How a gathering of building science geeks became the event of the year.


This is the 4th installment of a monthly column from Ben Walker, Co-CEO of Retrotec. Ben's column focuses on observations on the art and science of high-performance building and home testing. 


Mention the phrase "Summer Camp" and most people conjure images of happy kids frolicking at a lake while learning fun skills with friends. What they don't realize is that there's an adult version that's just as fun and rewarding.


To those of us in the know, Summer Camp actually refers to the the annual Westford Symposium on Building Science, an intense three-day event where home performance pros can exchange ideas with some of the top minds in the industry. I attended for the first time this August with my Retrotec colleague Sam Myers. It was one of the most intellectually stimulating gatherings I've been to and I hope some of you will get the chance to experience it.


The event, held at Westford Regency Hotel in Westford, Mass. is co-hosted by Joe Lstiburek and  Betsy Pettit of Building Science Corp. Betsy is a talented architect with a focus on sustainable design and Joe is one of the most (if not the most) world-renowned building science consultants in the industry. His trademark is cutting edge thinking delivered with a wicked sense of humor.


Joe launched the conference 23 years ago as a way to educate his employees. It has since grown to about 500 people. One reason for that growth is that he has worked hard to offer a better value proposition than your typical conference and I'm sure that anyone who has attended would agree that he has succeeded.


The two biggest things that make this event different are the presentations and the networking opportunities.




Fueling Debate


Rather than a menu of tracks, everyone is on one room and hears the same speakers. The presentations are also more in-depth than those you will hear at many conferences. Topics include new technologies, project case studies, best practices for commercial and residential building and more.


The speakers include the most recognizable names in the building performance business as well as lesser-known names with exciting new ideas. It's a great opportunity to see how some of our industry’s most difficult challenges are being addressed.


It's also a chance for the speakers to get feedback whether they want it or not. Presentations tend to become working sessions characterized by honest and sometimes controversial opinions from industry veterans. "We don't shy away from controversy," says Joe. "We encourage discussion and the discussion is pretty freewheeling at times. In fact he says that some people have declined to speak here because they knew there would be pros at their level in the audience who would publicly challenge their ideas.


One example: Martin Holladay of Green Building Advisor irritated the heck out of a bunch of people this year by pointing out that technical presentations at most events tend to be paid for by manufacturers. They're little more than infomercials. That led to an interesting discussion with a manufacturer. (To avoid conflicts of interest, Summer Camp doesn't allow corporate sponsorships and there's no exhibit hall.)


Joe always makes the last presentation of the conference based on some research his firm has done. "I get to talk about stuff I wouldn't normally  talk about," he says. His talk this year was about unvented roofs with fiberglass and cellulose insulation cold climates. "We ran a three-year experiment and found it's not ready for prime time."


Meeting Others


Of course networking is a big part of any conference. There's plenty of it here and it's structured to make things easier for people just breaking into the industry. "At most conferences, networking is a challenge for a young person who doesn't know anyone," says Joe. "Also, people tend to disperse to different venues at the end of the day."


That's not a problem at Summer Camp, though. At the end of each day, everyone is invited to Joe and Betsy’s house just a few miles away. Shuttles run throughout the night taking people back and forth from local hotels. "We keep everyone together, so networking is easy for everyone," he says.


Food is constantly cooked and served buffet style outside of the commercial kitchen behind the main house. To help keep the conversations flowing, there's a full bar with plenty of adult beverages including craft beers on tap. There even a band made up of several people throughout the industry from consulting firms, equipment manufacturers, educational facilities, and government agencies.


It’s a chance to meet the authors of books and articles you may have read as well as owners and consultants from all types of companies in the building and HVAC industries. Not to mention Joe himself.


It's also an opportunity to get feedback on your own ideas. For example, we are developing a new product at Retrotec and we were able to show drawings of it to some people whose opinions we found very valuable.


There are also a few educational sessions taught after hours. This year, several presenters taught courses in the training room on site at the residence. There was even a crawlspace talk that took place in a crawlspace.


Is This For You?


One last thing that makes this gathering unique is that attendance is by invitation only. Although a lot of people have been going for years, about 20% of each year's attendees each are first-timers.


What's the secret to finding out if you can get invited? Pretty simple: ask Joe. This is his gig so he's the only who can invite someone, and while he jokes about being arbitrary and capricious, he is actually quite strategic in how he fills the roster. It helps if you're doing innovative or cutting edge work, but at this point he seems very focused on demographics.


"As I look around the room I notice that as I get older so does everyone else," he says. Yes it's crucial to have established names participating, but the survival of Summer Camp—like our industry as a whole—requires those established people to mentor the next generation. That's the current recruiting focus. "What I'm really looking for is young architects, engineers and contractors on the way up," he says.


If that describes you, then do yourself a favor and send him an email: