Going Green

Saving old buildings in Pittsburgh the environmentally correct way

Children's
Expansion of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh linked two historic structures- one is the former North Side post office shown at left- via the new and contrasting building shown at right. The project employed a long list of "green" architectural methods.

Credit: Carol Highsmith

In the middle of downtown Pittsburgh?not far from the Point, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet to form the Ohio?an elegant Greek revival office building rises three stories among much more imposing neighbors. The icy glass crenellations of PPG Industries' corporate headquarters and the exuberant Beaux-Arts high-rises of the Fourth Avenue historic district dwarf the Burke Building of 1836, a rare survivor of Pittsburgh's devastating 1845 fire. Originally housing a law practice and in more recent times a restaurant, the Burke has since 1997 been the headquarters of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, owner of Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Fallingwater and conservator of more than 200,000 acres of Pennsylvania green space.

That organization renovated the building in 1996 with an emphasis on both the environment and history. Wool carpets, nontoxic paints, low-energy light fixtures, and recycled office partitions blend harmoniously with such original features as interior shutters, hardwood floors, tin ceilings, and a central open staircase. Ecological and historical aims together "showcase our commitment to resource conservation," said Larry Schweiger, the conservancy's former president, at the building's reopening.

The conservancy is not alone in emphasizing such "green" restoration. In Pittsburgh and the surrounding region, recent projects show how buildings of the past, despite the occasional tension, can play an effective role in the growing interest in green architecture. It is also known as "sustainable" architecture, which was popularized as a concept in response to a 1987 United Nations commission on environmental degradation. Often loosely defined, "sustainability" refers to the desire to maintain resources in perpetuity, and "green" is an equally loose term meaning environmentally conscientious. Although emphasis on harmony with nature can be found in construction throughout the centuries, the current green architecture movement is rooted in the environmentalism of the 1960s and '70s. Now experiencing a resurgence that began in the late 1990s, green architecture seeks to lower energy consumption, conserve natural resources, and reduce pollution.

"The very act of reusing a building is green," says Ellis Schmidlapp, principal of Landmarks Design Associates of Pittsburgh and architect for the Burke Building renovation. Demolishing a building in one location only means dumping it in a landfill somewhere else, which in America amounts to an astonishing 140 million tons of waste each year. Historic buildings contain materials intended for very long life?heavy masonry, solid wood, brass hardware and fixtures?and typically unavailable or unaffordable now. So trashing them is especially profligate. 

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