Andrew Michler

INTERVIEW: Building Science Pioneer Dr. Joe Lstiburek on the Good, Bad and Ugly Side of Buildings

by , 07/14/14

Joe Lstiburek, Building Science, green building, Sustainable building, green building expert, green building expert, ASHRE, LEED, problems with LEED

The term ‘building science’ is used quite often now in sustainable building circles, but much of what we understand of it can be traced back to the work of Dr. Joe Lstiburek, founder of Building Science Corporation. He is anything but your typical engineer or scientist who spends time crunching numbers or hiding away in a lab. Lstiburek has spent most of his career out in the field, testing and examining what works and what doesn’t. Many of the building standards today — from building codes to ASHRE to testing methodology — have his finger prints all over them, and his tough love criticism of building design is undercut with his wry humor and, of course, an encyclopedic knowledge of building construction. Read on to learn where buildings go wrong and what we can do about it.


Joe Lstiburek, Building Science, green building, Sustainable building, green building expert, green building expert, ASHRE, LEED, problems with LEED

Inhabitat: What does building science really mean? Did it not exist 50 years ago?

Joe Lstiburek: Well, it always existed. It’s really the technical side of architecture that architects gave up. If architects did their job there wouldn’t be any need for building science. You know, I’m flabbergasted by the architectural profession giving up control of such a profitable part of the industry, which is the interaction of the building enclosure with the climate and the people and the mechanical system.

You know, this occurred because of the change in the focus on the education of the architects, the school. They’re focused – they’re trained in art. They’re not trained in physics and material science to actually execute their designs.

Back in the day, 100 years ago, or maybe 50 years ago in Europe, architects were trained like master builders. They understood structure. They understood mechanical. They understood physics. They understood material science. They understood how everything worked together. The focus now on the architectural education is all art and what’s missing are all of those other pieces — one of those missing pieces is building science or building physics.

Inhabitat: Do they feel like it’s not their problem? Such as how a building envelope will necessarily function in the real world — that if it’s down on paper and it’s been done before, then that’s okay?

Joe Lstiburek: I can’t speak for the architectural community, although I often try to – that is I think the arrogance of the profession drives me crazy. I think they feel it’s beneath their dignity to worry about these little, minor problems, like how to keep the rain out of the building, how to keep the air in and the air out. Let somebody else worry about that. I’m here to make an uplifting building to society to basically send a message about how this building is going to make this place a better place to live, and the people that live and work in it are better people. That’s what my mission is. This other stuff somebody else will worry about.

Inhabitat: So how do you get them excited about building science again?

Joe Lstiburek: Well, I don’t. What happens is the legal profession does that for us. The most effective technology transfer in the world is a lawsuit. They never call us when things are going well. They call us, “Oh, my God! We’re getting our ass sued because this problem occurred.” 

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7 Comments

  1. Kevin Phair September 17, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    I disabled AdBlock on inhabitat.com in return for reading this. Thank you!

  2. mkeesee April 1, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    So after some reflection and thought, I\\\’m coming around to the passiv house standard, especially for larger commercial buildings — 15 kWh/sf/yr for cooling and heating and 0.6 ACH50 air tightness. The City of Brussels has jsut adopted this standard as their building code starting 2015. Elegant and simple. Figured out after sponsoring a several year award program in which real architects built real buildings to meet this standard and now they have 6 million sf of commercial space built to the standard and everyone has figured it out and there you go (I\\\’m channeling my inner Joe here). I thing this rant is important because we\\\’re spending an amazing amount of time (and money) in California tyring to incorporate net zero energy into the upcoming Title-24 buiilding energy code. Well, there it is…. or close to it. Like Joe saids, no need for software (except to figure out the initial models, like how much glass you can put on a building, orient it and shade it. Build it and measure it. end of story. The hard part will be getting designers to design.

  3. ceepo tri 50 March 25, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    I love this guy!

  4. katylh March 22, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    YES- tell it like it is, Joe! (as he always does). Thank you for one of the best interviews I’ve ever read, Inhabitat.

  5. ergodesk ergodesk May 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    The way we Build is changing fast for several reasons but high on my list is Climate Change. With so many options for builders to choose from many Contractors struggle to apply these so incompatibilities and errors don’t arise.

    Shame for the regulators, who have little or no expertise in the history and future trends in building materials and systems.

  6. WynnLWhitePE May 18, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Engineering is applied science–and Joe does just that.

    Owners, builders, architects, engineers, and operators would do well to listen to Joe.

  7. IDEAbuilder May 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Great interview! And very provocative. Unfortunately I am sure most people will ignore it since the solutions Joe proposes involve work and measurable performance. It is simply so much easier -and typically profitable – to sell dubious green products and services.

    I do hope the article provokes a least some serious discussion. The building industry needs it so that we don’t continue to waste so many resources on ineffective solutions. We risk falling even further behind other countries pursuing real solutions.

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