How to learn the language of building science and become a better architect
Architects receive an expansive classroom education, but there is much knowledge that can only be gained on the job site.
There’s no doubt that knowing the ins and outs of building science and technical processes can make you a better architect, at ease working with contractors and making on-the-spot decisions.
But not every architect gets the same exposure to those concepts early on.
Christine Williamson started Building Science Fight Club when she realized she was getting a wealth of job site knowledge, and wanted to share it with her peers as they studied for the AREs.
What began as a way to catalog building science knowledge for a small group of people evolved into an Instagram account with over 70,000 followers.
Here’s how you can embrace building science in order to open your mind and grow your career.
At Building Science Fight Club, Christine is building a culture that encourages conversation - including disagreements.
Christine explained that authentic dialogue adds value to everyone watching.
“If in the name of respect, we didn't respect each other enough to have that kind of honesty and glossed over it, then people watching that would be ill-equipped to then deal with the condition when they come across it in their professional practice,” she said.
Everyone hates getting to the job site and being ambushed about a decision.
If you draw something that you think is reasonable and achievable, you don’t want the first push back to come on the job site.
Christine welcomes disagreement because it illuminates for everyone, herself included, which techniques elicit strong opinions or controversy.
“Even if you disagree with me, at least you'll know this is something that's controversial,” she said.
“Knowing that it's controversial is a signal that, okay, I need to understand this more. I need to go seek out other information or other voices.”
Since her Instagram followers are spread out around the country, it also illustrates different practices in different regions.
Favor technical knowledge over soft skills
Soft skills, like clear communication techniques, are good to have. But on the job site, those soft skills take a backseat to technical knowledge.
If you’re on the fence about what skillset to develop next, choose to enhance technical knowledge every time.
It can be a risk to show up at a job site and not be well-versed in the technical processes. This is especially true if you’re working with an opinionated contractor.
If you know your stuff, you can respond confidently in those situations.
“When you're not sure of the technical stuff, you're either compliant because you don't want to be humiliated, or you're too conservative,” Christine said. “Or you say no to stuff that actually is genuinely a really good idea and might make the job more efficient, perform better, cost less money.”
You might miss opportunities to make even better decisions than what you planned, simply because you don't understand basic building science.
Become more open-minded
A technical foundation goes a long way in making you more confident and capable of standing up for your ideas.
It also makes you a better listener when you’re introduced to the ideas of others.
“If you've got a good technical foundation, somebody with a different opinion, it's not a threat to your entire role on the job, your authority,” Christine said.
If you go in with a deep understanding, you will embrace the times when you’re wrong. Because rather than being embarrassed, you’ll be curious. You’ll want to know when you’re wrong, and why.
Knowledge gives you the confidence needed to always recognize the best approach, regardless of where the idea comes from.
“I'm not humiliated, because I have a good technical foundation,” Christine said. “I was asking the right questions before I came up with a solution.”
Christine hopes that Building Science Fight Club helps to reduce embarrassment on the job site by providing resources and experience before various scenarios happen.
“My hope is that people can use the Instagram page, my classes, and the discussion,” she said. “They're gaining experience in a form that's not on a job site in front of their boss, in front of their client.”
Choose between good options
Building science is not actually a science. It’s about weighing the performance and risks of many different viable options.
There is a lot of room for disagreement, because it’s not black and white.
“What we're engaged in is architecture. We use building science as a tool to help us make decisions about performance and risks,” Christine said.
We use it to choose between different, competing values, all of them good.
“Making the best use of your resources is a good thing,” Christine said. “You have to decide among all of these good things that I value, what's the most appropriate use of resources?”
There is nuance to architecture and building science. But the deeper your understanding of the physics and technical aspects of the job, the better prepared you are to make any given decision.
For example: do you know how your systems manage water, manage air, manage energy? Many young architects don't have the answer.
If you don’t have a good framework for thinking about those questions, it becomes much less clear how to proceed.
“They're debating how many details are on a sheet or not,” Christine said. “And that's not the real issue. It's how well do I actually understand this myself?”
That’s where learning building science helps you to be more capable and sure in your decisions, from design to execution.
Embrace continued professional development
There are ways in which architecture school could be improved, but Christine doesn’t think that building science necessarily needs to star in the curriculum.
“It wouldn't make any sense,” Christine said. “None, zero. I think it would be a limited benefit to address the entirety of this problem for students in the field.”
What Christine does think should be emphasized is that each architect has a personal responsibility to pursue continuing education after they graduate.
“This is really pretty hard stuff,” she said. “It's your responsibility to continue as a professional, to continue to learn, and to be in charge of your own education.”
Perhaps too much responsibility has been given to manufacturers to draw out details or provide training in lunch and learn events.
That’s why Christine’s so invested in Building Science Fight Club - because it gives architects a way to learn what they need, and continue to learn for as long as they practice.
Slowly expand your building science vocabulary
Ready to kick off your building science education? Christine recommends starting with the fundamentals.
Christine’s courses start by teaching students how to reframe their approach so that they can execute their intent with technical knowledge.
Architects might say that they need an air barrier in a design and think they need to learn more about that. But Christine says don’t feel pressured to start with specifics.
“Do you need the air barrier or do you need a comfortable interior environment?” Christine said. “When you understand the function behind this stuff, what building science is for first, you can build a framework for understanding the rest of it.”
She said it’s like learning a foreign language. Some people might start by memorizing a bunch of phrases like “where is the bathroom?”
Yes, those phrases will be valuable on your vacation.
But if you take it a step further and start getting comfortable with the grammar, you can begin to express original thoughts.
The same is true for building science. With a strong foundation and a solid building vocabulary, you can come up with original, effective designs.
Once you build that foundation, enhanced confidence, innovation, and project execution will follow.
Join us on Thursday, March 4th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Christine Williamson of Building Science Fight Club. Christine provides technical design consulting services to architects, developers, and contractors, assisting with design development and reviewing details and specifications to improve durability, comfort, and energy efficiency. She also teaches architects, architects-in-training, and other building industry professionals about building science and construction in an online course where you can earn AIA continuing education credits. On her popular Instagram account, Christine shares mini-lessons, detail drawings, and marked-up construction photos of projects where an active community of 69.9k followers ask questions in the comments and share their experiences from the field.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Christine about her work as a technical consultant and her unique approach to teaching building science to architects.
- How she helps offices de-risk technical aspects of their designs and details
- Christine's lessons learned from discussing construction details on social media
- and more!