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greening the built environment
How Pittsburgh is Leading the World In Green Construction Practices

Carnegie Mellon University architectural and environmental luminary, Volker Hartkopf, comports himself with authority and speaks with conviction, as he assesses the dynamic relationship between the natural and built environments. "We have to get over the notion that behaving in an environmentally sensitive way means making sacrifices," the silver mustachioed professor said. "Just the opposite is true."

Since 1972, Professor Hartkopf has been working in the field of high-performance buildings. Although the general idea of sustainability has been in use since the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1983 that a special United Nations commission defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Today, in addition to his responsibilities as Director of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics, Dr. Hartkopf also Chairs the United Nations’ Sustainable Building Construction Initiative.

Engaging the Environment

As we conversed, natural daylight washed CMU’s Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace (IW) with subtle grace. Small, ceiling-mounted light fixtures were noticeable to the observant, but all were switched off on this day. A rectangular concave white panel mounted overhead serenely reflected the ambient light to eye level and kept our voices within our respective spheres of aural comfort as Hartkopf waxed eloquent, in his vestigial German accent, on the social benefits of engaging rather than exploiting the natural environment.

The Intelligent Workplace (IW) is a post-modern living laboratory built atop the university’s century-old, Beaux Arts-inspired Margaret Morrison Hall. Opened in 1997, the IW is a living laboratory designed to assess the effects of the built environment on human comfort and performance within a technologically optimized workplace of the future. Within the building’s elongated shell, which is designed to maximize the ratio of exterior window space to interior floor space, sliding glass office doors allow natural light to illuminate the central corridor. Modular office walls allow air to circulate freely from one space to the next while strategically placed sound baffles afford auditory privacy to occupants. Ceiling-mounted Roman shades drawn across banks of skylights diffuse the sun’s direct rays, but open when the light is indirect. A touch of the hand to one of the hot water heating mullions integrated into the structure’s steel frame reveals that, on this 50-degree October morning the building is using no heat from the solar-thermal heating system mounted on the roof. Against the conference-area wall luxuriant tropical plants act as both decorative ornaments and atmospheric oxygenators as they grow from artificial soil fabricated from mine tailings and leaf compost.

Building as Power Plant

"I don't like the term green building,” Hartkopf said, “because it implies that we are simply reducing the amount of harm we do to the environment when we construct a building. In the end, the environment should be a better place to live as a consequence of the buildings we construct.” In testament to that ideal, Hartkopf has embarked upon a project that goes beyond simple environmental stewardship toward a type of building that would actively remediate a compromised environment. He calls the idea Building as Power Plant (BAPP). As its name suggests, BAPP structures produce more energy than they consume, a notion that fits very nicely with Hartkopf's ideal of proactive environmental engagement to ensure environmental sustainability.

BAPP functions under four principles and employs six techniques to affect them. The four principles are engagement of the sun, water, air and soil in regenerative processes. The techniques include: 1) Maximization of energy conservation by means of things like insulation and energy-efficient lighting systems; 2) Active comfort conditioning, such as solar thermal heating; 3) Passive comfort conditioning, such as daylight response lighting systems, occupancy sensors and reflective roofs; 4) Multi -mode systems control, such as fans that turn off automatically when windows are opened; 5) Capture of reject heat and; 6) Utilization of reject heat for energy cogeneration.

In October 2008, at a Bayer Public Policy Forum, Dr. Hartkopf presented his Building as Power Plant in terms of regional business opportunities for western Pennsylvania. Hartkopf proposes asserting Pittsburgh’s current and historic leadership in the field of sustainability by creating an alliance between Pittsburgh manufacturers, securing industry and government funding and collaborating with European countries to establish international standards for Best Sustainable Building Practices.

Green Genesis

While Hartkopf works to realize sustainable construction’s promise for the future, Rebecca Flora, CEO of the Pittsburgh Green Building Alliance, is working to make green building a practical reality today. Flora is leaving GBA to join the U.S. Green Building Council as its Senior Vice President, Education and Research.

“Green building in Pittsburgh started 15 years ago, in 1993,” Flora said. “At that time, Teresa Heinz was renovating her family foundation offices using architect Bill McDonough and local contractor, Jack Mascaro.” Bill McDonough is a world-renowned architect-designer and author of the book Cradle to Cradle. Pittsburgh native, Jack Mascaro is Chairman of Mascaro Construction, and benefactor of the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Sustainability Initiative.

“At the same time, the United States Green Building Council was being formed,” Rebecca Flora continued. “We’re both celebrating our 15th anniversary this year.” The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) is a non-profit building industry organization whose members include builders, materials manufacturers, architects, designers and building owners and operators. Today, with 17,000 member organizations working in 69 countries, the $80 million organization is considered to be the fastest-growing non-government organization in the world. Flora has served on the Council’s board for seven years and currently chairs the organization.

In 2000, the USGBC launched its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, in order to establish uniform guidelines and a certification system for greening new and existing green buildings. The program’s objectives include: lowering operating costs; increasing asset value; reducing landfill waste; conserving energy and water; improving health and safety; reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions; qualifying for financial incentives and; demonstrating an owner's commitment to the idea of sustainability.

The program, which covers all areas of building construction and operation, from neighborhood impacts and energy conservation to transportation infrastructure and water quality issues, sets numeric scoring criteria for new construction and major renovations, as well as operations and maintenance. Based on a cumulative score, buildings may qualify for either certified, silver, gold or platinum designations as new construction projects, existing buildings, commercial interiors, retail, schools, healthcare, multi-building facilities, personal residences or core and shell projects.

High on Pittsburgh’s list of notable LEED gold buildings is the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for which Flora served as the project’s LEED certified professional, a designation accorded to qualified building professionals by the USGBC. Looking back on progress to date, Flora, who successfully advocated for the greening of the convention center long before sustainability came into vogue recalls, “When I started with the Green Building Alliance in 1997, most people didn't have a clue what I meant by green building. Back then, there were not a lot of professionals within the architecture and construction fields who knew how to do a green building, so we played the role of technical assistance provider. By the time we opened the convention center in 2003, Pittsburgh was actually number one in the country for green buildings.”

As a natural consequence of Pittsburgh’s early adoption and leadership in the green building space, many other cities have since come on board. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh remains tied for fifth place in the nation. Pennsylvania is in third place among the states. In response to the widespread success of the green building movement, the Green Building Alliance has modified its primary activity from direct technical assistance for individual projects, which is now done by private consultants, to the development of green jobs and a green building materials industry in western Pennsylvania.

The Stuff of Green

On the green building materials side of the picture, James Bogdan, PPG’s Manager of Sustainable Design and Green Building Initiatives says that true to its century-old name, PPG’s paint and glass products play significant roles in the green marketplace.

“In 2008, eight out of the top 10 green projects recognized by the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment contained PPG products,” Bogdan said. “PPG glass is certified as a Cradle-to-Cradle product and our cool metal roof coatings contain an infra-red reflective pigment that saves energy by preventing IR radiation from heating up roofing materials.”

Taking a pragmatic, human comfort point of view toward the value of PPG products to green building, he continued. “We spend up to 20 hours a day indoors. So whether it's at work or at home, the indoor environment should assist us in our daily activities.”

Although wall paint is not known for its energy conservation qualities, inside a tightly sealed, energy efficient building fumes from paints and other indoor materials can cause health problems for occupants. Principal among these are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a class of airborne chemicals with potentially unhappy consequences for human health. In response to this problem, PPG has produced the first commercial paint to receive Green Seal approval. Green Seal is an independent, third-party testing organization that scientifically identifies the chemical content of consumer materials and ensures they are accurately reported on labels. Green Seal and other organizations like it are designed to protect consumers against unethical and misleading claims of greenness purely for public relations purposes, a practice commonly referred to as “greenwashing.”

At the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Sustainability Initiative (MSI), Co-Director Dr. Eric Beckman uses the availability of comparative data as a litmus test for greenwashing. “There's no such thing as green in the absolute,” he said. “The first thing you need to do is decide what you're comparing to what. If there's no comparison involved, then you know it's not right to begin with.”

Beckman, who is the recipient of both a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award and the Academic Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, focuses MSI’s efforts on stimulating multidisciplinary research to green the built environment. “We noticed that lots of people can build new, tight, energy-efficient buildings,” he said. “But with existing buildings, the options are fairly low tech. For instance, if you re-insulate a house or put in new windows, the payback can be as long as a decade. So we have a number of people working on fast payback ideas for reducing energy. These range from the use of piezoelectric materials to generate hydropower that would ordinarily be wasted, to small customized windmills that can harvest energy that is blowing across buildings, even if the wind speeds are low.”

Piezoelectrics are solid-state materials that generate electrical currents when subjected to mechanical forces and conversely, deform when subjected to electrical forces.

Greening a Steel Town

A sustainable piezoelectric generating project is currently under investigation by a Pitt research team for the town of Vandergrift, Pa. Vandergrift is a turn-of-the-century steel town located 40-odd miles east of Pittsburgh. It was the first planned industrial town designed with the specific intention of selling homes to a mill’s employees.

Commissioned by George McMurtry, President of Apollo Steel, and designed by the renowned landscape architect and designer of New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, the town of Vandergrift won two gold medals at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair for its visionary design.

Not unlike today’s efforts to reap higher workplace productivity by providing employees with comfortable working conditions, McMurtry’s purpose in designing an ideal industrial town was to reap the benefits of a contented and comfortable workforce. Today, Apollo Steel is no longer, but the town of Vandergrift, which is situated on a bend in the slow moving Kiskiminetas River, is engaged in a green electric energy collaboration between the Vandergrift Improvement Program Inc. (VIP) and the Mascaro Sustainability Initiative.

“Vandergrift’s most interesting feature is the river that flows around three sides of the town,” Dr. Beckman said. “It has a fairly high velocity, but it's shallow. The traditional means by which to harvest energy would be to build a dam and then do conventional hydropower energy generation. But because the town is already there, that’s not feasible. So, one of our mechanical engineering faculty, Lisa Weiland, is assessing the potential for using a flexible piezoelectric material that, if installed as artificial grass on the riverbed, would generate power as it waved.”

Green Builders at Work

Working where the rubber meets the green building road, Keith Scheidemantle, President of Wexford-based Scheidemantle Corporation, serves as a general contractor for families and businesses who want a green home or commercial building that meets their expectations and their budget.

“We aim to help our clients build a green home they can afford to build and afford to live in when it’s finished,” Scheidemantle said. His stock in trade is an alphabet soup of modular green building materials, known as ICFs (insulated concrete forms) and SIPs (structural insulated panels). ICFs are interlocking hollow blocks usually made of XPS (extruded polystyrene) foam insulation. Once they are stacked to form a wall, concrete is poured into the core and the blocks are left in place to provide thermal and acoustic insulation. SIPs are prefabricated building panels made of EPS (expanded polystyrene) or polyurethane foam sandwiched between two sheets of OSB (oriented strand board). “You can finish the building inside and out just like a standard building,” Scheidemantle said. “A six-and-a-half-inch SIP wall will have an insulation R value between 23, with expanded polystyrene, and 40 with polyurethane.”

Somewhat akin to SIPs, STEPs (steel thermal efficient panels) are custom-engineered for commercial and industrial buildings by Moon Township’s Accelerated Building Technologies, a joint venture of Pittsburgh’s Nova Chemicals and Dietrich Metal Framing. STEPs are composed of steel supports embedded in EPS foam to make interlocking wall panels that serve as framing, sheathing and insulation, all in one product.

According to Jeff Peskowitz, Director of Marketing for Accelerated, STEP structures provide insulation values greater than that of conventional R19 structures and can be erected in half the usual time. Interestingly, polystyrene, one of the main components of STEPs, was invented by Pittsburgh’s Koppers Company in 1959.

Enabling the Green Economy

Looking upstream toward the materials that enable green products, one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent players in the green building marketplace is Bayer MaterialScience LLC. With vast experience in polymer chemistry, Bayer sees enormous opportunity in the green building space. Robert Kumpf, Chief Administrative Officer at Bayer, says his company has put a great deal of effort into identifying green market opportunities, particularly given the company’s existing capacity to produce urethane and polyurethane products, most notably, foam insulation.  “With 28 percent of our nation’s energy going to transport and another 40 going to buildings, there are a lot of market opportunities for us in the green economy,” Kumpf said.

Putting Pittsburgh’s green building opportunities into perspective, Rebecca Flora summed up the region’s prospects for a green future. “Our mission is still to transform the building industry toward green building practices,” she said. “Today, I don't have to sell the idea of green building anymore. We have so many people moving in this direction, that now our role is one of helping facilitate their green projects. As a result, about four years ago the GBA turned its attention to the area of green jobs and green products. Right now the region has a tremendous opportunity, not only because we have an incredible portfolio of green buildings that are already in place, but also because we have a lot of professional expertise that we've been growing since 1993. All of our educational institutions offer programs in sustainability and green design. And finally, we have an extensive industrial base of more than 1,800 building products manufacturers. Today, we’re developing a Green Building Products Initiative to grow that base.”

Pittsburgh’s wealth of green building resources is likely to make other cities green… with envy.

This article first appeared as a TEQ cover story.

©Copyright 2008 Thomas P. Imerito/ dba Science Communications

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©2009 Science Communications