Architect Julie Eizenberg calls her relationship with Pittsburgh-based developer Bill Gatti a "love-fest." The two first collaborated a few years ago on a design for a housing and mixed-use development that was shortlisted in a competition sponsored by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Then, the opportunity arose for Gatti to transform the 104-year-old Century Building, a spec office in Pittsburgh's vibrant downtown cultural district, into 60 residential units with commercial, retail, and office space on the lower floors. He called in Eizenberg, a partner in the Santa Monica-based firm Koning Eizenberg Architecture.
"He was great because he thought things could be done differently," says Eizenberg. Gatti proposed that the building make a significant percentage of its units affordable—there had never been such housing in Pittsburgh's downtown core before. "It's hard to do mixed income developments anywhere and have them succeed. He didn't see why it wasn't possible in Pittsburgh," says Eizenberg. Gatti insisted that the building use a geothermal heating and cooling system and he got no resistance from Eizenberg, who says that, for her, "building sustainably is the social part, the environmental part, and the design part."
On a recent tour of the LEED-Gold-certified Century Building, where his company, TREK Development Group, has its office, Gatti talked about how he too was enamored of Eizenberg's work. He pointed out the areas where her commitment to detail has surprised him and led to rental units that feel luxurious, despite their affordability: round bathroom mirrors set in front of the windows, glass-screened showers, generous closets, a tiled shelf and backsplash in the kitchens, and white cabinetry, to name some. These interventions were attempts to attract younger renters and counter the industrial darkness in Pittsburgh's downtown, which often contributed to the frustration of contractors, subcontractors, and facility staff. "If you go to the traditional market, realtors think you need granite countertops and wood cabinets; that's what makes things look 'expensive.' So when you use white [countertops] and cabinets, that seems progressive. They are equally durable, but contractors think people won't like that stuff," explains Eizenberg. "We broke a lot of rules. It was a big deal from a marketplace and construction point of view, and it took a lot of perseverance."
The Century Building renovation was completed in July 2009 and by October 1, it had achieved 100 percent occupancy. In the last decade, Pittsburgh has undergone something of a renaissance from a strictly post-industrial, brass-tacks city to an affordable stomping ground for foodies and art enthusiasts. It's not surprising that the Century Building is in high demand.
From the outside, the 12-story concrete structure, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and patinated copper window bays, appears not to have changed much. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, under the auspices of the National Park Service, restricted almost all changes to the facade, including the addition of windows (the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008). The splashiest change to the exterior is the bright green billboard on the northern elevation of the building depicting a bike: For $100 a year, residents can keep bikes in green-painted storage containers. Inside the building, the narrow footprint was deceptively tricky to fit out. The architects had to contend with the spaghetti of utility shafts and vertical circulation while trying to preserve the units' integrity. "The plan was to run [piping] above the hallway and the kitchens. If [the mechanical subcontractors] had their way, we would have had a drop-in ceiling," says Eizenberg.
For the geothermal system, there are four open loop wells to extract and return ground water. They tap into Pittsburgh's "fourth river," an underground water source, says Rick Yates, president of RAY Engineering and the project's mechanical engineer. "The other thing we did is take the building's constant stream of exhaust and put it through an energy recovery wheel," he says. In the winter, this "desiccant" wheel adds moisture and warmth to incoming air by transferring it from outgoing air. The reverse occurs in the summer–outgoing air cools hot and moist incoming air. "I like to tell people that the incoming air feels like spring or fall rather than summer or winter," says Yates.
Other interventions that led to LEED Gold included the use of recycled and locally sourced material in the building; the diversion of much of the construction waste to a recycling center; and a low window-to-wall ratio, according to Gary Moshier, local architect and LEED consultant.
Gatti made the building attractive to older people and those with physical disabilities. "He has a policy that the affordable tenants have full access to everything in the building," says Eizenberg. To that end, differences in the affordable and market rate units are indistinguishable, and all tenants have access to a roof deck with a grill, places to lounge, and views of the Allegheny River.
There's an "intimidation by the old architecture that stops experimentation," in Pittsburgh. "Even the convention center [designed by Rafael Viñoly] is well-behaved," says Eizenberg. The Century Building was Gatti's attempt to do something not quite so staid. "Hopefully this will encourage more variety of product in that area and reduce the fear of affordable housing."