Construction Education-Westford Symposium on Building Science (Building Science Summer Camp)

From July 31 through August 2, 2023, I had the opportunity to attend the 25th annual Westford Symposium on Building Science, better known as Building Science Summer Camp.  490 invited building science enthusiasts from all walks of the construction industry attended the annual event.  An estimated 550 showed up to Dr Joe Lstiburek’s back yard at the end of each day (more on the end of day networking in a bit).  The three-day event included presentations from some of the best building scientists, architects, and builders in the industry.  People like Katrin Kingenberg, co-founder and executive director of Phius (Passive House Institute US) who gave a talk on the past, present, and future of passive house.  Building Science Corporation’s own Kohta Ueno discussed multifamily buildings and summer humidity.  And my personal favorite, Mark Rosenbaum’s Monitoring-Using Data to Solve Problems.  A total of 14 different courses were presented to all the attendees in one giant classroom over the three-day event.

Even though the education was great, and was the main reason I attended, this blog isn’t about what I learned.  I wanted to write about the experience, what it was like to attend my first building science summer camp.

Westford, MA is a suburb of Boston, I found out it can be tough to get from Boston’s Logan International Airport to Westford.  Rideshare services and taxis don’t typically service Westford from Logan.  Luckily, I was able to bum a ride with Travis Brungardt and Jake Bruton, whose flights from Missouri arrived about the same time as mine.  My first lesson learned, either rent a car (and get punished in the Boston traffic) or hire a professional ride service for transportation to the event, Travis had the foresight to use Corporate Coach and Limousine and I got lucky with a ride.

Someone who had attended summer camp before told me to show up the day before classes and get over to Joe’s house for the pre-education festivities.  I’m glad I took that advice.  Shuttle buses were our transportation between the area motels and Joe’s house.  There is some parking available in Joe’s backyard, but the shuttles are the recommended mode of transportation.  I arrived with just a few attendees being present.  Joe’s wife, Betsy, met our shuttle in their front yard.  She told us a heavy rain event the previous day had flooded their yard (this resulted in several vehicles being stuck in the in the backyard).  The beer keg coolers were placed under the roof eaves of Joe’s home prior to the rain.  The heavy rain rushing off the roof had apparently turned on the beer taps resulting in a flood of rain and beer on their deck, an exciting start to the event.

Ben Bogie and I shared a shuttle and arrived at the event at the same time.  We found a couple chairs that were available at a table under one of the dozens of tents on the property.  The table was occupied by a few other people, which included Dr. Allison Bailes and Martin Holliday, in my opinion, two of the best contributors to GBA.  I was a little awestruck and completely forgot to get a photo.

As the night progressed, I had conversations with many other people, some of whom I knew and others I didn’t.  You may recognize this group, rare that they are all together at the same time.  It’s the BS and Beer Show’s hosts, Emily Motrim, Benjamin Bogie, Michael Maines and Travis Brungardt.  I had a great time catching up with them.

I had heard rumors about how good the food is, they are all true.  All you can eat seafood to authentic BBQ to some of the most unique and tasty salad dishes I’ve experienced.  And to top it off, several courses throughout the evening.  The lines for the food were often very long, but I had some of the best conversations with others also waiting, no one seemed to mind.

If you enjoy beverages, there was a fully stocked bar (along with those beer kegs).  The bar area, just inside Joe’s house, also had a live band, and from what I could tell, the musicians were mostly attendees of summer camp.  They were very good!  I even heard a great cover of Guns and Roses Sweat Child O Mine.   I spent a few minutes each of the days in the bar area, mostly ordering an after-dinner cocktail.  There was the opportunity to overindulge if you so choose, after all, we all had the designated drivers shuttling us back to the motels at the end of the evening.  For me, I was enjoying the event and conversations so much, I didn’t want to ruin the experience by feeling lousy the next day.  This networking get-to-gather happened the day before the event and after each day of classroom education. 

Reflecting back on the experience led me to a few questions.  Why did Joe decide to hold the first summer camp?  How has it evolved?  I also wondered who Joe thought were the most influential speakers or attendees through the years?  To answer these questions, I sent Joe an email, hoping he would reply.  Instead of replying to my questions, Joe emailed me back, first asking that I not call him Dr. Lstiburek, but just call him Joe.  He also gave me his phone number and said, “call me.”

The conversation began with the list of the most influential speakers and attendees.  The first name also happened to be the original presenter of summer camp, one of Joe’s mentors, Gus Handegord, a Canadian building scientist, educator, and one of the authors of Building Science for Cold Climates.  The second most influential person on Joe’s list was Don Gatley, the author of Fundamentals in Psychrometrics and the building scientist who taught Joe that it’s okay to use a little bit of heat to control condensation, or as Joe put it, “to stay out of trouble”.  Another influential person to attend and speak at summer camp was Rene Dupuis, according to Joe, Rene was “the greatest roofing person of all time.”  Rene’s son taught a class at this year’s summer camp titled “Roofs and Pressures” which discussed several roofing failures.  A fourth person who came up in our conversation was another of Joe’s mentors, John Timusk, another building scientist and educator from Canada who once stopped Joe from punching out Gus Handegord (you’ll have to ask Joe about the details on that story).  Joe went on for several minutes telling stories and giving praise to these pioneers.

The attendees of the first building science summer camp. The names listed in blue are no longer with us.

My next question was why start the symposium?  Joe’s reply was to provide quality educational opportunities for his staff at Building Science Corporation.  Joe wasn’t happy with short presentations and having to choose one presentation over another, a conference model for many of the building science conferences where multiple condensed classes are held at the same time.  He felt a deep dive into the subject matter where everyone at a conference heard the same information was a better conference model.

Joe thought the best way to accomplish this is by creating his own conference.  He sent letters to 20 people who he thought would be interested in hearing Gus Handegord talk, asked for $200 each, and figured he could break even on the event.  Well, dozens of people showed up.  Joe, not looking to make a profit, tried to refund some of the proceeds but was instead encouraged to provide food and drink for everyone.  This resulted in Joe personally cooking burgers and hot dogs on a grill in his backyard.  This has morphed into the end of day networking, eating and drinking event in Joe’s backyard.

Joe gave me this quote, “we wanted the young people to learn something from the old people before they die, that’s my idea of diversity.”  A transfer of knowledge.

In all, Joe and I talked for more than 30 minutes.  He had a lot of stories to tell about the influential people who mentored him, the beginning and evolution of the Westford Symposium on Building Science, and his thoughts on the learning from the experienced older generation.  A conversation I thoroughly enjoyed.

One final story of my own, as I said near the beginning of this blog, transportation to and from Westford can be a challenge.  Because of my inexperience with summer camp, I also didn’t have a ride back to the airport after summer camp ended.  Luckily for me, (and maybe unlucky for my driver), I was able to find someone who rented a car and was heading back to the airport about the same time as me.  That someone also happened to be another GBA contributor, Carl Seville.  Carl ended up with a Volkswagen sedan as a rental.  A few minutes into the ride, Carl’s phone, which was supplying GPS directions to the airport, was disconnected from the car’s entertainment system, leaving me as the navigator, using his I-Phone, (I own an Android).  One arial lift bridge, and me thinking I found an alternate route later, along with road construction in a tunnel that serves the Logan International Airport created a long delay in getting to our destination.  Carl should have had more than an hour before his flight, I think it was closer to minutes by the time we arrived.  We split up going through security and I haven’t heard from him since.  Hopefully he made it home okay.  Sorry Carl.

Two stressful bookend transportation events with probably the best building science educational I’ve ever attended in the middle, and all that networking.  Wow! is my takeaway from the 25th annual Westford Symposium on Building Science.  I’ve learned a few lessons and have a better idea of what to expect.  I can’t wait until next year! 

FYI, videos for all the presentations from the 25th Annual Westford Symposium on Building Science will be available on the Building Science Corporation’s website by mid-September.  They are free to view.

A little bonus material not included in the Green Building Advisor post:

Marc Rosenbaum giving his presentation on Monitoring-Using Data to Solve Problems.

Kohta Ueno (long time employee, and now one of the principles of Building Science Corp.) presenting on the topic of multifamily buildings and summer humidity.

Two friends and competitors, Jake Mcalpine (Energy Conservatory, maker of the Minneapolis Blower Door) and Sam Myers (Retrotec, the other major manufacturer of blower doors in North America). Two great people to nerd out with.

My night flight out of Boston. Can’t wait until next year’s summer camp.

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