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Community and Q&A

Is insulation overrated?

Carter McHugh | Posted in General Questions on

Hi everyone,
I was just wondering if anyone has ever read Insulating Modernism by Kiel Moe. The premise of the book is seemingly, as far as I can tell, a declaration that insulation is not an important aspect of green buildings… Basically the antithesis of everything mainstream building science advocates (to my knowledge at least), but it appears to be gaining traction in some circles, the author was even featured on the Building Science Podcast lately though this book wasn’t the main subject of discussion.

Do the arguments put forward in this book hold water or is it pseudo-science? I’m anxious to hear other opinions!

Thanks,
Carter

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Replies

  1. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #1

    Carter,

    I am not a Building scientist. If he is saying that insulation is subject to diminishing returns and other issues, such as air sealing, are important, I would agree (based on my limited understanding of “green” construction).

  2. Carter McHugh | | #2

    Thanks for the response Steve,
    I have not yet read the book but it appears tha Moe is arguing that the concept of of insulating a building is fundamentally flawed, for example he actually built a building (called stackhouse) that has walls of solid timber... That's it, no other layers, just wood all the way through, and he argues that this type of an approach is actually more sustainable somehow.
    Unfortunately his books are very verbose and conceptually dense but I was hoping someone here would be able to advise if the concepts presented are even worth digging into. It's not the most practical question as there are still codes that need to be met, but if my conception of insulation's role in sustainability is so misled I would like to be set straight!

  3. Malcolm Taylor | | #3

    Carter,

    Here is a link to an abstract by Harvard.

    I guess I'm getting dumber, or aways was. I can't understand what he is taking about.

  4. Carter McHugh | | #4

    Malcolm,
    Good to know I'm not the only one!
    I don't want to spend too much time deciphering this book if it's just a bunch of academic nonsense born of the "publish or perish" mindset, but if the bold claims about insulation's irrelevancy have any truth to them I would think it's something we should be talking about...

  5. Malcolm Taylor | | #5

    Carter,

    I think we should pressure Martin into wading through it.

  6. T Carlson | | #6

    "Very verbose and conceptually dense," is an understatement.

  7. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Full disclosure: I don't own this book.

    In addition to that Malcolm Taylor pointed out, interested GBA readers can . (His talk begins at 11 minutes 45 seconds.)

    If you are a practical person -- a builder, say -- Kiel Moe's language, refined in the corridors of Ivy League universities, will quickly drive you nuts. He has fallen down the rabbit hole, and become enamored of a type of discourse that is almost entirely divorced from the everyday world -- a self-referential type of speech aimed only at fellow academics. In the video, for example, he laments the fact that "pre-thermodynamic conceptions of energy dominate our pedagogy."

    If you ever wondered how architects managed to graduate from architecture school without understanding the fundamentals of building science -- practical details, like how to avoid condensation in roof assemblies -- Kiel Moe would be Exhibit A.

    I'm just guessing, but Kiel Moe appears worried not just about insulation, but also isolation. Insulation is bad, because it isolates. We all know that modernist architects want to dissolve the barrier between the indoors and the outdoors, which is why walls of glass were so prevalent in the 1950s.

    Transcribing Moe's words is painful, but as a service to the GBA community, I did a little transcription. Here's what Moe has to say: "The prime condition of this knowledge demands a different model of models. In my view, one deceptively innocent way to begin to see around our current model of models is a seemingly simple question: What causes something to appear the way it does today? The topic of appearance is an important step towards this other model. Appearance refers not only to the visual composition of something, but equally to the physical composition of something as well as its literal becoming and behavior, how something literally comes to appear in this world and act in this world. Buildings, landscapes, and urbanization do not appear out of nowhere, but rather from a very complex type of engenderment. As such, appearance challenges the most basic and obdurate epistemological limits of architecture."

    There may be more to what Kiel Moe has to say, but I don't think I'm going to spend $84 to buy the book.

  8. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    For a builder like me, Kiel Moe borders on self-parody -- the architect as total idiot. Listening to him is fascinating. He hasn't the foggiest idea what he sounds like. It's almost like he has a brain tumor or an unusual neurological condition. When I meet architects like this, I despair for architecture.

    Here's some more: "As such, it repays us to consider our models of causation at their deepest ontological levels that otherwise routinize our thoughts and practices. ... Regarding these models of causality and how they structure appearance in architecture, we need reference to a couple of philosophical models that are central to all of our work but typically remain unarticulated in schools of design. For instance, whether, again, in formal, technical, or urban terms, our most recurrent and traditional model of causality in architecture is perniciously hylomorphic. Hylomorphism is a transcendent model of the world, independent of matter and energy. It is model in which human ideas and forms are imposed upon seemingly inert matter and energy. It a teleological model that presumes that the planet exists as the substrate of human action and for the exertion of our will."

  9. Carter McHugh | | #9

    Thanks for the detailed response Martin,
    I guess Kiel Moe is just too "isolated" in his ivory tower... Oh well.

  10. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Carter,
    I wish I were the Czar of Architecture. Then I could command my minions! I would sentence Kiel Moe to four years as a laborer on a construction site. Perhaps he could specialize in removing fiberglass batts from damp crawl spaces. After a few years of training, he might be able to learn to install kickout flashing.

    Maybe. I'm not sure that he's the best person for detail work. I think his mind would tend to wander.

  11. Trevor Lambert | | #11

    Increasing levels of insulation do have diminishing returns, but they also have diminishing cost (or at least can, if you choose wisely). For example, dense packed cellulose has a low material cost, and the incremental increase in time to blow in 32" vs 20" in your attic is not a whole heck of a lot. We have an R120 roof, R60 floor and R50 walls, and I am glad of it. Very nice feeling to spend all day in the house without the heating coming on, despite being -10C outside.

  12. Trevor Lambert | | #12

    Just read the quotes from this Moe guy. Funny stuff. I think the invocation of Poe's Law might be appropriate here.

  13. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Trevor,
    If I understand correctly, Poe's Law refers to the difficulty of determining whether a statement on the Internet is a sincere statement or a parody.

    It's possible, of course, that Kiel Moe has posted a parody lecture -- that theory is about as likely as my brain tumor theory.

    But if it's a parody, he pulled it off without winking.

  14. Nick Welch | | #14

    This author has mastered the art of long-winded obfuscation. I keep wanting to yell at him: get to the point! I gave up before finding the point. I am guessing it is the "dissolving the barrier between the indoors and the outdoors" point of view Martin mentioned. It seems like maybe the author wants people to change their expectations of comfort and embrace the natural variations of the weather outside? That seems unrealistic...

  15. Carter McHugh | | #15

    It's an even more impressive gag when you consider how many books he's written in this style!
    There's a video on YouTube called "Kiel Moe, The Building Lecture Series" (the spam filter won't let me link) that I found to be a far more palatable explanation of his thesis. I guess it all boils down to embodied energy, which is probably fair, though I'm not sure if the indoor environmental quality of these boxes can live up to his claims. He says he doesn't need a heating system for the uninsulated Stackhouse even with several feet of snow outside, I suspect a night after a few consecutive cloudy days would lay that claim to rest.

  16. Malcolm Taylor | | #16

    Probably the most disconcerting thing I found about architecture school, was the disconnect between what architects claimed about their buildings, and the buildings themselves. Look at any current periodic and see if you can find one that doesn't claim to be sustainable or green - no matter what the building looks like or what features it includes. Architects as a group are wonderful bullshitters. Some people find that endearing. i find it a bit annoying.

  17. Andy CD Zone 5 - NW Ohio | | #17

    Back to the original proposition, that insulation is overrated, there's this Georgia-based brick mason who has been arguing the point for years. He's also been building, specializing in "mass wall" construction that he says is far more sustainable than the methods discussed on this site. He's worked with some techies at Clemson University in a study that he says "revealed significantly better performance than standard energy modeling provides, and we attribute this to an R-biased industry." Ouch! Are we an R-biased industry? What does that even mean? (I haven't seen this study published.)

    Clay Chapman writes at .

    I grew up in CZ 6; I once wrote to him and asked what possible relevance his concept of uninsulated structural brick (with fireplaces, usually) would have for us northern folk. He's since moved to Oklahoma, where the winters might be a little chillier than southern Georgia, so maybe he's working on that.

  18. Trevor Lambert | | #18

    Martin, I think the key point is not his true intent, but that you can't tell. If someone made a parody, it would be no more ridiculous than the genuine article.

  19. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    Leaving aside for now the intended message of Kiel Moe, I'll address the question, "Is insulation overrated?" A few points:

    1. The effects of increased insulation are a matter of physics, not opinion. We know the effects of increasing insulation levels from (for example) R-5 to R-10, or from R-10 to R-20. Opinions are irrelevant to energy flux measurements and fuel bills.

    2. The question is somewhat complicated by builders' historic ignorance on the importance of air sealing. A leaky house with an R-40 envelope can perform worse than a tight house with an R-20 envelope. In other words, insulation matters, but air sealing matters more.

    3. The latest wrinkle in the equation concerns our current climate change crisis, and the "front loading" problem of CO2 releases associated with very thick insulation. (For more on this topic, see Carbon Emissions By the Construction Industry.) Very thick layers of insulation may be cost-effective for homeowners with a long view -- for example, homeowners who don't mind waiting 30 or 40 years for payback on their insulation investment. But the planet may not have the luxury of such a long wait. If the CO2 releases associated with manufacturing thick insulation are all released this year, these CO2 releases contribute now to rapid changes in our climate -- and lower levels of CO2 releases (for thinner insulation) would be doing the planet a favor.

  20. Charlie Sullivan | | #20

    I've known some excellent tradespeople who aren't as highly skilled with words as they are with their hands. So rather than only judging Kiel Moe on his words, perhaps we should consider his work. Martin in particular might have comments on . This is at 9000 feet in Colorado. The picture right after the one linked shows what the room under that roof is like inside.

  21. Bill Rose | | #21

    Late to the thread, as usual. A few scattered thoughts.

    Elites around the world, if they’re obliged to interact with the rest of us at all, build walls of words, the more impregnable the better. You come to them, they don’t come to you, and it’s on their terms. Architecture design faculty have no restraint on their sayso over young students, there is no baseline for any appeal. So naturally, Richard Meier has his way for decades until he gets nailed like he did yesterday. There is an incredibly poignant essay by Laura Willenbrock in the 80s (can’t find it on the web) about being a young female in this environment. I’ve been invited into this design criticism world. No thanks.

    Moe’s undergrad was at the University of Cincinnati, flakier than most undergraduate programs, along with Rice and Cornell, at least in the previous decades. I’d have guessed Moe came from Cincinnati from his imprecise, impressionistic, expansionist way of speaking. Watch Cincinnati turn around with their new Architectural Engineering program.

    Moe teaches at Harvard GSD. So does Robert Silman. Silman’s Philosophy of Technology course makes the other bs just fade away into insignificance. Being the Building Science teacher at a School of Architecture is like being Rodney Dangerfield. You respond by excelling at science (Silman) or disfiguring the science (Moe), or complaining about no respect. Bad building science teaching in architecture schools should not be seen as their problem alone. It’s on us.

    Here’s another link between modernist corporatist glass culture and anti-insulation—internal gains. A colleague just told me the balance point for the Sears Tower was 20 degrees F. Perhaps. All this changes with improved lighting.

  22. Bill Rose | | #22

    A question about Stackhouse. The waste stack?

  23. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #23

    Response to Charlie Sullivan (Comment #20),
    It would be interesting to know how Moe flashed those solid-timber parapets. Presumably, the parapets were entirely protected by metal flashing -- but you never know.

    When the slope of a sled roof conveys water to a vertical wall, you had better know your flashing. All depends on the scupper. It's a big scupper -- but still.

  24. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #24

    Bill,
    Thanks for your comments. It's rather discouraging to learn that Harvard hires professors with (as you put it) an "imprecise, impressionistic, expansionist way of speaking." Tuition-paying students deserve better.

  25. Malcolm Taylor | | #25

    All subcultures privatize language and invent slang. Young people do it, some minority groups do it, sports enthusiast do it. The intent is always to create a closer group and exclude outsiders. That can be a positive thing, but never in an academic environment. I suffered through French Structuralism and Phenomenology being applied to architecture while I was in school. That approach has mercifully sunk, largely without a trace. Thinking about architecture is vitally important. Doing so in a way that excludes people from participating in the discussion is just a way of guaranteeing your position won't be challenged.

  26. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #26

    Malcolm,
    Jargon and slang can be precise, witty, and cogent. Just because a subculture uses jargon or slang, doesn't mean sloppy thinking or bad writing are required.

    Kiel Moe doesn't just have a jargon problem. He has a thinking problem. He lacks clarity, which is a sure sign that he doesn't really know what he's trying to say. To an editor -- anyone trying to untangle his words in an attempt to extract meaning -- his thinking problem is evident.

  27. Doug McEvers | | #27

    Hello, Bill Rose

    I heard you at the 2007 2nd Annual Passive House Conference, you are still making good sense. Would you please expound on "balance point". This can be your friend or your enemy (from a energy use standpoint).

  28. Bill Rose | | #28

    Another example of imprecise, barely-referential, hopscotch language is marketing. Or flirting. Their effectiveness is measured--well, you know how. Martin, I was thinking of having to be a peer-reviewer for Moe's work. You're right that an editor's job would be more excruciating.

    Doug: "Balance point"? In this context I mean it to be the outdoor temperature at which heating needs to kick in, given the heat generation within the building. From comfortable ambient conditions to the "balance point", the building is trying to discharge waste heat, and insulation retards that.

  29. Malcolm Taylor | | #29

    So as Charlie alluded to a few posts ago, is there a building science position behind all Kiel Moe's rhetoric? Is it as simple as he believes high-mass trumps insulation? The discussion would have been a lot more fruitful if it had been put that way.

  30. Nathan Bean | | #30

    Martin hit the nail on the head earlier when he indicated the language Kiel is using is self-referential and aimed at other academics. Kiel Moe is a post-modernist by his philosophy, and his language reflects that used by other post-modernists. In my job I’ve had to learn to read and interpret such usages, but it’s never easy.

    However, there can be some thoughts of value buried in the discussion. In this case, Kiel is partially using insulation as a metaphor for how over the 20th century we’ve traditionally isolated aspects of building systems. We have separate building codes for structure, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, energy efficiency, etc. We have separate trades specializing in each of these areas, and when building often subcontract these roles out. Building science and architecture programs also teach them as separate subjects in separate classes. This approach reinforces keeping each system separate in the design process… but builders need to recognize the interconnections, and ideally, architects, builders, and trades should cross-train so they at least understand the basics of other people’s role and critical importance thereof (i.e. no plumbers butchering joists, understanding the critical nature and effective practices of air-sealing penetrations, designing the home layout to minimize plumbing runs, roofers and siders working together to correctly flash connections).

    The second argument Kiel is making is that our conception of insulation encouraged by the R-value model is limited. Martin outlines one major issue there in his article In Cold Climates, R-5 Beats R-6, mainly that R-value is not a constant, but varies according to delta T across the material, and how this varies depends on the material. Another issue is the simple one-value model encourages us to look past issues of assembly details and installation details in getting good value from our insulation materials. We’re getting there, but many code-minimum builders still assume shoving an R-24 batt into a wall cavity will yield and R-24 assembly.

    But at the heart of his design philosophy, Kiel Moe is drawing upon a post-modern systems perspective that builds upon complexity theory. The basic idea here is that order emerges from complex systems. A good example is a hydronic heating system – when a well-designed system is running, the various components move towards thermal equilibrium (where the amount of heat added to the environment matches the amount lost through the walls). Considering a building’s systems in this light does have some promise – but it’s extremely hard to predict where that balance will be in the design phase. A key example is the plethora of passive solar designs from the 60’s and 70’s that consistently over- or under-performed expectations.

    We’re getting closer to this point, with technologies like variable-speed and variable-capacity heat pumps and ventilation systems, drain water heat recovery, etc. But the old, well-established approaches have the benefit of lower costs, working in varied locations, and not experimenting with resident’s comfort. I say let Kiel and his disciples blaze a trail through this new territory, and incorporate what useful techniques they uncover, but recognize the bulk of their approach is experimental and probably not suitable for most of us.

  31. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #31

    Nathan,
    Thanks for your very helpful summary.

    I'm not going to comment on post-modern philosophy. And I have my hands full answering ordinary "insulation as a building material" questions without considering "insulation as metaphor."

  32. Bill Rose | | #32

    I began watching the video that Martin referenced in Comment 7. It's difficult because he simply reads and makes no eye contact. Then I got to minute 18:00. He is explaining what a hylomorphic ontology is and it's a reference or an image or an understanding that comes solely from human will, not prompted by exigencies of nature. So he shows an image of a cloud. And the cloud somewhat resembles a lamb. So in order to make his point he writes at the bottom of the slide "cela ne veut pas un agneau."

    Martin speaks French quite well and so do I. This is lousy French, which literally translates as "that one there does not want a lamb", and there's a grammatical error where if you're trying to say "don't want a lamb" it's "ne veut pas d'agneau." What he's no doubt alluding to is Magritte's painting of a pipe, and written below is "Ceci n'est pas une pipe"--"This (one here) is not a pipe" with no grammatical errors. Magritte's painting makes the ontology point perfectly well.

    Well, I decided to continue watching the lecture. Silly me. I've heard dozens of lectures like this one, leaving the audience stunned by having learned zilch. The speaker seemed as pained as me, so it's not masturbatory as I initially thought, just dreadful for all participants, an outworn liturgy imposed on architecture acolytes in place of actually learning something. I found out what the essence of thermodynamics and it's--mixing. So his mastery of thermodynamics is worse than his French. I heard him spit words like neoliberal and calvinist at those who favor energy efficiency and energy conservation. I have no need for this crap.

  33. User avatar
    Dana Dorsett | | #33

    The laws of physics are self-enforcing, no matter how many layers of BS people try to wrap it in.

    Mathematics is a better design language for this stuff than butchered French or semiotic semaphore. That's why engineers are generally better at nailing the functional stuff than architects (though there are masters of both.)

  34. Carter McHugh | | #34

    I feel the need to apologize for tying this conversation to this particularly incendiary author rather than just enquiring about the downfalls of insulated assemblies compared to a mass wall approach as Malcolm said (comment 29). Thankfully there were a few interesting points made in that vein, particularly Andy's link to Hope for Architecture (comment 17), Martin's explanation of the "front loading" problem (comment 19), and the concepts of balance point/thermal equilibrium (Comments 28 & 30).
    Thanks for the thought provoking responses everyone and I'm sorry for inflicting Kiel Moe's writing on all of you!

  35. Nick Welch | | #35

    The insulation vs. thermal mass debate has been covered at length here at GBA. See Martin's article, All About Thermal Mass: https://lakesideca.info/blogs/dept/musings/all-about-thermal-mass

    It's been a while since I read it, but my takeaway was that thermal mass mostly makes sense in (relatively rare) hot climates where you have a hot day and a cold night. You can harvest the heat from the day during the night, and vice versa. In a climate where it's just consistently cold, it doesn't do you much good, because the heat just flows continuously from the inside to the outside. The fact that the heat takes N hours to make it from one side to the other doesn't help you -- it's still flowing away at the same rate it would without the mass, and it's not coming back.

  36. Charlie Sullivan | | #36

    Thanks, Nick, for a very clear and concise summary. Quite refreshing given the context.

  37. Malcolm Taylor | | #37

    Carter,

    No need to apologize. Sometimes these rabbit holes yield very interesting discussions.

  38. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #38

    [Photo of Kiel Moe]
    [Caption: Ceci n'est pas un professeur.]

    Thanks, Bill. I appreciated your conclusion that "his mastery of thermodynamics is worse than his French."

  39. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #39

    Dana,
    Thanks for your summary. I must agree that, in the timeless struggle between architects and engineers, it's necessary to put up another chalk mark on the engineers' side of the ledger.

  40. Bill Rose | | #40

    I apologize to all (including Prof. Moe) for having made this personal.

    When I was in arch school, many years back, postmodernism was a style masquerading as a philosophy. "Signs" were uprooted and replaced in odd configurations, like the Chippendale top of Philip Johnson's AT&T building. I appreciate commenter 30 Nathan Bean's effort to find a pony in this pile. I suppose that all the effort to get me thinking postmodern-ly has been for naught.

    What are the fruits of postmodern thought? Postmodern science showing us parts of the world heretofore unseen? Postmodern law nuancing guilt and innocence? Is the state of political affairs in the world postmodern, and does this excuse and explain its incoherence? Is there such a thing as postmodern humor? I followed structuralist thinking (Levi-Strauss) that there are inherent categories of the mind, into post-structuralism (Derrida) where the text supplants the structure, and that didn't really go anywhere for me. I guess I missed the postmodern train. Where do you go to catch that train and take a little ride?

  41. Malcolm Taylor | | #41

    To me, any discussion that tempts Bill Rose to post here is a useful one.

  42. Bill Rose | | #42

    Minor followup point: In French the term "isolation" is used for our English isolation as well as for insulation, though it is often qualified as "isolation thermique".

  43. User avatar GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #43

    Bill,
    Interested GBA readers (especially Canadian builders and architects who occasionally work in Québec and need to brush up on their French technical vocabulary) will find the following CMHC document quite useful: .

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