Home Economics: A lesson in insulation and its benefits

Students learn green-building techniques

Posted: April 06, 2012

Philadelphia has thousands of houses that resemble the three-story twin at Greene and West Apsley Streets in Germantown.

The house, abandoned for 28 years, was in horrible shape, with holes in the third floor so large "that we had to lay doors over them so we could walk," said Porche Faulkner, 19, one of about 20 students from the YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School on North Broad Street who are rehabbing it.

Still, said Faulkner, who has been with the YouthBuild Philadelphia program for nearly a year, "It was nice exploring a house with materials from the 1920s, including old soda bottles."

Two alternating teams of nine to 10 students each ripped out the crumbling walls and ceiling of the third floor, which itself was reachable only by ladder until full sets of stairs could be built.

The procedure was repeated from top to bottom. After all the demolition was done, floors, walls and ceilings were framed out with finger-jointed studs made of waste lumber, a point Faulkner emphasized within earshot of her nearest instructor. Demolition materials went out through the windows, though "we recycled as much as we could, about 80 percent of it," said Don Pinkney, YouthBuild's construction director.

That's admirable, considering the age of the house and its long-term neglect. But this project is, after all, a YouthBuild USA Green Initiative, undertaken with financial support from Saint-Gobain North America and its Valley Forge subsidiary, CertainTeed. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification will be sought from the U.S. Green Building Council when the project is completed.

The insulation manufacturer has provided a three-year, $100,000 grant to YouthBuild to help students learn green-building techniques, as well as to transform energy-guzzling houses into efficient ones.

"We are always looking for ways to take the next generation and train them for the future," said Carmen Ferrigno, vice president of communications at Saint-Gobain North America.

If YouthBuild students and other young people get the chance to learn green-building techniques today, when the concept, though gaining in popularity, hasn't yet been universally embraced, "they will be ready for those construction jobs of the future," Ferrigno said. "It is a longer-term investment, and smarter."

As upgrading insulation can be for homeowners in general.

Because the Greene Street house had been gutted, CertainTeed had the opportunity there to demonstrate its "hybrid" insulation system, designed to air-seal, insulate, and control moisture.

Proper insulation techniques are key to creating an energy-efficient house, dramatically reducing costs of heating and cooling. When considering a hybrid insulation system, homeowners should expect to spend about three times the cost of basic building-code-minimum insulation. But such a system would likely be a one-time investment that would last the life of the building, rather than just the tenure of the homeowner.

As YouthBuild green-building instructor George Jenkins stressed to his students, reducing energy costs by hundreds or thousands of dollars over many years "can help a family save enough money to send their children to college."

Energy savings don't depend on just insulation, of course, because there are other critical variables to consider. Just two of those many variables are the age of the structure and the type of heating or cooling system involved. For guidance, homeowners may want to consult online resources like home energy calculators that take such factors into account.

CertainTeed products are being used in the rehab of the Greene Street house, but other insulation manufacturers have comparable products.

Foam insulation (CertainTeed's CertaSpray) was sprayed into the building cavity by workers from West Chester Insulation Inc. under the direction of foreman Ralph Dolinger. The foam rapidly expanded, filling openings that could leak air, such as where the walls meet the floor and ceiling joists. CertaSpray's formula is "closed-cell," which results in a rigid consistency that provides added structural integrity to the walls.

The rest of the wall cavity is filled with a fiberglass-based product, Optima, which is "churned up" through a hose by machine from a truck outside, CertainTeed marketing manager Robert Brockman said, "filling all the nooks and crannies without settling."

Dolinger demonstrated the technique, with student volunteers using the hose to puncture the membrane stapled to the studs to keep the insulation in the wall cavity.

CertainTeed's manager of technical training, Ed Pentz, called the product "forgiving."

"If you see a void, you go back and fill it," Pentz said.

The final piece of the hybrid system is a vapor retarder and air-barrier film over the fiberglass product, which allows excess moisture to escape and reduces moisture-related problems.

Title to the long-abandoned 3,000-square-foot twin, which is being rehabbed as a duplex, was acquired from the city by Philadelphia Neighborhood Housing Services, a nonprofit community-development corporation, after an effort of almost three years.

The rehabilitation began in early winter, with completion expected in the summer. The house will be sold to a low- to moderate-income buyer.

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow @alheavens on Twitter.

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