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Building Science

An Interview with Building Science Pioneer Terry Brennan

Stories from the early days of building science and more

Terry Brennan of Camroden Associates is a true pioneer in the world of building science. He wrote computer programs to do energy modeling in the early 1980s, built superinsulated homes, and lost a bet with Joe Lstiburek.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard

Last week I got a chance to sit down and talk with Terry Brennan in Dallas at the ’s annual conference. He may not be as famous as Joe Lstiburek, but he’s every bit the building science pioneer. Armed with a physics degree, the ASHRAE Handbook of Fundamentals, and a desire to reduce the environmental impact of buildings, he built houses and wrote energy modeling computer programs back in the 1970s and ‘80s.

When he finally met Lstiburek in the early ‘80s, he learned not to bet against Joe’s ability to do ridiculous things. Read the transcript of our conversation and find out what that bet was and more.

The interview

Allison: How and when did you get into building science? Your background is physics, right?

Terry:  Yeah, I trained in physics at Northeastern in Boston back in the late 1960s.

Allison:  Undergrad degree? Graduate degrees?

Terry:  Undergrad. In 1977, I had gotten real interested in ecology and, of course, there weren’t any real graduate degrees in environmental science so I got a job as an interpretive naturalist at a wildlife sanctuary. I did that for several years and then both University of Michigan and Antioch offered master’s degrees in environmental science, so I went to Antioch and got a master’s degree.

Allison:  How did you go from there to buildings?

Terry:  Well, because of the oil embargoes in the ’70s, I had gotten real interested in the amount of energy buildings use and the impact of that energy use on the environment. We knew about it back then in the environmental field. So I got interested in buildings via sustainability. I came at it from the impact on ecological systems…

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  1. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    Thanks, Allison
    For a couple of decades, at any conference I've attended, I've always sought out the chance to hear a presentation by Terry Brennan. He's rather quiet and unassuming, and he is very smart and very funny. He has an offhand, dry sense of humor, delivered without any particular emphasis or showmanship.

    He is a fount of fascinating stories, and knows more about most building science topics that almost anyone. Thanks for a fun interview.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #2

    You're welcome!
    You're welcome, Martin! I've heard Terry speak several times, and he's always a pleasure to learn from. One of my favorite things that he includes sometimes is what he refers to as "the subliminal part of my presentation." That's what he says as he races through a bunch of slides toward the end of his talk because he's got too many slides for the amount of time remaining.

    And yes, he's a wealth of building science knowledge. At the 2011 Summer Camp, Terry, Gary Nelson, and Collin Olson did a full day on blower door testing, and this is what Joe said about the session: "Are you kidding? This is the 'Dream Team.' No one, and I mean no one knows more about air leakage testing of buildings than these folks."

  3. Norm Farwell | | #3

    aside on economics

    Allison: What is your biggest concern with buildings right now?
    Terry: You mean like building science stuff, not like the entire way we fund buildings is completely criminally insane?"

    I'd be curious to hear more about this intersection of economics and building science. Anybody know if Terry or anyone else has written on this in detail?

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #4

    Response to norm farwell
    Norm, one of the best explanations of this I've seen is in Stewart Brand's wonderful book, . See Chapter 6: Unreal Estate.

  5. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #5

    Nyserda Joe L. At West Point
    Nyserda Joe L. At West Point decades ago.... Is that when you met Joe Terry?

    That event changed my outlook on building.

    I like the point about stifling innovation via strict codes. I have mentioned it many times that in my area the enforcers enforce the use of poly that GBA says is absolutely wrong.

    Builders need full sets of free to use specs to build moisture safe superheated homes. GBA is a start to moisture smarts but mixing and matching GBA knowledge is worse than having no knowledge. Just read some of the Q&A and you'll see what I mean.

    So someone start a site with full sets of building specs. That is what is now truly in dire need. We builders love learning but our job is to read plans and build.
    Thanks for all you building scientists do for us.

  6. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #6

    Response to aj builder
    Joe did say it was in West Point. Were you one of the people laughing when Joe began the spider joke?

  7. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #7

    We were so entertained that
    We were so entertained that we had to attend another seminar to try to learn some building science.
    Somewhere I have an audio tape of that get together too!

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