Craftsman approach vs. building science approach

One of the deepest philosophical divides I’ve noticed in the building community is between what I’d call the “craftsman approach” and the “building science approach.” Both are intended to result in high-quality structures, but the gulf between these schools of thought can be pronounced and results from fundamentally different beliefs about where knowledge comes from. Many folks in the building community lean more toward one camp or the other, and understanding this dichotomy can be helpful.

Craftsman approach vs. building science approach Craftsman approach vs. building science approach Craftsman approach vs. building science approach

On one side is what I’d call the “craftsman approach,” in which building knowledge largely comes from tradition and experience. This approach is embodied by your old-school craftsman builder who cares about materials, measures twice, gets his or her cuts right, and fusses over the details. The merits of this approach are obvious. The problem, however, is that building technology has progressed enormously over recent decades and has left some old-school craftsmen behind. Some craftsmen may still endorse faulty or risky ideas (“Buildings need to breathe”) or appeals to experience (“But I’ve always done it this way”) over current ways of thinking. Old-school craftsmanship is rare and valuable, but in many respects the building world isn’t very old-school anymore.

On the other side is the “building science approach.” This perspective holds that building knowledge should be empirical and derived from data. The building science approach embraces new ideas, tools, materials, and technologies. Building science has helped displace a number of unsupported or bad ideas and produced a staggering amount of innovation in everything ranging from insulation strategies to indoor air quality to sustainability to new building materials. So what’s not to love? Well, building science is science–and science sometimes gets things wrong. Traditional methods start to look appealing again when your “new and improved” method inadvertently results in a roof failure. Moreover, practices endorsed by the building science community can be expensive, difficult to learn or implement, or lack the long-term track record of more traditional practices.

Posted June 1, 2021.

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