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Insulation’s Early Years: Promise for Progress

Building science is a fairly new field. We still develop new materials, new solutions, and constantly look to advance. In this industry, there are many specialists who all work together to make your house one cohesive system. In the past, this process was not so smooth.

About 75 years ago, painters refused to paint insulated buildings. In Bill Rose’s book Water in Buildings, he details the history of building science research in our country. According to Rose, building science first became a field due to the issue of painting insulated buildings. From 1937 to 1942, the country adopted a set of practices to control moisture in their homes. These techniques were the foundation for the way that we still treat our homes today.

A day in the life of an owner of a newly insulated home, circa 1935. Let’s call him Joe. Joe wakes up on his New England January morning and expects a sharp chill when his feet hit the floor. Surprisingly, the chill does not seem as powerful today. Joe smiles. His home is newly insulated.

Joe goes outside to collect wood for his stove, but on his way to the woodpile something catches Joe’s attention. He always took pride in his deep red home, as it stuck out between his neighbor’s white home, black shutters. But what was this? Joe’s paint is peeling. He forgets all about his mission to bring in wood, and heads straight inside to call his painter.

As it turns out, when insulation began to make appearances, painters found that their paint jobs were peeling. Joe was not the only one with a peeling home. His early insulation job led to moisture problems due to the intense difference between internal and external temperatures.

Joe finds out that the water vapor that collected inside of his home diffused through his wall, and settled there. As his paint peels, Joe follows the breaking research. He heard what the problem is: Joe needs a vapor barrier.

In the early 1950s, the National Paint and Varnish Association declared a “War Against Water.” They saw water vapor as an enemy in homes, simply because the building science did not yet know how to control water vapor.

Early building scientists made some pretty substantial observations. For example, a researcher named Teesdale figured out that a material’s wetness relates to its temperature; colder materials are wetter, and warmer materials are dry. In early building science, researchers mainly focused on vapor barriers. Because they focused heavily on vapor barriers, early building scientists did not see what we know now.

Early building science started the industry that keeps progressing. What we later discovered was that while preventing vapor diffusion is important, but it is also important that the building is capable of drying out. Looking back to the beginning, we can see how far building science has come. We can only image how much more we will progress in the upcoming years.