Preservation Meets Conservation

By:
Mindy Pantiel

In the late 1990s former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy proposed razing 64 historic buildings to make way for an open-air mall as part of a plan to revitalize the city’s ailing downtown retail district. But Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmark Foundation, had other ideas. “We believed restored historic buildings would be more attractive to people than the suburban-style endeavor he was proposing,” says Ziegler, whose organization waged a battle that successfully thwarted Murphy’s demolition plan.

Shortly after the mayor lost his attempt to bring big-box retailing to downtown, Ziegler’s foundation paid $260,000 for three buildings to kick-start what it hoped would be a strong revitalization movement.

The centerpiece of the plan was Market at Fifth, a mixed-use project designed to bring high-end retail back to downtown while answering the need for more quality urban living space—in this case seven apartments. According to Ziegler, the three deteriorating buildings had been used for a variety of retail endeavors in the past but were in such bad repair they had been vacant for several years. The basic plan was to house shops in two of the structures and remodel one building for residential.

The heavy subsidies needed to attain the results he envisioned didn’t stop him from upping the ante and announcing the foundation’s intent to seek LEED for New Construction Gold certification. “We wanted to establish a model for the best of preservation by meeting the highest standards that could be applied to a historic building today, and that meant the National Register for restoration and architecture, and LEED for materials and systems,” he says.

The somewhat unprecedented decision—to date only a handful of historic developments in the country have attained LEED-certified status—required a team to make it happen. Past experience in preservation made LDA Architects a good choice for navigating the government standards necessary to garner historic tax credits, and architect Tom Stevenson immediately grasped the overlapping point possibilities. “Doing things like maintaining 75% of the roof, walls, and floor structure, and reusing existing materials equaled points for both tax credits and LEED,” he notes.

Still, his firm opted to bring in Andrew Ellsworth, a LEED consultant, to assist with the finer aspects of certification. “This was not a typical situation—mixed use isn’t even technically a category,” says Ellsworth, noting that one of the biggest challenges was trying to plug a reuse project into the New Construction scoring framework that was geared toward office buildings. “It was difficult to interpret for a residential setting but everyone was determined to meet the challenge of implementing green in a historic setting.”

To satisfy the preservation/conservation crossover, the architect set out to “keep, repair, or find a sympathetic material” for as much of the original exterior as possible. “On the Market Street side, the cast-iron window hoods were mostly intact so we just replicated the missing pieces to fill in the gaps, and repainted the brick,” says the architect. He wasn’t as lucky on the opposite elevation: “The wall that would form the entry to the residences was in such bad shape it needed to be dismantled and rebuilt.”

To maximize energy efficiency, the exterior walls were furred out and filled with R-19 batt insulation; the roofs also are insulated with batts, to R-38.

Old photographs proved invaluable to the process. One image revealed a terra cotta roof above the storefront that was replaced with a slate-look roofing material composed of 80% recycled post-industrial rubber and plastic that mimicked the original reddish-orange color. A recycled thermoplastic single-ply roofing membrane was then installed on the roof to increase heat reflectivity. A separate section was planted with sedum to create a “living roof” to provide a cooling effect in the summer.

Fire and water damage on the interiors eliminated any hope of salvaging materials. “There was nothing historic left so we didn’t feel we needed to go historic with the design of the apartments. Instead we went for a more transitional contemporary look,” says Stevenson, who mapped out six one-bedroom units and one two-bedroom model all with open floor plans and lots of natural light. “The original window openings were very generous and we used photos to replicate the window styles, but in keeping with the more modern look there are no casings.”

The clean layouts provided a perfect canvas for piling on a laundry list of green products, including bamboo floors; Energy Star–compliant lighting and appliances; low-flow fixtures; and low-VOC paint. All construction debris was sorted and recycled.

These features, coupled with projected energy savings of 25% to 30% compared with conventional buildings, quickly attracted renters: Five of the seven units were scooped up before they were even advertised. The location’s proximity to jobs also helped lure the mostly young professional residents.

Despite the challenges of navigating the LEED system, the consultant applauds the developer’s efforts. “By nature the work preservationists do is environmentally sound, and the complexity of turning three buildings into desirable retail and living space involved a lot of risk,” says Ellsworth. “This project was seminal in seeing a new idea move forward.”

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