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. 

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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. 

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