A Lot of Oysters and One Pearl


There seem to be as many insulation types as there are ways to insulate. Most of these types include blanket and batt, rigid fiber, closed and open cell spray foam, rigid foam, loose - fill and blown - in cellulose, and spray foam. Whew. The ideal type of insulation depends on a number of different factors. Some of these factors consist of climate, budget, insulating value, recycled content, and embodied energy used to manufacture. One variety of insulation that has recently come to our attention is BiofoamPearls by Termokomfort. 

BiofoamPearls is the first organic biodegradable foam. It has similar properties to a rigid foam type called Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). Like EPS, BiofoamPearls have long term insulating value and won't support mold or mildew growth. It is also suitable for both new construction and renovation applications in floors, wall cavities, and roofs. However, what makes this product unique is that it's made by composting organic waste. The pearls' ability to be heated and expanded produce a material that is 100% biodegradable. This biodegradability allows for the reduced fossil fuel (embodied energy) to manufacture, resulting in carbon dioxide emission levels 40% lower than other comparable petroleum based insulation. 

Currently, this innovative product is manufactured in Amsterdam, Netherlands. We've contacted them and are waiting to hear back on its availability here in the United States. However, we do not expect to hear back from them today as it's a mere few hours until the Netherlands battle Argentina in the chance to advance to the World Cup final. 


Thermal Break


If you've driven into downtown Pittsburgh over the last few months, you have probably noticed that the new PNC Tower has become a prominent figure in the city skyline. Once completed, the tower will boast a number of innovative and sustainable technologies. It is slated to be the world's greenest skyscraper, featuring a breathable double skin facade and integrated passive systems to both heat and cool the building. 

One of the systems that we found particularly interesting in the tower design was the thermal break technology called Isokorb by Schock. In order to understand thermal break technology, one must first understand the term thermal bridge. Thermal bridges occur when the heat/cold is transferred by a material with a higher thermal conductivity through an assembly with a lower thermal conductivity.  For example,  a wood stud has a much higher thermal conductivity than the insulation that would typically surround it. So the wood stud acts as the thermal bridge by transferring more heat than the insulation, reducing the wall's overall thermal performance. 

To embrace the high performance goals of the PNC Tower project, the incorporation of  Ikosorb CM thermal break modules are being installed along the edge of the tower's interior section of the double skin facade. This unique installation will improve the the envelope's energy performance while preventing the risk of condensation and mold growth. Below is an image of the Schock Ikosorb CM module.  


A New Energy Standard


In an earlier blog post titled A Home is Where the HERS iswe wrote about the HERS (Home Energy Rating System) Index. Since then, we have an important update that we wanted to share. On March 17, 2014 the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) approved the HERS Index as the National Standard for Home Energy Ratings of new and existing homes. The index measures a home's energy efficiency by calculating its performance through a number of diagnostic tests that include air leakage and the effectiveness of insulation. 

The advent of tax based incentives, energy efficient mortgages, and the incorporation of an energy rating index within the 2015 building code all demonstrate the industry's focus on the significance of energy performance. For more information on the HERS Index please visit their website here.


Studio St.Germain Joins Village Green Partners


Studio St.Germain is proud to announce our recent affiliation with Village Green Partners. This organization augments our commitment to fostering positive and meaningful relationships within our community. We support its mission to cultivate the business district of Sewickley into a vibrant and economically successful destination. For more information about Village Green Partners and how you may get involved, please visit their website here.


Midtown Passive House Wins NAHB Award


Studio St.Germain is proud to announce that the Midtown Passive House project has won the Gold Award in the Green Built Home Category of 2014 NAHB's (National Association of Home Builders) Best in American Living Award. It also received an Honorable Mention as Project of the Year for single family production houses. Award winners were announced during the annual NAHB International Builders Show in Las Vegas in February. You can read more about this exciting project on our work page.


More Than Just Hot Air


Many people in Western Pennsylvania are by now fed up with the unusually cold and snowy winter we've been experiencing. We've spent months hunkering down and turning up the temperature on our thermostats.  

After reading A Radiance All Their Own in the New York Times, Studio St.Germain has been thinking about how American homes are heated. Most homes today have either a boiler or furnace. In a nutshell, a furnace heats air while a boiler heats water. With a furnace, the heated air is distributed through ducts and registers and is often called a forced air system. The heated water from a boiler is circulated through a baseboard or cast iron radiator which is called a hydronic system. Forced air systems are far more common in U.S. homes today than hydronic ones. However, in Europe it is the other way around and designers have come up with a wide variety of sculptural and imaginative radiator designs. In addition to their innovative design, these radiant systems are more reliable, energy efficient, and provide better indoor air quality than their forced air counterparts. 

Our favorites are the minimal Saasz by 5.5 Design Studio, the sleek Graffe by Sciricco, and the natural looking Woody by Eskimo. Let us know your favorite design in the comment section below.


Big Fish, New Pond

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By now, many people in Pittsburgh are aware that a developer has plans to turn Wholey's Cold Storage Building into a 144-unit apartment complex.  As part of the development plans, the developer and architect have decided that the smiling fish greeting visitors coming into the Strip on Smallman Street won't survive the makeover. Fortunately, the owners of Wholey's Fish Market and Mayor Peduto are hoping that Pittsburghers can help them nominate a location to move the market's signature fish. 

In addition to collecting votes in the market and via email, residents can tweet their votes using the hashtag #SmilingFish. A quick Twitter analysis reveals a few front-runners:


We think that all of these are great suggestions. Wholey's history is in McKees Rocks, but the Smiling Fish was born in the Strip, and our vote is for it to stay there. It's where Pittsburghers know to look for it, and it should remain a prominent beacon in the city. We like the idea for it to go to the Heinz History Center, but we think it could be equally great on top of Wholey's or the new PIttsburgh Public Market (a la Pike Place Market).

Where would you put the Smiling Fish? Tell us your votes in the comments section of this post!


What Wood You Build?


When most people think of Canada, they think of hockey, maple syrup, and free healthcare. Another thing that Canada is known for is how they build foundations. In the United States, most residential and light commercial foundations are made of either poured concrete or concrete masonry units. However, in Canada they often use wood to construct them. These foundation types are called PWF (Permanent Wood Foundations). 


There are many advantages of using wood as a foundation material over concrete. As basements can account for up to 37% of the heat loss within a home, making them energy efficient is critical. The combination of wood's low thermal conductivity with the addition of insulation can provide long-term energy savings. 

Construction time is an important factor when considering cost effectiveness. A PWF takes one-third to one-sixth less time to construct than a concrete foundation. It is also easier to build, omits the labor cost for a concrete contractor, and eliminates the possibility of construction delays between crews. The same crew hired to frame the house also constructs the foundation and basement. However, the means and methods of a PWF will likely be unfamiliar to most framing contractors in U.S. which may add additional time for planning. Another advantage of PWF over concrete is the ability to be built in cold weather conditions. The construction season can extend year round, preventing potential costly delays associated with other concrete foundation systems. Ideally, the most favorable temperature for concrete is between 50 - 70 degrees Fahrenheit. With the use of an admixture to resist freezing, incorporating an additional heat source, or temporarily enclosing concrete sections can allow it to be used in cold weather.

Structurally, wood is much lighter than concrete, so a PWF can be placed on a bed of gravel rather than a typical concrete footing. Wood is also more elastic than concrete which makes the foundation less susceptible to cracking and moisture penetration. Wood is also vulnerable to a variety of natural and manufactured defects that can affect its strength and use. In addition to these defects, wood can also be damaged by fire, insects, and fungus. 

As demand for sustainable building practices continues to increase, wood is in many ways much more environmentally-friendly than concrete. It requires far less embodied energy to produce, has a low carbon footprint, and is a renewable resource. As a foundation building material, wood and concrete have their own advantages and disadvantages and a careful analysis of cost, time, and sustainability will need to be taken into account for a best practices solution.


A Home is Where the HERS is


When shopping for an automobile or appliance, consumers often compare energy efficiency using MPG (miles per gallon) or EnergyGuide labels. The MPG labels give you information on the car's fuel economy, fuel costs, and greenhouse gas and smog ratings. The Energy Guide labels estimate how much energy the appliance uses, compares energy use of similar products, and list approximate annual operating costs. As purchasing an automobile or large appliance can be a significant investment, this information has become an important factor in the consumer's decision making process. Another significant investment that consumers make is the purchase of a home. However, many consumers are not aware that the real estate market has a similar label they can use to compare the performance of one home to the next. It is called a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) Index. 

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The HERS Index was developed by RESNET (Residential Energy Services Network) to create a national standard for home energy ratings and a market for energy efficient mortgages. The HERS index is the standard for how a home's energy efficiency is measured, and for calculating its performance. The index has a score ranging from 0-150. The lower the score, the more efficient the home. The score itself is based on a number of different diagnostic tests that are conducted by a Certified RESNET HERS Rater. These tests determine the amount of air leakage in the building envelope and ducts, the effectiveness of insulation inside walls and ceilings, and a cost/benefit analysis for improvements and expected return on investment. 

Unfortunately, unlike the MPG and EnergyGuide labels that can be found on automobiles and appliances, the HERS index score is not easy to find. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that not all homes have been rated. Second, if the home has been rated, that rating may not be found on the MLS (multiple listing service) database. The MLS database is an important tool used by realtors to list, market, and find information about homes that are for sale. With the second highest cost of home ownership being energy, the real estate industry has begun to take notice. The states of Vermont, Colorado, and Florida have all recently added HERS Index Scores to their MLS databases.

So, are you curious about your score? Would you invest in a home energy audit to improve the comfort of your home, save money on your utility bills, or add potential resale value? As a buyer would you request that a HERS Index Score be a condition of the contract with the seller similar to an inspection? 



Green Home of the Year Award


Studio St.Germain is proud to announce that the Midtown Passive House has been awarded Green Home of the Year at the 2013 Denver MAME Awards. The Marketing and Merchandising Excellence (MAME) Awards honor the top achievers in the new home industry. These awards are presented to those who set the standard of excellence in the Denver homebuilding industry. The Green Home of the Year Award recognizes sustainability with exceptional exterior and interior design. The sustainable features are also third party verified which in this project was Passive House Certification. 

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Venice of Appalachia


The city of Pittsburgh will soon have a new mayor in Bill Peduto. A recent article in the Post-Gazette described his proposal to build canals at former LTV Coke Oven Plant in Hazelwood. Pittsburgh does not have an outstanding reputation when it comes to stormwater management so this could be a much-needed banner project for our city. Peduto proposes creating engineered canals at the 178-acre industrial site along the Monongahela River to encourage future development while providing a stormwater management solution to reduce the existing sewage overflow into the three rivers.

The exisitng overflow issue is primarily due to the city's combined sewer and stormwater infrastructure. In dry weather conditions, the domestic sewage and industrial wastewater that enters the system is carried by a network of underground pipes to a treatment facility called Alcosan. During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, the same pipes that carry the domestic sewage and industrial wastewater also carry all of the stormwater runoff from our roadways and roofs. This volume often exceeds the capacity that the city's system can handle, so the excess is then discharged through the overflows and into the rivers. This sewage excess is a public health risk as it has been found to contain ecoli, toxins, and debris. 

While Peduto's canal idea for Hazelwood is promising, it also faces a few interesting obstacles. The proposed location is a brownfield site which are very costly to remediate. However, the city of Pittsburgh has a significant amount of experience and success dealing with this issue. The Waterfront, Summerset at Frick Park, and Pittsburgh Technology Center are all examples of successful brownfield redevelopment. 

Another challenge would be to connect the proposed canal to the Monongahela River. The elevation of the river to the ground elevation of the site is a difference of over 20 feet in height. This would cause the canal construction to be very deep and require large, unattractive sidewalls. But there are alternatives that would still allow successful stormwater management at the site.  Incorporating a system of wet retention ponds in lieu of canals could be done. These wet retention ponds could also be designed to snake around the site giving the feeling and impression of traditional canals. The downside of this option is that boating or kayaking between these ponds and the Monongahela River would not be possible, but could still provide opportunity for walking paths, bridges and fountains. For more information on the site's development plans, we encourage you to visit the Almono Partners website. 



Power Struggle


Sewickley's Historic Review Commisson recently made the news when it voted to allow installation of solar panels on the roof of a home located within the town's historic district. With the rising costs of electricity, increase in residential energy consumption, and possible tax incentives and utility discounts, solar panels are an attractive solution. What isn't so attractive to some are the panels themselves. This aesthetic issue can be further emphasized when dealing with a historically and architecturally significant building. The purpose of photovoltaic panels is simple: they convert solar radiation from the sun into electricity, reducing electrical energy consumption from the grid. 

For those sensitive to aesthetics, one alternate solution are DOW Powerhouse Solar Shingles. These shingles can be used in either new or existing construction, are made to blend in with the rest of the roof, and come with a sophisticated monitoring system that shows how much energy the system is creating, how much is being used, and the savings that are being generated.

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A home with DOW's solar shingles

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A home with standard solar panels

There are other energy saving measures that can be taken in lieu of - or in addition to - solar panels. Lighting controls with dimmers or occupancy sensors, Energy Star appliances, better insulation, and high-performance windows can all contribute to increased energy efficiency. 



First Certified Passive House in Colorado


Brookfield Homes recently constructed the first Certified Passive House in Colorado. It is also the first Certified Passive House in the US that was completed by a production home builder. Nathan St.Germain was the CPHC (Certified Passive House Consultant) for this unique and exciting project. A Certified Passive House must meet strict design standards for continuous insulation, thermal bridge free construction, air tightness and thermal comfort. The Passive House concept represents today's highest energy standard with the promise of slashing heating energy consumption of buildings up to an amazing 90%. You can read more about the Midtown Passive House on our project page.