September 10, 2013

Architecture, Sustainability, and Wet Chemistry: An Architect’s Story

By John Guzik & Jack Bialosky People often comment that the practice of architecture requires the use of equal parts art and science, so architects tend to be jacks-of-all-trades.  Certainly we do call upon experts and consultants for efforts that extend beyond our normal proficiency, but more than anything else we find that we need to be constant learners.  This is definitely true with the design and construction of high-efficiency, sustainable, green architecture. A case in point is a recently completed school in the Midwest.  The building was designed by Bialosky + Partners Architects to very high standards, employed a wide variety of sustainable strategies, and achieved a LEED silver certification from the USGBC.  While materials and systems used throughout the school were selected for their high performance characteristics and seemed to be functioning properly, there was a mystery developing.  Occasionally an unpleasant odor would migrate through certain portions of the building.  The locations were transient and the source was unidentifiable for quite some time.  Eventually it was determined that the odor was caused by sanitary gasses escaping from dry drain traps within the ceiling plenum.  The building’s geothermal system provides heating and cooling for the school with the help of heat pumps distributed above ceilings around the facility.  When operating in cooling mode these heat pumps generate condensate that must be conveyed away by hub drains attached to the plumbing sanitary lines.  The drains had the code-required trap primers to maintain an air-tight seal, but investigation revealed that an exceptionally high percentage of the trap primers had failed due to mineral deposition.  Lab testing indicated that unexpected quantities of copper, zinc, and lead precipitate on the primer valves were making them stop functioning.  This meant that when sufficient condensate water evaporated from any of the hub drain traps, sanitary gasses would escape and circulate through the return air plenum and into the mechanical units conditioning the building’s occupied spaces. The question was why the water was depositing such levels of particulates on the valves, especially in a newly opened green school.  Parts of the mystery began falling into place once it was understood that the residue on the trap primers was actually metal being dissolved from inside the water supply pipes.  Further testing showed that the water within the building’s pipes was significantly more acidic than the water being provided to the school by the public utility.  The pH of water provided by municipalities around northeast Ohio tends to fall between 7 to 7.6 due to the presence of naturally occurring limestone in Lake Erie but somehow the water in the schools lines was closer to pH of 6.1 and was actually corroding the copper pipes and brass fittings. A water chemist was engaged to help explain the situation and propose a resolution.  Ultimately a water softening and treatment system was installed to address the corrosion issues and alternate trap seals were installed on the hub drains to supplement the trap primers.  Regularly scheduled testing will confirm that the corrective actions are working as intended.  The actual reason for the water acidity in this instance appears to be a fairly frequently encountered, but little-known, case of standing water inherently decreasing in pH over time.  The use of low-flow fixtures and water saving technologies in this building resulted in significantly less water use than a building of comparable size and occupancy, but may have actually contributed to the problems being experienced.  Schools tend to have very intermittent water use.  Users may call for fairly high volumes at certain times of day, but from dusk to dawn, all weekend and holidays, and most of the summer, there is very little water use.  Couple that with new technologies intended to reduce use and virtually eliminate waste of this precious resource, and the water in those pipes can sit unused for long stretches of time.  It appears that this very scenario resulted in the mysterious series of events in this new LEED certified building. In this case, it was perhaps lucky that a specific alignment of circumstances resulted in the mysterious odor that alerted the project team to the greater issue of high water acidity before significant damage was done to building systems.  Undoubtedly similar low pH water conditions are eating away at water pipes in many buildings today – perhaps due in part to the well-intentioned use of water saving technologies.  Damage to piping, fittings, equipment, and general water quality will likely go unresolved until architects, engineers, building owners, and managers are more aware of the potential issue. Architecture is a wide-ranging and fascinating field and we learn more every day.  In addition to the practice of art and science, sometimes an architect is called upon to play the roles of chemistry student and detective as well.

March 19, 2013

Architecture in the “Walkman Phase”

Last week the online design magazine, Dezeen, published an interview with Dutch architect Ben van Berkel of UNStudio on his plans to launch the world's first open-source architecture studio. Once launched, this network will hold great significance as it will begin to take the often secretive and exclusive mentality of knowledge sharing between architecture firms and reverse that thinking. As a "knowledge-based organizational" website, van Berkel describes a system "where knowledge can be shared, contributed and collected."

 Diagram illustrating how UNStudio’s Knowledge Platforms reach out to external partners for collaboration - via Bialosky + Partners Architects Cleveland Design Blog

Diagram illustrating how UNStudio’s Knowledge Platforms reach out to external partners for collaboration - via

This unprecedented system gives the profession of architecture a needed technological and collaborative leap forward. But to do so, designers must be willing to part with the exclusivity of their acquired building & design knowledge and adopt a more open-source mentality. Any creative knows the benefit of working in close proximity with other creatives, as opposed to working independently in a vacuum. Yet on a larger scale, the practice of architecture operates more independently than anything else. Understandably, business-mindedness and competition have led firms to rarely have a sort of academic, open dialog with other firms. Yet it is this same mentality that has kept practice architecture "in the Walkman phase", as van Berkel coins it.

So what does this mean for us? Spurred on by political obstacles in the Netherlands, van Berkel has realized he and his fellow dutch architects must band together to come up with creative solutions to the obstacles before them - so too must American architects, and perhaps more specifically architects in the nation's hard-hit Rustbelt of the Midwest. In times when sustainability and building performance are often leading factors in the design, construction and lasting performance of buildings, architects must be constantly advancing their own knowledge base. It is a task that is simply too great to be done internally. Instead firms must be willing to offer open seminars, write white papers, maintain blogs documenting design and construction processes. While this may seem as a monumental task, efforts are already underway to begin this knowledge sharing. Firms are establishing blogs that are beginning to informally do just what van Berkel aspires to do. Organizations such as the Building Envelope Council are gaining recognition and prominence as a resource to acquire building knowledge. Architects need to fully participate in such dialogues - not simply listen. To gain the credibility and respect of clients and critics worldwide, we must turn to each other to learn from our collective experiences.

March 6, 2013

What’s The Big Deal With Continuous Insulation?

What’s The Big Deal With Continuous Insulation?

Continuous insulation (CI) has been an energy code requirement since the release of ASHRAE 90.1-2004, but unfortunately is still a bit of a mystery to many designers, contractors, and building officials.  So, besides complying with the building code, why do we need continuous insulation?  Thermal bridging through framing components reduces envelope insulation performance by 15-20% in wood frame construction and by 40%-60% in metal frame construction.  This means that a typical 6” metal stud wall construction with R-19 fiberglass batt insulation actually performs at a dismal R-9.  When CI is properly installed you get the approximate full R-value of the insulation material.  So, what exactly is continuous insulation?

ASHRAE 90.1 defines Continuous Insulation as insulation that is continuous across all structural members without thermal bridges other than fasteners and service openings. It is installed on the interior, exterior, or is integral to any opaque surface of the building.  With further research we find that the definition of “fasteners” is meant to include screws, bolts, nails, etc.  This means that furring strips, clip angles, lintels and other large connection details are excluded from the term “fasteners”.

This is where the big problem lies, and why the industry seems to be so confused.  Many designers, contractors, and building officials are still not informed about this important aspect of CI.  For example, masonry veneer wall construction typically employs steel relieving angles and steel lintels at window and door heads.  These steel angles are usually fastened directly to the building structure, providing a significant thermal bridge from the interior of the building to the exterior.  There are a number of solutions to this issue including welding the angles to standoffs at +/- 4’-0” centers, which allows the CI to be installed behind the angles to minimize the effects of thermal bridging.  There are also proprietary clip systems being marketed to perform this same function.

Another cause for confusion is the fact that many building claddings such as metal panels, fiber cement board/siding, etc. are not approved for attachment through more than 1” of non-supporting material.  In climate zone 5 we are required to have a minimum CI of 7.5, resulting in a CI thickness of about 1 1/2".  There are proprietary systems that have been developed to deal with this issue such as the DOW-Knight CI System .  This system has been engineered to allow up to 3” of continuous insulation to pass behind the girt supports.  If you or your client don’t desire to specify proprietary systems, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) commissioned a testing report that describes a number of other fastening system options for continuous insulation.  It’s a long read but has a lot of useful information regarding this matter.

In summary, the proper use of continuous insulation is all about paying attention to the details.  There are a growing number of resources out there aiming to help designers detail buildings properly.  A few of my favorites are and .  Happy reading, and let’s keep it sustainable.

February 13, 2013

Tech Tips: USB 3.0, Microsoft Garage, and other Miscellaneous Techie Stuff

Have you noticed the prices dropping on USB backup drives and other USB devices? Well, before you decide to use your Paypal account to go on a shopping spree and purchase that "special" 4TB USB drive and those "awesome" 64GB USB sticks, there's a few things you may want to consider.  First of all, is the product being advertised as supporting USB 2 or USB 3.0? Why does that matter, you ask?  Well, in the simplest terms possible, USB 3.0 equates to a much, much faster file transfer speed.  So, if you plan to transfer large files or backup that huge music collection of yours, you may want to consider buying a USB device that supports USB 3.0.  But, before you make that purchase, make sure your computer has a USB 3.0 port!

You can spot a USB 3.0 by its blue connector. A USB 2.0 has a grey connector.

You can spot a USB 3.0 by its blue connector. A USB 2.0 has a grey connector.

Well, for those of you that are running multiple computers and small render farms out there, Microsoft has finally come up with something that’s not only cool – but it works and is FREE.  That’s right, you read that correctly; Microsoft, cool, works, and free, all in the same sentence.  Microsoft’s Garage has provided a program that will allow you to use a single keyboard & mouse to control multiple workstations.  The computers must be on the same network but can have different operating systems.  For you Apple fans – the software works with Windows OS’s and Linux but doesn’t work with the Mac OS (hmmm, an intentional outcome or not…I’ll let you be the judge).  For those of you that do have an OS X to add to the mix, you'll want to try a program called Synergy. Here’s the link to Microsoft’s site to download the software: For cross-platform systems that include at least one Mac OS X, here's the link to download Synergy: And now for the other “miscellaneous” techie stuff. Have you heard of the International CES show? It’s basically a very, very large technology show that’s held every year. The 2013 show ended on January 11th. Here’s a link to PC Magazine’s review of some of the technology trends they noticed at the 2013 show: Well, that wraps up this post. Be smart out there…..but have lots of fun too!

January 30, 2013

Kent State University CAED New Facility Competition Roundup

After posts the previous two days on our team's modeling process for the Kent State College of Architecture and Environmental Design's new building, see Alan + Philip's joint post on the in-house model making process and Andrew's story of his experience on the level of collaboration between Bialosky + Partners Architects and Architecture Research Office, we thought it be proper to share a few pictures of the final model.  The model, and other media, is now on display (along with the other three team's proposals) in the first floor of the Kent State University Library, through February 15th. Watch the video of the BPA + ARO team public presentation here: A recap of the public presentations, courtesy of Kent State: Press coverage of the CAED design competition:

A collaborative model between Bialosky + Partners Architects and Architecture Research Office on display at the Kent State U. Main Library through February 15th.