Building science is agnostic, which is to say what’s good for commercial construction in building materials is also good for residential construction, and vice versa.
By Sean O’Keefe
PART SCIENTIST, PART DREAMER, THOUGH HE RARELY SWINGS A HAMMER OR TURNS A SCREW, Lucas Hamilton is a builder at heart. Hamilton is the Manager of Applied Building Science at CertainTeed. He has devoted his career to pursuing balance at the intersection of physics and materiality for the benefit of all.
“The homes we live in, the buildings we occupy, are all made of many different parts and pieces, building materials of one sort or another,” says Hamilton. He has been in commercial building materials for more than 30 years — the last 18 with CertainTeed, a North American manufacturer of building materials for residential and commercial construction. CertainTeed’s line of building solutions is extensive. Ranging from roofing, siding, solar and decking on the exterior to insulations, drywall and acoustical materials on the inside, wherever the building envelope meets the world beyond, there is a CertainTeed product for the situation. “At the macro-level, a home is a system that must interact with the exterior environment. It needs to be able to breathe, to transpire, and now more than ever, it must stand up to tremendous environmental pressures. My job is to apply the physics of building science to understand why things work and how various materials work together to achieve continual improvement.”
The history of CertainTeed goes back more than 110 years. Founded in 1904 as a roofing company, CertainTeed is now a subsidiary of Saint-Gobain, a French multinational building products manufacturer whose roots trace back to 1665. Today CertainTeed and its affiliates have more than 6,300 employees and more than 60 manufacturing facilities throughout the United States and Canada.
“Building science is agnostic,” says Hamilton, “which is to say what’s good for commercial construction in building materials is also good for residential construction, and vice versa. The CertainTeed building science team takes all the leading-edge thinking and data from our larger global group and brings that to bear on the building solutions created for the North American markets.”
Hamilton points out that in any building envelope, moisture in any of its many forms is the first concern. Just as important, however, is the need for air to get in and out of the home.
“Starting from inside-out — from drywall, insulation and siding, our solutions work together cohesively to become a barrier between people and the environment,” says Hamilton. “Unfortunately, many homeowners aren’t aware of the human health and wellness concerns that affect our everyday lives due to poor air quality, moisture trapped within our walls, or material off-gassing that occurs over time as products age. While these materials may seem like just another commodity, if you look at two similar products closely, you’ll find that they are very different from one another.”
Hamilton is right; the differences between similar materials start with the raw materials used to make a product and their acquisition and extend all the way to how they perform in place over decades of use. Many material and product manufacturers develop and issue Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) to give designers genuine insight into a product’s lifelong environmental impacts. An EPD declares each product’s specific material ingredients, manufacturing processes, and end-of-use practices and consequences. Taking it a step further, in addition to a thoughtful analysis of a material’s environmental impact, reporting around wellness impacts is now being communicated by Health Product Declarations (HPD). Incorporated as a tool in several building certification programs including LEED and WELL Building Standard, an HPD communicates the individual chemicals that make up a product and possible health risks such as carcinogens or mutagens.
“Certainly, human health and wellness, environmental and operational sustainability are at the forefront of our concerns when developing or improving building materials,” says Hamilton. “We also must think ahead to future-proof our manufacturing processes. That involves considering chemistry or energy sources that will cease to be viable and emerging technologies that change how we work.”
The challenge of getting the best building solutions incorporated into a custom home or any other commercially built structure is that in having so many choices of materials, building systems and assembly mechanisms, architects and interior designers can be overwhelmed. CertainTeed’s approach to building science allows the design and construction community to tap into their global knowledge through the Applied Building Science group Hamilton manages.
“The architect is asked to be two miles wide and two miles deep on the number of different systems they must understand. Our Building Science group serves as a technical resource available to answer questions, provide supporting information, and even help building professionals evaluate products,” says Hamilton. He and a fleet of colleagues conduct countless Lunch-and-Learns, attend trade shows, and make office visits to design practices across North America to offer the Building Science Group as a reliable resource they can turn to. “Designers can tap into our knowledge of seven different divisions of the Construction Specifications Institute’s MasterFormat through a single point of contact. So, we help them get deep when they need to.”
Asked about what the consumer needs to know about the materials used to build their home, Hamilton suggests that the answer lies in the question.
“Resilience has always been top-of-mind at CertainTeed,” says Hamilton of the increasing need for homes and the materials they are made of to withstand intense environmental pressures. “Today’s homeowners tend to have less knowledge about how their home is built or how to maintain it. So, the need for basic durability is greater than ever. One of the things leading to increased levels of failure is unbalanced assemblies.”
Through CertainTeed’s Building Sciences Group designers can work with representatives on modeling and simulations of various assemblies and get guidance on how these configurations will react to regional climatic circumstances.
“We are committed to helping homeowners, designers and builders think ahead,” Hamilton continues. “Based on the last 30 years of data, what we used to call a 1,000-year storm is happening almost every year. Storms are changing and regional climates are changing. We must create assemblies that drain and dry so that as climates evolve, our homes are ready for it.”
CertainTeed’s concept of building for the future blends its broad portfolio of building materials with a conscious appreciation for the rapidly changing world around us. By placing people at the heart of good building science their solutions focus on ensuring optimal airflow, acoustics, temperature and energy efficiency for the people who live with their products, the people who specify them, and the people who put them all together.
“Builders play an important part in all of this as well,” shares Hamilton of the fourth leg of the building science equation. “A quality builder relies on quality products because they build with their past and future in mind. In a business where your reputation is everything, known durability, resiliency and reliability in the products they choose matter more in the long run than the purchase price. People who build custom homes appreciate quality building materials. They won’t use anything less.”
As for what’s next, Hamilton expects the process of continuous improvements in building science to continue as long as the process of building does.
“Building science is about the sum of the whole being greater than the parts,” finishes Hamilton. “Building science isn’t about the shingle or the drywall products by themselves but how all building solutions work together.”