Two Pittsburgh-area Homes to Field Test a Newly Developed Building Envelope Retrofit System

A team of building industry innovators has been awarded a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy 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.

The Fraunhofer USA Center for Manufacturing Innovation CMI staff is able to quickly install prefabricated panel blocks for deep energy retrofits using augmented reality goggles. By using Microsoft AR goggles and PTCAR software, installation teams can ensure blocks are placed correctly and efficiently, allowing for quality control and cost savings.

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 percent 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 non-profit 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.”

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 in DOE funding to dramatically improve affordable housing technologies. According to the DOE, the projects 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.

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