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Home | Commercial Air Barriers | Insulating Antarctica with Spray Foam

Insulating Antarctica with Spray Foam

Commercial air barrier creates a safe haven within an architectural landmark.

By Jen Kramer

The “Evening in Antarctica” grand opening had all the hallmarks of a gala bash. Local dignitaries in black tie applauding, camera flashes strobbing, and 80 “tuxedoed” guests of honor waddling down a blue carpet to splash into a frigid 40°F pool inside a 37°F enclosure.

No. This wasn’t a Hollywood stunt, or a Washington D.C. event. The gala in question was the grand opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo. The 80 tuxedoed guests of honor were penguins representing the four varieties of birds that are housed in what is being billed as the “World’s Largest Penguin Playground.”

The penguins’ blue carpet walk was the final step in a four-year-long design and build process that created a $30 million, 33,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art visitor’s center / penguinerium. The walk was also the actual moment when the birds transferred from their old enclosure to their new facility.

Spray Foam Saves the Polk Penguin Conservation Center in the Detroit Zoo
The new penguinerium is capable of holding 326,000 gallons of water (10 times more than the old facility), and will allow the birds to dive up to 25 feet deep. Prior to viewing the penguins in their new habitat, however, visitors are first treated to a 4-D, 360-degree Endurance experience. During the 4-D simulation, visitors “relive” Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition into Antarctica’s iceberg-strewn waters. Visitors then pass through two transparent tunnels to view the penguins in their chilly new home. The human environment must stay a comfortable 70°F or so, while the penguins – just on the other side of a glass wall – must remain in their near-freezing Antarctic comfort zone.

Maintaining insulation in the face of that permanent and drastic temperature flux, was an interesting challenge, but one that Anton Cornellier, President of Stony Creek Services Inc. (SCS), a Westland, Michigan-based insulation contractor, and NCFI Polyurethanes were ready to tackle. In fact, General Contractor, DeMaria Building Company, hired Stony Creek because of their expertise with foam and their work ethic. As Nick Annoni, Senior Project Superintendent with DeMaria Building Company states, “We selected Stony Creek Services based on their ability to meet our demanding schedule so subsequent trades, in some cases, could install framing after foam installation hours later. They didn’t disappoint and neither did the spray foam. Both helped to create an environment where the penguins are thriving.”


The exterior foam application comprised multiple substrates, including block concrete walls and poured concrete walls. Not only did SCS spray-apply the foam to the exterior of the building, they also protected the interior as well, spraying the precast floors, the management rooms, the habitat's masonry walls, and the geofoam rocks in the enclosure.

The exterior foam application comprised multiple substrates, including block concrete walls and poured concrete walls. Not only did SCS spray-apply the foam to the exterior of the building, they also protected the interior as well, spraying the precast floors, the management rooms, the habitat’s masonry walls, and the geofoam rocks in the enclosure.

“Everything, including the constant climate, mimics a large tabular iceberg,” Cornellier says, when asked to describe the enclosure. “The architect, Albert Kahn and Associates, designed an amazing iceberg-like exterior, and Seattle-based designers from Jones & Jones Architects made sure the interior seascape had all the proper features like ice and rocks that we can only really see now that it’s complete. It was our job to make sure the insulation worked so the birds stay cold and healthy.”

Kahn and Associates specified spray polyurethane foam for the insulation because of the high-performance versatility that it provides, along with unmatched condensation control and insulative properties.

As Cornellier recounts, “Spray foam was the ideal choice because SPF insulation is originally a liquid, so it can be applied to almost any shape.” This was a concern for the architects because not only did the building present multiple substrates to be protected, but the “rocks” inside the enclosure were of irregular shapes and sizes and needed to be sealed and protected as well.

Annoni explains, “Constructing the Polk Penguin Conservation Center here at the Detroit Zoo presented enormous challenges related to ensuring cold temps in the habitat and associated management rooms. The habitat is where the penguins live and temperature control is essential. The design called for spray foam to be installed at all perimeter masonry walls of the habitat and the adjacent management rooms.”

In order to ensure proper insulation on all of the various substrates, the specifications called for NCFI Polyurethane’s InsulBloc® 11-017 closed-cell spray foam system to be installed on the exterior block walls, the poured concrete walls, the precast concrete floors, and onto the geofoam rock formations in the enclosure.

“Like I said,” Cornellier continues, “the spray foam is a liquid when it is applied, so it fills every crack and penetration in the substrate, then expands and cures in place to create a monolithic envelope. In this case they were very concerned about consistency of water temperature and condensation. InsulBloc has amazing R-value, is a water- and air-barrier, helps with soundproofing, and will last the life of the building.”

They were also concerned about speed of application.

Given that the “Evening in Antarctica” Grand Opening Gala presented a hard and fast deadline, timing was of the essence. “We sprayed 24,000 square feet of foam – that’s 12 sets of closed-cell foam for the exterior and five sets on the rocks – over the course of three months,” Cornellier says. “But our time was broken up around other trades, those were not consecutive days. We also worked on Saturdays to ensure limited exposure for other trades.”


When working on the boom lifts, the SCS crew added Miller harnesses to their PPE, and tied off to the rigging.

When working on the boom lifts, the SCS crew added Miller harnesses to their PPE, and tied off to the rigging.

Known for their efficiency, the SCS crew wasted no time when on site. Cordoning off the surrounding area with caution tape, the crew suited up in safety gear, including Tyvek suits and half- or full-face respirators – depending on the environment. Then, using a Gusmer H 20-35 Pro proportioner, 350-feet of hose, and a Fusion gun, they spray-applied two-inches of InsulBloc onto the exterior masonry cavity walls, two-inches onto the exterior Dens Glass sheathing, and six-inches onto the parapets on the roof. “NCFI’s closed-cell foam was used to control air leakage in the building, on the whole parameter of the building, and in the middle of the roof where it changed elevation from the lower roof to a higher roof,” says Cornellier. “We filled stud cavities to seal the parapet walls using approximately six inches of foam.”

InsulBloc is a closed-cell foam that is known for its highly insulative properties. It is a Moisture Vapor Retarder Class II at 1.3 inches, ABBA Air Barrier certified at 1 inch, is a FEMA Flood Resistance Class 5 product, and meets the AC71 requirements for a Water Resistive Barrier at 1 inch thick. It is also designed for interior or exterior application in Type I, II, III, IV, or V buildings. The crew spray-applied the foam easily to the dry, clean substrates.

With the exterior of the building sealed, it was time to move inside.

“We foamed the observation area ceiling and covered the exposed spray foam with Ure-K cellulose from International Cellulose Corporation to provide the required thermal barrier. We also foamed the ceilings of the penguin habitat,” Cornellier says. “All these areas received two inches of foam.”

Then, the foam crew transformed into rock climbers and began the spray work on the rocks in the habitat.

“We brought in the boom lift, tied off to the rigging (with Miller harnesses), and hanging over the penguin habitat, began to spray the geofoam rocks.”

A design and theme construction company, Outside The Lines, created the geofoam rocks. The SCS crew had the job of sealing them with two-inches of InsulBloc. “We had to make these rocks monolithic because the penguins would be actually living on them,” Cornellier explains. Geofoam might not stand up to penguin abuse, but spray foam will. Then, once the foam cured, Outside The Lines returned and the rocks were covered with ShotCrete. When finished, the rocks looked like those found along the shores of Antarctica.

As a last touch, the crew applied foam to the pre-cast concrete floors.

Cornellier sums up the project, “To see the entire exhibit open and working is just breathtaking. It’s definitely the way zoo animal habitats should be built and work. That we worked on the largest facility in the world is a real honor for Stony Creek. That it is so beautiful and the penguins have such a well-designed real-world habitat is something I’ll always feel good about. I’m sure my family and I will visit the birds quite often.”

The fact that spray foam plays such a large role in keeping the penguins comfortable in their freezing new home – and their visitors comfortable in the non-freezing attached viewing center – is another “feather” in the industry’s cap. What better large-scale demonstration of the remarkable insulative powers of spray polyurethane foam than the world’s largest penguin playground?  •

Photos courtesy of Curt Clayton and NCFI Polyurethanes

Sidebar: An Arcitechtural Artwork

In 1895 an architect named Albert Kahn founded the eponymous Albert Kahn and Associates and set about changing the visual landscape of Detroit, Michigan. Perhaps not coincidentally, because he practiced architecture in Detroit, Kahn’s career was marked by the growth of the automobile industry. His designs included the Packard Plant, the General Motors Building (now the State of Michigan offices), the Dodge Truck Plant in Warren, Michigan, and the Ford Rotunda, which was originally designed for the 1934 World’s Fair and later dismantled and rebuilt in Dearborn to become the de facto Visitor’s Center for the Headquarters of Ford Motors.

Kahn is known for designing the buildings himself, rather than passing the design process off to a junior member of staff. As an innovative architect, his factory buildings featured steel trusses and cantilevered balconies, which were revolutionary at the time, and allowed for open expanses of factory floor. This design feature perfectly accommodated the “all under one roof” assembly line manufacturing ethos of the automobile industry.

Kahn’s designs, however, were not all of an industrial nature. He is responsible for some of the most beautiful buildings in Detroit and its surrounding environs. These include the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, the Fisher Building, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, and the Beaux Arts masterpiece Aquarium on Belle Isle, which is currently undergoing a restoration renaissance. In addition to commerce, he brought beauty and grace to the Detroit skyline – a practice that is still followed today by the architectural firm that bears his name.

Recent Albert Kahn projects include the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Healing Garden at the Detroit Medical Center, the Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan, the Detroit Public Schools’ Detroit School of the Arts, which is the first LEED certified building in Detroit, and of course, a team from Albert Kahn and Associates designed the award-winning Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo.

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