A few weeks ago, I sat in on a training session with our Building Systems team about window installation in high performance buildings. It took over two hours to cover the theory, define the proper materials, explain the procedure, and do a demonstration. Watching and listening brought to mind some questions I was asking myself. Could I remember the first time I learned how to install, seal and flash windows? Who taught me? How long did it take? I couldn’t come up with the answers. It was too long ago.
I do remember installing many windows and doors, but most of what comes back was the focus on getting the units plumb and square and ensuring that they were operating properly. There was plenty of concern about the best way to shape and install the head flashing and getting the felt paper “splines” attached in the right way, but that was essentially the extent of it in those early days. There was no discussion about air pressure differentials and moisture diffusion issues. The only drop of water we worried about was the one from outside, from the sky above. And we didn’t want or expect an airtight seal. The house has to breathe, after all.
Over the ensuing years, energy costs and pollution effects have made it apparent that our buildings have needed to perform better. In pursuit of that, there’s been a several decades ante-raising game going on. Improved insulation in the walls led to more insulation in the ceiling or roof, and that led to more awareness of insulation around the foundation and beneath the slabs. Thermal breaks then became big issues,and building systems details were tweaked to overcome those situations.Improved insulation required more attention to vapor drive and dew points, and we learned that sealing leaks well requires that all leaks are sealed well. We learned that small defects in an otherwise good envelope can cause big problems, which brought on the use of special cameras and depressurization fans to find the pesky problem areas. But then, all of these envelope enhancements meant that indoor air quality couldn’t be taken for granted. The more we solved heat loss and moisture movement, the more we would need to control building respiration. It’s all pretty complicated and eventually led to a field of research and study called Building Science.
Of course, there has always been lots of science applied to structural and mechanical engineering and construction technology in buildings, but this thermal and moisture control branch is relatively young. It is also now the most important area for innovation in building products and process. The future of sustainable, high performance buildings as a standard consumer expectation is coming very quickly.
I learned some things I didn’t know during my attendance at our window installation training session. I suspect others did as well. Sealing against water and air requires more than common sense and it’s not at all easy. To get it right, education, training and an agreed upon team procedure are all essential.
What’s true of Building Science is also true of building crafts and trade skills. In our company, we don’t expect people to come in knowing how to properly sharpen chisels or plane blades. We use water stones and a procedure we learned from a Japanese temple builder. In his words, there are only two possibilities: “Sharp or no sharp;” in other words, the right way or the wrong way. To be efficient and effective, it is necessary to understand water stones and their proper use and care. Then you must know and follow a specific procedure. And when you have the information and know what to do, it still takes diligence and practice to become competent.
In my opinion, a good builder education curriculum ought to encompass the extremes of these two examples. We need to have the knowledge and skills of the past and the emerging science and technology of our times.If our knowledge and skills can bridge between the values of the past and rising standards we expect for the future, there’s some hope that the buildings we construct might do the same.
The truth is that being a builder today is more difficult and demanding than ever. We somehow need to invoke the wisdom of Vitruvius, revive the craft skills of our forefathers, while also performing a kind of physics sorcery as we turn normal looking buildings into weather-and-energy-defying havens of comfort. It’s a tall order. It’s also a good challenge and often fun. There’s a whole lot to learn.
In the month of January, we also had seminars and training sessions on these subjects:
Moisture management (mostly focused on walls)
Taken from the lists we’ve gathered from different parts of the company,here are some other courses and training sessions, just to give an ideaof the range of topics:
Basic Frame and Panel Compound Layout
Nails, screws and bolts, oh my
Math 101 (Lots of Pythagoras)
Intro to wood technology
Understanding Shear Walls
Envelope performance criteria
3D CAD model manipulation and reading
Framing Square basics
Crane signals and safety considerations
Passive solar strategies
Open and closed stringer layout and cutting
Door construction basics
Insulating foundations and slabs
Clapboard and shingle siding
Intro to HVAC
The list goes on. When we have revised curriculum completed, I’ll post it here for comment.