Being Wrong

On the recommendation of a colleague, I have been reading Kathryn Schulz's book, Being Wrong. A summary of the book is presented in this TED talk.  

As it turns out, the feeling you have when you are wrong is the same feeling you have when you are right - just before you realize that you are wrong. It is the realization that we are wrong that makes us feel badly about ourselves. But until we have that realization we all march along contentedly feeling we are right, up to the point when we realize we are actually wrong. We need to embrace our mistakes to learn and move forward; they are a key part of the process of gaining knowledge. Being wrong is part of the human condition.

On reflection I realize that I have spent a lot of my career (and my life) being wrong. When I was working at my design professor's office in architecture school we thought if we put massive faces of glass on the south we could heat buildings with the sun....but we forgot about cooling, and those buildings badly overheated. We also miscalculated the response of the marketplace. Not many people wanted to live in what looked like a science experiment. We thought R-value in insulation was the most important factor in keeping buildings warm, when air-infiltration was every bit as important. 

When we started building ASHRAE 90.1 models for LEED and we thought we were saving energy... but we were forgetting about the realities of construction. We made buildings that were better than standard in the model but they were not the strong performers our models predicted they would be. Our models were also not as detailed as they needed to be. In many of our renovation projects we ran a new layer of metal studs on the inside of the outer wall and sprayed insulation behind them to isolate them thermally but completely missed that they were still sitting on the floor slab and cold was being wicked up through the bottom plate. 

Enter Passive House and once again there is the chance to be wrong. Most everyone in our office thinks Passive House is the greatest thing since sliced bread... and it is. But it is apparent there are many ways we will likely be wrong again. There is no doubt that the wide variety of climates in North America will lead us to different solutions than exist in Europe. Our humidity and our vast spectrum of temperatures make it necessary to understand Passive House deeply on a regional level. Baton Rouge has completely different challenges from Portland, Maine, and even Pittsburgh is significantly different than it's neighbors Cleveland and Baltimore. There is also the persistent slow and steady increase in plug-loads that makes the focus on heating and cooling a partial answer to energy consumption in buildings. What about radon, indoor contaminants and ventilation, and water migration in walls? Does it make sense to pursue Passive House in every climate and every building, or are there some buildings where other strategies are better? The application to commercial projects raises even more complex questions to be answered. 

Given that, it is obvious that Passive House will look very different in a decade than it does now. We're reminded how important it is to keep our eyes focused on building science issues. So, while we are celebrating the greatest thing since sliced bread, let's remember that we our willingness to be wrong (and learn from it) will only advance us faster and farther.