Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania celebrates federal support that puts city on leading edge of the energy-efficient building retrofit industry

As originally noted in The Restoration Economy back of 2002, one of the key technological advances needed in order to accelerate the reuse and renovation of our existing building stock is related to being able to quickly, cost-effectively retrofit them to be more energy-efficient.

Reusing a building is inherently green, of course, since it captures the embodies energy of the structure—the materials themselves, and all the energy that went into mining, processing and transporting them. Ensuring that the ongoing operation of these saved buildings is energy efficient makes them doubly green.

On August 2, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a team of building industry innovators was awarded a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to field test a newly developed building retrofit system.

The team, led by the Fraunhofer USA Center for Manufacturing Innovation at Boston University, includes two Pittsburgh-based non-profits, the Green Building Alliance and Rising Tide Partners.

The centerpiece of the project will be an integrated, energy efficiency retrofit of two residential properties in the Pittsburgh region. The retrofits will demonstrate the latest innovations in exterior cladding systems. Once installed, these systems form a new building ‘envelope’―a set of integrated components that separate the interior environment from the exterior environment. The new building envelope encloses the existing home, providing greater building performance and maximizing energy efficiency.

Two Pittsburgh-area homes will be selected to demonstrate the system.

The Fraunhofer USA system deploys the installation of prefabricated, insulated panel-blocks, along with additional high-performance building technologies, to seal the home and deliver a high-quality, exterior appearance. System design and installation incorporate digital tools such as laser scanning, computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, and augmented reality (AR) to empower workers and minimize site work, allowing residents to remain in their homes during the retrofit process. When installed, the system creates a new building envelope, reducing energy consumption by at least 75% while enhancing the exterior appearance of the home.

Demonstrating quality retrofit solutions that achieve significant energy savings while also being fast, affordable, and convenient, the project seeks to drive the production of scalable, commercialized retrofit packages for U.S. homes and buildings.

Developing affordable, effective, and appealing deep energy retrofits for smaller buildings is crucial to achieving state and national greenhouse gas reduction goals,” notes project co-Principal Investigator Dr. Kurt Roth. “We are thrilled to support the Department of Energy in meeting this ‘grand challenge.’

We are looking forward to applying emerging technologies to the construction industry that has seen a negative productivity growth over the past few decades,” adds co-Principal Investigator Dr. Andre Sharon, Center Director and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Boston University. “GBA and Rising Tide Partners will play a key role, engaging with the construction workforce and identifying commercialization challenges to inform the scalability of our technology development efforts.

The role of the Green Building Alliance will include reviewing the local residential building codes and the requirements that may impact the design, manufacture, and installation of the proposed retrofit system. Additionally, GBA will engage with building code officials, the local residential construction workforce, and the communities that will host the demonstration projects. Once the retrofit projects are completed, GBA will collect feedback from the project partners to help develop a commercialization plan.

This DOE funding supports GBA’s goals of developing innovative, practical strategies for establishing more sustainable communities right here in Pittsburgh, and for improving the quality of affordable housing in the region,” says Green Building Alliance Executive Director Jenna Cramer. “It also supports our larger mission as a UN International Center of Excellence to create healthy, affordable, and resilient places for all by distilling best practices in design, construction, products, workforce training, and policy, and then sharing them broadly to enable widespread adoption.

Rising Tide Partners (RT), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that works to improve the quality of affordable rental homes to improve the health and housing stability for existing families, will provide the two homes that will be transformed by the application of the retrofit system. RT will also facilitate community and stakeholder engagement and assist with the retrofit project execution.

RT brings an inventory of properties and development expertise to ensure the retrofit packages can be scaled to work with Pittsburgh’s diverse housing stock,” said Rising Tide Executive Director Kendall Pelling.

RT will match the building improvements to properties that can both demonstrate the technology and benefit the existing tenants. Properties selected will be in communities where RT is working with local organizations to prevent displacement by acquiring and protecting affordable rental homes. Low-income residents will benefit from homes that will be healthier and more energy efficient,” he added.

The project is anticipated to take three years to plan and execute, with documentation and development of a commercialization plan anticipated in year four.

The Pittsburgh project is one of 30 next-generation building retrofit projects (seven awardees) receiving a total of $32 million.  Back on March 14, 2022, DOE announced $32 million to fund over 30 next-generation building retrofit projects that will dramatically improve affordable housing technologies. Seven awardees will test renovation techniques that reduce disruption to tenants while upgrading the energy and environmental performance of buildings more quickly, affordably, and effectively.

These techniques, such as prefabricating walls and drop-in replacements for heating, cooling, and hot water systems, can revolutionize construction and renovation. They can also provide the means to decarbonize America’s 130 million buildings at the rate needed to address the climate crisis and meet President Biden’s goals of a net zero carbon economy by 2050.

We’re in an all-out sprint to beat the climate crisis, and that race runs straight through our nation’s building sector,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “Faster and more efficient construction and renovation methods that improve our nation’s supply of affordable housing are the kinds of transformative innovations we need to lower costs for working families and build a better America.

Today, U.S. buildings use 40% of the nation’s energy and 75% of its electricity, making the building sector responsible for 35% of America’s carbon emissions. Today, with off-the-shelf equipment, buildings can readily save 30% by replacing windows, putting in insulation, and using high-efficiency equipment. With innovations like the ones these teams will develop, the U.S. can lead the way with industrialized solutions that could cut thermal energy use in buildings by 75%.

To make this vision a reality, the Building Technologies Office (BTO) in DOE’s Office and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) created the Advanced Building Construction (ABC) Initiative to reinvent the “ABCs” of building construction and renovation. Given the lack of change in techniques since the 19th century, builders and contractors need solutions that deliver sustainable and appealing buildings faster and more affordably.

The projects announced are among the first whole-building demonstrations of the ABC Initiative’s efforts to not only drive the development of new technologies, practices, and approaches, but ensure these highly efficient and low-carbon innovations are widely deployed and shape the construction industry’s modernization efforts.

With this funding, these demonstration projects will apply innovations developed through previous funding from DOE’s 2019 Advanced Building Construction with Energy-Efficient Technologies & Practices Funding Opportunity. These technological breakthroughs are tackling one of our most difficult challenges – developing appealing, widely-applicable, and effective low carbon solutions for our existing building stock.

The majority of these projects will demonstrate large-scale renovations in the affordable housing sector, including public housing, manufactured housing communities, privately owned affordable housing, and student housing. However, many of the innovations can also be applied to existing commercial buildings. Read complete descriptions of each selectee below.

Those selectees were:

  • Fraunhofer USA Center for Manufacturing Innovation (Massachusetts) will test prefabricated, super-insulated wall retrofit panel blocks with a suite of high-performance building technologies across four locations in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. (Award Amount: $4.9 million)
  • Home Innovation Research Labs, Inc. (Maryland) will test an innovative wall system with vacuum insulated panels in three residential, multi-family public housing buildings in Albany, New York. (Award Amount: $4.5 million)
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Colorado) will use software tools to properly size and install retrofit packages in two residential low-income, multi-family buildings in Arvada, Colorado. (Award Amount: $4.4 million)
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Tennessee) will demonstrate 3D-printed modular overclad panels with heat pump systems in 8 to 12 single-family attached public housing homes and one commercial building in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Award Amount: $5 million)
  • Rocky Mountain Institute (Colorado) will demonstrate an integrated retrofit package of envelope panels, a heat pump pod, and innovative financing in a mid-rise, 120-unit low-income multifamily building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Award Amount: $4.4 million)
  • Syracuse University (New York) will pair overclad panels with real-time performance monitoring capabilities and an “HVAC pod” in single-family attached dormitories in Syracuse, New York. (Award Amount: $5 million)
  • The University of Central Florida Board of Trustees (Florida) will demonstrate a solar photovoltaic-integrated multi-functional heat pump system for space and water heating in 4 single-family homes and 8 manufactured homes across numerous locations in six states. (Award Amount: $3.6 million)

To fight the climate crisis and protect our country long-term from upheaval caused by the global fossil fuel market, we need to invest in domestic clean energy and in energy efficiency. This is why I am excited that DOE is supporting demonstration projects like Fraunhofer USA Center for Manufacturing Innovation’s work on wall insulation retrofits. Programs like the Advanced Building Construction Initiative are exactly what our country needs to improve energy efficiency technologies and save families money, save energy, and save the planet all at the same time,” said U.S. Senator Edward Markey (MA).

I applaud the Department of Energy for making these important updates to Syracuse University housing,” said U.S. Representative John Katko (NY-24). “Through these upgrades, Syracuse housing will become more energy-efficient and help reduce its carbon footprint. This represents a huge win for Syracuse University and the Central New York community.

These selected teams will also advance the DOE-funded Advanced Building Construction Collaborative, which connects companies working in prefabricated, modular, and other industrialized construction techniques with building owners, developers, financiers, utilities, and researchers to modernize the construction industry and buildings sector.

Photo of Pittsburgh is via Pixabay.

See Advanced Building Construction Collaborative website.

See Rising Tide Partners website.

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