Q&A with John Brooks Smith, P.E.

Posted by Macie Melendez on December 16, 2011
Q&A with John Brooks Smith, P.E.
John Brooks Smith, P.E.

John Brooks Smith, P.E. is the Global Platform Leader of Environmental Construction for Johns Manville—and he’s been in the insulation industry for 38 years. He’s also a member of the Board of Directors for the nonprofit corporation that publishes Home Energy magazine. Unfortunately, at the end of this month, we’ll be saying goodbye to John as a Director, as he will soon be retiring.

And he’s got big plans. “My wife and I will go camping, hiking, play golf at our place in Florida, and we also want to do some international travel,” he says. “There’s just so many interesting things to do.”

We couldn’t agree more. Luckily, before we said goodbye, we had time to speak with John about his experiences—both within Home Energy as well as in the home performance industry as a whole.

Home Energy: As you prepare to leave the Home Energy Board of Directors, what can you say about how the magazine has changed over the years?

John Brooks Smith: I’ve seen Home Energy magazine grow in size as it has added content and advertising and become an increasingly more important source of information for the home performance industry. I’ve also seen the electronic content of the magazine become extremely important as the publication adapts to the changes associated with delivering content in the age of the Internet. I feel that Home Energy has done an excellent job with its electronic content—its website is very easy to navigate. I attribute the success with the electronic content to the well-qualified staff.

HE: You wrote an article for us in our 25th anniversary issue about how homes have changed in 25 years. Where do you see homes going, or where do you hope they go, in the next 25 years?

JBS: The industry currently has the technology and products to build new, low-energy-use homes. I see a continued movement toward these types of homes; aesthetically they look the same as code-compliant homes, but they perform better. Homes will have less air infiltration, more insulation, more foam sheathing, and mechanical ventilation (ERV or HRV). Homes will have energy efficiency labels similar to those used for cars to show MPG. The labels will drive consumers toward more energy efficient homes. So far I’ve only discussed new homes; yet, there are over 100 million existing homes, many that are energy inefficient. I feel that an energy efficiency labeling program will begin to be used for existing homes to permit potential home-buyers to compare energy use in existing versus new homes. The labeling will result in homeowners employing more air sealing and insulation in their existing homes.

HE: What are some of your career highlights in the insulation field?

JBS: I’ve been involved in the development or launch of numerous insulation products including JM Spider Insulation and formaldehyde-free fiberglass building insulation.

In the late 1970s I shepherded my company, Johns Manville, though the implementation of the FTC Home Insulation Rule. It standardized the way R-values were measured and reported, requiring a change to all of the packaging and literature. It was a big undertaking for the company.

Another highlight is being part of the change of a company that focused on fiberglass batts for homes to a company that offered a wide variety of residential insulation and air sealing products including fiberglass batts, blown fiberglass, spray fiberglass, closed cell spray polyurethane, open cell spray polyurethane, and polyiso board foam. I helped stimulate this change. People often ask me to identify the best insulation product for a home. Using my own home as an example, I answer that a home requires a variety of products, noting that in my own home I have used polyiso board foam, extruded polystyrene, polyurethane spray foam, fiberglass loose fill, and fiberglass batts.

A fun and rewarding highlight was leading the panel for Home Energy Myth Busting at the Affordable Comfort conference. It gave me the opportunity to interact with leading building scientists in the retrofit industry. Every time I led the panel, the audience asked excellent questions; even the tough questions were answered by someone on the panel.

HE: What do you think is the most common unknown (from a homeowner's standpoint) about insulation?

JBS: A home needs to be air sealed before adding insulation. A homeowner sees advertising that shows how easy it is to add insulation to an attic but there isn’t much advertising for air sealing products. There is quite a bit of print and electronic media on how to add insulation but a homeowner has to search hard to find how to air seal a home. A homeowner also has a difficult time understanding that air leakage is different in each home.

HE: What are the most memorable lessons or takeaways you can take with you from the insulation industry, or home performance industry as a whole?

JBS: My wife! We met at work, a company that manufactured insulation. We met in 1973 and got married in 1974. 

But one of my most memorable career takeaways was my interaction with home performance expert, Jim Fitzgerald, on the use of fiberglass insulation for dense pack applications. I told him that there was a fiberglass product that worked as well as cellulose. He was dubious but open minded. I offered to send samples to him but he insisted on buying product from a local distributor. He ran a series of tests on the fiberglass product and confirmed that everything I told him was true.

Another lesson is that there still are companies offering products with claims that are too good to be true. Homeowners need to be skeptical.

Lastly, I’ve learned that there are so many knowledgeable people in our industry. Each one knows how to make homes more energy efficient. Collectively we need to do a better job to deploy this knowledge to help our country reduce its energy usage.

HE: What do you do on a personal level in the way of energy efficiency?

JBS: As you would expect, I continually upgrade my insulation and air sealing. I recently re-insulated my crawlspace and installed new six mil poly on the ground. I also pulled off the wood trim around a brick fireplace to air-seal the gap between the brick and the gypsum wall board. I do a number of other things. One behavior that surprises most people is that during the wintertime I keep my home at 58 degrees Fahrenheit while I sleep. I have a programmable thermostat–I know how to program it and I use the program feature, but I also use the hold temperature option when I am away for a prolonged period. I’ve added the ability to remotely monitor the house temperature and remotely change the thermostat setting; but, so far I have not really used this feature. It is more of a curiosity. During the summertime, I take advantage of the cool outside air in Colorado by using a whole house fan to cool the house. I built an insulated box that automatically closes when the fan is not in use. I’ve changed many of my light bulbs to compact fluorescence and I have purchased one LED bulb. I upgraded my furnace and air-conditioner. The new furnace is a direct vent, 97% unit with an ECM fan. The air-conditioner, which isn’t used often, has a two-stage compressor.

HE: What's one thing our readers would be surprised to know about you?

JBS: Here are four: Before I was old enough to have a driver’s license I bought an old car and restored it. I became a certified diver in 1969. I have an identical twin brother who is an architect. After college, in my first job at a research center I got paid to burn and break things!

HE: Anything else you'd like to share?

JBS: I have worked in the insulation industry for 38 years. One thing that has pleased me throughout that time is the passion everyone in the industry demonstrates about making homes more comfortable, more energy efficient, and more affordable.

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