Six&Kane: A Place To Gather, To Think, and To Learn

Regional leaders from nonprofits the PA Solar Center, Green Building Alliance, and Energy Efficiency Empowerment; City of Pittsburgh Planning Department team members; and others joined a tour of Six&Kane organized by the Energy Efficiency Alliance.

How do you make enduring impact in a community? That’s the challenge the West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund (WPPSEF) posed when its Board of Directors agreed to purchase a boarded-up, deteriorating 120-year-old building in  Kane, Pennsylvania—a rural community called “A Star in the Forest” in the heart of the Allegheny National Forest.

But Joel Morrison, Executive Director of the WPPSEF, saw a fire in the belly of the community of Kane, PA and its go-getter leadership team, saying: “We looked at a lot of communities, but we saw something special here.”

Thanks to the town’s enthusiastic involvement, WPPSEF’s “Six&Kane” revitalization of 63 North Fraley Street achieved an unprecedented accolade for retrofit projects in North America, becoming the first commercial redevelopment to earn the prestigious—and exacting—Passive House EnerPHit+ certification.

About the Community

Attendees of Kane’s weekly confab, which includes its Economic Development Director, Mayor, Borough Manager, major employers, top school and hospital administrators, and other community pillars, call themselves “Sparks.” Over their informal coffee klatches, they hatched a strategy to revitalize their community into a hip destination dotted with new, intriguing business enterprises and a world-class building retrofit project anchoring the main street.

PA Superior Court Judge (retired) John Cleland, who coordinates the Sparks group, observed: “We have no office, no authority, and no budget.” Nonetheless, the Sparks group has social capital. That’s a major asset in a town where spirit runs so deep that throngs of its diaspora return annually for a summer Homecoming celebration drawing 7,000—nearly double the official population of 3,612. 

The Sparks team conducted a survey of townspeople and used it to derive a charter to make Kane an “active, attractive community”, along with seven driving principles. They included ensuring readily available critical services like police, fire, ambulances and a nursing home; physical beauty through pleasant public and private spaces; outdoor recreation; hospitality services; social and cultural opportunities; education and career opportunities; and preservation of community heritage.

“We first meant this approach for the people of Kane, but we found out that when you make a community attractive, it becomes attractive to others too,” said Judge Cleland.

Kate Kennedy is Kane’s chief regional economic planner with three hats—Executive Director of the Kane Area Development Center, the Kane Chamber of Commerce and the Kane Area Industrial Development Corporation. “Over the past 5 years, we’ve had 60 businesses open in our region,” she told us. They range from a distillery relying on sunflower seeds to an essential birch oil manufacturer, a brewery, and more. “We are being intentional in all that we do,” Kennedy said.

Like many of the business owners they are attracting, these town leaders have deep roots in Kane. Many fledged their careers elsewhere and have returned to invest in their hometown. Cleland said, “I was born here and even practiced law in the building next door for many years.” After moving away to Pittsburgh and then returning to Kane, Cleland and his wife were approached about leading a strategic planning process. “My wife, who’s been involved in all sorts of things here as well, said, well, we don’t need another strategic plan. We need strategic action. So that’s what we did.”

About the Project

Nearly unrecognizable from its “before” photos, Six & Kane’s exterior commands your attention. From the striking curtain wall of glass to the sleek entryway overhang topped with solar panels, the showstopper design puts the building’s technology deftly—but subtly—in view, and underscores why it was a finalist in the 2023 Passive House Awards competition in Denver.

“We know that not everyone will retrofit to this level, but we wanted to show what re-imagining a main street building could look like—and what it could help to do,” said Morrison. “We actually were inspired by the retrofit of a Carnegie Library in Carrick, near Pittsburgh.”

Getting to the finish line required determination through Pandemic-era supply chain challenges, big thinking and overcoming even bigger physical changes. “The first challenge was the front façade and the roof,” Morrison said. Post-purchase, and while awaiting project start, leaks further deteriorated the already failing roof system, leaving behind a roost of live and dead pigeons and other problems. Once assembled, the top-talent team crafted a plan to tackle the issue and get started. “The first thing we did was rip off the roof and the front of the building,” said Morrison.

Named for the town and an important intersecting rural highway, the Six&Kane project follows the key Passive House principles: airtightness, reducing thermal bridges, thermal insulation, Passive House-certified windows and adequate ventilation. Basically, the building is a thermos with ventilation. 

But it’s more than that. Beyond super-high performance and its sleek, upscale designer look, the project adheres to many tenets of sustainable building practices and the International Future Living Institute’s Living Building Challenge—from minimizing construction waste to prioritizing locally sourced materials, supporting local businesses and cultivating capacity in its contractors. 

AIRTIGHTNESS – Some of Six&Kane’s most intensive energy-saving features are evident in what looks like a simple white brick wall. In a porous masonry structure, achieving airtightness requires meticulous planning and work. The wall was first cleaned with a high-pressure abrasive technique using recycled glass. Project Manager Norm Horn from Envinity Design pushed the team to check and re-point every mortar joint and cavity. “He was a stickler,” said Morrison. In keeping with the desire to grow skills among those working on Six&Kane, local painting contractor Cavallaro Painting was trained to apply 3 coats of a Visconn, liquid-applied air barrier. Similarly, a coating of Prosoco R-Guard protects the exterior from water and air leakage. Finally, painters applied a glossy white topcoat. “We used an infrared camera and a blower door regularly to check for air leaks,” said Morrison. One of the trickier spots to fix? The “push bar” on the exit door, which required special finesse to keep the mechanism working without becoming a channel for air currents.

“Last winter, it was minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit here in Kane,” said Morrison. “We were standing in our office area with a group of people. We touched the inside wall and it was actually warm, which is almost unheard of.”

Re-treating an interior wall during the renovation process.

THERMAL INSULATION – From top to bottom, every surface dividing ‘outside’ from ‘indoors’ was treated. Insulation materials included graphite-enhanced expanded polystyrene foam (GPS) on the basement ceiling (the lower building envelope), below interior concrete and on the building front and rear exterior. A total of 8 inches of Neopor GPS graphite polystyrene rigid foam insulation was used on the exterior applications. Johns Manville Climate Pro fiberglass blowing wool insulation fills the floor and ceiling joist cavities, and Rockwool 80 insulates interior wall surfaces. The roof is covered with eight inches of polyisocyanurate board insulation.

HIGH-PERFORMANCE WINDOWS — Two different window systems feature in Six&Kane. The rear of the building uses high-performance Passive House-certified windows manufactured in Export, Pennsylvania. These Ventana Select Series 86 Thermal Performance are triple-glazed with various low-e coatings tuned to compass orientation. Each window is held in place on the outside of the building by structural foam that acts as a thermal break, minimizing any loss of heating or cooling. Plus, they are fully operable, allowing top-tilt or casement-style opening by occupants. 

One of the most visible and “showy” parts of the building, the front façade, features locally quarried stone—specifically the Homewood Sandstone member of the Curwensville family from nearby Russell Stone quarry. The façade windows themselves are a RAICO THERM+ H - I 56 mm timber curtain wall system.

“One of the things we didn’t see coming was the hurdles in getting the front windows,” said Morrison. “There was not a manufacturer in the US that made a curtain wall. The RAICO THERM+ Timber Curtain Wall System came in from Germany.” The “Father of Passive House” himself, Stefan Tanner, invented these certified windows. The overseas container shipment traversed the Atlantic for 28 days before the windows eventually traveled the winding rural roadways leading to Kane. “We had a parking jam across the street for people watching them coming in,” Morrison said. “It’s world-class firepower in Kane. The contractors were speaking in German.” Morrison noted, “When those windows showed up, it was a champagne moment for us.”

The back of Six&Kane features high-efficiency windows from southwest PA manufacturer Ventana.

THERMAL BRIDGING REDUCTION ­— Thermal bridges are weak points in the building envelope where outdoor temperatures can leak in. To “break” this transfer of thermal energy from one material to another, the team taped, sealed and caulked seams. They also applied a system of façade clips both on the stone front and the metal cladding rear of the building. The clips hold the cladding in place but reduce or eliminate the transfer of thermal energy from outside to inside the building envelope. The rear facades are clad with ribbed steel siding attached with the thermally broken clip system. 

ENERGY PRODUCTION AND USE ­— The super-tight building produces most of its own energy. In its first 22 months, the 44.37 kW rooftop solar array (installed at a cost of $124,924 or, $2.82/watt), in combination with the smaller, .90 kW solar canopy at the building entrance, has produced 92.6% of the amount of energy it was designed to generate. With nearly full tenant occupancy, 9 months of grid-sourced electricity cost $3,144—only $349/month for the entire building. A bi-directional meter allows electricity to flow back to the electric distribution company. The rooftop consists of 102 LG-435 bifacial solar modules and 102 Enphase IQ7a microinverters. The canopy consists of three Lumos LSX 300 panels with microinverters.

Six&Kane’s rooftop solar array, installed by State College-based firm Envinity.

For heating and cooling, electricity powers an 8-ton Fujitsu Variable Refrigerant Flow heat pump with 12 ducted and un-ducted air handlers throughout the building. For ventilation, an energy recovery ventilator transfers heat energy between incoming and outgoing airstreams providing incoming fresh air at the same temperature and humidity as the outgoing air. A Ventacity VS 3000 RTE rooftop energy recovery ventilator handles this process for most of the building, while  a RenewAire TR300 energy recovery ventilator handles the basement.

Creating Long-Lasting Impact

Judge Cleland said, “Kane had gone through some pretty bad times in the early 21st century.” By all accounts, much of the main drag—Fraley Street—was boarded up.  “Then a renewal started with a lot of young people either staying here or moving back here, investing in the community, and starting their own businesses. But when West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund came here and invested this much money in this building, it just reaffirmed that what we were doing was the right approach.”

The project itself built capacity to push for more higher-performance buildings among the locally involved contractors. Morrison said, “We wanted to use local contractors. The painters are local business. They understood how to make a smooth coat and within a day they got it.” He noted that the general contractor worked all day, then attended Passive House trainings online in the evening and became Passive House certified. “He took Passive House training online and became certified. And he’s not even a guy who uses a computer all of time,” said Morrison. 

The ripple effect of the Passive House project continues to extend. The local radio station, WXZY (101.7 FM) , was inspired to install a solar system. Nearby Kane Lutheran Nursing Home reconsidered its renovations and selected zoned heating and cooling, and plans to install a high-efficiency commercial kitchen induction cooking system through a Pennsylvania DEP grant program. Across the street, owners of a long-empty building plan to renovate to offer a new business more robust energy efficiency improvements and a likely solar system. At the end of the city block on which Six&Kane sits, the Mad Dog 159 restaurant owners now plan to put in a solar system after seeing the project.

“We really mean what we say in the Six&Kane slogan: a place to gather, to think, and to learn,” said Morrison. While it matters that Six&Kane meets passive house standards, Morrison explained, it matters more how the community uses the space after the grand opening. “We want people to come here and be inspired about what a high-performance building can do where they live. We want to show what’s possible when a community gets involved and stays involved, how that impact can spread outwards.”

Noting the outsized impact of a key project in smaller community, Cleland observed: “It’s an outside affirmation of what we were trying to do: create an active, attractive community. The West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund bought into that vision, and it’s been a great partnership.”

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Success story from: Six&Kane
Added to the EE Stories website on: March 15, 2024

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