In Search of Knowledge (a podcast review)

There are certain building and construction-related topics that inspire … shall we say … forthright views in those who choose to care about them.

Diversity of opinion is good; it informs debate and encourages learning. But it can also be bloody annoying when seeking an objective view on a topic. One person says one thing, another says the opposite and the truth you’re seeking lies in between.

But where, and how best to find it?

All sides of the argument

Although insulation has been my industry for five years and counting, I hope not to focus on it repeatedly for the sake of a varied blog. On this occasion, however, I beg your forgiveness in the interests of a relevant example.

All of us have blind spots in our knowledge; they result from vehement partisanship just as easily as from having never encountered a topic before. Different insulation materials, their pros and cons, can inspire absolute zealotry among the people who specify, manufacture and sell them. I enjoy all sides of the debate, preferring a mantra of, ‘specify the right insulation for the right reasons’ over picking sides.

Natural insulation materials are inherently breathable, lightweight foams offer excellent thermal performance; et cetera and so on. The problem lies where faithful (blinkered?) allegiance to one solution aids the spread of misconceptions about equally valid construction practices.

The challenge of delivering comfortable, efficient, low carbon buildings is too great to be turned into a ‘who can shout loudest’ subjectivity contest - it needs a collective will, pulling in the same direction. Encountering strong biases that diminish legitimate alternative views only serves to dent my confidence in our ability to to achieve a high quality built environment.

A calm voice

Praise be, then, to Ben Adam-Smith, creator and host of the House Planning Help podcast. He runs a production company and specialises in working with companies and organisations involved in sustainable, high performance and green construction. As a result of this work, Ben set himself the goal of building a Passivhaus and - as of spring 2017 - is awaiting the outcome of a planning application for a new house on his own plot of land.

At the same time, the podcast is nearing the milestone of 200 episodes. It’s a comprehensive catalogue of interviews and case studies that speaks to the depth of Ben’s research and the diversity of topics, many of which should feature far more in the everyday chatter of the construction industry than they do. With new episodes released weekly, it’s a constant source of informative material about how to get the best out of our buildings.

I can’t claim to have listened to every episode; I got on board at number 94 (about insulation, naturally!), which I stumbled across through researching the question of breathability. I’ve been a loyal listener ever since and, while I might take in the rest of the archive one day, it’s more fun being on the journey with Ben and learning about new topics with him week by week.

The authority and expertise on offer are recommendation enough, but that’s the real beauty of the show: how accessible it is. The listener needs some interest in sustainable design and construction, but there is no assumption of prior knowledge and everything discussed is entirely relatable and deeply rooted in the fundamentals of building performance.

An important reminder

However well you know your particular subject, however broad your knowledge of construction, it can be refreshing to hear a complex topic boiled down to the essentials; a reminder of why we do what we do and, more importantly, who we do it for.

House Planning Help has become a kind of friend to me, in that sense - a regular and reassuring voice that tells me what I understand about our built environment to be true, and that I should never lose the desire to help it be the best it can.