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

Inhabitat: You have been successful in taking complex building dynamics and making them relatively simple to understand. Do you think that building science is less complicated than a lot of folks out there are making it sound with a lot of hemming and hawing?

Joe Lstiburek: It’s a lot less complicated than people say and my only observation is there’s a lot of money to be made in keeping the peasants confused. I mean it’s so easy. What drives me crazy is WUFI models and computer simulations. None of that is necessary, and most of it is done wrong anyway.

I spend most of my time, and my firm spends a lot of time debunking other people’s reports, saying, “You can’t possibly be saying this based on what you did. The problem is the wall is leaking because you don’t have a flashing. Your hygrothermal model has nothing to do with why this wall is wet.”

Inhabitat: They couldn’t see the trees for the forest.

Joe Lstiburek: They couldn’t see the water through the trees.

Inhabitat: There you go. It sounds like, especially when we start talking about air barriers, you just do that right than you solve a lot of the other problems. You made a good living on buildings having lots of moisture issues.

Joe Lstiburek: It’s been a hell of a good life. I get to spend the entire winter in Aspen. Are you kidding me? The key to spending your entire winter in Aspen is to find a woman to love and marry, stay married to her, and get into fixing buildings. You need both.

Inhabitat: Good advice for the upcoming engineers who read this. So what’s the take away? Is it that air barriers are the biggest thing we need to focus on?

Joe Lstiburek: Well, no. Look, if I was in charge of teaching architects building science becomes very simple. Building enclosure is an environmental separator. You want to keep the outside out and the inside in, except when you want to bring the outside in and when you want to have the inside out. That’s it and there are certain rules on how to do that.

I have this little list of rules and it all can be distilled into we need a water controlled barrier, an air controlled barrier, a vapor controlled barrier, and a thermal controlled barrier. Then we need a method of exchanging the inside with the outside based on when we want to. That’s it, there are sub-rules on how you do this, but that’s fundamentally it.

And I would have loved to written my own LEED standard. It would have been a paragraph long and it would start off by saying, “Don’t do stupid things,” and, “Do this,” and we’re done. “And measure everything,” because if you can’t measure it, I don’t believe it.

Inhabitat: Are we looking at a climate specific design?

Joe Lstiburek: Oh, I don’t believe that. The wall-roof foundation assembly that I laid out works everywhere.

If you are doing poor assemblies you have to be very careful climatically, but a good assembly works everywhere. The irony is that the crappy assemblies are very climatically sensitive. The good assemblies are climatically robust.

Inhabitat: So, does that mean state-of-the art is that we can find wall systems that can be translated to work in almost any situation.

Joe Lstiburek: I have a little bit of fun with this. I teach at the university now and I no longer fail stupid students because that would be discriminating against stupid students. I say, “Look, I have to pass you. You’re an idiot. I can’t fail you, but I’ll make a deal. Promise me this – that regardless of where you end up and how long you practice, you’re only going to use this wall design, and this roof design, and this foundation design, because they work everywhere.”

Inhabitat: And forever.

Joe Lstiburek: And forever. Quite frankly, that is true.

Inhabitat: So you feel confident that building science is at the point now that we can build a quality envelope that we’ll feel comfortable with 40 years from now. We go back, we tear that thing up, we’ll feel that everything’s done what it needs to?

Joe Lstiburek: Oh, we were able to do that 50, 60 years ago. The answer is yes, we’re able to do that now and we were able to do that before I was born. The irony is that even though that information has been known for so long, it’s not been used. And my observation on that is that people don’t use stuff until it becomes impossible for them to not use it. In other words, things become intolerably bad before there’s a change or an intervention. It’s only recently that things are becoming intolerably bad enough that we have to intervene and fix, even though we knew or some folks knew how to avoid the problems 50 or 60 years ago.

None of this is very complicated, none of this is a big mystery. What’s happening now is that we need to get this information into the people who need to make the decisions in an informed matter. In other words, people aren’t inherently bad. They just don’t have the information they need at the right time to make the right decision. So this is an information issue as opposed to a research issue. We don’t need to do anymore research. We need to do better transfer of what we know to the people who need to make the decisions at the right time.

Inhabitat: So where is that information now? What are the sources for working professionals to tap into this in a meaningful way?

Joe Lstiburek: Well, NIBS, National Institute for Building Science has got a group called BETEC and they’ve got some phenomenal design stuff online. I mean I hate to brag, but our website is pretty darn good. And it’s for free –actually not, you’ve already paid for it. A lot of that work came out of government contracts that we were paid to do.

The National Research Council of Canada and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation have fabulous information online. The Department of Energy, USDoE, has got phenomenally good information online. And by and large, it’s fairly consistent. There aren’t big differences and wherever there is a big difference, just agree with me.

Inhabitat: Very good.

Joe Lstiburek: That was a bit of humor there, but you’re not laughing.

Inhabitat: I’ll write, “Ha-ha,” in there.

Joe Lstiburek: The big questions have been answered consistently well by all of these groups and there are issues in the margins, but they’re not big issues.

Inhabitat: When you go on the DoE web site there’s like 400 links or something like that to the energy software available, energy modeling software, for instance. Now, is any of this stuff really –

Joe Lstiburek: Useful? No. No. No.

Inhabitat: Everybody is wishing to have that magic bullet software?

Joe Lstiburek: Well, I view it as in love with Star Trek. I blame it all on Star Trek. Spock could go into that shuttle bay with his tricorder, do a tricorder scan and figure out that the tachyon field was interfering with the dilythiam crystals, causing him to off-gas, which is why Uhura has a headache. F**k that. We can’t measure s**t like that, but we believe that we can measure everything.

Watch NCIS and Abby Sciuto, that babe in the lab – you know, freaking does magical things and measures s**t and she does it all in 45 minutes, not counting commercials. It’s that we couldn’t do in 20 years even if we had unlimited money and people think that you can simulate and measure stuff. The world is not that clean and neat.

The best way we learn all of this is to build it and you see what happened. You say, “Ah, this worked. This didn’t,” and that’s the best education or information. That information lies in the experience base of the older engineers, architects and contractors.

One of the biggest problems we have is what I call our own institutional memory. We do a lousy job in construction, engineering and architecture, passing on the lessons of one generation to the next. So we are this huge, dysfunctional family. We need a Dr. Phil to get us all to talk to one another, or an Oprah, or somebody.

Inhabitat: It’s amazing how many times you refer to the fact that you would hypothesize something, come up with it and find it – it was in the books in the ‘50s and the ‘40s and the ‘60s.

Joe Lstiburek: It’s funny. I am one of the most frustrated, egotistical engineers on the planet. I thought I was a clever, smart guy who figured out stuff and it turns out that nothing I’ve ever thought I figured out did I actually figure out. It had been already done – better, earlier, more elegantly by not just one person, by lots of people. And we’re having all of these same discussions and arguments over and over and over again.

You know what? I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, except I don’t have an Andie MacDowell.

+ Joe Lstiburek


+ Building Science Corporation

Photos © Andrew Michler for Inhabitat

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

    I disabled AdBlock on 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 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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