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Science: 7 Minutes of BS (Building Science Syncopated)

Science explains the natural world with a disciplined method of repeatable—and verifiable—questions, experiments, and answers
February 13, 2021

This episode's guest is Alison Bailes aka The Energy Vanguard who has a Ph.D. in Physics. He taught high school and college physics before he was captivated by building science and HVAC recreations. Today, he teaches building science to building professionals who want/need BPI, RESNET, HERS, or Energy Star training.

Photo above: Barbara McClintock, Ph.D in her lab after winning an Award in 1947 for work on Maize cytogenetics. She developed a microscopic technique for visualizing chromosomes, which lead her to discover such genetic fundamentals as meiosis—one way that chromosomes exchange DNA. She was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1944, and in 1983, Dr. McClintock became the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology for the discovery of genetic transposition. BOOM.

What science is:

ˈsīəns (n.)

"Science is a method of understanding how things work in the universe."

"It is looking at nature and seeing patterns, and trying to see enough meaning in the pattern that we can use that to predict what might happen that's related to that."

Today's topic takes a broader view than usual because I wanted to step back from building science to explain what science is, just to be clear. We'll bring it around to building science later, and even delve into a little climate science, which matters, it turns out when designing and building high-performance buildings.

But first the science.


How science works: the scientific method

The ability to look at patterns and see patterns is something that is a big deal in evolutionary psychology.​ The psychologists who looked at the human mind and how it evolved saw that humans evolved in a particular way because of that ability to see patterns.

For example, the early humans who could not see patterns got eaten by saber-toothed tigers, or they kept eating the berries that poisoned them and they died out. So our evolution has been over millions of years, and what we know of as science has really only developed in the last few hundred years.

Galileo is probably the most famous early scientific pioneer, but really, he followed the thought process of a guy named Al Hazan, who was a mathematician, astronomer, and physicist in Basra, Iraq. Al Hazan's book on optics and vision around 1020, laid the foundation for what we now call the scientific method.

It starts with observation.

You observe things, you see patterns, you see something interesting, and your mind starts saying, "Woah. Why does that happen? Or what if instead of going that way, it went the other way?"And so you develop a hypothesis. And once you develop a hypothesis, you need data, you've got to do some testing, some experimentation.

Once you have data, then you can either verify that the hypothesis was correct, or show that it was not correct. You can either just drop it all together and go on to something else, or you can refine your hypothesis, you can say, "Okay, well the hypothesis wasn't quite right, but if I change it in this one little way, maybe it is right."

But here's another really important thing about science, your hypotheses have to be verifiable by other people testing the same thing.

If a hypothesis stands the test of time, it graduates to scientific theory, like the theory of evolution or relativity theory, which explains gravity among other things. Scientific theories though are not theoretical; they're explanations of the natural world that has been tested over and over again using the scientific method.

Yeah. That's exactly right. So just your testing it isn't enough, it has to be repeatable. Others have to be able to confirm what you've done. That's basically how science works in a nutshell.

The art of science comes in designing experiments to be simple, yet elegant. Ways to rule out options that are clearly not linked to outside forces.

When you're doing an experiment, you don't wanna be changing a whole lot of variables at once, because that makes it really difficult to see what might have caused the effects that you saw in your experiment.

Now for example, if you are testing indoor air quality in a building and over the course of your experiment, you've got people coming and going all the time, you've got thermostats being adjusted, you've got trucks driving in and out of the loading dock—you've got all kinds of things happening in the building.

Then you don't really know necessarily what might have caused your changes.

In those kinds of experiments we usually they try to isolate one thing.

Like I just wrote recently about an experiment on indoor air quality, and they looked at two variables, and they took a small group of people, 24 people for six days, they brought 'em into this special room, and the only things they changed for those people were the level of carbon dioxide in the rooms that they were in, and separately the level of volatile organic compounds.

That allowed the scientists to see what the effects were of different levels of CO2, and what were the effects of different levels of VOC.

So you wanna isolate your variables, you don't wanna be changing a whole lot of things at once, because you don't really know then what might have caused the effects that you saw.


Why science matters:

Science matters so that we don't have to rely on magic to explain natural phenomena.

Yeah. Building science matters a lot, and here's an early example. In the 1920s and 30s when builders first started putting insulation in walls of homes, it turned out that some of those homes started having problems with the paint. And then house painters started refusing to paint new homes that had been insulated, because they were getting all these callbacks from paint peeling on new homes that had insulation in the walls.

This may have been the birth of modern building science.

It was one of the things that really got it going in the 20th century, in North America anyway.

Researchers at the US Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, together with some architects and engineers tried to solve the problem, but it turns out they may not have been doing science as much as they were throwing intellectual spaghetti against the wall.

The early consensus was that the problem was moisture from the inside migrating through the wall, diffusing through the wall, and finding the exterior sheathing and siding and keeping it wet. And so, their answer then was vapor barriers.

Vapor barriers?

Plastic vapor barriers.

Vapor barriers.

On the inside to keep that interior moisture from migrating through the wall and wetting the exterior.

It turns out that intellectual spaghetti didn't really stick.

That set us back a few decades because it turned out that that was not the answer. The real answer...

That we figured out using science.

Was that the exterior sheathing and siding stayed colder because of the insulation.

Any moisture that got into the wall cavity couldn't dry. So, it would soak into the back of the wood and push paint off the front.

Before walls were insulated, we didn't have to worry about exterior moisture management details, flashing around windows for example, and so, there was a lot of wetting going on in walls. But, it didn't matter in cold climate so much because in the winter time you turn the heat on and a lot of that heat goes right through the wall and dries out the exterior, it didn't cause problems.

But insulation changed that dynamic.

Now that heat doesn't come through, it doesn't dry the exterior sheathing and siding and you have moisture problems and paint peels.

So, if you leave insulation out of the walls, you can skip the flashing details and not worry too much about water getting in because your hard earned winter heating bill will wash the walls dry. If you opt for insulation, which is sort of required by law, then you'll need to be aware of the phenomenon and build around it. If you pack more and more insulation into buildings, it changes the dynamics of water movement even more as one may hypothesize.

We're seeing more and more super-insulated structures, with passive house becoming a big thing and everybody trying to solve the problem of climate change by reducing the amount of energy that buildings use.

Buildings account for about 40% of the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.

When you add more and more insulation to structures, you end up with colder and colder sheathing on the exterior, if your sheathing stays on the exterior. There's different ways to do it, of course. One of the things that's come about is this whole field of hygrothermal modeling.

How water and warmth interact with walls, roofs, and floors.

Using tools like WUFI.


Which is a German hygrothermal modeling tool. And trying to figure out what kind of assemblies, and structures will be durable and which kind might have long-term moisture problems that could cause the structure to rot, could cause it to grow mold and cause indoor air quality problems.

Three-dimensional modeling is a 21st century way of doing experiments. As buildings are modeled and then built, the performance can be compared to the model and the modeling tool adjusted to predict better results next time. Some of the main datasets behind these 3D hygrothermic modeling tools are climate data and weather data.

These data are compiled by climate scientists. Science may have a relatively short history, but it has a long history of being attacked. Just ask Galileo. And climate science is the branch that's currently in the crosshairs of those who think science is a political ploy.


How to do science right: buckets and buckets of coffee

The whole issue of climate change is a really interesting one because it has become so politicized now. A lot of people don't think it's science. There are people who don't have any scientific background who are convinced that it's all hogwash, and there's nothing to it and there's no way we could really know that, because it's just too much, it's just too big a problem, we just can't know that.

Well, scientists look at big problems all the time.

Fun fact. According to Dr. Science, in order for scientists to go from thinking about things as microscopic as molecules to things as gigantic as galaxies, they require buckets and buckets of coffee.

We have a pretty good understanding of weather. For example, we can predict hurricanes.

Which they've gotten a lot of practice at recently. To do it, they use 3D models like the WUFI software, only different, to build cones of possibility. Climate scientists have also been modeling climate change for a long time.

We've actually been studying this for nearly 200 years now. People don't realize this, but Joseph Fourier in the 1820s, first wrote about global warming. Joseph Fourier was a French scientist and mathematician.

In the 1820s he was doing some calculations and he found that the temperature of the earth, based on the amount of solar radiation we get, is significantly warmer than it should be.

He calculated, based on the composition as he knew it at the time of the atmosphere, of what our temperature should be, and how much the different parts of the atmosphere might be holding in and came up with what we now call the Greenhouse Effect.

Later on, in the 19th century, people like Arrhenius did further work and showed that the earth is warmer than it would be without the atmosphere because of what's in our atmosphere. At the time, the late 19th century, they were about 100 years into the industrial revolution and they knew that burning coal was putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So they started thinking...


"Well, maybe adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is going to change the temperature of the earth even more. Maybe it's gonna get warmer."

So, they experimented, collected data and built models on paper that could be approved over the long haul.

So, it's not something that just came out in the last couple of decades.

There's a lot of science behind it and it's gone from those initial studies of, "Hey, why is the temperature of the earth higher than it looks like it should be?" to "The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now is over 400 parts per million, and we are likely to have significant warming because of that."

And "What would happen in different scenarios if we can get the CO2 level down? What happens if it goes on as it seems to be going right now? What happens if it ramps up even higher?"

So the whole process is not some definite conclusion about what's gonna happen, it's more like the hurricane tracks. There is this cone of possibilities and there's a lot of scientists putting a lot of brain power behind it.

And it is definitely real science.

There are people who are politicizing it probably due to a lot of companies that make a lot of money off not wanting climate change to go against them.

The ostrich approach to science.

We'd like to thank the Energy Vanguard for taking time to goof around with us in our studios, and we'd like to thank you for letting us go over time with this important topic.

Remember, you get paid for what you do and what you know. While sticking your head in the sand is technically doing something, it's not likely to raise your level of understanding.


—7 Minutes of BS is a production of the SGC Horizon Media Network.


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