The great thing about the South Side Slopes, perhaps the best-known and most visible of Pittsburgh's hillside neighborhoods, is that the little houses, cascading picturesquely down the hillsides, look as though they are an audience sitting in the stands, watching a great drama unfold.
We are part of that great drama, so it would be nice to fill a few more seats. But, unlike the profusion of contemporary, high-priced townhouses on Grandview Avenue's promontory, houses on the Slopes are mostly old workers' units. They are compact, not always ideally sturdy, and maybe hard to get to. So even amid a boom of condo construction, most current builders seem to think that building on the precarious hillsides would be too difficult to be worthwhile.
Contractor Ernie Sota and architect John Martine don't think so. Their new project, Windom Hill Place, brings the first new multi-unit rowhouse construction in decades to the Slopes with four units built and five more planned. In a time when developers and architects are tossing expensive yet thoughtless construction around Pittsburgh's flatter sites with wild abandon, it is a pleasure to see a considered and meticulous development perpetuating the local flavor of an area rather than homogenizing it.
The condition of the site before construction explains why many others have shied away from these hills. Windom Street, just below Arlington Avenue, had not even been entirely paved by the city. It required extensive (and expensive) site engineering of anchors and retaining walls, as well as new utility lines, before construction could begin.
But Sota knew the many potential advantages and was determined. A few blocks from Carson, the site avoids the worst traffic, while staying within walking distance and maintaining access, via urban stairways, to the Arlington T stop. And the location is just high enough to have amazing views. That also means that the townhouses are especially visible.
"How do you put something on the Slopes that you see from a distance that's going to work?" Sota muses. As a former longtime South Side resident, he wanted the new construction to continue "patterns that you see on the Slopes," meaning townhouses. As probably the most environmentally conscientious contractor in the region, he knew well that "townhouses are inherently more energy efficient" than freestanding houses. They would make good armatures for an extensive palette of environmentally progressive features.
Windom Hill's structural walls, for example, are made of insulated concrete form, which maintains temperatures especially efficiently. The HVAC system uses an energy-recovery ventilator, which circulates fresh air while conserving 85 percent of the energy of the interior air. Along with its use of low-toxicity paints and finishes, the house is Energy Star compliant, meaning that its efficiency -- 27 percent better than required -- is government-certified.
Sota and Martine, another longtime South Sider, had collaborated on projects as long ago as the early 1980s. They shared both enthusiasm for housing typologies found in cities such as Prague and Budapest and a willingness to give these lessons appropriate application locally. They also were eager to make friends and avoid surprises in the neighborhood. They contacted the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association very early in the process. "That was a good sign," says former SSSNA President Ed Jacobs.
The buildings themselves are pretty friendly as well, with results that are in some ways deferential. The rectilinear facades are dominated by expansive rectilinear bay windows under flat eaves, while balconies and smaller punched windows form measured composition in a façade of cast stone and crisply finished painted aluminum. Martine says that they picked "colors and materials that will blend into the background." And a lush landscape of native plants will make the complex "more parklike and leafy" once it all grows in. These features will soften the view for distant viewers -- but those who look close up will appreciate a sense of durable materials and attention to detail.
Inside the 2,800-square-foot model unit, the stunning views at each level are more apparent, enhanced by high ceilings and additional careful details, such as vertigo-preventing placement and finish of window mullions. The main-floor ceilings are high at 10 feet, contributing to a sense of spaciousness.
Significantly, the model unit, at $630,000, has a completely finished interior. The others, costing less, are unfinished, awaiting designs by potential buyers and their architects. No matter how these are done, the beautiful vistas and the sense of permeability between the indoors and outdoors that's created with balconies and bay windows is bound to remain. Sota says, "When you look out and see the view, the response is excitement." Because of the conscience and craft, the view toward them can elicit a similar reaction.