June 2021 President’s Message: Those “Aha!” Moments

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June 1, 2021

Right now, at my workplace in Ottawa, ON, we have a high school student with us, learning about working in an engineering office. When initially asked by the course teacher whether we would be open to hosting this student-learning experience, the branch manager and I looked at each other and frowned. We were not sure we were organized enough, had enough staff around (due to the pandemic), or did interesting enough work to hold the attention of a grade-11 whippersnapper.

But then I thought back on my high-school and university days and started remembering some of the joyous moments of uncovering a profound new concept—at least new to me—that just “clicked.” For me, these moments usually centered around how mathematical and physical concepts could explain observations of nature. When I learned that the integral of a function is the area under its graph, I was starstruck. Imagine how I felt when I learned how engineering statics allow us to distribute loads on a structure! Or how the equations of fluid dynamics have two solutions for flow: one representing laminar flow, the other turbulent flow. And how you could go to any rapids in a river and see this in action.

To my happy surprise, I, like many of you, started uncovering and using those fundamental scientific concepts more and more in my work to help explain the things I observed. And I admit some of these still give me a little shiver of satisfaction, several decades later, when I open up a roof or a wall, or paddle along the shore in my kayak, and see the predictable evidence of nature’s forces at work.

Some of my “aha!” moments have come well into my building enclosure career. An example is the fundamental tidbit of understanding that clarified forever in my mind why thermal bridges are so important to control. I often pose this question to new staff: Imagine you have two equal-size roof (or wall) areas covering a single building. One roof area is operating at a thermal resistance of R-20, the other at R-5. What is the overall R-value of the roof? If you said R-12.5, halfway between the other two, you might be in the majority, but you would be wrong. A little math will provide an answer of R-8. It’s counterintuitive; this seems too low at first. But the beauty is that the answer is not what you expected; it changes your sensibilities on the topic and pushes you to wonder about other, similar problems. (I’d love to hear about similar “aha!” moments in your careers. Drop me a line at ted@fsaeng.com and we can swap stories.)

But I digress. Of course we eventually said yes to hosting this student in our office, and I am hoping fervently, like a parent guiding a toddler in her first steps, that she will experience at least one or two of those “aha!” moments with us. I have come to the understanding that her “aha!” moments will probably not align with mine; my kids were clearly underwhelmed when I showed them some of the scientific things I was excited about when I was their age. But I do believe that the study of building enclosures provides a wonderful, controlled-scale laboratory for observing and understanding the interactions between our built environment and the natural one. I hope our student can find a way, at some level, to take advantage of that exposure to building enclosure problems, to move along her learning path, wherever that path ends up taking her.