No, I’m not thinking of your grandfather’s hand saw . . . the one that cuts on the push stroke instead of on the pull stroke like the excellent Japanese hand saws. 


   Nor am I thinking of the beautiful (cast aluminum?) circular saws made by Rockwell right here in Syracuse for many years, but long since largely replaced by inexpensive tools made out of plastic and chewing gum.

(There are of course plenty of excellent tools out there, but they are now the exception, not the rule.)


    I’m thinking of the apparently universal truisms that are known as “old saws.”  Right now I’m doing ten or so energy audits each week in the “Green Jobs Green NY” program, where the state pays the accredited contractor to conduct a comprehensive audit (leading, as you might imagine, to an opportunity to propose improvements).  The homeowner typically pays nothing for the audit, but may want to make the upgrades recommended on the basis of the audit results. The program is yet another example of why New York State is seen as a leader in the world of building performance on the retrofit (a/k/a remodeling) side.


    Two old saws turn up in each and every audit as I go through an introduction to how houses work.  That’s not counting the almost universal ”I know my windows are leaky,” or the almost equally common “I have all new beautiful windows, but the house is still expensive to heat/cool.”


 It’s fun to begin by asking the homeowner a question:  “Does heat rise?”  All of them look at me as if I were out of my mind and answer with a condescending version of “yes”; the answer is always delivered to convey the fact that they are way too smart to get that one wrong.


    I freely confess that it’s a sucker punch.


    “Sorry,” I reply.  “Heat does not rise.  Warm air rises.  Heat goes from warmer to colder, regardless of what direction it must travel to do so.”


    “As a matter of fact,” I add (just to rock the boat a bit more), “there is no such thing as ‘cold.’  Cold is merely the absence of heat.”  Admittedly, some homeowners drift off at this point into a parallel universe where whatever is on TV is more important than anything this weird old guy with the funny-looking test instruments might have to say.


    The ones who are not direct descendants of a cross between Neanderthal Man and Homer Simpson generally get it, and off we go on a merry journey through conduction, convection, and radiation; air pressure in buildings; safe combustion appliances; and how their homes can be safer, more comfortable, more energy-efficient, and more durable.  On a good day, a contract is signed for improvements, and everybody wins.


   Somewhere along the line, the second old saw rears its ugly head:  “But houses have to breathe!” 


    Ummm . . . no.  People have to breathe.  Houses are made out of  inanimate stuff.  They just sit there until we screw them up. 


    This occurs rapidly if we build them poorly out of cheap materials or slowly if we build them well out of good materials.  Either way, the real enemy is water in vapor, liquid, or solid form. 


    Breathing is something living creatures do.  It’s about obtaining the right mixture of gases in air (or water for sea creatures) to support life.  People and other animals are combustion appliances, and they have a lot more in common with furnaces, water heaters, cars, and motorcycles (there was an old TV show called “My Mother the Car”) than they do with houses.   All of the above need a steady supply of a fluid (air or water) to keep them running.  Buildings just sit there.


Houses don’t need anything but thoughtful use and regular maintenance when occupied. They are the equivalent of a cave with doors, windows, and a widescreen TV. That’s why the expression “man cave” is (kind of) funny.


Caves don’t need to breathe to be durable, and houses would be perfectly happy and durable in a vacuum.


    You could take your house and wrap it completely in Saran Wrap like a big, stinky (but delicious) onion that you want to save in the fridge for later.  Wrap it so nothing gets in or out.  Just as you don’t dry out the onion for storage, neither do you dry out the house.  Nor do you soak the onion, so neither should you soak the house.  Thirty to forty percent humidity is about right.


    Now put the house someplace where the sun can’t beat down on it and the temperature is moderate . . . call it 68 degrees . . . and go away for a while.  You can come back in two days, two weeks, two years, or two centuries, and the house will be right there, ready to be unwrapped and moved back into.  It wasn’t bothered at all by not breathing.  Try that with your mother-in-law. 


    So let’s forget about the house breathing and concentrate instead on fresh air for you and the cat or dog.  Let’s in fact make the place as tight as possible and provide fresh air mechanically.  We don’t want to bring the outside inside; we want to keep the outside outside. 


    Nor is this in any way inconsistent with the business of remodeling.  Building performance (as I may have mentioned once or twice in the past) should be a basic component of remodeling, right there alongside the paint color fan decks, the whiz-bang kitchen faucets, fancy trim, and breath-taking door hardware.


   When all is said and done, and time lumbers on into the future, the building performance component may turn out to be the most important part of all.


    Just sayin’.

An edited version of this blog appeared in the December 2011 issue of Remodeling Magazine.  It is posted here with the permission of the editor.

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Comment by Glen Gallo on February 14, 2012 at 11:03pm


Always a pleasure reading your posts. Having not commented before I want to just say thank you.

Comment by Dale@EnergyWright on February 11, 2012 at 10:41am

Hi Ed. Interesting perspective, no cold, just less heat.  Now I've got to teach that a blower door doesn't depressurize a house, it makes it less pressurized than the outdoors. Oy.  I could argue that heat sometimes rises because of how it affects a fluid such that the affected fluid rises and carries the heat energy along with it. Or the area in a solid above the heat is less hot, hence the heat rises by moving to the area with less heat.  But all that really starts to get convoluted.

I like your response to "a house has to breath" saw.  I usually respond with, "If it's 20 below outside with a 20 mile an hour wind, are you going to sit in your house shivering and be happy that your house is breathing?"

Not likely.

"Do you want to be in charge of how well your 'house breathes', or do you want Mother Nature to be in charge?"

This exchange usually opens the door to a discussion about air sealing, IAQ, and HRVs.

Keep the good stuff coming.  Giving auditors, contractors, and educators the tools for educating clients and building owners is key to growing our industry and improving building efficiency.


Comment by Ed Minch on February 9, 2012 at 1:21pm

Love the post.  We tried the Saran Wrap in the 80's and it rotted houses because it became the condensable surface.  We all know what you meant, but be careful of what you say in front of the gulliberati

another Ed

Comment by Peter Troast on February 4, 2012 at 12:56pm

Ed, Thanks for taking on "houses need to breathe" so well. That old saw, IMO, is the biggest myth we all need to overcome.

Comment by Don Ames on January 30, 2012 at 1:28am

Hey Ed, thanks for sharing the old saws. Anytime an old Onion is compared to a house covered in plastic wrap, something good has to happen. Never heard home performance explained like that before. My guess, you enjoy the challenges of a good home energy audit. Have a good day and don't smother your mother-in-law.  Don Ames,

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