Title: A house needs to breathe… doesn’t it?
Author: Allison Bailes III
Publisher: Light communication
Publication date: October 2022
Page number: 360
It is common among book reviewers not to disclose the plot of a book in the review and not to require anyone to buy it for the resolution. But a new book by physicist and building expert Allison Bailes III begs the question right in the title: “A house needs to breathe…or does it?” The answer, on page 23, is: “A house DOES NOT need to breathe.”
I mean, really, no tension at all. Why continue?
Possibly because it’s the most entertaining and accessible book yet written on the mysterious world of building science, covering everything you need to know about how a house works. It’s an odd book in many ways, both readable and technical. For whom is that? Bailes tries to explain in the preface:
“Is this book for you? Maybe. It’s not a book for absolute beginners in building science, although you can still get a lot out of it if you are. And it is not an engineering textbook, although engineers will use it. The person who will benefit most from this book is a residential building professional (architect, engineer, contractor, building contractor, real estate agent, home inspector, etc.), a builder, a Handyman or a motivated homeowner. it will help to have some kind of technical background or aptitude.”
It might help, but it’s certainly not necessary if you’re interested in the subject, and anyone thinking about a new home or repairing an old one will get the technical background they need. Take a technical topic like the difference between absorption and adsorption.
I had never quite figured it out until reading Bailes’ explanation:
“Something that is adsorbed sticks to the surface. Something that is absorbedhowever, is pulled into the volume. A cake thrown in your face is adsorption. A cake you eat is absorption.” That’s an analogy I’ll never forget.
Bailes has always been good at explaining complex concepts in a way that anyone can understand. The best-known example is his explanation of mean radiant temperature, an understanding of which is critical to the design of comfortable spaces. Bailes titles his statement “Naked People Need Building Science” and includes an illustration that probably destroyed his Google ranking forever, but as one reader noted in my post on the subject: “Thanks, Allison Bailes, for the link to that Man in socks jumping onto a bed in front of a window in a green room. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this picture.” With words and pictures, Bailes can explain the most difficult concepts.
And explain what it does, starting with what gives us a healthy and comfortable home and basic questions like “What is energy” and even “What is the purpose of a house?” Then he moves through the building envelope, understanding moisture, controlling liquid water, controlling air and controlling water vapor. Bailes’ expertise lies in mechanical systems, so there’s a lot of nonsense about ducts and ventilation.
Throughout the book, Bailes emphasizes the importance of the building envelope and the importance of reducing demand first. “Reducing household energy use is more important than adding photovoltaic panels to generate electricity, especially if you can do it with less embodied carbon.”
He doesn’t throw technology at the problem, but takes up the approach of engineer Robert Bean: “Design for people, and good buildings will follow.” It’s always amazing how few people understand this. He dislikes “rules of thumb” and old myths like breathing houses, but he doesn’t bury the reader in psychometric tables and diagrams. It won’t teach you how to do heat loss calculations, but it will teach you why they are important.
Finally, Bailes sums up the real meaning of this book. “We don’t all have to become experts in building science. But we need to know enough to find the right companies to design, build, maintain and remodel our homes.”
These things can get complicated and very few professionals or craftsmen can handle it all. Yes, you should seal a house tightly, but then you have to figure out how to control the air inside. Bailes sums up the whole book in the last few sentences: “There’s at least one thing you should feel confident about. A house does NOT need to breathe.
Writing a book is hard, and so is publishing it. Remarkably, Bailes wrote most of this book alone, without a traditional publisher. So much work has gone into this book and it could very well become an essential text in the industry and the Allison Bailes III pension fund. Put it on a shelf next to A Pretty Good House and you’ll be familiar with the basics of home design and building science. It is available at the Energy Vanguard Store.