The Building Envelope: Our Third Skin

Our clothing is our second “skin” and our home’s envelope is our third “skin.” Each must be semi-permeable and able to breathe. This puts my philosophy of building at odds with much of the so-called “green” building movement, which relies heavily on non-breathing, non-natural and ecologically harmful plastic.

[Editor's note: Robert Riversong, a Vermont builder, continues his 10-part series of articles taking design and construction to what he sees as radical or "root" concerns. Enjoy--and please share your thoughts. – Tristan Roberts]

6. Envelope – shelter from the storm, our third skin

What began, centuries ago, as a simple structural envelope with a rudimentary weather barrier, the bone, muscle, fat and skin of our habitations have evolved into rather sophisticated containers that are expected to perform a number of essential functions and remain durable over time. But they rarely resemble any organic natural entity.

What are the essential functions of a home’s envelope? Structure, weather-resistance, thermal resistance, thermal capacitance, moisture resistance, air resistance–and a conditional separation between the inside and outside environments. Conditional, rather than absolute, because the outside environment is not (or better not be) antithetical to life, as would be outer space or the bottom of the sea–each of which requires absolute isolation in order to maintain a livable interior space. While the outdoor environment may not always be comfortable, it is never-the-less the matrix which birthed us, which nurtures us, controls the expression of our personal DNA blueprints and our evolution as a species. We have not evolved to live within an isolation chamber or a picnic cooler–a hermetically-sealed house.
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