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Best Green Houses:

Tokyo by Way of Pittsburgh: In the steel city, urban densification and architectural derring-do.

Fisher Architecture
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

By David Sokol
September 2012
Photo © Eric Roth

In the 19th century, Pittsburgh ate, slept, and breathed steel. Instead of taking up residence in near suburbs like Braddock or Homestead, production foremen simply improvised homes on the tops of their factories. The facilities themselves may have belched toxicity, but today we would say that the steely supervisors minimized emissions along with their commutes.

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The historical precedent inspired the owners of Emerald Art Glass—a cavernous glassworks studio located in Pittsburgh’s Southside Slopes neighborhood—to trade suburban digs for a contemporary version of a rooftop home. It promised more time for the craft to which they’re fervently devoted, and more life spent within a smaller radius.

Local architect Eric Fisher found that building code did not permit the artisans to “grow” a home directly through their factory’s gabled roof. But the husband and wife did own the 60-foot-square lot to the rear of the 300-foot-long structure, and Fisher proposed erecting a three-story concrete block base and placing a seemingly freestanding weathering steel volume on it—a gigantic, otherworldly viewfinder held in precarious balance.

The asymmetrical composition actually comprises a pair of massive trusses cantilevering from the base building, below which on pier is driven 100 feet below grade to support the gravity load and resist the overturning moment. The cantilevered volume faces north to the city skyline, and 4-inch-diameter rods mounted to the back of the viewfinder hold it in tension and prevent it from pulling away from the namesake slope behind it. At 64 feet, Fisher says it may be the world’s longest residential cantilever.

The client served as general contractor, and of course provided components like the double-5/8-inch-thick glass stair treads for the project. The boundary-pushing personal lookout tower came to fruition gradually, over four years. Such intimate involvement may inspire the clued-in observer to think of the north-facing projection as a kind of billboard. “The cantilever terminates entirely in a glass wall 15 feet tall by 28 feet wide, which functions like a sign. It is not just a window into the house’s private world; it is also a signpost indicating the function of the building below.”

In another respect, the glass wall is perhaps as intriguing as the cantilever itself. This facade, made in rural Pennsylvania, dissipates heat via laminated glass. (A ground source heat pump services the ducted heating and cooling system throughout the 3,500-square-foot interior.) Fisher has since applied the radiant glass to a net-zero-energy house where glazing comprises 60 percent of the building envelope.

He also has outstanding ambitions for the Emerald Art Glass House, such as an extensive green roof covering the surface in its entirety. Yet, for the architect, the purpose of the forthcoming sedum blanket isn’t simply environmental. The primary intent is to tie the building to the Southside Slopes beyond. Indeed, regarding sustainability, Fisher is willing to truth talk. “There’s a dichotomy here,” he says of the Pittsburgh perch. “Any single-family home of this scale—it’s really hard to make the argument that it’s truly sustainable. Arguably multifamily homes are a more efficient use of space. Having made that disclaimer, a live-work situation like Emerald Art Glass’ gets people out of their cars. And the building form itself proposes how we can repopulate and revitalize even industrial neighborhoods.”

Fisher concludes, “Or there’s the philosophical point of view. We’re animating found space, unused space. How beautiful is that idea?”

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