The R&D Super Highway
Bayer Material Science re-launches as Covestro, placing people and planet at the top of its innovation agenda
The Greater Pittsburgh region is in the midst of a renaissance. The demise of heavy manufacturing and associated unemployment of a few decades past are being replaced by the job growth, younger demographics, and urban revitalization of a resurgent economy led by energy, healthcare, education, building, and construction. The region is a fixture on “most livable” lists. The city center and surrounding neighborhoods are blossoming with chic new housing, restaurants, and nightlife.
The region’s business, governmental, and university sectors are leading its emergence as a center for technology and urban innovation. The Hill District neighborhood on the edge of downtown is now home to the Energy Innovation Center, a place where clean energy solutions are incubated and the green collar job skills of the future are cultivated. Fittingly, the 6.5 acre site was formerly known as theConnelly Trade School, a Great Depression-era workforce development facility where people learned basic trades, such as carpentry, plumbing and automotive mechanics. Today, students at the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) learn the skills of a low-energy future, from installing alternative energy systems to operating advanced HVAC equipment.
The first phase of a massive renovation of the historic structures on the site was completed in 2014 and is on-track for LEED Platinum. Bill Miller, the vice president and COO of Pittsburgh Gateways, the non-profit that owns and operates the EIC, says the idea was to rebuild the new Connelly Trade School as a “training tool in and of itself.” For example, he says, “our mechanical rooms and electrical closets are designed to be training rooms. It took tremendous coordination between all the designers and contractors to make sure that those were done in a way where the students would be safe and could learn something important.”
Covestro—formerly Bayer MaterialScience, an independent subsidiary of the Bayer Group(known around the world as the creator of Aspirin)—has been one of the key industry partners helping to move the EIC forward. Pittsburgh is the long-time home for the North American headquarters of Bayer MaterialScience, so the company is deeply invested in cultivating the local workforce. It is also an opportunity for Covestro to showcase how its products fit into the puzzle of energy-efficient and environmentally-responsible construction techniques. Covestro’s products are featured throughout every nook and cranny of the new building: from the insulation products in the walls and ceilings to the coatings on the floor, each played a role in transforming the 85-year old school into a showcase for the sustainable building practices of the future.
“It’s an iconic building for Pittsburgh, but I’m thirty-seven years old and the perception is that the building has been dormant for most of my life” says TimThiel, Covestro’s industrial marketing manager for building and construction, who grew up in the region. Achieving LEED Platinum status on the project was an epic challenge compared to a Class A office space being built from the ground up today. “We’re talking about a massive, uninsulated, 1930s brick building,” says Thiel. “The hallways are enormous because they actually used to drive vehicles throughout the building.”
Those hallways/roadways are now covered with decorative concrete coatings based on raw materials from Covestro. Overhead, the exposed piping and ductwork are color-coded and labeled for educational purposes. Modern LED light fixtures with Covestro’s polycarbonate lenses illuminate the interior, while some of the more idiosyncratic elements of the original structure have been given a new purpose—the old indoor swimming pool, for example, is now an ice storage system for the air chillers. “They create the ice in the off hours when power is cheaper and then store it there to be used during peak energy hours,” says Thiel.
“We got involved [with the EIC] because of the products and services we were able to provide to make energy efficiency happen in that structure,” he adds. “It’s really in our wheelhouse and it connects to everything that we stand for at Covestro.”
The Energy-Conserving Power of Polyurethane
In the first year after the EIC retrofit was completed, the annual expenditure for gas at the Connelly Trade School site took a nose dive from $450,000 to an estimated $145,000. As a historic structure, there was no possibility to re-orient the building for maximum solar gain or open up the interior to daylighting. Instead, the savings resulted primarily from one simple solution: insulation. Any first year architecture student can tell you that the thicker the insulation, the greater thermal resistance a building envelope will have. What is less commonly known, however, is that of all common insulation materials, polyurethane insulation provides the maximum insulation value per inch—a characteristic that proved vitally important in the EIC retrofit.
“Insulation is a major focus for us when it comes to sustainability,” says Jim Lambach, Covestro’s building and construction market manager. In its liquid form as a paint, adhesive or sealant, polyurethane is a household name around the world, but Covestro polyurethane is also used in three different insulation products based on the solid, foam-like form of the substance. Polyiso Board panels made with Covestro raw materials, which have an R-value of 30 at only 6 inches thick, were used to insulate the roof at EIC. The walls were insulated with Covestro’s EcoBay spray foam insulation, which has an R-value of 6.9 per inch.
Besides insulation value, designers will be comforted to know that Covestro’s polyurethane insulation has very low VOC content and is made without ozone depleting CFCs. Bayer MaterialScience is the inventor of polyurethane and was recently a principal author for the industry-wide EPD (environmental product declaration) for the substance. Another astonishing and underreported fact about polyurethane insulation is this: over the course of the lifespan of the building, it saves 70 times more energy than was used to produce it. There are very few products you can say that about.
But at EIC there was another, very practical reason spray foam insulation was chosen for the walls. Because of the Connelly Trade School’s status as an historic landmark, there were severe limitations to how the building could be altered during the renovation process, “especially aesthetically,” says Miller. “To get the R-value that we specified on our energy modeling we needed a 6-inch wall. We got a lot of pushback from the historic preservation folks, but with the Bayer spray foam product we were able to do it in half the thickness, so we reached a compromise and were able to move forward.”