Buildings Don’t Lie (Energy Saving Press, 2017) is available for $75 from buildingsdontlie.com.
Buildings Don’t Lie (Energy Saving Press, 2017) is available for $75 from buildingsdontlie.com.

Anyone working in any capacity on residential or commercial buildings of any size should read Buildings Don’t Lie. It’s not the easiest read, to be sure. It’s dense in the sense that it is packed solid with information and takes a diligent effort on the part of the reader. But Henry Gifford does an admirable job of presenting concepts precisely and then walking the reader through concrete examples. As we follow the path Gifford has laid out, our understanding gradually unfolds in breadth and depth around each topic. Reading this book for an extended period, I felt a little like I do after visiting a museum or gallery, learning how an artist sees the world and then walking out on the street seeing the world in a slightly different way.

Reading Gifford’s work, I find myself adopting his methodical way of articulating ideas. More importantly, I begin looking at buildings in a new way. Evidence of how they might be performing in the presence of heat, air, and water appears. I recognize how these elements combine as weather and indoor environments to transform and move through a building. I see how light and sound respond, and imagine how fire and deadly smoke might spread.

The book is packed with photos of existing buildings showing telltale signs of how all those forces have manifested on building materials, and that is where this book proves most valuable. Anyone with an interest in sleuthing out building-performance problems will benefit from taking the long journey through this book’s 564 pages, and later using its detailed and innovative “glindex”—a combined glossary and index. In it, Gifford provides definitions of terms along with page citations; this proves useful as a learning tool and as a resource for those of us still learning the terms and wanting to surf back to the graphics that show how these terms apply to building performance.

The bulk of the book is organized into twin chapters addressing theory first, followed by practice: One chapter frames key scientific principles (of heat, air, water, light, sound, fire, and pests), followed by a chapter that explores in photos and drawings specific applications of those principles at work. The knowledge conveyed in these twin chapters is combined in later chapters to address building enclosures, indoor air quality, and heating and cooling systems (three key chapters for the majority of readers). This organization provides an effective way to build knowledge. Buildings Don’t Lie would likely make an effective textbook for many introductory building design courses, but it also has a place as a resource for those of us not pursuing an academic path to building knowledge.

Transformative Information

Henry Gifford is no stranger to building science, but he has always been solidly rooted in hands-on work. He’s been a mainstay of the New York City plumbing and heating world longer than JLC has been in existence. (JLC started as New England Builder in 1983; Gifford started work as the East Side Energy Company in 1982.) During his professional career, he’s made significant technical contributions, including a formula that simplifies the sizing of pipes and pumps for hydronic heating systems (For more on this, see PDF).

Water details in masonry buildings. Caulk alone doesn't work.
Water details in masonry buildings. Caulk alone doesn't work.
This sill has an end dam. Better, but water can still leak behind it.
This sill has an end dam. Better, but water can still leak behind it.
On this end dam, the stucco covering it will wick water.
On this end dam, the stucco covering it will wick water.
The last option is the best but is still not perfect. See why?
The last option is the best but is still not perfect. See why?

Each year since its inception, he’s participated in the Building Science Symposium (an event hosted by Joe Lstiburek, the "dean of North American building science," where building-science movers and shakers the world over gather for “summer camp” to explore new ideas and debate old ones). One year, he and architect Chris Benedict enacted a skit to demonstrate the “Perfect Energy Code,” a proposed building regulation that requires just three numbers—the square footage of the building, the heating equipment size, and the cooling equipment size—to show compliance. At the 2008 Building Science Symposium, Gifford gave a scathing critique of green building rating systems, a report that centered on USGBC’s LEED system. (You can read Gifford's report here.) Gifford eventually filed a class-action lawsuit against the USGBC, demonstrating that the energy performance of LEED-certified buildings tends to be worse than the majority of non-certified buildings. No one ever successfully disputed his claim, but the suit was thrown out of court because Gifford wasn’t advocating a competing rating system and the court could find no basis for damages. (So who needs lawsuits? It's what's true that matters. Lstiburek cites Gifford as the person who asked the hard questions here.)

As you can gather from these examples, Gifford comes up with bold, transformative ideas, and he is not at all shy about presenting them. Buildings Don’t Lie is infused with the same revolutionary spirit. For example, in “Heat: Basic Science,” we learn how heat moves. In most building-science texts, we are introduced to the ways sensible heat moves—by conduction, convection, and radiation. Gifford is not afraid to turn up the flame on our understanding of the basics: He adds latent heat to this discussion and (stickler that he is for scientific precision) is clear to point out that convection is not a flow of energy from molecule to molecule, but a movement of heat-carrying fluids. Fortunately, he is also quick to not get too bogged down in minutiae, adding, “Whatever the count, all are important ...”

Buildings Don’t Lie is peppered with picture quizzes. This one points to the siding under the eaves of the porch (blue arrow) and asks why it is more weathered than the siding on the main house (red arrow). No spoilers here; you’ll have to buy the book.
Buildings Don’t Lie is peppered with picture quizzes. This one points to the siding under the eaves of the porch (blue arrow) and asks why it is more weathered than the siding on the main house (red arrow). No spoilers here; you’ll have to buy the book.

There are a number of brand-new practical ideas in this book. Gifford shows us how to use a laser pointer to check if windows have a low-e coating, and how to determine exactly which glazing surfaces are coated. And in the final chapter, he offers developers of large multifamily and office buildings radical advice on eliminating ventilation served through forced-air heating systems by installing separate ERVs on each floor instead. It’s a way not only to provide more-efficient ventilation, but also to gain one extra floor from the space normally taken up by the ventilation for three floors. Urban developers ought to be thrilled about gaining more rentable space.

Gifford is a product of New York City and he is best at describing urban masonry buildings. Some of his descriptions will be frustrating for folks who work in single-family detached homes. For example, in describing how to air-seal drywall, he seems to ignore that most homes framed with precut studs leave enough space along the bottom edge of the drywall so you can lift the second panel with a kicker. The idea of caulking the bottom edge of drywall panels to the floor would be impossible for many drywall crews.

Gifford, in his ultra-principled manner, also avoids any mention whatsoever of product names in the book and the word acrobatics he performs to describe, for example, Zip System, adds to the confusion that a reader might already experience grappling with new concepts.

I don’t think any such limitations should dissuade you from taking time to study this book. This is not a how-to manual or a field guide of building details and reference data. Critiquing Gifford’s analysis on linguistic grounds, or finding places where his experience varies with regional building practices, misses the point. This book requires study and patience. If you are willing to immerse yourself in its pages, it will change the way you think about buildings. Then you won’t need a book; you can apply your own insights to solve real-world, ever-present problems in buildings of all sizes.