Time to open Pandora’s box of building problems

Posted Feb. 06, 2009, at 8:27 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:45 a.m.

Last week there was a building conference featuring a building scientist by the name of Joe Lstiburek (pronounced STEE-burk).

Joe is an internationally known engineer who diagnoses all the things that can go wrong with houses.

He is a fun guy to hear in a seminar and he breaks problems down into simple-to-understand jargon. He speaks to builders, architects and engineers and they all understand him.

If you have been to one of his seminars, you are lucky and understand a lot more about buildings than before you went.

In the 1970s, once we started to tighten up buildings, we opened a Pandora’s box of problems.

Old houses were usually not insulated. Old houses that were insulated were not insulated very well. These houses were generally so loose that they whisked heat away and had very few problems with air quality and things like mold, since all that ventilation was taking place.

Buildings were made with wood boards and plaster. Oil was under a quarter a gallon, so buildings did not have to be that tight to be heated.

When OPEC started restricting oil supplies in 1973, we responded by insulating our homes. The walls and attics were filled with cellulose and fiberglass.

And the fun started.

The fresh air that blew through the house was slowed down. Moisture started to accumulate inside the building. The walls and attics that we filled with insulation sometimes would become a repository for water that would condense out from the warm inside air as it passed through the usually poorly insulated areas.

The good news was that this would dry out in the springtime and summer after accumulating through the winter.

As it turned out, the crummy insulation jobs that we started doing in the ’70s got better. We tried making the walls tighter. And the water could not get out. As it got warmer outside, we reached the threshold where mold might grow. Bugs, rot and mold ensued. This is job security for building scientists. They figure out the problem, and sort out workable solutions.

The energy auditor business is a spinoff of building scientists’ research.

Auditors are now the technicians who, we hope, are practitioners of the building scientists’ art.

There are some Web sites that you can refer to if you are a builder and want to know more about the right way to do things. Joe’s Web site is www.buildingscience.com.

There are some videos of his seminars on YouTube. Just type in his name.

I recently checked out a couple of those videos. It was good to listen to him again. I saw him when he was in Bangor years ago.

He makes an interesting case about building products: Trees are least liked by mold since they are living.

Lumber is more palatable since we process it from live trees and it is no longer alive. Plywood is more delectable since it is processed in such a way that the sugars in the cellulose are heated and caramelized by the manufacturing process. This creates candy for mold.

OSB is even more processed and delightful to mold.

Particleboard is better for mold since it is more heavily processed.

And what is the best thing for mold to eat?

Paper. We cover our walls with drywall, covered with paper. It becomes fast food for mold with no teeth.

It becomes more critical for these materials to stay dry as we continue to process them, seemingly deliberately to the delight of mold organisms.

These are all Lstiburekisms, and all are joyful for building science wonks. Some of it is there for your edification on the Web.

Wait till you hear how he describes how particleboard is manufactured.

Something not for these pages!

I put it on my iPod. Not George Carlin, but close.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.

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