Learning Applied Building Science is Still Hard to Do

As part of Home Energy’s 30th birthday celebration, we are pleased to reprint a 1994 article by Michael Uniacke describing the way he taught building science in a community college (see the article here). Mastering the intricacies of the building science related to energy performance is no easier today than it was 20 years ago, but sadly, neither is finding a good place to learn it.

Uniacke’s 1994 article is still right on with respect to the curriculum. His approach easily accommodates new technologies, materials, and methods. I particularly like the way he emphasizes hands-on exposure to both things (such as construction details) and needs (such as occupant hypersensitivity). Uniacke proposes placing building science courses in community colleges. This proposal still makes sense, because community colleges can provide a unique perspective on local building designs, climate features, codes, and utility programs. Of course, the private sector, federal and local governments, and utilities have played a vital role in training the home performance workforce and I imagine that they will continue to do so.

The building science of energy efficiency has naturally evolved over 20 years. One big change: the routine inclusion of solar-energy technologies (usually PV). This means learning new theory and new principles and gaining new forms of practical experience. This in turn helps building performance experts teach the integration of efficiency and solar—and to meet the demanding goal of achieving net zero energy homes (and especially zero energy).

Half of the home performance job is doing it right, but the other three-quarters is maintaining a viable business that will be around to do the next job. Uniacke didn’t cover that aspect of building science—though many articles in Home Energy have done so. The business aspects of building science are also inherently local, because they are influenced by policies and regulations established by communities, utilities, and states. The community colleges could play a role here, too, by offering classes about starting and growing a successful home performance business.

People complain about the lack of programs that train contractors to apply building science to improve efficiency, comfort, and materials. But the other side of the coin is the lack of customers willing to spend extra money for higher-quality services. It seems as though customers as well as contractors need to be better educated.

The situation could be worse: Our problems are much less daunting than those faced by China. Chinese officials now realize that a massive building performance upgrade will be necessary in order to reduce coal consumption and restore the environment to at least survivable levels. That translates into hundreds of millions of retrofits on an improbably short time scale. There’s no community college system to train this workforce in the necessary building science—but I imagine there soon will be.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing electrifying about discussing building science education—in the United States, in China, or anywhere else. It wasn’t sexy 20 years ago and it’s not sexy now. On the other hand, how often have you found yourself mentoring newcomers while thinking that they should have learned more in a real class—rather than learning just enough to solve the problem at hand?


- Alan Meier

This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Home Energy magazine. 

Views: 487


You need to be a member of Home Energy Pros to add comments!

Join Home Energy Pros

Comment by Don Fitchett on August 11, 2014 at 1:18pm

I run one of those "Technology Training Companies", and yet I still have to agree David Eakin 's comments. We have had certain training products, and topics launched over the last 20 years and even as recent as last year, that our expertise tell us, the customer absolutely needs. Yet for some products/topics the customer demand did not come to fruition as we expected. For various reasons, the customer's perception is not there, so the demand is not there. It may be in one case not wanting to take investment risk in current economy, in another case not knowing what they need to know as they are not the expert, we are. The perception relative to demand equation holds true if the customer is an individual, a small business, a corporation, a country or society in general. Case in point, look how long colleges have stayed with the archaic learning approach from Greek times, and just now is slowly starting to adapt to current times/technology. The perception was for all those centuries, the college approach is accredited (accepted) by governments, therefore no need to change, no alternate enters the market to dominate. Now, finally with a global market, change accelerating, perceptions are changing too. 

Comment by tedkidd on August 11, 2014 at 8:53am


(icon for wideeyes?)

Nicely written David!  Supply side economics is bunk.  

Consumers want certainty, not risk.  Market transformation for Home Performance will occur, and only occur, when it has the certainty that solar does. 

Since desired outcomes are not just energy savings, even guaranteeing energy savings isn't likely to be enough risk reduction to move the needle.  

Comment by David Eakin on August 11, 2014 at 8:44am


The perceived lack of building science training is a "red herring" promoted by those whose interest is in sustaining their business model of providing training courses. There is actually a fairly large number of building science training facilities available today. Technical training has never changed potential customers' demand for goods or services - marketing the value always has. If the customer perceives value in a new good/service they will look for it. The more customers look for those goods/services, the more need for firms to provide those goods/services. If the customers do not perceive value in the proposed goods/services, then there will not be a demand for it. No amount of technical training will change that (despite what is greatly advertised by various training institutions). So if a great number of customers demand much better (than code) housing, builders will respond in kind, which will drive up demand for the particular sub-contractor trades (including architectural and planning skills) to deliver what the customer demands. Regarding the increase of solar-generated energy (in a variety of forms/technologies) - this is another effort to provide alternative energy rather than reduce energy usage so its implementation would (probably) not be taught in courses involving applying modern building science to reduce energy requirements. As alternative energy sources' costs continue to decline, the less desirable energy conservation measures become.

Regarding China - there was a recent re-broadcast on 60 Minutes where Lesley Stahl visited China and interviewed one of the (if not the) largest developers on the housing bubble created by the government. Entire cities now exist that are completely vacant. I believe that China has "bigger fish to fry" than worrying about making existing housing stock more efficient. They will probably do what most other power generators will do - switch to natural gas for electric generation to eliminate most of the pollutants and continue providing reasonably-priced electricity to their customers.

Comment by tedkidd on August 11, 2014 at 7:08am

"The building science of energy efficiency has naturally evolved over 20 years."

And it shifts with every client, home, and with changes to costs.  Thinking rigidly about what "should" be done without considering how these variables fit into the picture is a common mistake I see in design.  It is an easy, cookie cutter approach that "sells big mac's" but often doesn't net a healthy outcome. 

..."lack of customers willing to spend extra money for higher-quality services."  

That thinking and writing need further development.  Vague all encompassing statements that look like facts and hide their inaccuracy are just lazy writing.  There is a lot of good thinking here and that's a turd on your oriental.  If you want help with it you might want to contact Nate Adams, he can help get this on higher ground. 

Featured Forum Discussions

What causes a temperature plane in a home

Started by Energy Wise Solutions in HVAC. Last reply by Peter Krych on Friday. 4 Replies

Velocity Pressure Testing

Started by Horace Douglas Hunt, Jr. in General Forum. Last reply by Horace Douglas Hunt, Jr. Apr 15. 2 Replies


  • Add Videos
  • View All

Latest Activity

Efficiency First California posted a blog post

Building a Clean Energy Future, Respect for the People Who Will Build It

You don’t need to spend a great of time deal in the policy world before you hear a conversation…See More
8 hours ago
Profile IconDavid G. Tamutus and Sharon Block joined Home Energy Pros
8 hours ago
Gary Reed added a discussion to the group Job Board


We are currently seeking experienced HOME ENERGY ADVISEOS to join the Jack Hall Plumbing &…See More
Profile IconGary Reed and Kurt Shafer joined Diane Chojnowski's group

Job Board

This group is for posting jobs related to all aspects of the home performance industry including…See More
Ron Sarrick liked Energy Wise Solutions's discussion What causes a temperature plane in a home
Kurt Shafer added a discussion to the group Job Board

Installers for Whole House Fans in Various Cities

Invisco Whole House Fan Company in Temecula CA sells the highest performance fans in history. The…See More
Kurt Shafer posted a blog post

First Rooftop Whole House Fan for Homes without Attics

Eichler was one of the most famous Mid Century Modern home builders in the 50s and 60s. His homes…See More
Travis Lundberg replied to angela stanzione's discussion Used Weatherization and auditing equipment for sale in the group Energy Auditing Equipment for Sale, Trade or to Purchase
"Do you still happen to have a blower door fan, frame and fabric still for sale?  If so please…"

Home Energy Pros

Welcome to Home Energy Pros – the unique digital community by and for those who work in the home energy performance arena.

Home Energy Pros was founded by the developers of Home Energy Saver Pro (supported by the U.S. Department of Energy) and brought to you in partnership with Home Energy magazine.  Home Energy Pros is sponsored by the Better Buildings Residential Network. Please honor our Guidelines

© 2017   Created by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service