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Don Fugler Talks Retirement, Research, and Humility

Posted by Macie Schreibman on August 04, 2011
Don Fugler Talks Retirement, Research, and Humility

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the newly retired Don Fugler. For those of you who don’t know him (probably not many of you seeing as he’s presented nearly 200 times at ACI and other conferences every year since 1985), Don worked for the Policy and Research Division of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the federal agency responsible for housing. He managed projects for CMHC in areas such as indoor air quality, ventilation, combustion spillage, moisture, attics, and contaminated soils.

Home Energy: You retired in early March of this year. How do you want to stay involved with building science in the future?

Don Fugler: I have some small research contracts now. It will be interesting to see how much time I want to spend on building science and how much I want to stay involved. Research knowledge is constantly evolving and, unless you are on top of it all the time, you will fall behind. I don’t have the same access to those libraries and experts, and I don’t have 20 periodicals a month coming across my desk. I’ll do what I can and then, when I get useless, I’ll stop.

What have you learned in your own attempts to live a non-polluting life?

Humility. It’s all been a learning experience and I would not pretend to be a non-polluter. I biked to work all the time and I loved doing that. But I probably drive my car as much as everyone else as I go on long trips. I don’t know that anything that I’ve done from my personal point of view that provides anything other than an anecdote. 

What do you try to pass on to your students that you've learned from your own experience?  

I use anecdotes. I am an engineer. Engineers tend to have a reputation for being dry in their presentations, so if I attempt to bring life to a talk or use personal examples. I try to merge the theoretical and the practical. I would pass along to students the importance of curiosity – if something comes up and you can’t figure it out, it’s probably worth slowing down or stopping until you understand the situation. If you are using the authorized process and the issue is getting worse, it’s worth taking the time to resolve the problem rather than slap band-aids on it after it fails. That’s the mind of a researcher. If I were a contractor, I don’t know if I would have the same latitude for thinking about things. As a contractor, you are out there to make money, and thinking about things can sometimes get in the way of finishing the job. I think the best contractors do have that curiosity, but they may not be most prosperous contractors!

What are the most important findings you've discovered in your research with CMHC?

Unlike ACI, which is dedicated pretty well to the weatherization industry, the research we did for CMHC was partly for the industry, partly for consumers, and partly for government policy.

I don’t think I found anything earthshaking. My specialty was putting things in perspective – either the problems or the solutions. One of my colleagues, Jim White, once said, “The answer, once known, will be simple.” So you can do some research and people will say, “Yeah, of course.” But it’s wasn’t “Yeah, of course,” until you proved it.

This is the sequence in doing this research. You initially say "This is our hypothesis", and quite often people, especially industry people, would say, “That is a stupid thing you are suggesting and it doesn’t happen.” Then you do the research and while you are doing the research they’d be saying “Well, maybe it happens, but it doesn’t happen as much as you say and it’s not that serious.” Then at the end of the research and several years down the line, they are saying, “Well, everyone knows that, I don’t know why you even did the research.”

Part of the work we did was simply to establish where things fit in this sequence and how important they are. We did work on combustion spillage – who is at risk, why they are at risk and how to you solve this – and to a large degree we set out the solutions to avoid combustion spillage. At ACI that was one of the things I liked best – I was one of the first ones to come there and talk about combustion spillage and then for many years I’d go and there would be other people talking about combustion spillage and how they dealt with it and how to watch out for it. I am so happy that the knowledge of spillage has been integrated into the industry over the last couple of decades. Other CMHC findings changed Canadian codes and standards, and now affect retrofits and new buildings everywhere in the country.

I think our findings were useful in that they were objective. CMHC wasn’t selling anything. We didn’t have an agenda. Essentially, when we started a piece of research, if it came out black or white at the end, it really made no difference to us. We started the research to find out of it was black or white, or what shade of grey, so that we could tell people how to deal with the issue properly. Research was undertaken to resolve a problem or to bring clarity to a situation.

Don and I’s conversation didn’t end here. Stay tuned for part 2 to be posted next week.

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