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What is Building Science, Anyway?

Posted on | August 22, 2015 | No Comments

(Originally posted on December 1, 2011)

What is building science, anyway?

I get this a lot.

When I tell people that I’m a Technical Manager for Building Science, I’m usually met with confused looks and further inquisitions about what my job entails.  The words “building” and “scientist” are not exactly used together very often in practice, let alone in conversation.  Things get even more complicated when I explain that I have an architecture degree.  And when I’m talking to fellow architects, more blank stares… how exactly am I working with buildings but not designing them?

First, let’s cover the basics.

Building science, generally speaking, is the study of how buildings resist the environmental forces acting on them – everything from moisture protection, to solar gain, resistance to lateral forces from wind and seismic shifts, and how they use daylight.  It’s not just about a particular microclimate surrounding a building, however; it’s about that building itself, and how its envelope protects occupants from the elements, how its systems create interior thermal comfort, how it manages water and electricity demand, and how efficiently it does all of those things.

So I’ll admit, that’s a lot.

But I love buildings… Inspired by some of the greatest structures on Earth, I first went to architecture school to get a foundational knowledge of how to put buildings together, and how to do so thoughtfully and artfully.  And as it turns out, I love science too.  I actually enjoy talking about things like weather and soil properties and thermodynamics (nerd alert).  I am fascinated by new materials and technologies that could make our lives better and easier.  You put all of these things together, and you’ve got somebody who’s passionate about the systems that make our built environment work.  And so a self-proclaimed building scientist was born.

I’m joined in this field by other designers, engineers, energy professionals, and planners who recognize the challenges in creating a more sustainable built environment, and who also realize that traditional job descriptions may not fill our needs going forward.  In order to create more energy efficient, sustainable buildings, design teams need to work together from the beginning to make informed decisions about everything from the building’s shape and orientation to how it will get energy and where its materials will come from.  Architects, engineers, and contractors are learning more about aspects of the building process that were once unheard of, like recycling materials in construction.  These collaborative teams are responsible for many of the first sustainable buildings, and they’ve paved the way for more professionals to create the next generation of energy efficient and high-performance buildings.

So when people ask me what I do, I’ll usually get past the initial head-scratching that inevitably occurs with the “building science situation” by comparing my job to the ad campaign of the international manufacturing company 3M, “I don’t make buildings, I make buildings better.”  And that’s a pretty cool thing to do for a living, if you ask me.

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