Transdermal meaning through the skin.

Kristoff:                             07:35                   Yeah. Right. Like a nicotine patch. And then we could talk about, there’s data behind that. I mean it’s like there’s a research study behind that. And then, and then the indoor microbiome, right? The microbiota, the biotoxins, there’s all kinds of ways to refer to this, but the myriad living beings that affect us. So those would be the three psychology, chemical pollutants and microbiomes.

Kelly:                                  08:00                   Okay. I like it. And to dive in a little bit more on human psychology, I think we maybe have been talking more about it now and I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the WELL standard, of course you are, or how much uptake it’s had in, in Austin. I know, you know, it’s still sort of small and growing, but talking more about how we feel in a space a little bit more than what we maybe have done before. And that’s been really interesting to me. And I was saying I dabble in the envelope, but my heart is in the mechanical side. Although I liked the whole building altogether. And I always thought, you know, the aesthetics piece is not that important and we need to like get a good enclosure and we need ventilate right. And maybe part of my transition is buying my own house and worrying about what it looks like. But I think also just realizing how people feel in a space is so relevant to how they’re going to experience the space and how that person is going to be productive later on. So it’s interesting that you mentioned psychology. I’m wondering what your thinking when you say human psychology, what aspects are you thinking about?

Kristoff:                             09:28                   Well It’s a great question. Fundamentally we have sensors on our bodies and we take in data and then that leads to actions and decisions. And so in between is what I call human psychology. And I know there’s probably a formal crunchy definition, but what I guess what I’m referring to is the somewhat invisible even to ourselves, value preference systems that we use to guide our decisions. And one of them that is really strikingly powerful in our industry are the opinions and the preferences and the kind of background history of owners and developers. I’m reading an awesome book right now called the right use of power. I recommended for anyone, it’s not building science related at all, it’s psychology, but basically where is the power? Like you’re at a project team meeting someone in that project team, typically if the architect or the owner or the developer are there, that’s where the power is, right? But typically they’re not often at the meetings, but the owner interests are either held by an owner’s rep or the architect purports to say, I am speaking on these decisions. So that’s where the power is. And often that power is ill informed. It is, it is biased by eyeballs, by economics and by kinda like egos. Like this is what I do. And that’s a really important one. Let, let’s say I’m a developer and I have been a small developer. I’ve built many homes in Austin. I had the power. And I recognize in hindsight now that I didn’t have the body of knowledge to make good decisions. I assumed everything was fine such that it was reasonable to focus on aesthetics. Right? So at the same time, I lacked this really important character trait that is detrimental to developers in some way. And that’s called humility. And what I mean by that is if I’m a developer, I’ve got a lot of money on the line. This is a risky situation. Similarly, if I’m a builder, if I’m a general contractor, I need to be a motive force and make this happen. And neither one of those is like, gee, I wonder if I should rethink my approach. Gee, is there anything I don’t know, are there unknowns. So these personality types and these character traits that are needed to make these big projects come to fruition are actually not including humility and not including the soft side of, should I rethink things or is there something new?

Kelly:                                  12:09                   That’s actually incredibly interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about this from the commissioning side. So I do a lot of commissioning and you are supposed to influence the entire job, but you have no authority whatsoever. You don’t hold any of the contracts. Right. And I lead a team. I think there’s some translation between how I lead or want to lead in within the office internally and how I want to lead kind of externally and with a project team. And so there’s this I think mentality and I don’t know if it’s New York city centric to be honest, but we like to get in a room and just yell. That’s the tactic of command and control if you are also the commander. And really what that produces is a bunch of people running around and agreeing with you in the meeting and then knowing that they’re never going to meet those deadlines or saying yes, yes, yes. And then cutting corners somewhere else so that they can, you know, meet the deadline, meet the fee, whatever. And I see this happen again and again, and I think that just what you said, this shift in, can we rethink the way that we’ve structured this so that we can take into consideration the amazing experience that we have at this table that doesn’t necessarily reside all within that one person who happens to be the loudest or happens to have the power hold the cash.

Kristoff:                             13:45                   Yeah. Yeah. There’s a beautiful quote. I took some philosophy classes in college and there’s quote that stuck with me is what does he know of London? He who only London knows and excuse the patriarchal reference with the he there. But like what do we really know about our industry? If all we know is our industry locally, right? Like in central Texas, people consider in residential context, certainly duct board and flex air distribution systems is completely normal. It’s like, you know, fast food restaurants are in fact restaurants and that’s all we need to know about. And so there’s this implicit distortion that the hardworking, dedicated human beings that are installing these systems and recommending systems, they don’t even recognize that if, if I go to Seattle or New York or even Washington D C, that metal distribution systems are quite common and that’s normal there.

Kelly:                                  14:44                   It is interesting and I think a lot of people come into the context of something new and assume that their prior experience will apply until like completely proven otherwise they need to be proven otherwise rather than taking kind of an open approach. And I think you’ve spoken to this on, I’ve heard you speak about you know, the, I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Everyone’s gotten that comment before, independent of the industry. I think everybody wants to say, you know, I’ve been doing this for X years, so just listen to me, whatever. But you talk a little bit about, well, that’s okay and you probably have some really important ideas and reasons behind why you’re doing what you’re doing. But the buildings are changing, codes are changing, things are, so if you continue to build the way that you’ve been building with these new changes, we’re going to run into problems. so I think that that perspective is really important.

Kristoff:                             15:38                   Absolutely. Yeah. And I need to remind myself often to stay connected to the individual I’m talking to and saying, look, this individual cares about themselves, their work, their family, this project. That’s why these opinions are coming out and how do I work with that? How do I redirect that in a way like, look, I can tell you really care about what you do. Do you know that buildings use less energy now that the CFM per square foot is down by about a factor of two from what it was a few years ago?

Kelly:                                  16:09                   Yeah. And I think that the, that’s an interesting thing that I’ve kind of learned on my career journey in the very beginning I think it’s always, why aren’t they paying attention to this thing? Right? Why can’t they just install the air barrier properly? Why can’t they just install a balancing valve? Why can’t they do whatever it is? Why can’t they just, whatever. And that’s from my seat of these are the five things that I’m paying attention to. Why can’t they pay attention to these five things? Well, they’re also paying attention to their own five, 10 millions of things. And so realizing that was an important shift in my ability to work with other people and on teams.

Kristoff:                             16:49                   Yeah, it’s so easy to go into the blame and it’s so easy to go into, you know, basically like thinking of other people as the issue and yeah, you’re exactly right. It’s a team, but people have different reward kind of reward systems in place for them. Right. The architect would be delivering a design on time and maybe one that hits the budget or the general contractor. Definitely it’s about scheduling budget and yeah. A lot of the things that are invisible suffer because of that. And I think it’s poised to shift with, you know, this is the information age and we’ve talked about the hierarchy, there’s information and then knowledge and then wisdom. So unfortunately we’re only in the information age.

Kelly:                                  17:34                   We have a lot of data.

Kristoff:                             17:35                   Would like it to be the wisdom age or something. But in the information age, what’s going to happen in indoor spaces relatively quickly? It’s ongoing. We know this is the overlap of sensors that are going to make the invisible visible for us. I, like you, know a lot of numbers. I know a lot of data, I can measure and I just assumed it kinda like cigarettes. You’d say, look, most people that smoke cigarettes are unhealthy because of it and they can get really bad illnesses. Oh I’ll stop smoking cigarettes. No, it’s data. I’m a data-driven person and I thought if I just communicated the right data in the right way, then the decisions would change. Then people would see the light, you know, like Oh but instead I started studying like well what does change behavior?

Kristoff:                             18:25                   Cause that’s ultimately what we want. We Don’t need more credentials. We need behavior to change actions, stories change behavior. And now when you talk about stories, you, you end up in this slippery kind of squishy reality where Fake news is sort of in the news now, right? So the stories are very important cause they change behavior. But unless the stories are anchored to fact they are not helping the situation. And so for me as a building science consultant, as an engineer, I can tell you the story that is based in reality of a a man who had asthma for 60 some years and did a home performance retrofit and now hasn’t used an inhaler in seven years. Right? That’s a huge quality of life benefit. And it happens to be real and, but I can also tell others so I can just make up stuff like that. So it’s a weird thing to say that stories changed behavior, therefor we should focus on stories

Kelly:                                  19:24                   Right? I actually think that’s essential because having that engineering problem solving mindset, I think we think about data and now data itself, I think, I mean we looked at energy data for a building recently, then we got a little bit of occupancy data from that, we tried to adjust, but then we got more occupancy data and it didn’t coordinate with the older data. So sometimes more data just is more confusion, which is its own own topic I think. But I think that there are instances where we can look at a bunch of data and actually have less clarity or we look at it with our own lens and we still have a subjective view even though we say it’s data backed. And so I think we have to be really, really important in our industry, especially, because it’s this combination between hard and soft sciences and how do we address both sides of that? How do we look at the data and interpret it in a way that’s not with our own subjective bias? And then be able to translate that in a way where you can tie into people’s emotions. Cause that’s what you’re saying, is like emotions is where we make we make change. You just warned me about my coffee drinking habits just before we started talking here and and I’m going to continue drinking coffee because I know about that and I’ve weighed the benefits myself, but maybe one day I’ll come over to the other side. But I think, you know, you’re right. If there was something that maybe was more personal to me, if I had a parent that had issues related to some sort of, you know, consumption of, I don’t smoke cigarettes, but maybe that would be, you know, that would be the kind of trigger of something like that. Even though, you know, data wise you’re going to be impacted by this, it’s until you kind of feel it personally.

Kristoff:                             21:16                   That’s exactly right. So you just brought up something for me. I’m presenting tomorrow at a conference in Houston and one of the things I’m talking about are the five principles of healthy homes, which are: start with a good enclosure, minimize indoor emissions, keep it dry, ventilate, and filter. And we can talk about that, but what I wanted to say is one of the things that gives me solace and gives me hope, as a mechanical designer is, look, keeping it dry, ventilating properly and capturing particulate pollutants, those are really important actions that I don’t need to change anything else that’s going on in this situation and I can make a difference. And where this came to me from was basically this electronic commissioning, this constantly evaluating sensors and shifting things. So I am having success in the industry selling better solutions for indoor air quality based on technologies that have been available for a long time.

Kristoff:                             22:09                   And that’s a big thing and that’s a good thing. You are having success with sensors and evaluating data and occupancy data and making real time adjustments to save energy. Meanwhile those are like the tip of the iceberg things. Over here we have, why are all these pollutants in the building and in the building materials and why do I need to focus on dry ventilate and filter, you know, can’t we address the root causes? And then even beyond that, when it comes to saving energy through sensors and commissioning, what about the pallet of colors of the building materials that we use today? Why are downtowns, canyons of concrete, glass and steel, the highest embodied energy material? You know, it’s just like the big issues are so big that we as an industry kind of go uhh lets talk about this

Kelly:                                  22:55                   That’s true. Although the big wood buildings is a big topic, so we’ll have to have a separate whole episode about that. But definitely I think people are talking more about embodied carbon in building materials. But I think we still just don’t know what to do about it. Especially when everybody’s trying to build the tallest this or the biggest that. Were sort of stretching the limits of some materials in some ways. And, you know, we certainly can’t build some of the buildings that we build in New York City out of wood for example.

Kristoff:                             23:34                   Used in the right way at the right time.

Kelly:                                  23:38                   I was just gonna say, pivoting us back as I want to be conscious of your your timeline here. I know you’re renovating your own office, so we’ll have to hear back the stories of lessons learned after that. But pivoting us back to the interior space and that some of the things that we can you know, address you’ve mentioned you mentioned to me that, you know, we’re so focused on mold because it’s one of the issues with humidity that we can see that comes up.

Kristoff:                             24:07                   Thats right, its visable, and therefore important.

Kelly:                                  24:08                   Right. And so talk to us a little bit more. We’re in Austin right now. It’s hot and humid. It’s getting hotter by the hour here. What are some of the issues that you run into with humidity in buildings that you think people aren’t paying attention or enough attention to yet?

Kristoff:                             24:23                   Yeah, this gets back to where we were in the beginning of the episode. In some ways where we use, we based most of our decisions in life on the premise that as things are, the way I see them and see is also in that sentence is like interpret them with my mind and my thoughts. Well that’s fundamentally incorrect, right? So we cannot see or perceive the flickering of a fluorescent light, but we know it gives us eye fatigue and headaches over time. So that shows the difference between what I consider the, like the limbic system, the body’s emoting system and sensing system, and the neocortex, which is the one that we relate to. So, hello, I’m Kristoff. You’re, you’re Kelly. You know, that’s our neocortex. What’s your favorite color? And so one of the books I was reading not too many years ago talks about our bodies take in between 50,000 and 250,000 more data than it sends to our neocortex. SoOur neocortex is completely woefully uninformed when it comes to damp buildings, mold is visible. People talk about mold a lot. It’s almost as if, if you want to recognize a fairly fast style understanding of indoor environments, you will hear someone talk about mold and mold, mold, mold spores, spore counts, and they won’t talk to you about bacterial endotoxins and, and Dinah flagellates Spiro Keats and you know, all these other things. I mean, there’s just this rich microbiology that we are immersed in and it’s interacting with itself. All of these like mold and mid spores and the spores break into small fragments and bacteria can live on the fragments. The fragments can affect us, the bacteria on the fragments can then affect other bacterial populations in the room.

Kristoff:                             26:16                   So it’s this incredibly complex, multi-variate, multilayered, rich, dynamic interaction that we say, Oh, it’s mold. Right? It would be nice if it were just mold. It would be much easier to deal with. And so where it needs to go quickly is we just need to understand that keeping buildings dry is very important and that when you allow moisture to get into a space, water does two things fundamentally. It takes things apart. That’s kind of why we wash our hands with it. That’s why we wash things with it. And it causes life to thrive. Right. Most of us are based on acquiesce chemistry. There’s some things living near events in the ocean that are living on different chemistry.

Kelly:                                  27:00                   Yeah. So that’s interesting. So would you say that maybe most people are thinking, well, whatever moisture content is in my home, unless there’s mold, it’s not a problem. And you’re saying, no, no, no, no, no,

Kristoff:                             27:16                   That’s great. I am saying, no, no, no, no. You will not see it . Often by the time it gets to be mold, there have been background impacts for could be decades or something like that. Could be years. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Kelly:                                  27:31                   And so convince me and the other folks listening here, what are the things that I should be worried about when, when I let my home become damp? Even if there’s no mold in there?

Kristoff:                             27:43                   Well, what impacts is that having the mic or the materials that are becoming damp, are they made out of organic matter so that that can be become food for a bacteria or a fungi. Or other things, right? It can become larger things like parasites and mites. They can live on that. We can start to see those that can be smaller things like viruses. So it’s really hard to, to know. But what we know as an, as a society based on peer reviewed medical research is that the indoor environment, the quality of that, and let’s just right now we’re just talking about let’s say dampness. So damp indoor environments are what correlate with negative health outcomes. It is not fungal communities correlate with health outcomes. So it’s damped indoor environments. It’s also called water damaged buildings, is another way to describe it. And these outcomes, these negative health outcomes, they aren’t just, Oh, I have asthma. Oh, I have breathing difficulties, Oh, I have some sort of symptom that I can logically causally trace back to an indoor air exposure that is now you know like, Oh, I had water and I have mold. Now I have asthma. No, it can be heart disease. It can be strokes. It can be obesity, so if you have someone that’s gaining weight and it’s not responding to diet and exercise, it can be just myriad different things. Problems sleeping, not sleeping deeply, having attention deficit. I mean all of these things are basically triggered by exposure to indoor environments. And I don’t mean just mold spores. I mean particles trumps of spores, molecules and spores, the Dyna flagellate they can break into parts. We breed those things in. And what happens is our body has an immune system. You have an innate and an acquired immune system. I’m realizing this is sprawling out. It’s really, they really the fundamental challenges, this such a big body of knowledge and information and I’m trying to find a path to get us through in a concise manner and it’s like, Whoa, I’m gonna block off this whole room full of knowledge. Right?

Kelly:                                  29:51                   Yeah. We’ll have to have a series of episodes on this. And we had a health episode earlier, and just talking about, you know, we, as building science professionals or as people who work on buildings that humans are going to live in, we all need to be at least aware that this is an item that we need to be looking into. We need to be paying attention to.

Kristoff:                             30:16                   Yeah. And I’m going to wrap up where I was and I agree with you completely. It is definitely an item you need to be paying attention to and look into. And it’s like what we talked about, you know, canyons of glass, steel and concrete, but that’s much harder to deal with. Let’s focus on these things are easier to deal with. This problem is so complex that you could almost say it’s too complex for me to make decisions based on it. Yet we do other things in our life like buckling a seat belt, like brushing our teeth that are based more on a precautionary principle. So why is it that when it comes to invisible things, we’re not willing to do it. And the invisible thing that I really wanted to finish that last chain of thought, which is your own immune system once triggered can become the disease itself. And what I mean by that is you can be exposed to things in an indoor environment. We can clear the indoor environment and your body can for decades still be tweaked, still be going like and that is something that is profoundly vast in our society that we’re not paying attention to.

Kelly:                                  31:19                   Yeah. Wow. You touched a nerve there for me because we have auto immune related issues in my family and that goes back. So that’s it’s interesting, in terms of we talked about how coffee has the inflammatory properties and things that we’re putting into our body and things that are going to do longterm damage.

Kristoff:                             31:43                   You’re exactly right and saying there’s a story there that you can feel your emotions getting triggered. Autoimmune disorders, inflammatory responses are absolutely triggered by indoor environmental exposures all the time.

Kelly:                                  31:55                   So now that our audience is completely overwhelmed and worried about and maybe are going to pinch pitch tents now in the wilderness or something, what do you think is, is one thing that all of us can take to our next project to try to improve this issue of, of damp buildings specifically

Kristoff:                             32:21                   The enclosure is very important for dampness right? Air leakage from outside of the human climate is a big problem and getting your control layers right. Just around the corner here, there’s a residential building that was just built maybe a year ago. They’re peeling off all this stucco almost because solar driven radiation, solar driven moisture diffusion, they have control layers that are all vapor open. They put zip on and then tie back on and then the pelt. And the only reason I can think of that they’re pulling all the stucco off a year into this beautiful architect design custom home is moisture issues. And so here was a team that tried to do it right but it wasn’t based on enough science. So that keeping it dry is thinking about the enclosure and it’s thinking about what is the system that dries it? Is it the cooling and heating system? Probably not. It’s probably a drying system in our climate. Soon as you do what you need to do to make basically a fairly air tight enclosure that’s resistant to moisture, well now ventilation and filtration become very important, as do your decisions and actions as an owner about what cream did I put on my skin, what, what do I do to freshen my air? I’m using air quotes there. Yeah its complex.

Kelly:                                  33:36                   Okay. So it’s complex, but I think in terms of taking away thinking, I mean it goes back to what we, as building science people actually have been saying for years and years, which is build tight ventilate right. So that’s actually what we’re, what we’re getting back to in it. And to your point about getting the control layers right, they did what they were supposed to do. They insulated, they put an air barrier in but it’s actually not just the putting the air barrier in. I was at a commissioning conference and we talked a lot about building enclosure commissioning. The actual surface of the material that is your air barrier is not the problem. It’s wherever your interfaces are. So can we pay a little bit more attention to the details? You say the tyranny of enclosures, right? We’ve been so focused on enclosures but I think we’ve been focused on; you need an air barrier, you need an air barrier material. Here are some air barrier materials. I think we still are struggling as an industry in terms of the enclosure details.

Kristoff:                             34:39                   Yeah. And we, and we struggle as a society with with solutions that are not based on purchases. Right. It’s great to buy a Prius. It’s great to buy a Tesla. It’s not as easy to buy powerwall batteries, but if people want to, or the electronic commissioning that’s based on controls that are available, the filter ventilate and dry, right. Those are product based solutions. VRF systems. What’s hard is exactly what you say. It’s not just interfaces between materials, it’s interfaces between trades. And the architecture makes a difference. Can you not have the building constantly moving in and out in the vertical plane? Yeah, so it’s behavior changes, and wrapping this up, is that we spend around 80 years- that’s the average life expectancy right now, inside. I’m sorry, alive, spend 80 years alive, 70 of that inside of buildings. So it’s, it’s really poignant. I would like to see groups like delos with the WELL standard, I would like to have them to say, you know what, we’re going to start with wherever people’s beds are. Cause that’s where most of the time is. They currently don’t do residential. They certainly don’t do single family residential. I hope that’s their aspiration. But we tend to start our large new building certifications in commercial buildings because there’s more fee I guess there. There’s more square footage. I don’t know exactly why I’m guessing. Tell me why

Kelly:                                  36:10                   I see. I would say I think the reason is we had the historically spent a lot of time focusing on efficiency in larger like office buildings. But actually energy is like an order of magnitude or two less per square foot that you’re paying per square foot, then the humans you’re paying to employ. And so an increase in 10% inefficiency is just so insignificant compared to a 10 increase in productivity. And there’s a cog effects study that we referenced, and it’s hard a little bit to measure kind of human interaction cognition around the home. But when you’re thinking about it in an office perspective, it’s significantly easier, and you can kind of see how you can increase productivity of employees by increasing ventilation rates or by using you know, better materials or whatever it is. And so I think that is probably why the focus is there, but I think you’re absolutely right in terms of bringing it back to the home and you talk a little bit about, you know, we spend a lot of our time in our homes and so we, you know, we like to talk about big buildings and the bigger the better and whatever, but in terms of bigger time spend, you’re in your home most of the time.

Kristoff:                             37:41                   Yeah. Let’s see. I’m gonna pause for a minute. Get my thoughts. Cause you said something. Well, I’m just gonna go with this. So the positive energy name when we started it, relates to what you just said, which is that it was obviously about net positive energy buildings. It was also about yes, we can do this. Yes we can as an industry. And it was also about, and this is you maybe living in Austin, which is kind of woo woo, which is the, when you make a home healthy and the parents and children’s cognition is better and they slept more deeply, their lives are better, right? That’s the positive energy. And one of the things there is that people love, like we just talked, we just talked about energy code. We talked about energy code in this podcast and you just talked about energy efficient and there’s this adjective operational versus embodied that is wonderful that it’s starting to get called out. Like, so the international energy conservation code is actually the international operational energy conservation code. We’re not interested in conserving invited energy yet. We’re starting to be, but we’re mainly answered in operational energy.

Kelly:                                  38:50                   Right. That’s an excellent point. And so to my point, and we’ll wrap up here, that was an excellent conversation. We took a little bit of a windy path, but what I like to ask is when we have you back on the podcast in five years what do you think we’ll be talking about then?

Kristoff:                             39:12                   I so hope we’re talking about embodied energy and putting this time element back in, cradle to cradle. Like, so that piece of steel, where did it come from and where is it going? It’s not just all about my building, it’s about resources. So that’s one thing I hope and I can see a shift happening. I mean we are talking about to make a crazy metaphor like the organic food section of the building industry and living here in Austin, Whole foods started here, so it was always easy, but I would go to other cities like Corpus Christi 10 years ago and good luck finding organic produce. And now there’s big sections. So large swaths of the country are interested in organic produce. And so I think large swaths in the industry are gonna be interested in buildings that are healthy.

Kelly:                                  40:01                   Great. That’s an excellent note to end on.

Heather:                           40:05                   Thank you for listening to buildings and beyond. For more information about the topics discussed today, visit and check out the episode show notes, buildings and beyond is brought to you by Steven winter associates. We provide energy, green building and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment our professionals have led the way since 1972 and the development of best practices to achieve high performance buildings. I’ve production team for today’s episode includes Dylan Martello, Alex Mirabile, and myself. Heather Breslin, thank you for listening and we’ll see you next week.