Would People Use the Stairs More if They Were Nicer?

Lucas Hamilton

Think about the stairs in the average building.  They are simply stairwells -very claustrophobic – very unpleasant – very utilitarian.  In general, they are often not attractive spaces.

I recently visited ZGF Architects at the 12 West building in Portland, Oregon which is a LEED Platinum certified high-rise building. One of the really cool features of ZGF’s office space in this tower is the open stairs between floors. If you visit the firm’s web site you can actually see pictures of the stairs under the “interiors” tab.

When you were in these stairs you noticed they were beautiful.  They weren’t wells they were open to the spaces.  The vertical space of the stairs became a connector of the spaces in the building.  They were airy and bright, they also incorporated the environment of the floor in terms of the acoustics and appearance.  You saw people stopping and talking on the stairs.

It made me think ‘If the stairs were more appealing would people be willing to use them?’  The designers of this building thought so and they were right. 

One of the concepts put forward for reducing power consumption in buildings is rethinking how we can incorporate stairs between floors.  Not only does it save energy, it adds to the overall aesthetics in the design.  An unrelated benefit is that it increases the cardiovascular benefits for employees and visitors. As we consider how we might change the ways we think of and incorporate these spaces in our building, we must remain mindful of the science of air flows and how large columns of air behave. There must be an eloquent solution which combines form, function, and efficiency.

Have you seen any examples of the creative uses of stairs in buildings?

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Combine Fiberglass and Mineral Fiber Ceiling Panels for Top-Notch Acoustic Control

Choosing the right ceiling panel material for a project makes a huge difference in managing the acoustical response of a room. An acoustical design strategy needs to include an adequate balance of both sound absorbency and sound attenuation.

Derived from ASTM C 423, which is the predominant standard for sound absorption in the U.S., noise reduction coefficient or NRC is a scalar representation of the amount of sound energy absorbed by a particular test sample. It is calculated as an arithmetic average to the nearest 0.05 over a limited frequency range (250 Hz, 500 Hz, 1,000 Hz and 2,000 Hz). In a simplification of the concept, an NRC of 0 indicates total reflection, while an NRC of 1.00 indicates total absorption.

Ceiling attenuation class or CAC is the measurement of the ceiling’s ability to block sound in a closed space from passing up into the plenum and transmitting back down into a neighboring closed space under the same plenum. The single number for CAC is derived from ASTM E1414. Ceilings with a CAC less than 25 are rated as lower performance, while those with a CAC greater than or equal to 35 are considered higher performance.

Fiberglass is more effective at quieting a room than is mineral fiber, as it performs well in both high and low frequencies. Mineral fiber tends to excel in high frequencies but lose absorption in lower frequencies. Yet, the low density of fiberglass ceiling panels, which makes them extremely resistant to moisture and sagging, at the same time limits their ability to contain sound. Consequently, fiberglass ceiling panels typically have a very high NRC, but a CAC that is on the low end.

Mineral fiber ceiling panels are denser and heavier than those made from fiberglass. It is that higher level of density that make them reasonably effective sound attenuators (meaning they impede the transmission of sound from room to room). With good sound attenuation and average sound absorption, mineral fiber ceiling panels tend to have a higher CAC and lower NRC than their fiberglass counterparts.

Building and design professionals can maximize acoustic control by combining a sound-absorbing ceiling panel with one that halts the transmission of sound waves; hence the composite ceiling panel.  With a composite panel, manufacturers such as CertainTeed laminate a layer of sound- absorbing material [fiberglass] to a layer of sound-attenuating material [mineral fiber]. The resulting product is sold and installed as a single ceiling panel. This greatly simplifies operations for the architect and contractor and provides the end user with the best of both worlds in acoustic control for many years to come.

Individually, fiberglass and mineral fiber ceiling panels have their own ways of controlling excess noise. However, when used together they produce top-notch acoustical results in a space. Whenever acoustics is a design requirement, allowing fiberglass and mineral fiber to work together in the form of a composite panel is an excellent choice.

Robert Marshall is Technical Services Manager, Ceilings for CertainTeed Corporation

The Solar Decathlon Europe – An Exciting, if Wet, Experience

The Nottingham H.O.U.S.E

The experience of serving as a sponsor of the University of Nottingham Solar Decathlon H.O.U.S.E. is one, I am sure, none of us who were directly involved will soon forget.

This was the first Solar Decathlon held outside of the United States, and Madrid, Spain served as the host. The University on Nottingham was keenly interested in participating and sought a sponsor who manufactured all the primary components they would use in the house. Saint-Gobain was the obvious choice, given the scope of our interior and exterior products that create and promote energy efficiency and sustainability. The Saint-Gobain companies that participated included Isover, British Gypsum, Saint-Gobain Glass, Solaglas, Ecophon , International Timber, Pasquill and Greenworks (Saint-Gobain Building Distribution). The Nottingham H.O.U.S.E design utilized an L-shaped, modular design that could be worked into rows, terraces or stacked.  The Team’s goal was to design and build an affordable, energy efficient house that would appeal to the general population.

During the construction week in Madrid, the H.O.U.S.E team lost several days due to the worst rain storms to hit Madrid in 50 years. The H.O.U.S.E. location was in the lowest part of the Villa Solar, below the water table, and the rain just poured down onto the site while construction was underway.  As the crane was placing the house modules, it slipped and significant damage was sustained.  There was no way to repair the damage to the house completely so the students made some adjustments in order to meet the construction deadline to compete.  While challenges such as this were a learning experience, the judges did not take the adversity into consideration.

The Nottingham team was the youngest team in the competition, with second and third year students while the other teams were fourth year or graduate students. The team that won, Virginia Tech, had participated in two previous Decathlons with the same house.  By perfecting their design and incorporating the feedback they received, they were able to return and win.

We are proud of what the students we sponsored achieved in the design and construction of the house, how they worked through the challenges and emerged able to compete.  They received second place in the sustainability section and were voted the most livable house by the visitors to the Solar Decathlon.  Several Spanish developers, as well as English developers, are interested in using the design for future construction. 

As part of our sponsorship, Saint Gobain provided training at our facilities to teach the students how to construct the house using our products.  This project wasn’t just about the H.O.U.S.E, it was about creating an energy efficient concept that could be mass produced by builders, the training and the solid hands-on skills the students gained that will set them apart when they enter the workforce. 

As for future participation in the Solar Decathlon, the expertise that was gained by participating would be in vain if the University of Nottingham did not participate in future Solar Decathlons especially since the same students could perfect the H.O.U.S.E which was very well received by developers and potential homeowners – the audiences that really count.

Pay Now or Pay Later – Constructed Space per Person

Lucas Hamilton

I recently read a report in the Department of Energy’s 2009 Building Energy Data Book that referenced the amount of constructed surface area per person around the world.  The United States is second only to Canada in the amount of constructed space per person – the U.S. boasts 3,000 square feet per person. This concept of constructed space per person includes home, work, shopping centers, sports complexes – any constructed buildings where we live, work or play. 

This is far more than most of the world. Comparing the United States to the United Kingdom, for example, the average English citizen uses approximately one-third the space of Americans.  Americans have come to expect this right-of-space. But there is a price to pay if society continues to expect large buildings. If the goal is to move toward net-zero buildings we are going to have to become very creative to overcome our need for space.

One example to consider along these lines is the issue of rain water run-off. For the most part, constructed space represents hard surfaces which prohibit rain water from being absorbed into the ground.  This not only overloads our water treatment and sewer systems, as we discussed in a previous blog about Live Roofs, but it effects the sequestration of carbon dioxide. 

The new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes program sponsored by US Green Building Council is penalizing homeowners for having more space in their home than they need.  However, if a 4,000 square foot home for two people is still desired, the LEED program will allow it but will require more energy efficiency components in order to certify the home. This seems reasonable to me.

If Americans wish to build large spaces, designers and developers are going to have to work harder to offset the impact on the environment.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation

A Glimpse at the Future of Architecture

Purity of Division - winning project from Philadelphia University

I recently judged the international ISOVER Multi-Comfort House Competition for architecture and engineering students from Philadelphia University.  CertainTeed Insulation sponsors this program and takes the winning team to compete with university students from 16 other countries. There were five teams vying for the opportunity to present their projects at the Multi- Comfort House Competition from May 19- 22, 2010 in Innsbruck, Austria.

The competition project was to renovate an existing commercial building that sits on a canal along the Seine River in France.  The teams were to retrofit the existing building to create a sustainable structure.  While the teams were given carte blanche in creating their projects, all were surprisingly viable. 

In general, projects that were offered by engineering students focused more on function and form while architectural students initially approached the project from a design and visual beauty perspective.  The winning project “Purity of Division” balanced the design between a community library overlooking the canal and several living machines that cleaned the canal water, converted CO2 gas into oxygen with a bioreactor and produced algae for sale to the pharmaceutical industry.  

Superior building envelope thermal performance was achieved through high levels of insulation, whole building air tightness, triple-glazed spectrally selective windows and the isolation of thermal bridging.

A comprehensive whole building energy analysis was performed using Energy10 simulation software.  The results predicted 50 to 65 percent energy savings due to the passive house design techniques alone. The buildings HVAC system, a geothermal heat pump, used the canal water in a unique heat exchanger array along the canal wall to reduce electricity needs by an additional 20 to 25 percent.  The winning Team also incorporated roof top photovoltaics and a thermal hot water system.

It was very interesting to judge these projects and each project had different strengths of design or engineering but in the end “Purity of Division” won the day.

There were three major categories for judging which included several components but basically it was:

  • Design and function
  • Multi-Comfort House Criteria
  • Sustainability

All of the projects were creative and comprised very forward thinking concepts. As a Building Scientist, I was very happy at the depth of knowledge illustrated by these projects and based on what I experienced, the future of design and architecture especially with regard to Passive House and sustainability is in very good hands.

Stan Gatland is Manager, Building Science Technology for CertainTeed Corporation

Symposium to Connect with Architects and Designers is a Slam Dunk

Eric Nilsson

Eric Nilsson

Building products manufacturers had a rare opportunity to participate in a symposium that really hit the mark.  The event was sponsored and organized by Tom Miller of Miller Brooks  and was recently held in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

I have been to dozens of these types of events over the years and often come away empty handed or feeling I have revisited information I already knew.  But this event was first class, not only in the quality of the content and the interaction between the speakers and the audience but from the venues.  The opening event was held at the Columbia Club, which was established in 1889 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This set the tone for the event with its elegant architecture, design and its rich history. The symposium was held at the NCAA Hall of Champions which honors all the championship teams of the NCAA collegiate athletics. This was a championship event in a championship facility. It was the perfect venue.

The keynote speaker was Rex Miller who is the Thought Leader for Mindshift, a consortium within the commercial real estate business working toward industry transformation and author of The Commercial Real Estate Revolution.  He discussed today’s economic climate and the rapid changes taking place in society and the business world.  For companies to survive, they must learn the best ways to react to these changes.

One of the concepts he discussed was reverse mentoring.  Knowledge is no longer in the hands of the seasoned professionals.  Knowledge is instant and it’s in the hands of the young. We need to allow our younger employees to bring new knowledge to us especially with regard to engagement and interaction with our changing audiences.

The second part, and the most valuable to me, was a panel of experts in design and architecture, both professionals and providers to the professionals, who fielded questions from the audience. This was a very lively discussion with very valuable content. They were also able to voice their opinions openly about how they want to interact with manufacturers. One key message I came away with was the more expertise that a sales representative can deliver in the form of answers to questions or problems that will save them time – that has real value to them.

At the end of the day it was clear that while this event may have looked liked a thousand others, it was truly one of a kind.

Eric Nilsson is Vice President, Corporate Marketing for CertainTeed Corporation.

Shoving Green Circles in Brown Squares

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

At an event I recently attended for manufacturers and design professionals, I had the pleasure of hearing a keynote speech by Marvin J. Malecha, FAIA, outgoing President of the American Institute of Architects and Dean of the College of Design at North Carolina State University.

One of the points that really struck me in his presentation was the idea that we are trying to shove green pegs in brown squares.  We are developing band-aids for problems in existing structures based on our current technologies.  How can we take product “A” and massage it a little bit to solve problem “B?” The fact is, you should start from scratch to get rid of problem “B.”  Don’t solve problem B, get rid of problem B.

In other words, what we are doing is slapping bigger fins on the Cadillac. What we need to do is get away from that Cadillac model. Maybe it’s not about improving the performance of our existing designs; it’s about completely rethinking our designs.  Do we really need to have green high-rises? Maybe we don’t need high-rises. Don’t get me wrong, Malecha isn’t suggesting we get rid of high-rises.  He is suggesting that we are stuck in a rut of thinking and trying to solve our existing problems when maybe the long-term solution is to start from scratch on basic issues such as:

  • How we build buildings
  • What we think of our buildings
  • What we think we need in our buildings

Consider, for example, the internal combustion engine.  No one in their right mind would set out today to design the internal combustion engine we have in our cars.  It is ridiculously complicated. We have gotten to this complexity by continuing to solve or improve a bad design and pushing it down the road as opposed to getting rid of the internal combustion engine and going back to the electric motor. Similarly, this is how we are approaching sustainability.

According to Malecha, the present Green strategy is to fit new products and systems into present design. Design must change completely to truly move forward. Even in the most corporate environments, the free agents will win and rule because they can re-invent.  Keep learning, keep being creative and keep moving.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation.