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Home | Building Science | Spray Foam Insulation Helps Depression-Era Building Go Platinum
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Spray Foam Insulation Helps Depression-Era Building Go Platinum

Spray polyurethane foam insulation brought a 1930’s building into the 21st century and enabled the redeveloped Energy Innovation Center in Pittsburgh to educate tomorrow’s leaders in research, technology, and business.

By Joe Stockdale, Industry Relations Manager, Commercial Manager, Covestro LLC

For more than seven decades, Pittsburgh’s Connelley Trade School trained students in a diverse range of vocational skills needed for building, maintaining, and feeding a rapidly growing nation. After years of decreasing enrollment, the trade school was closed by the Pittsburgh public school system in 2004. Following the school’s closure, local leaders sought a new and innovative use for the building.

This historic building has now been transformed into the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) – a multi-disciplinary institution focused on workforce development programs, green technology research, business incubation, and collaborative university-industry projects. The trade school with a storied legacy is now a cutting-edge showplace merging modern technology and preservationist sensibilities.

“We took the shell and installed state-of-the-art equipment to get an efficient and well-thought-out manner, and got tangible results in that effort,” explains Bill Miller, CEO of the EIC.

Redeveloping the building into a hotspot for green technology research meant the structure needed to be brought up to modern standards, including a desire for LEED Platinum certification and updating everything from the electrical system to window replacements. In addition, one key ingredient to make the building energy-efficient would require something that the Depression-era builders originally did not include – insulation.

Multi-Purpose Insulation Choice

When renovations began in 2011, the EIC’s planners knew that adding a high-quality insulation to the building’s exterior would be necessary for the building’s overall energy efficiency. The planners examined several types of insulation and chose closed-cell spray polyurethane foam (SPF) due to its several unique benefits. Closed-cell SPF’s nonintrusive versatility and its high R-Value made it the right fit for this structure. The EIC then partnered with Covestro, which provided its EcoBay® closed-cell SPF insulation. The closed-cell SPF has a high R-Value, can restrict moisture transmission, add structural strength, and provide a drainage plane when installed as a continuous insulation, thus sealing the building envelope for optimal insulation value.

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“Historic buildings generally have greater potential for air leakage and traditional insulation methods do not combat this,” says Joe Morrone, the EIC project manager with InsulRight, the company that installed the spray foam at the Center. “Buildings perform as a system and insulation plays a big role in that system. Maintaining the air movement throughout a building helps all the mechanicals perform as designed.”

The closed-cell SPF was installed throughout the 200,000-square-foot building to ensure a continuous insulation that would create a tight air seal and help eliminate thermal breaks. With closed-cell SPF, the EIC did not need an additional building wrap as a drainage plane, which cut back on renovation time and resources.

While there are multiple choices of spray polyurethane foam insulation available, closed-cell SPF is often chosen for exterior applications since it creates a continuous layer of highly water-resistant insulation. Additionally, closed-cell SPF products, like Covestro’s EcoBay®, can offer a low installation cost and design flexibility, helping to create a durable effect thermal envelope for just about any structure. It is installed using a chemical blowing agent that is retained inside the polymer cells to form a rigid, dense foam. This rigidity and density provides an enhanced air barrier, limits moisture ingress, and can add structural integrity to a building’s exterior. It can be used to insulate much more than just walls, as it can also be installed to provide insulation, sealing, and strength for ceilings, floors, attics, foundations, and piping.

“The old masonry walls of the building and vapor retarding properties of closed cell spray polyurethane foam were major driving forces behind the decision to use [closed-cell SPF] for this project,” Morrone says. “Framing sizes also came into play. The high R-Value per inch of closed cell allowed the contractor to reduce the framing size and still achieve the desired thermal performance in the building envelope.”

Economical Investment

Spray polyurethane foam provides additional value by helping to minimize heating and cooling bills* over time, and serves as a moisture and air barrier, which can eliminate the need to install separate air or moisture management systems. In some situations, the use of closed-cell SPF alone can reduce fuel bills. And at the EIC, the installation of this insulation, thermal windows, updated climate systems, and low-energy appliances and lighting have already resulted in significant utility bill savings.

“We were able to cut energy usage in half,” Miller says. “Our energy model predicted a 57 percent reduction in energy from our baseline and our numbers [actuals] are coming in pretty close to that. The building had no insulation and everything was from the 1930s, so our baseline model was pretty bad.”

In addition, the use of closed-cell SPF helped the center qualify for a $7.5 million tax credit applicable to the renovation of historic properties. It was not necessary to change the historical integrity of the interiors since closed-cell SPF could be added into the existing wall dimensions and remove the need to increase wall thickness.

“By using a closed-cell high density foam, we were able to achieve the same R-Value in half the distance, using three-and-a-half-inch studs, and receive the tax credit,” Miller explains.

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With the world’s buildings responsible for 40 percent of global energy consumption and about one-third of the greenhouse gases emitted into our atmosphere, the EIC accepted the challenge to make its historic building modern and environmentally compatible. And in the end, not only did the EIC meet the LEED platinum standards for renovation, but is now actively working to educate others about the ways buildings can be designed sustainably and operate more efficiently.

“Our top priority was energy efficiency and the LEED certification came along with it,” states Miller. “We weren’t sure where we were going to end up, but we made sound decisions based on energy efficiency. We don’t have any technologies that are proprietary in the building and we want to show that others can purchase off-the-shelf items and get positive results.”

As a result of the spray foam insulation products used in the EIC’s renovation, the community will now enjoy a strong, resilient building that not only operates with lower energy consumption, but also serves as an example for how products like closed-cell SPF can play an energy-efficient role in historic preservation projects.

*Savings vary. Find out why in the seller’s fact sheet on R-Values. Higher R-Values mean greater insulating power.

Joe Stockdale is the industry relations manager and commercial manager at Covestro LLC.

Photos courtesy of Alexander Denmarch. •