Sounding a Smart Note in Cincy

THURSDAY, MAY 22, 2014

CINCINNATI—Attention, architects, engineers, specifiers and contractors who do stupid things: Stay away from Joe Lstiburek.

That goes double for the buildings you design and construct. Especially if they’re ugly.

If you don't, Dr. Lstiburek (Ph.D., P.Eng., ASHRAE Fellow) is likely to make you and your building fodder for his next keynote address.

Consider the stemwinder he delivered Wednesday (May 21) at D+D 2014, the first conference and expo hosted by Durability + Design Magazine.

Lstiburek's keynote launched a lively and diverse day of technical sessions for and by experts across the building community, on topics ranging from historic preservation and decorative techniques to color, materials and coatings science. The conference, at the historic Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Hotel, closes today (May 22).

'Don't Do Stupid Things'

Lstiburek's keynote was titled "Don't Do Stupid Things." Part homily, part engineering lecture, part stand-up shtick, the 50-minute talk offered a learned and cheerfully scathing look at building designs that he says attempt to circumvent scientific principles.

Some even defy common sense, argued Lstiburek ("STEEbruk"), the dean of North American building science and a principal at Massachusetts-based Building Science Corp., which he founded in 1991.

An educator, author, researcher, frequent consultant to government and the private sector, Lstiburek is considered one of the world's foremost authorities on energy-efficient construction techniques.

Which is why building professionals should steer clear if their structures fail for reasons that Lstiburek considers obvious and avoidable.

Take My Wallpaper—Please

Consider the acres of vinyl wallpaper used in tightly sealed, air-conditioned buildings—the favored décor of many high-end hotel chains in hot climates.

Dr. Joseph Lstiburek

When it comes to building performance, says Lstiburek, "the freaking water issue is way more important than the darned air issue."

"What kind of calculation do you want me to write?" Lstiburek said. "It's just stupid."

Why? Because moisture flow is from the outside to the inside, he says, and heat flow is from warm to cold. So when it's hot outside and cold inside, those flows will stop dead right behind that sturdy wallpaper, creating a fertile Hotel Mold-ifornia every single time.

"Everything changes when we make the building more efficient," he said. "You can't just go in and fill the building with fluffy stuff.

"The buildings get wet and stay wetter longer, because we're really good at energy efficiency."

But, he warns: "There's no such thing as a free thermodynamic lunch."

Sweater Eaters

Conversely, he says, insulating a commercial wall's steel stud cavity is a "thermodynamic obscenity" that he likens to eating a sweater, rather than wearing one, to ward off the cold.

"We need to be sweater wearers, not sweater eaters," he said.


Renowned trompe l'oeil muralist John Pugh, of Los Gatos Studio, treats D+D 2014 attendees to a Special Artist Session showcasing his work Tuesday in Cincinnati.

(Indeed, Lstiburek is so confounded by what he considers nonsensically specified and installed vapor barriers that he chalks up the practice to a Canadian directive hatched to avenge the defection of Wayne Gretzy to Los Angeles.)

In short, he says, "you're better off not having any vapor barrier than putting one in the wrong place."

About Efficiency

Despite the green-building tsunami of recent decades, Lstiburek contends that the building industry is not truly serious (or knowledgeable) about energy efficiency.

He likens the U.S. Green Building Council, creator of the LEED building rating system, to "a religious movement with missionaries and gods."

"No one can talk to the USGBC," he says, adding that the only way to reach the organization is to "embarrass it."

"I want to keep LEED," said Lstiburek. "But it needs to be fixed."

He also calls vegetative roofs, a green building favorite, pointless from an energy-saving standpoint.

"Green roofs make no energy sense," he said. "It's stupid. 'Well,' [proponents say,] 'we want to store our water up there.'

"Really?" he counters. "On the top of your building? Take the bike-rack [LEED] point. Don't do this one."

Actually, Lstiburek says he loves green roofs, if they are designed to enhance a building's beauty. But he does not think they save a dime.

Steven Danielpour

Steven Danielpour, director of firmwide specifications for HOK, judges entries for the D+D Student Design Competition, featuring work by University of Cincinnati architecture students. The winners will be announced Thursday.

Meanwhile, he says, they actually cultivate and harbor the top three enemies of building performance and durability: water, water and water.

Keeping the Dry Part Dry

"Eighty percent of all construction problems are related to water," said Lstiburek. He preaches that the top four most important control layers in a building enclosure are (in order) water, air, vapor, thermal.

In fact, control the water, and you can almost skip the other three threats, he says.

"I can’t believe that we’re still arguing over where the control layers should go," he said. "The water control layer should go on the outside of your structure, because once it’s inside ... it’s... too ... late.

"Anybody not get that?"

As for thermal and air barriers, Lstiburek offers a shrug.

"Thermal control is easiest to calculate and specify, so we obsess over it," he says. "Who cares? It's stupid!"

The problem of draftiness is also overrated, he contends.

"I never get a call at 2 in the morning saying, 'My building is leaking air! My building is leaking air!'" he says. "The freaking water issue is way more important than the darned air issue."

What to Do

So what does Lstiburek like? Beauty, for one thing.

Beauty isn't just a frill, he contends. It is an essential quality in  creating a structure that will be loved and, thus, carefully maintained—and, therefore, last for many, many years.

"Beauty is important," says Lstiburek. "Don't give it up for a stupid LEED point.

"Ugliness is not sustainable."


Tagged categories: Air barriers; Architects; Building Envelope; Building science; Construction; Energy codes; Energy efficiency; Green building; Green roofs; Insulation; LEED; Moisture management; U.S. Green Building Council

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.