Blog Post

Scenes from Building Science Summer Camp, 2023

Phius technical staff members attended the 25th Annual Westford Symposium on Building Science, and they lived to tell about it. So, in no particular order, here are some impressions from them.

For non-building science nerds, some context:

The Annual Westford Symposium on Building Science is an invitation-only event that brings together leading building science experts for deep dives into…various building science topics. The event, hosted by Joe Lstiburek and Betsy Pettit, of the esteemed Building Science Corporation, has also gained a reputation of a sort of bacchanalia of food and drink and conversation and music and dancing and plain old fun.

Over the years the event has earned a less formal moniker: Building Science Summer Camp.

Al Mitchell, Project Certifier

Lesson from my second Summer Camp: Too much beer is bad, apparently. But all is well in the world of building science. The presentations this year were good, but I wanted to highlight the two that had an impact on me: Marc Rosenbaum discussing how to think about and work with monitoring to better understand how buildings are working and, of course, Katrin’s Passive House Murder Mystery.

Marc used various projects as case studies for utilizing monitoring to diagnose building problems. The most entertaining example was a multipurpose campus building at a ‘Technical College in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ where the building was using much more energy than the model had predicted (somewhere on the order of 30% more). They did a second blower door test to make sure the building was still as sealed well. So by engaging with some monitoring tools on all of the critical, high load appliances and systems, the team was able to identify the problem being the kitchen range hood, which was exhausting 6,000 cfm continuously, 24/7, 365 days a year for a year and a half. Turns out the fire protection contractor had installed a sprinkler head directly in the line of sight of the electric eye, a laser that hits a photosensor to determine the thickness of the smoke and varies the fan speed of the range hood accordingly.

Phius co-founder and Executive Director Katrin Klinbenberg closed the conference with her short walk down memory lane about passive building. The early passive building history is filled with fascinating design thinking. There were technological gaps, such as a lack of super insulated glazing, that were overcome by innovations like the double skin facade or the Trombe wall. This design thinking process was iterated over various designs, refined with each constructed field test house, until a major technological breakthrough happened, and in the case of the glazing noted above, this is the thin, argonne filled triple pane insulated glazing unit. There is a lot to be learned from this body of thinking and writing, and all of this foundation built up to the current phase of passive building that Kat termed Passive Building 3.0. For 4.0, she projected that the next generation of passive buildings would integrate more of the technology that has caught up, such as direct current wiring, grid interactive passive buildings, and new material innovations in thermal phase change materials and insulation.

Haley Kalvin-Gold, Project Certifier

Summer Camp…where do I begin? As a young professional still finding her footing in this supremely male-dominated field, events like these can be overwhelming and intimidating to say the least. If you saw me walking around the lunch tent like a deer in headlights trying to find one open spot at a table with some ladies, you’d know exactly how I was feeling. However, I can’t help but consider myself lucky that Summer Camp was only the third conference I’ve attended in my life. Being surrounded by industry giants and people with knowledge 100x my own, the best I could do was listen, learn, and take it all in.

That’s not to say I was lost during all of the presentations that were given. In fact, I was impressed by my own ability to ‘keep up’, and have at least a sliver of understanding of what was being presented. I credit that to my time so far at Phius, and the wonderful mentors in this organization who have helped me come so far just in the last year-and-a-half or so.

Matt Dupuis’ presentation on roof failures and hygrothermal issues was a shining example of this. I started to learn how to assess construction assemblies for hygrothermal concerns and identify red-flag details just in the last couple of months. But again, as a newcomer in this industry, and while I understand the concept behind why we do hygro-analysis and have pre-determined assembly requirements, it’s hard to actually understand the ‘why’ when I’ve never seen these problems occur in the wild! The photos and failures shared in this particular presentation really made it all ‘click’ in my head. ”There’s a reason Phius has rules, and this is one of them,” I thought to myself.

The most moving presentation in my eyes was Betsy’s, on the retrofit of a home for her daughter. For my senior capstone project just this year, I chose a different path compared to the rest of my class, who designed grand stadiums, hospitals, transit hubs, etc. Instead, I designed a deep-energy retrofit of my mother’s 2,000 sf existing home that included a garage-to-ADA suite conversion for my grandmother, whose mobility has taken a turn for the worse in the last year, and whose current apartment is less than kind in regards to aging-in-place/ADA considerations. (And is, of course, grossly unaffordable for anyone, nevermind a 70+ y/o human living on their own). Anyways, by the end of Betsy’s presentation on the last day, I was confident that I was in the right place – surrounded by people who want to design and improve our built environment for…well, the health and well-being of people!

Lisa White, Phius Associate Director

This year was my 5th Summer Camp, and as always it was a terrific experience. This year, the Phius team showed up 7-strong and traveled in from all over the country -- it was great to spend time with them and reconnect with others in the community face-to-face.

Many of the educational sessions at summer camp provide the perspective of fixing buildings-gone-wrong, elaborating on lessons learned from mistakes of the past. They serve as a reminder for the importance of combining best building practices with quality assurance throughout the design and construction process to make better buildings. These stories make me appreciate the work we’re doing at Phius to prevent such mistakes and shape the future of high performance building. But, it’s clear that as an industry we have a long way to go (and I think building scientists definitely have job security for the foreseeable future).

I appreciated the optimism of one speaker, Andy Padian, an Environmentalist from New York that works on rehabs for affordable housing projects. He suggested that while the task of retrofitting our existing building stock and lowering carbon emissions is daunting, we can address them one at a time. He correlated this to looking at a beach full of washed-up starfish, noting that you could get overwhelmed, or you could “save one starfish at a time” by throwing them back into the ocean. Andy’s team doesn’t quite go to Phius-levels with their retrofits. My only suggestion is when we pick up a starfish, grip it a little tighter and use a little more effort and throw it back into the ocean even deeper, so they don’t make their way back to shore again before we’re able to deal with the rest. But affordable retrofits are very difficult and I very much respect Andy's teams' efforts nonetheless.

Oh yeah, and we hung out in the infamous crawl space.

Graham Wright, Senior Scientist

To Al Mitchell’s point about beer, yeah I did a good job limiting my drinking but not the eating –I gained almost 5 pounds (how is that possible). I work remotely from Portland, Oregon, so it was great to connect more with newer Phius colleagues John Loercher and Haley Kalvin-Gold.

On the technical front there were a couple of health-related things that I would like to see about working into our protocol. 1) Bill Bahnfleth gave a talk about the new ASHRAE 241 standard for control of infectious aerosols. As mentioned in my colleague Neil Rosen’s blog post* about this, the issue for us is how to do this without wasting a lot of energy. I got to ask Bill afterwards about it and he thought for residential the recirculating filter option probably made the most sense. 2) I might pull Dr. Stepanie Taylor’s “Building 4 Health” monitoring into REVIVE 2024 as a monitoring elective.

Betsy Pettit waded into the embodied vs operational carbon debate in her retrofit case study, with refrigerant leakage data from Skylar Swinford (our Phius Technical Committee Vice Chair). I really think the ADORB cost calculation we are putting into REVIVE 2024 will help people sort this out. I got into an argument at the evening party, about net zero carbon. As mentioned elsewhere I think the goal for the building industry should be absolute zero – avoid carbon emissions entirely and not think of net zero using offsets. But REVIVE 2024 does not take a super hard line on this yet. It does allow credits for avoided carbon emissions. The example I was challenged with was one I heard about before – making building materials out of the voluminous agricultural waste that would shortly go back to the atmosphere if not stored in buildings. I thought more about this and I have a couple of questions: 1) Does it though? Go back to the atmosphere? I know the nitrogen in the protein goes back to the atmosphere quickly as dead plants dry out, but is it really a good idea to interrupt the carbon cycle of agriculture? Plowing in the residue in to maintain soil carbon levels seems like a better idea than taking it off and forcing a downtrend in soil carbon levels. 2) What happens to the phosphorus? If that is getting mined out of the soil and locked away in building materials that is also a bad trend. This plan to raid agriculture for carbon storing building materials needs some thinking through in my opinion.

John Loercher, Project Certifier

This was my first Summer Camp. I always wondered if it was really as good as people raved about and it did not disappoint -- in fact, it may have exceeded my expectations.

Since I started attending conferences in 2016, I have invested most of my time and money into passive house specific events, so it was a beneficial shift in perspective to hear from some of the legendary characters in the building science industry and how they were applying the practice in very different ways than what is familiar to me.

For instance, I sat with Matt Dupuis of SRI during lunch on Monday and dove deep into the world of litigation and his experience as an expert witness. It was an unsettling lunch conversation, but I learned a lot about the world of industrial farming, livestock and heard many stories about what goes on behind closed doors and most importantly how those processes affect the building envelope.

The next day at lunch I met Kurt Roth on the buffet line, head of building energy systems at Fraunhofer in Boston. We spoke about research and design and I was able to pick his brain about some technical issues related to infrared image mapping that I have been struggling with.

To echo Graham’s comment, it was also great to deepen relationships with the impressive, humble and kind staff members of the Phius team.

James P.S Ortega, Certification Program Director

By far the largest contingency of Phius staff to date attended Summer Camp this year and it was an absolute pleasure to hang out with each and every one of them in person (a rare treat these days). The presentations were interesting and eye-opening that the industry still has a long way to go to make passive building mainstream, but progress is being made. The closing keynote, given by Phius’ very own Katrin Klingenberg, was the highlight of the week for me.

I’m still not quite sure how the murder mystery title relates to the topic of passive building through the ages, but I thoroughly enjoyed the history lesson. I learned much about the intertwined personal and professional relationships and research that have led us to where we are now and will continue to guide us into the future.

Katrin Klingenberg, Executive Director

To hear more about the murder mystery, tune in next week...