Whether you’re an athlete, a parent, a mid-career professional or all three, you probably ascribe to the credo that life isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Just as nutritionists and trainers guide us to make good choices to optimize our health and performance over the long term, thought leaders in building science are helping guide owners to make wise investments in construction materials and processes to optimize building performance over the onslaughts of time, weather, and the facility life cycle. Kraus-Anderson Construction Company’s Building Science Director Jon Porter explains some of the elements that go into this emerging discipline.
Q. For the layman, what is Building Science?
Jon Porter, Director, Building Science, Kraus-Anderson Construction Company: Building Science is one of those practices that can mean many different things to many different people, so the best way to describe it might be in terms of what its purpose is. The primary goals of Building Science can be boiled down to: 1) optimize building performance, which is directly affected by how buildings are constructed and maintained, 2) understand and prevent building failures, and 3) advise on the use of new techniques or technologies in building design and construction. A common thread running through these points is leveraging an ability before, during, and after construction to predict how a building will behave.
The way that Building Science accomplishes this is by focusing on the technical performance of buildings, including the materials used to construct them and the systems (like wall, floor, roof, and mechanical systems) that comprise the total built project. This focus must take into account all the varied interactions between different elements that make up the overall building system, such as rain on the exterior wall, foot traffic on the carpet, indoor humidity on the woodwork. The list goes on forever, but the common theme is “how does (or how will) one phenomena influence and interact with another one in the built environment of the constructed project?”
Over time, building systems have become more complicated, buildings are increasingly required to be more airtight and insulated to higher levels, and they are expected to use less energy. As a result, building durability, occupant comfort and health, and energy consumption have become greater stakes in the process of designing, constructing and operating a building. Building Science exists to meet these challenges.
Q. How does it fit into the Preconstruction services KA provides?
Jon Porter: The Building Science Group at KA is an independent support team that works in close collaboration with the Preconstruction team to deliver value added services to our clients and project partners. A few of the shared values between the Preconstruction Group and the Building Science Group are defining a common understanding of the project up front, putting in place initial strategies to enable the project to be done right the first time, and overall helping to ensure that the project is set up for success before “shovels hit the ground.”
Similar to the MEP Support Services Group (also part of the Preconstruction Group), the Building Science Group is experienced and equipped to provide assistance across all phases of a building’s life cycle. This extends from planning and design, construction and commissioning, all the way through to and including building operations and maintenance, modification and rehabilitation/repair, preservation and conservation, and final disposition of the building.
Q. How/why did this discipline evolve out of the discipline of Quality?
Jon Porter: Building science and Quality are very closely related to each other – not in the sense that they are separate efforts with common threads, but rather that one of them is a very focused discipline that leverages the principles of the other as a framework.
At Kraus-Anderson, we believe that Quality means meeting our clients’ requirements and exceeding their expectations through continuous improvement in everything we do. While the Quality culture at KA has developed and matured over the past decade under the leadership of Mike Spence, a trend has exhibited itself in the construction industry with increasing clarity.
Quality issues at the project execution level, whether during design, construction, or post-occupancy, will usually have one or more situation-specific technical components to them. These components are on the “nuts and bolts” level of understanding, and are centered around a need to anticipate outcomes before a solution is determined. To effectively resolve issues in those situations requires a granular knowledge and expertise beyond the global principles of Total Quality Management. At Kraus-Anderson, the response to that need is the formation of the Building Science Group. As Vice President of our Building Science Group, Mike has been instrumental in laying the foundation that we are now building on.
Quality is the tackle box; building science is the gear
While Building Science does get into the weeds on concepts such as material science, climatology or heat and mass transport, it is important to recognize that Building Science will not be effective if it is applied without consideration of Quality and Continuous Improvement. One way of visualizing this is to consider a tackle box. The tackle box is the framework, or the system that enables you to sort and organize your fishing tackle. The actual gear itself inside the tackle box are the tools you use catch the fish. Quality provides us with the framework of process that enables us to operate in a standardized and repeatable way, while Building Science provides us with the situation-specific know-how and technical perspective that are essential if we want an optimized end result.
Q. How does KA’s Building Science Group add value to a project?
Jon Porter: In very broad terms, we work alongside the project team to identify and then avoid future potential problems with the constructed work before the work is put into place. This idea is very much in keeping with the philosophy of “measure twice, cut once”.
By having an understanding of how building systems perform across their life cycle, we can advise clients, design professionals, and project teams on potential gaps between expected results and probable results. By being able to communicate the challenges associated with constructing those systems as they are envisioned, we can advise on relative risks at the detail, assembly, or system level.
Additionally, similar to our General Superintendents, we can act as a conduit for knowledge sharing and lessons learned between active projects and towards future projects.
Q. Talk about some of the services provided.
Jon Porter: Generally speaking, we act as a resource at the project level for constructability, building materials technology, sequencing, proper installation techniques, and suitable methods for validating the conformance of installed work. And of course, we provide project related troubleshooting during all phases of a building’s life cycle.
Following are just a few of the numerous specialized services we can provide to projects:
Constructability Reviews and Detail Implementation
Design Drawings and Specifications tell us how the project should look after it is complete, but do not necessarily provide a roadmap of how to get there. For projects with challenging exterior building envelopes, the Building Science Group can help the Contractor and Subcontractor team assess the contract documents to ensure that the project can be built to its design intent while meeting its requirements for performance and service life. A successful constructability review can provide timely feedback to the design team, can identify potential issues or questions before they become critical, and can help all project participants manage their risk.
Building Materials and System Selection Process
Manufacturers and suppliers are constantly retiring old products and bringing new ones to market. New methods of doing work and new assembly or system compositions are constantly being introduced in the industry. The Building Science Group can help optimize the selection of building materials and systems, based on scientific analysis, durability and performance criteria. By understanding building systems and material applications, we can better manage and align the project decisions with the owner’s long-term objectives.
For a long time, it’s been recognized that increasing the amount of work performed in the manufacturing environment away from the field environment can provide incremental benefits in the areas of quality, cost, and schedule. In cases where a benefit can be realized and where it makes sense, we can help incorporate prefabricated components into the design solution, such as exterior enclosure assemblies or pre-fabricated modular components. In these efforts, the Building Science Group can serve as a facilitator between the design team, suppliers/manufacturers, and installers to ensure a collaborative process that will meet project goals and incorporate stakeholder’s objectives.
Sequencing and Performance Mock-ups
Often times, the procedure or the composition of a system or an assembly can benefit from a “dress rehearsal” – how will it come together? What are the correct steps? Who needs to do what and when? Other times, a system or assembly is complicated enough or “new” enough to warrant air, water and structural load testing on the “dress rehearsal” sample to validate performance expectations for the actual project work, and so a performance mock-up is built and tested. For both site built sequencing mockups and laboratory built performance mock-ups, the Building Science Group can help the project team coordinate and define the mock-up scope, criteria, schedule and testing protocols and oversee implementation, testing, and documentation of the results.
Q. Are there any examples you can share in which the work of Building Science contributed to the success of the project, and how?
Jon Porter: On one project, an exterior wall system assembly was specified with a membrane joint tape/flashing tape that had a history of questionable adhesion performance. The Building Science Group assisted the project team in testing the adhesion of the specified tape material. In conjunction with testing the specified tape, several alternate membrane tapes were tested to determine their suitability for use in the assembly. The Building Science Group was able to recommend to the project team an alternative product with optimal adhesion and fastener sealability characteristics. As a result, the specification was modified and the building envelope was built to a higher level of integrity and durability.
During the submittal phase on another project, the Building Science Group identified several compound framing conditions that would drive a need for larger building movement accommodation at the perimeter of curtainwall framing areas. In some cases, the actual movement requirements turned out to be 300% more that what the project team had been aware of. The Building Science Group was able to highlight these areas to the design team and the subcontractor, and as a result the field installation was able to be detailed with adequate boundary conditions that would prevent premature failure of the curtainwall system.
On a different project, the Building Science Group identified several exterior wall conditions that could be subject to condensation risk on the building’s interior due to the configuration of materials at aluminum framed openings. In these conditions, visible condensation would not acceptable to the building owner so the Building Science Group obtained thermal modeling services to determine the risk of condensation. Based on the results of the modeling, the Building Science Group was able to make recommendations for modifying opening details to eliminate the condensation risk at the affected openings.
Q. What’s in the future for Building Science?
Jon Porter: Building Science will continue to gain significance and prominence in the design and construction professions, as building codes and owners/end users move towards higher expectations for building performance. Decisions made during design, construction, and operation of buildings will continue to affect what the true life cycle costs are for those buildings, and whether those buildings experience problems. We feel that this is a great opportunity for Kraus Anderson, and a great time to focus on what will increasingly become a critical component of commercial building projects.